Roosevelt High School in Santa Barbara, California was like most public high schools. Students fell into a variety of categories. The jocks, the brains, the artsy crowd - those were the big three but there were smaller cliques. The artsy group for example had sub-groups made up of theatre kids, musicians, the choir, and the artists. The brains split into the tech nerds, gamers, and the robotics club - who all kind of distanced themselves from the super competitive over achievers, also known as the grade chasers. The jocks included the team sports kids, the super popular cheerleaders, and the surfer and skater dudes. On the fringe were a few shop dwellers and Boy Scouts who sometimes rolled with the robotics kids. That about covered the landscape.
The exceptions to this school society were the “too cool for school” guys, and then of course, me. My mom, Grace, came up with the “too cool for school,” label and it’s just so my mom. Mr. Chipchaw called them “the rebels without a cause,” and my dad called them cavemen. I just thought they were complete assholes. Unfortunately, they were also some of the best athletes in my school, which really sucked for me because more than anything, I wanted to play team sports for my school. To make it all even more ridiculous, the really pretty cheerleaders loved to hang with these lowlifes. My dad’s theory on this was that most girls like the bad boys. He said I shouldn’t take any of it too seriously, but this was my life at the moment and I couldn’t help but find the entire hierarchy insulting.
Being on my own was not by choice. And it was pretty bizarre considering I didn’t smell, I didn’t have horrible acne, I dressed normal, and I wasn’t seriously annoying. My only flaw was my size. I was small. But weirdly small. And it’s not like my size meant that I wasn’t taken seriously or was just invisible, no, it was much worse. My size made me a target and an outcast. I tried my best to hide this situation from my parents during ninth-grade.
The teachers and other adults at school viewed me as a late bloomer. Perhaps an extremely late bloomer but still a normal kid. My so called peers definitely thought I was abnormal and their reaction to my size went beyond social rejection; it became a dangerous, cruel and abusive situation. Once a handful of bullies decided that I was a misfit, the entire freshman class and many sophomores began treating me like a disease.
My mom dismissed the whole clique thing at school. “Boxes and bubbles,” she said. She believes we’re all perfect children of God, each with our own struggles. Mom’s always had a natural gift for empathy. And she never describes me as athletic or artistic or even smart. Instead she uses adjectives like gentle and sensitive. It just makes me feel like a wimp.
One of the ways I’d been coping with my size and the rejection at school was to devote myself to a workout routine. My dad was quite supportive of this while Mom thought it was too much of an obsession. I exercised and prepared for each sport season like I was training for the Olympics. There were no freshman teams so we had to try out for the junior varsity. I tried out for three different sports in each season, but the school coaches worried about my size and me getting hurt. I was cut from every single team and I literally wanted to die.
Mom took me to four different doctors to find out if there was something wrong. Every doctor ran the same tests and found I was perfectly healthy. Just small. They all said the same thing. He’ll grow, it’ll happen. They said I won’t ever be six feet tall because my parents are not tall people, but I might be five foot seven or maybe five foot eight. Maybe.
Three different eighth grade classes from three separate middle schools all fed into Roosevelt High School. I didn’t know many of the freshmen at my new school, just those from my old school. I always had plenty of friends growing up, I knew most of the kids in my class since before kindergarten. We had been in the Cub Scouts together, played Little League, and youth soccer and basketball. I had friends from surfing and swimming lessons and from my church. I had always been popular, my parents even joked that I had a busier social calendar than they did because of all the play dates, sleep overs, and birthday parties.
But after my first month of ninth grade, try-outs were held for the boys’ junior varsity soccer team, and that’s when a group of ninth and tenth graders that I didn’t know became amused by my size. These boys started teasing me at the try outs and playing pranks on me. It spread to the locker room during gym class. And then the cafeteria at lunch. Then recess, the hallways, and the school grounds before and after school. The taunting turned physical. Soon the cyberbullying began, and a couple of my buddies started to get picked on by the bullies as well.
Once the bullying moved from school to the internet, my friends ditched me altogether. No one returned my messages, I was unfriended and unfollowed, and left out of gaming. So I literally unplugged from social media and video games and focused on reading. Books became the escape for me. Without any friends, it was more than just another way to occupy my time, it allowed me to slip away from the painful rejection, abuse, and loneliness. I could forget it all when immersed in a book.
I also surfed a lot with my dad. We always spent a lot of time on the water together but without organized sports, this was how I played. And I loved it, but I really missed playing on teams with my friends. I felt lost without it.
Finally, I prayed. It was more than just bedtime prayers. Much of the prayers were about my size and what was happening at school. And I prayed for something to happen. To grow.
I’ll never forget the day I was walking toward the cafeteria for lunch and came up behind who I thought were my two best friends, Tommy Reardon and Alex Winston. Up until that day, I knew things had gotten bad, but I kept trying to connect with my buddies. I still tried to eat lunch with them and hang with them at recess, even though they had all stopped including me. Alex was the last one to let me go.
I hurried down the hall, trying to catch up to them, until I overheard Alex and Tommy discussing Tommy’s birthday party.
“Who’s going to paint ball on Saturday, my mom said I need to find a ride,” Alex was saying.
“I invited you, Jake, Stevie, Mikey, Sam, Derek, and ah...Adam. You can probably get a ride with Derek, I think his mom has room in her car,” replied Tommy.
“Wait, Adam? Why Adam? What about Jonah?” Alex asked.
“We need even teams. My mom said I could have up to eight, including me, for paintball, pizza, and a sleepover. I already have eight, Jonah can’t come.”
“Yeah, eight is good, but why not Jonah? We aren’t really friends with Adam.”
“Dude, it’s my party, I can invite who I want,” Tommy countered, annoyed.
“I know, but Jonah…he’s been our best friend since forever.” Alex objected.
Tommy sighed, then lowered his voice, “I can’t deal with Jonah right now.”
“Because right now Brian Pullman and his gang of morons are all over him.” Tommy said, keeping his voice low.
“I know, which is why Jonah could use some brothers.”
“No, I’m backing off. The last time I was with Jonah and we were walking back to the school from the soccer field, those goons came after him. They were wiping their boogers on him and Brian made Jonah eat one. They tried to make me eat one too. And then they started flinging dog shit at us. They were going to push Jonah’s face in it. We ran off and got away because Coach Franklin was walking up with the girls’ tennis team and he started yelling at everyone. I think Brian and his guys have it out for me now. I don’t need that.”
“Yeah, I think I saw a snap of Jonah with snot wiped all over his face…it was really gross.” Alex added.
“I know and I don’t need to be on Brian’s hit list along with Jonah. So I’m just staying away from it all. They’ll get bored with Jonah and find someone else. And I’m sure Jonah’s parents will tell the principal. Maybe if those kids get suspended, they’ll cut it out. But I’m not gonna rat on anyone or get involved. You shouldn’t either. We’ll get the shit kicked out of us if we do.”
“Yeah, it’s just…I feel bad for him.” Alex added.
And then they turned right toward the cafeteria and I kept walking. I kept going straight until I found an empty classroom and ate my lunch alone. And I thought about bullying. I was totally alone now. And a target. I stared at my food, no longer hungry. And I felt sorry for myself. I wanted to hate my friends and but I knew I couldn’t blame them. There really wasn’t any escape for them either. My brain told me that everyone has a responsibility to stand up to bullying or at least report it but deep in the pit of my stomach, I felt something sinister. A cancer that was spreading. This was life in the wild – eat or be eaten.
High school was a daily test of survival. I had witnessed girls who were long-time friends turning on each other and acting incredibly mean. Three girls just last week had ganged up on their supposed friend and told her she was fat and she wasn’t allowed to sit with them at lunch anymore. They even told her that they would kill themselves if they looked as fat as she did.
I had seen boys acting fiercely tribal. I thought back to a recent dodge ball game at recess where a popular and not even mean boy, suddenly turned cruel. I had watched alone from the bleachers as he had homed in on the weakest looking boy on the court. The rest of the boys eagerly followed his lead. The victim initially tried to fight off the attack but gave up. He just curled himself up into a ball while they surrounded him, nailing him hard with rubber balls. Then a few kids actually spit on him. Everyone laughed.
The only thing that mattered now was, how do I survive it?
I was never more wrong.