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For Abigail MAG
I think it best to set the record straight from the start: in elementary school, I was a bully.
There are many types of bullies. For starters, there are the Big, Bored Bullies – the junkyard dogs of the bullying spectrum – kids who learned their formidable size can grant them sway early in life and utilize every inch and pound to their fullest destructive potential. On the opposite side are the Small, Sad Bullies – short-statured boys and girls who may have been bullied themselves and thus continue the cycle by dishing out what they have been dealt. There are the Situational Bullies – scavengers biding their time to spinelessly swoop into a confrontation. The Bender Bullies usually have bad home lives and inferiority complexes; their namesake derives from the snarky rebel who epitomized this subset in John Hughes' “The Breakfast Club.” And then there's the label that describes me: the Class Clown Bully.
As a Class Clown Bully, I cut my observational teeth on everything around me for the sake of a laugh. With each well-received joke, my bravado and self-confidence increased until eventually everything was fair game. I made a habit of building bridges by burning others, always advancing in my mind but actually running in place. Over time, little by little, the mature and good-natured Dr. Jekyll civility I usually displayed made more and more room for the sometimes-funny-but-mostly-tasteless antics of Mr. Hyde. Here, in the mixed-up depths of my miniature fourth-grade existential crisis, I met Abigail.
I first learned of the new student on the playground. One excellent quality of elementary school teachers is that they underestimate the snooping capacity of kids. At my school, the teachers produced and relayed the juiciest rumors. And no rumor spread quicker or created more anticipation than news of a newcomer.
By the time morning break had ended, the fourth-grade classroom vibrated with a palpable buzz. Finally, as I took my umpteenth break from journaling to check the clock, the new student walked in with her mother. The first red flag sprang up as I watched her mom hang up her bag, hand her her supplies, and kiss her loudly on the forehead. I am all for motherly love, but as a 10-year-old boy I was honor-bound to resent the entire display.
As the new girl found her seat, I noticed her strange gait. It was as if she bounced rather than walked, her legs springboards bending at strange, exaggerated angles. The shameful incident happened during P.E. two weeks later, when Coach Coates let us choose our own teams. This lapse in judgment spawned an extremely unbalanced matchup. Because the game was kickball, and I knew how to toe-poke rubber like no one's business, the first team chose me. It was downhill for the others from there. The more we succeeded, the grander my self-image became, just as it did when I made people laugh.
By the time Abigail's turn arrived at home plate, I was coasting on cloud nine. As she steadied herself for the incoming ball, I felt infallible. And when she missed the ball, lost her balance, and fell backwards onto the gravel, I nearly hacked up a lung with laughter, too elated to care how she felt. As her teammates helped her up and escorted her to the nurse, Mr. Awesome Kickball Champion seized the opportunity to imitate her blunder for everyone in the outfield, who all turned their faces but erupted in giggles. Even the reprimand to end all reprimands that followed did not kill my high.
Walking into art class a few hours later, I barely noticed Ms. Gustin's instructions for the day. Still feeling great, I cracked jokes and goofed around with Play-Doh. An hour later, my teacher shattered my thoughts by exclaiming, “Abigail, that is marvelous!” My head swiveled to a nearby table where most of my classmates had congregated. My curiosity won me over, and I stretched to peer over the crowd.
My stomach immediately sank.
The setting sun hung over a lake, casting hazy hues of pink and gold across the sky and over the glittering water. In the foreground rode Abigail atop a brown speckled horse. The sinewy curves in the horse's stride made her straight, slender figure elegantly simple in comparison. Although she rode toward the distant shoreline, her arms arms were held up and her head was tilted back, exposing her closed eyes and uncontainable smile.
It was not overdone. It was not tacky. It was art – genuine, poignant, stirring art – and it was beautiful, not “fourth grade” beautiful but “hanging framed in a gallery” beautiful. While I made vaguely recognizable clumps out of clay and basked in cruelty fueled self-importance, several seats away Abigail had humbly deconstructed my arrogance with her remarkable talent.
My bubble burst. All of the smiling faces in my mind soured one by one, reducing my ego to its rightful size. Back in the real world, someone scoffed. Mortified, I snapped my head toward the dissenter and met the eyes of friends, who, unaware of my inner turmoil, were smugly awaiting my snide comments.
I defied their expectations in the most fitting way possible: I cried, and I cried hard. I bawled out of immense shame and guilt. My sobs demanded to be heard – saving face was out of the question. The entire class watched my breakdown, and for once the almighty slander-slinger became the subject of ridicule.
Ms. Gustin hurriedly came to my aid and directed me outside, but not before I caught the smirks of my friends, who could not conceal their amusement. As for Abigail, I can't remember her expression. She had risen alone against me, and her ferocious meekness had slapped the bully from my bones.
In fifth grade, Abigail transferred to another school. I overheard the news of her departure as I had her arrival – in the teachers' gossip corner. Although she had been given a tuition break, her family just couldn't afford our school.
To most, Abigail was just the girl with the too-small shirts, the girl who never spoke, the girl with cerebral palsy. To a few, she was a beloved daughter, a trusted friend, a prodigious artist, an inspiration. But to me, Abigail was the embodiment of a hard-learned lesson in humility.
Abigail was my cure.