I still visit the small locker room. The three aisles littered with degree deodorant, axe spray, white towels, thin homework packets, and me. I'd walked those aisles uncounted times, walked into those showers, opened those lockers, sat down there, almost started a fight here.
The towels were all over the ground, being fought over, these small white, rectangular towels that were hardly big enough to cover your mid-section. And then came my brothers themselves, the rebels, the cheats, the trash-talking figures who, back in the day, pushed the boundaries of rules, race, and competition, the very boys that filled two long, hard years of my life with constant, spontaneous mischief. And I was among the best of them having broken the record for squat in eighth grade.
A small name tag with thin black letters from a locker in the lower back corner read a foreign name now, but those words used to read, "NOAH."
Noah was a tall, paper thin, paper white, weird-looking boy who'd suffered severe bullying right here where I stood, long ago, as well as in other parts of the school. He was autistic and had a speech impediment, a stuttering problem. He was weak even with his red, C-team football pads or with his black workout clothes on. And in the first year he was subject to more verbal abuse than I had seen anyone take before then. Yet, in spite of being a part of my life since first grade, we were hardly friends. And of all the people I knew well, I knew the least about him.
But one cold morning in early December, in that aisle, bulky and skinny boys were evacuating to the shower room with towels around their waists. Right then, the first filthy word spilled out of Noah’s thin, white, autistic mouth, smooth as water and unwaveringly sincere, just the way he talked. "Damn." I stopped whatever I was doing and looked left over my naked shoulder. Several other boys did the same, and after the longest moment of silence in all of middle school history (a whole one or two seconds), a half-naked lineman nearby told him, "Don't say that, Noah... It's a bad word."
And suddenly it dawned on me the influence kids have on other kids. Many of us had started cursing in the not-so-innocent sixth grade. But we never thought we'd get the weakest, kindest kid we knew to curse, and to later sincerely insult kids the way he did.
In the middle of the eighth grade school year, he pulled me over one morning in that aisle, away from other conversations, and told me that he was moving away. He said that he wanted me to know first, and to hear it from him. It meant more to Noah than I thought, and I felt responsible. Responsible for him as I should have been all this time he looked up to me. I had the power to change his life right here, but I didn't. But I know now that he had looked up to me and considered me his best friend in the football program.
Yet many others didn't bother with the possibility that they could have such a powerful affect on other kids. But me? His best friend in the mix of his teammates, my brothers? I was more than aware. I felt desperately obligated. I defended him twice before my peers. these were kids who knew better, but picked on Noah’s words, his nasal voice, his snow-white complexion. But when I approached them, they held off and made me out to be the unreasonable kid in the argument, defending my friend rather intensely while there was actually no harm done in the first place. But there was. I then shrunk back into my shell with embarrassment and let the next dozen hits fall upon him. That was how impenetrable these insults were. They were painful jokes meant for fun, and shame was cast over whoever opposed them.
I spent most of that morning thinking about what Noah told me and carrying it on my back the way grief weighs people down. Not long after that day, Noah was gone, and the weirdest thing about it was we hardly noticed. And that empty locker carried his name until the end of the school year.
Today, as I look at that locker, it demands a long glance from me. It demands, now, this undefinable expression of love, pity, and childhood, a dark combination meant to bring out the souls of those who've died in people's hearts.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.