Children can be cruel.
I know this first hand. I still don’t fully grasp the reasoning behind what happened to me in my elementary school years, but I’ve overcome it as best as one can. I remember the way it started. It was in first grade, and it happened in the school yard at St. Timothy’s before admission. My homeroom was gathered together, waiting to be summoned into line. Thomas Spickett, I think his name was, was being chided by my classmates over his dirty pencil case. It was inferred that he had the “Thomas Disease” and the pencil case was the way it would be transmitted.
Naturally, I touched the case. I think I wanted to prove my classmates wrong. I ended up catching the Richard Disease. It was chronic, and there was no cure.
Thomas was forgotten. For the next five years, The Richard Disease followed me through my education. In the most formative years for developing social skills, children my age would not even stand next to me unless they had to. Any other time, they’d run away—often screaming. There was nothing I could do.
Looking back, with the awareness that comes from adulthood, the Richard Disease stigma was given to me around the time AIDS was gaining national attention. It’s presence in the zeitgeist likely did not escape first graders at a Catholic school, but nobody knew what it was. Even worse, was how it stuck. Day after day, semester upon semester, grade upon grade, I carried the stigma like the Cross that we looked upon every day. Sometimes, I would embrace it, deliberately charging at a group of girls to watch them run in fear. Usually, I just tried to disappear. In fourth grade, I spent outdoor recesses and lunch breaks standing in a corner of the back school yard, my back to my classmates, my face to the wall of the church.
I remember talking to a teacher who had her car parked by my corner one day. I remember explaining the situation. I remember tears.
I remember her saying it was my fault.
Summers were my respite, to a point. I spent them at a day camp, where the bullying changed from mental to physical. I was insulted, beat up, had balls thrown at me, and generally harassed, but there was human contact in the misery. In some ways, this was preferable, but only just. One summer, I spoke to the leader of my group about the bullying. He, too, said it was my fault.
Despite being a “gifted student,” I was also a terrible student. Teachers either loved me or hated me. At least one was offended that I was offered the gift of leaving school one day a week to spend my day with the Mentally Gifted program at another school. Despite this, I was terrible at schoolwork. I was a discipline problem, as well. Days when the bullying became too much to bear in my fourth and fifth grade years, I would get into fights. Naturally, I was the only one punished. One year, I earned an in-school suspension. Why? Because of the Richard Disease. Because socialization with me was either insults, fights, or running away.
I had one friend outside of school, Matt, who was blissfully ignorant of my disease. He went to the public school across the street. And you just don’t talk about stuff like that with your one real friend. When he moved away, I rarely left the house of my own accord. And, to be honest, come fifth grade, the cloud lifted somewhat, and I had friendly classmates. Thomas Bluett, and Chris Palko come to mind, but that was two out of a class of two-hundred. And, though my teachers were quick to blame me, there were a few sympathetic ears.
One of these was Sister Elizabeth, the principal of St. Timothy’s. With her help, I got to spend mornings helping in the library before classes instead of wait in the schoolyard. I spent lunch minding first graders, a task typically given to seventh and eighth graders, rather than spend it with my peers. The real escape, however, came when I left the school after fifth grade, for Masterman, Philadelphia’s magnet public school. There, I would have other problems, but no more bullying, no more Richard Disease.
I’m almost thirty, and I still remember the pain. It’s still fresh to me. I wonder of any of my old classmate remember. I know they remember me, at least. Years later, in high school, and in college, when I would walk around my old neighborhood in Northeast Philadelphia, I would be noticed by my former classmates. They would be friendly, and kind, and ask how I’d been. It took all the willpower I had not to shake them, and scream in their face about what they did to me, deliberately or otherwise. I wanted to tell them how they never would give me the time of day, or even stand near me. I wanted them to know my pain.
But I never did.
Even writing this feels like I’m picking at a scab that hasn’t fully healed. Still, it has to be done. I’ve approached this from so many angles. I tried to make a joke out of it, something about how first graders discovered a new disease hitherto unknown to modern medicine, and I was the carrier, and so forth. Better to just lay it on the line, instead. If I hadn’t gotten out when I did, I can’t imagine what would have happened. I could have been another teenage suicide, or worse, one of those kids with guns who shoot up their own school in a twisted revenge fantasy. The Columbine massacre happened while I was still in high school, and some people thought I would “pull a Columbine” as well. By then, I was going to do nothing of the sort. But I was free, then.
And I’m free now, as free as I ever will be. Perhaps I’m more free putting this out there. I’ve never kept this story a secret, but I’ve never made it public, either. Maybe doing so is as close to closure as I’ll get. It’s not exactly screaming it into the face of my now grown-up tormenters, but it is probably better for the both of us.