by Stan Bednarz.
In my freshman year at high school, I passed between nerds and jocks. I didn’t care where I belonged, so long as I wasn’t fitted for a locker. Along the terrazzo corridors, for the most part, I escaped detection, was never hazed or initiated. I learned how to hide in a crowd, dodging the bullies, a proud survivor of ninth grade.Things changed dramatically in tenth grade. I had been lifting weights all summer, determined that if anyone wanted to pick on me they would have to be high on drugs or completely insane. I’d often thought of myself as a secret superhero in those days, perusing the halls, fighting for justice, ready to pluck a bully off a nerd and be the good guy, even if I only had the admiration from a handful of sheepish students.
But then something in me changed one day. I wanted to feel the rush, the power to hold someone in a corner, make his eyes dart in fear, his shoulders droop in defeat-maybe even make him cry.
Why? Why did I crossover to the dark side that day? All it took was a moment of weakness. Something primal had latched on to the back of my brain like an alien slime constricting my moral thoughts. Maybe it was something as simple as boorish pride. I had guys coming up to me, commenting on how big my arms were. I imagined girls hugging my biceps, clinging to each arm as I walked down the hall. I was impressive to a fault.
My victim was a ninth grader. He was bony and pale. His shoulders drooped forward as if he was afraid of his own shadow. As he came down the hall, I closed in on him like a hyena having separated him from the herd.
“Where do you think you’re going?” I asked sarcastically.
He replied with an elfin voice, “To my locker.”
I trapped him against the cold, gray metal so he couldn’t move; so he had to face me.
He didn’t cry, not even a whimper. When I saw his pale blue eyes, he had the look of someone who had been resigned from life.
“You’re a freshman aren’t you? You know all freshman need to be initiated.”
Without hesitation, but looking past me, he said, “My brother’s name is Scott Krueger. He is a tenth grader, He told me if I’m bothered he will take care of it.”
“Wait. I know him.” I slinked away. “Sorry, dude. I didn’t know you were Scott’s little brother.”
The Krueger family lived on long country road. They had seven or eight children. I’d always liked Scott and knew they were a family of faith. They attended a non-descript church on the corner of a road not far from where I lived. Friends of mine went there. I was ashamed of myself that day and vowed I would never pick on the weak and helpless again.
Another friend warned me that this particular kid in the family had Leukemia and was given months to live. From then on, as I watched this slender, blonde haired boy pass by in the hall, I gave him a wide birth.
That summer there was a funeral at Calvary Baptist Church. A buddy of mine told me it was Tom Krueger. It was a hot and sticky night. I rode my bike down the back roads where the crickets cried out from the woods, and the moon hung heavy on my shoulders.
I walked inside the open door where fluorescent lights buzzed above and candles flickered at the altar. Heads turned, eyes followed my every step. It felt as if my sneakers were filled with wet concrete. Sweating profusely and undeterred, I approached the coffin. I knelt down. Tom’s face looked porcelain white. His bloodless hands were neatly folded.
Once again I was alone with him, face to face. But I was the weakened one, drained, lost, nearly capsized in fear and loathing as a few hot tears escaped my swollen eyes. I prayed, lost in my own identity. Then, I politely shook a few hands on the way out into the darkness, as a child, headlong, prepared for a hazing from God, pedaling away, scared that I would be halted or snatched and disappear into the black wilderness. Instead there was silence. Cool air filled my lungs. I was my fear.
As I rode, the shackles of guilt fell from me. The shadow that followed me home became a blanket of comfort. I was living under grace, in a certain valley of peace, a place where the long shadows hide the weak and the poor.
The bully in me was forever vanquished.