Six weeks into the school year at Stewart Elementary, two things had become apparent to the children in Mrs. Shelby's fifth grade class: Eric Rawlings was a weirdo who nobody wanted to be around, and Andrew Gilmer—I think he was going by Drew then—was the guy everybody wanted to be friends with.
Guys were clamoring to hang out with him at recess, and in PE, and at lunch, and girls stood around and giggled nervously through their fingers when he walked by. He was cool and rich and handsome and every guy wanted to be like him. We boys went home and begged our dads to take us to the store to buy khaki pants, oxford shirts, and boat shoes. The girls went home and stole their mothers' makeup and caked it on a quarter-inch thick in an attempt to look more sophisticated. That spring, when the yearbook came out, parents sat around scratching their heads, trying to figure out why Mrs. Shelby's class picture was half junior yacht club, half slutty clown school.
But there was one exception, and that was Eric. While every other guy in our class photo was wearing pleated slacks and knit shirts and cardigans, Eric wore sneakers, faded denim shorts, and a t-shirt that at one point in time had some sort of graphic on the front, but had disappeared entirely save for a few flecks of the former decal. Eleven boys maintained what they thought were stoic expressions of indifference, but a twelfth, off on the edge by himself, grinned from ear to ear, showing off crooked teeth that a more socially aware child would have been embarrassed to display. But not Eric. He just absolutely could not have cared less.
We made fun of Eric for being immature. We called him a first grader in a fifth graders body, and condescendingly called him Junior. More than a few times we harshly tried to convince him to go sit with one of the first grade classes at lunch. He actually did it once, but the joke was on us since those little kids thought Eric was the bee's Goddamn knees. It didn't matter that we thought he was the emperor of loser-topia, the first graders of Mr. Willis's class loved him.
In reality, he was the real ten year old. We were a bunch of kids who were convinced that we were grown up and mature, when in reality we were nothing but a bunch of stupid little pricks. And Drew was the one who raised us to that point. I learned some time later that when he was at Heritage, Andrew was in a class for advanced students that was a combination of ages, from third grade all the way up to eighth. The reason Andrew seemed so cool and grown up to us was because, in a way, he was, although artificially. He was influenced heavily by the demeanor of his older classmates, who convinced him that he had to act more mature if ever wanted to be cool. He brought that to us at Stewart. Most of us, anyway.
I experienced this evolution first-hand in Mrs. Shelby's class. My name is Thomas Reese, and I was Andrew's best friend and self-proclaimed right-hand man when we were at Stewart Elementary. I was partly responsible to much of the psychological destruction wrought upon the self-esteems of many adolescent boys, particularly Eric Rawlings.
I've known Eric since we were in kindergarten. We had never been friends, and we were never in the same class until the fifth grade, but I knew who he was, and I knew he was a little strange. From the perspective of a classmate, he was a little strange, but he was probably the epitome of what an adult expects an elementary school kid to be. He didn't deserve any of the awful things we hell-children did to him. I know Andrew hates what he did to Eric, who would become his best friend by the time we were freshmen in high school, but at least he somewhat atoned for his sins. I can't say that. Eric and I never got along. I'm not going to say that I regret everything I did, because I don't. There are two kinds of grade school students: those who are bullied, and those who lie about being bullied. To some degree, every kid gets some shit from someone a little bigger, a little stronger, a little meaner, sometimes even a little smarter. I honestly believe it's part of what makes up a well-rounded person. But there's a line, and we crossed it more than a few times. But there was one time in particular that we really screwed up. It should have ended there, but it didn't.
It was a clear mid-November afternoon. Despite the blue skies, it was cold, the first day you could truly say was cold. The wind was blowing. We had no business being outside, and Mrs. Shelby tried to convince us to stay inside and play board games, but we pestered her. More than a few parents probably would have been pissed off that she let us go outside, but she was more than likely trying to teach us a lesson, and that lesson was if the Wisconsin-native Mrs. Shelby says it's cold, you need to stay your ass inside.
Behind the school was an open field that the fourth and fifth graders were forced to play on. Our principal, a woman who feared her job was in jeopardy every time a child fell and scraped his knee, said that the older kids would run over a younger child and fatally wound them, or something, so we had to run around on what used to be a softball field. All the while, the little kids got to play on equipment that was too big for them to manage.
As soon as we ran onto the field, and the wind that was formerly blocked by the school building bit into our bones, we knew we had made a mistake. Some of the girls ran back to Mrs. Shelby and begged to go back inside. Those stupid girls were still wearing knee-length skirts and thin blouses with sleeves rolled up. They were weak. We boys—those of us who had been wearing pants and sweaters since late August, when it was entirely too warm for either to be reasonable—were a little more prepared, and we weren't about to go crying and whining back to Mrs. Shelby, begging her to let us go inside and play Tiddlywinks or some equally juvenile game. So we stood in the middle of that freezing crater that used to be a softball diamond, trying to simultaneously will the cold away and come up with something to do that would allow us to share body heat.
We weren't all completely ill-prepared for the weather. The nine of us that stood huddle on that diamond saw a walking bundle of nylon and down half-waddling, half-jogging toward us. It was Eric, who had suddenly decided to come play with us instead of the girls inside. Odds are the girls had given him the cold shoulder and left him with no option other than run around outside with those of us who would be overtly mean to him, rather than just rude.
"Hey guys," he said cheerfully, his voice muffled by the blue and orange argyle scarf wrapped around his neck. No one said anything, just stared at him. Drew shot me a look and the slightest hint of an evil smile appeared on his face. He was about to devise one of the worst punishments we would inflict on Eric all year, and definitely the worst up to that cold November day.
"Hey Eric," Drew said, the grin on his face growing a little wider. "You wanna play kickball with us?"
"Sure!" Eric said. I didn't know what Drew had in mind, but I had a feeling it was going to be bad, and I loved it. He ran back to Mrs. Shelby, who was standing in our classroom's outside doorway. She walked back inside and emerged with a red rubber ball. Even from a distance I could tell which ball it was.
Behind Mrs. Shelby's desk were five balls, one blue, one yellow, one green, and two red. Four of these balls—the blue, yellow, green, and one of the red ones—were perfectly normal balls that were perfect for four square or kickball. The fifth ball, the bright red one, used most frequently but somehow still in almost new condition, was hard as a rock. I'm pretty sure that was the ball that caused the principal to ban dodgeball as a recess activity. The ball of anguish incarnate had the word 'Rocky' stamped on it, so that's what we called it. To this day I don't know why Mrs. Shelby even had Rocky, because she had to know that it had the potential to cause enormous physical pain. She did a lot of things that even as an adult I don't understand. But there came Drew, jogging over with that bright red ball of pure hurt in his arms and an ever-growing fiendish smirk on his face. He stopped in front of us and dropped Rocky on the ground.
"Okay, since there are only ten of us, what we're gonna do is we're gonna take turns kicking. Paul, you kick first."
In the class hierarchy, Paul Schwartz was one rung above Eric. But he dressed to fit in and wasn't quite as socially oblivious, so Drew tolerated him. Paul's eyes got wide and he looked a little nervous, obviously worried that his idol was about to chunk Rocky at his head. But Drew gave him a wink, which apparently calmed Paul's nerves enough that he consented and slowly walked to where home plate should have been. Drew sauntered to the pitcher's mound and I headed toward my usual position at first base. But as I prepared for first pitch, Drew waved me off and pointed to the other side of the field.
"Hey Thomas, go play shortstop," he shouted. "Let Eric play first base."
I almost yelled at him to go screw himself (it was a phrase I had heard my dad use recently and I was determined to make it my thing) when he gave me the same wink he gave Paul. Eric shouted something that sounded like a 'gee, thanks,' and sprinted from deep center field to take my place at first as I wandered over to short stop. As I walked I stared at Drew, but he ignored me. I was still trying to figure out what devious plan was running through his mind, but when I reached shortstop and turned to look at him, all the pieces fell into place. He was tossing Rocky up and down in his right hand, staring at Eric as he did. Eric was staring back at him, and gave Drew a thumbs up. At the time I knew things were only going to end badly for Eric and, in retrospect, I should have realized that it wasn't going to end well for Drew, either. But I was shaking with excitement and, having just realized what was about to happen, I was doing my best to contain my laughter. Consequences were the least of my concerns.
"Ready, Paul?" Drew called out. Paul nodded his head slightly. Drew reared his arm back, stopped for half a second, and let loose what was, even now, the hardest-rolled kickball pitch I've ever seen. Paul cocked his leg back and took a heroic cut at the rapidly-approaching world of hurt.
Paul Schwartz may have been a nerd, but he surely wasn't lacking in physical strength. I was afraid that if he made full contact with Rocky, his foot was going to shatter. He was kicking with his toes, which, as a soccer player, I knew was an awful idea, but it was even worse considering the fact that he was wearing hand-me-down boat shoes that were going to protect his toes about as well as intense wishing. I'm pretty sure that in the split-second before he brought his leg down, Paul realized the same thing, because his eyes grew wide, then squinted shut when he brought his foot around.
Luckily—or maybe unluckily, depending on how you look at it—the ball squeaked off the inside of his right foot and rolled right to me at shortstop. I was about to toss it to Eric when I saw Drew waving his arms out of the corner of my eye. I lobbed Rocky to him. As the ball left my hand, I sort of half-regretted it. All I could see in my mind's eye was the world of immense pain Eric was about to be in.
Drew barely had the ball in his hand when he pulled back to throw. Eric never saw it coming. With his freakish arm strength and hand size that let him grip Rocky like it was a baseball, he never stood a chance. Drew let Rocky fly at what at the time I thought had to be a hundred and fifty miles an hour. The rock-hard rubber sphere slammed into the side of his face. His glasses—both lenses and frame—shattered into unrecognizable shards of glass and metal. He hit the ground, landing on his back with such force that I thought I felt it over at shortstop. I was thoroughly convinced I had just witnessed a murder until he groaned and rolled over on his side. Blood was pouring from his nose and he spat red saliva into the cold dirt. Almost everyone on the diamond rushed over to him, more to see if his face was turned upside down than out of desire to help him. Mrs. Shelby was running at a dead sprint toward us, her face full of panic. When she reached Eric, she knelt down next to him and cradled his thoroughly-wrecked head.
It was that point that I realized there were only eight of us crowded around Eric and Mrs. Shelby. Still on the pitcher's mound was Drew. He had collapsed to the ground in laughter, rolling around cackling like he was touched. I don't think he realized yet that Mrs. Shelby had run over. Maybe he just didn't care. I don't know, but I did know that he was about to fry.
Mrs. Shelby had pulled a handkerchief from her pocket and was holding it to Eric's nose. She tore off her sweater—at which point I realized she was wearing a criminally thin blouse and no bra, and it was cold—and placed it under Eric's head. I saw the school nurse emerge from our classroom door. She quickly walked over to where Eric was lying. As she assessed the situation, Mrs. Shelby stood up and turned to where Drew was still lying, trying to recover from his fit of hysteria. The expression on her face suddenly shift from concern to unadulterated rage. She was clenching her teeth so hard that I could see her head was visibly vibrating. Then she let out a scream that would curdle the blood of any human being on this earth.
"Andrew Gilmer!" she shouted, suddenly halting Drew's raucous laughter. He pushed himself up off the ground and I'm pretty sure he mouthed the words 'oh shit.' Our furious teacher stormed over and snatched him up off the ground by his arm, an act that if witnessed by the principal would have resulted in her immediate dismissal. Drew told me later that when he saw her charging toward him, he suddenly felt like a little bit of joy had been sucked out of the world. I know for a fact he wasn't able to look her in the eyes for quite some time (although admittedly most of us boys hardly looked her in the face to start with).
She marched the terrified Drew past us, I'm certain not a doubt in anyone's mind they were headed for the principal's office. The school's permanent substitute, Mrs. Martin, had come outside and was trying to herd all of us back into the classroom, where the girls were still oblivious to the commotion outside. We were all silent as we slowly walked inside and took our seats.
Nobody said a word in the twenty minutes it took for Mrs. Shelby to return from the principal's office. When she finally came back, her face was pale, her hair was a mess, and she still had that awful look of fury on her face. Unsurprisingly, Drew was not with her. She took her seat at her desk and began scribbling something on a yellow note pad. When she finished, she angrily tore the paper from the pad and handed it to the permanent substitute
"Take this to Dr. Oliver's office," she ordered gruffly. Mrs. Martin didn't flinch. She simply took the yellow piece of paper and calmly walked out of the room.
Mrs. Shelby didn't say much the rest of the day. By the time 2:45 rolled around, it felt like we had done a hundred worksheets, although in reality it couldn't have been more than a dozen. My hand was cramping so bad that I had almost forgotten what had happened earlier that day. Almost.
When I got to school the next day, both Eric's and Andrew's desks were empty. Mrs. Shelby still seemed a little rattled, but at least she didn't seem quite as angry. I did notice she wasn't wearing any makeup and she was wearing significantly more clothes than the day before. That was disappointing.
One thing I noticed was behind Mrs. Shelby's desk, where the five balls used to sit, there was only an empty space. I assumed that meant our violent kickball days were over.
Eric came to class about an hour late. He didn't look nearly as bad as I had expected him to. Both of his eyes were black, his nose was swollen, and he had a knot on the back of his head that was visible from fifteen feet away. Other than that, he looked okay. He had a new pair of glasses, these significantly less awful-looking than the pair we had destroyed the day before.
But there was something else off about him. Most every morning, he came to school wearing faded clothes and an impossibly large grin. That particular morning he was wearing khaki pants and a solid black t-shirt, both of which looked brand new. On his feet was a pair of black loafers that weren't new, but weren't as worn out as the sneakers he usually wore. When he sat down in his seat, I saw he was actually wearing a belt, which was something most of the kids in our class didn't even do. What stood out the most was the lack of a smile on his face. Usually when Mrs. Shelby was at the front of the room, he was sitting straight up, grinning like a Cheshire cat, just waiting for an opportunity to shoot his hand up. He was slumped in his seat, on his face a blank stare directed at the wall above the white board. It had only been three months, but I could tell. We had broken Eric Rawlings.