The school day at St. Joe’s started promptly at 7:30 am with a Latin low mass. We were ushered into the high-backed wooden pews and told to face the altar, to stop fidgeting, ignore a classmates whispers, to focus on Christ’s suffering for our sins and pray to God Almighty for trespassing. The nuns, clothed from head to toe in long black habits waddled up and down the aisles, on the look-out for any misdemeanor, and at the first sign of insurrection, would crush an entire pew of second graders to surprise the hoodlum from behind; her thick, strapping hand landing with phenomenal precision on the scruff of the heathen and plucked him from his spot like an ugly weed. They all appeared to be well over the age of eighty and kept their hands tucked snuggly beneath wide, white sashes or knotted behind their backs. Corporal punishment by way of rulers, canes, and paddles was customary even for the pettiest offenses like wetting your pants. They enforced zero-tolerance of misbehavior almost daily. It was rumored that they were part of a special Holy See order of nuns responsible for nurturing young and vulnerable catholic students: Sisters of the Evil Stepmother.
I began St. Joe’s in the second grade. The coagulation of cliques hadn’t yet occurred so a new kid didn’t draw suspicion and I was able to easily take my seat in the third row, behind Peggy, in front of Billy, and next to Jim. But it began soon enough, the curdling, the formation of small clumps of friends; those that chased girls at recess; those that sat quietly against the fence; those that hoped and waited for an indication to advance, the willowy ones, still too shy to attract and too timid to pursue. For the better part of the next five years I sat on the periphery, looking in at the popular, my nose flattened coldly against the window of their circle. They were the small, the athletic and most importantly the obnoxious boys; the same boys that would terrorize the girls, but those same girls would wait, patiently, like the family dog for the briefest encounter after school. I’d bet my mom was one of those girls when she was growing up.
That small, popular group of boys appeared to be completely satisfied; life occurred like a roaring adventure; the next day was another step towards their adulthood and independence. But for I and the other three boys on the periphery; Billy (who lacked personal hygiene); Gary (the nerd); Timmy (who had an affecting odor) observing the popular group, each day seemed to be just another in a long line of days, some horrendously long life-sentence, perhaps passed on generation after generation. It was a fact that a boy in the popular group was always the son of a popular father, a father that had a full-time job; a father that was a scout leader or athletic coach; a father that was found at home. That was what the boys on the periphery envied, more than friendship, more than even membership, even more than the popular group leadership, was a home-focused father, a man that taught manliness. For boys on the periphery it was an abysmal and persistent absence, a longing to have that one guy to show you how and what and where and when, that guy and only that guy you could call dad; your dad to look up to, to count on, and whose discipline was fair and to the point and feared. As I look back there was a void, a yearning that was never sated, a howling that never quieted, a wink never seen, a slap on the back that never stung.
The boys on the periphery seemed destined to spend their life in orbit, circling around others, singular, finding comfort in ourselves rather than as a pack. However, when the popular group would turn their attention to something other than themselves it usually turned to one of us; one of us on the periphery. And when the popular boys would begin their attack we would scatter like a flock of pigeons, only turning back to see if we had been caught or remained free. Unlike their pursuit of girls where each boy would target one girl like a pilot in a dogfight, one of the popular boys would leave the pack like a scout, sniffing out the school yard for the oblivious periphery boy, and upon selecting his patsy, tempt his thirst for attention through false complements, and finally summon the rest of the pack. In they’d come at full run to taunt, slap, tease, jeer, punch, push, tickle . . . any action that would confuse the stooge, until the desired effect would come to pass, tears, stuttering, even urination. It was in the grotesque embarrassment that the popular boys seemed to draw energy. It was a hideous game and all the boys on the periphery knew that their time would come when a gangster with wandering eyes and too much time would turn, setting his sights.
I flew under the radar until the fifth grade when I learned that Jim (the boy that smiled when I first arrived in second grade) despised me from the start and his perfunctory “smile and nod,” as benign as it was, didn’t mean “welcome,” it meant “game on, big boy.” Jim never missed an opportunity to exercise his animosity, a four-year commentary on my shortcomings, misgivings, and awkwardness. His rancor finally turned the corner of hatred and hostility during a mid-morning lavatory-break: I was using a urinal during his standard, derisive monologue when he noticed the absence of his audience (bullying him is boring, the other boys thought) and that was it, his disgust had compounded daily and that day he decided to close his account. I felt the hand on my shoulder grab tightly and pull me back, away from the privacy of the urinal; belt, snap, and zipper open, my fingers entwined in the fly of my brief’s, I stood there, the epicenter of mockery, ridicule, and indignity, my distress instantly appearing as damp and darkening spots on my trousers. Initially there was raucous laughter (to which I’d become accustomed), but slowly, boy-by-boy, the lavatory grew quiet, pity replaced ridicule as boy after boy turned and walked out. I stood there until Sister Reynolds threw open the door determined to discover delinquents but stopped immediately upon seeing me. She closed the door quietly, walked to me, and placed her ample arm around my shoulders. All I remember after that extraordinary display of compassion was letting four years of shame finally come out as sobs and weeping and finally dead silence as I finally understood that I would always remain outside the circle.