All-American Boy: A Parable

Fair warning: This post deals with bullying and the language may be hard for some of you to read.

Tommy could do no wrong. He was the Golden Boy and everybody knew it, especially Tommy. His parents were the richest in town and they were all too happy to share their money with their son. He wore the best clothes, drove the nicest car, and always had the latest iPhone the day after it was released. They traveled all over the world. To say that the other students were jealous of him would be an understatement. He looked like he had it all.

Tommy was self-assured and had confidence beyond measure. He would tell anybody who would listen about his greatness. On any given day, Tommy could be overheard saying “I am the best athlete this school has ever had.” To be honest, he was good at sports. His performance at the state basketball playoffs was celebrated by the students and teachers alike. Yet Tommy also insisted that he was the best dressed, the best spoken, the most likeable, the most attractive, and the most compassionate person in the school. He said it often enough and with enough conviction that people began to believe him. After all, he and his family had done some good things for the school.

Not surprisingly, Tommy hung out with other popular students. In fact, if Tommy invited someone into his circle, their reputation was made. They became the cool kids by virtue of association with him. Tommy also dated widely. It was no secret that Tommy enjoyed “playing the field.” He would date a girl until he became bored with her and he would move on to someone else. He would routinely regale his friends with tales of his conquests, telling them how the girls would “beg for it” with him. The other guys came to believe that how Tommy treated girls was how it must be done because, after all, he was the golden boy. The girls, on the other hand, were hurt and confused. A few tried to speak up about how Tommy had forced himself on them, but were told they were exaggerating or overreacting. Tommy was just an all-American boy with all-American needs, after all. The staff and teachers had heard tidbits about Tommy, but they overlooked them because if they were to speak out against him, there would be hell to pay with his father.

It wasn’t just the girls. Tommy had it in for Wayne. Wayne was Tommy’s polar opposite. If he wasn’t the poorest kid in the class, he was close. He only had two pair of jeans. They were two seasons too short and the stains were ground in to them. His shoes had holes and he wore the same torn jacket every day, regardless of the weather. Everybody knew he was on the free lunch program. Where Tommy nearly glowed, Wayne was shrouded in shadow, always looking at the ground, wanting to become invisible. Everybody knew his father was an out-of-work alcoholic. Wayne became a punching bag for his father on the worst nights. Despite all of these things, Wayne tried to be kind if anyone actually addressed him.

Tommy was disgusted by Wayne when he first noticed him. He wondered how someone could be so pathetic. It didn’t take long before Tommy began to throw comments Wayne’s way, always in the hearing of his entourage.

“Wayne, you’re pathetic. You’ll never amount to anything.”

“Wayne, I drove past your house last night. What a shithole! Why don’t you burn the whole thing to the ground?”

“Hey Wayne, if I were you, I’d kill myself, if your father doesn’t do it first.”

“Wayne, are you a fag? I’ve never seen you with a girl.” Then, looking around at his friends, he would laugh and say, “Watch your asses around this one guys.”

Over time, Tommy’s crew joined in the name calling. One of them would make a derogatory comment and they all would laugh. It didn’t matter how many times Wayne asked them to stop, their jeers became all the more intense. Eventually, Tommy’s friends got physical. They would trip him when he was walking by and then laughingly say, “Oops!” If he was carrying a stack of books, you could be sure one of them would knock it out of his hands. At one point, the teacher heard that some of Tommy’s gang were mistreating Wayne and he said to Tommy, “Take it easy on Wayne, okay?” With a twisted smile, Wayne simply responded, “Hey, I never told them to get physical.”

The interactions kept getting worse until one day, Wayne had enough. Tommy and his gang had surrounded Wayne and were chanting “Shithole! Shithole! Shithole!” Wayne lost it. He screamed out in anger and hurt, and took a swing at Tommy. Luckily, for Wayne’s sake, the principal came around the corner just afterward, because Tommy’s gang would have torn him apart. The principal said sternly, “Wayne. My office. Now!”

Trembling with rage, Wayne went to the principal’s office. Sitting across from him, the principal said, “Now, son, tell me what that was all about?” Wayne began to detail the daily abuses he endured—the name calling, the tripping, the attacks. After Wayne finished pouring out his heart, the principal responded, “Well Wayne, I know you’ve had some conflict and Tommy can be a little over the top sometimes, but overall he’s a good kid. Look at all the good he’s done for our school. He’s the one who got his father to fund the new football stadium! Here’s what I want you to do…I want you to practice turning the other cheek. Just ignore Tommy and the others. Don’t retaliate again or I am sad to say, you’ll get expelled. Meanwhile, I’ll talk to Tommy.”

Later, the principal called Tommy into his office and recounted some of his conversation with Wayne. He asked, “Did you and the others really call his house a shithole?” Without a hint of remorse, Tommy said, “Sir, you’ve seen his house. It is a shithole. I’m just calling it like it is. If his dad would get his shit together, they wouldn’t need to live there, but as it is now, Wayne lives in a shithole and he looks like he lives in a shithole. I am just trying to help him better himself.”

Having listened to Tommy, the principal responded, “I know. I know. Just try to keep the comments to a minimum.”

Tommy and the principal shook hands.

The next day, things hadn’t changed at all, for Tommy had managed to convince them all that what he was saying and doing were for the good of the school’s culture because he was, after all, an all-American boy.

I wish…

I shared this on my Facebook feed this morning. I hope it might bless someone here too.

I’ve been slowly journaling through the early years of my life and for the past few days, I’ve been writing about middle school. I don’t have many positive memories from that time. This morning, I was writing about how mean kids are to one another.

In the 7th grade, I dressed differently. I had a rat tail, and I would wear an old Army jacket and sometimes a Harley cap (ironically, kids in my school thought Harleys were stupid back then). I vividly remember being chased for several blocks by a half-dozen of the popular 8th grade boys who always hated me, though I never knew why. I think it boiled down to the fact that they could not tolerate that I existed. They caught me near the football field and pinned me to the ground, pulled out a scissors, and told me they were going to cut off my rat tail. They didn’t, but the rat tail was incidental. The fear and pain I felt that day were damaging enough.

In the 8th grade, I was met at the end of my road by two Sheboygan County sheriffs. They insisted that they escort me home. When my mother arrived, they interrogated me for about an hour, demanding that I confess to stealing another kid’s wallet. I had left wrestling practice angrily that day and two of the guys, again who seemingly hated me, called the police and falsely accused me of stealing a wallet from one of them. The police were unrelenting. About 45 minutes in, my mom asked for a break. We went into my bedroom and I told her, “Maybe I should just tell them I did it so they will leave me alone.” She asked, “did you?” and I told her no. Thank God she told me to stick to my story. Finally, the police left and miraculously, those guys “found” the wallet the next day.

These were the two examples that came to mind this morning. There are many more. Yet I was not innocent. I bullied others as well. That same 8th grade year, I threw one of my classmates into a mud puddle because he refused to give me a piece of gum. I am loathe to think of how many people I hurt with my words or the inappropriate comments and actions directed toward the girls in my class.

I have no doubt kids are facing these same things today. Many of them suffer in silence. As adults, our bullying looks different. If you have spent any time on social media, you know what I am talking about. Twitter and Facebook are playgrounds, complete with bullies of every stripe. We demean one another. We call each other names. We delight in expressing our opinions, we don’t listen. We demand, we don’t ask. Self-righteousness prevails in every corner.

I wish gentleness and kindness were more cherished values. I wish we saw every person we meet as a divine image bearer, deserving of dignity and respect. I wish we would devote ourselves to building up rather than tearing down. I wish…