Have you ever had that feeling - the one way down in your stomach that says you don't quite fit in? The one that whispers in your ear while you're busy pretending everything is fine? That feeling that says you're not quite big enough, or small enough. You're not quite smart enough, or you're too smart. You're not quite pretty enough, athletic enough, straight enough. You're different.
That feeling, that no matter how hard you try, you'll never be quite perfect enough.
If so, congratulations. That makes you just about normal. If not, congratulations, you are immortal. You are one of the golden ones.
The golden ones have their own special table at lunch in school, where it is never stated aloud, but everyone knows, that mere mortals do not tread. They never have bad hair days or a big red zit right on the tip of their nose. They never worry that they will not be asked to prom or that their clothes are out of style or that someone will push the books out of their arm or scrawl something nasty on their locker.
They are in the paper with the perfect grades, scoring the winning touchdown or landing a cheerleading back handspring, piling up scholarships, starring in the play.
The rest can't help but look at the seemingly effortless way they move through the world without ever stuttering or blushing, or seeming to feel anger or worry or fear. Some will try their best to emulate their clothes, movements, opinions and expressions, though it will never quite get them a seat at that table. Others will do their best to look as opposite from the elite as they can.
What one doesn't realize at junior high or high school age is that the golden ones are usually a little more tarnished than they appear. That great cheekbones or big biceps do not mean that a person doesn't have problems and fears - perhaps more fear, because that image of perfection is a tough act to keep up. Luckily, they are not yet aware that beauty, athleticism, popularity may be fleeting currency, it does not necessarily last forever.
At the other end of the spectrum are the bullies, whose job it is to loudly remind us of our every imperfection, magnify our fears, and more or less generally make life miserable for anyone they can get to.
I feel as sorry for these kids - and the rotten adults they may well grow into - as I do for their victims.
I know how pathetic and weak and insecure bullies are, because I was one of them - for about three minutes.
It was fourth grade at old Hawley School, I think. There was a kid named Kevin in class who got made fun of a lot. I wanted to fit in, so one day I made a joke of his surname too, which happened to be much too similar to a species of primate for a bonehead like me to resist.
I don't think I realized that what I thought was funny would hurt Kevin, but that's a lousy excuse. Apparently I was the last of far too many straws in his world.
When I was leaving the classroom that day, Kevin snuck up from behind and gave me a hammer fist square in the middle of my back.
He was a big, solid kid, and anyone who has ever been hit in that particular spot knows that it kind of knocks the life out of you temporarily, and worse, creates a big echoing boom sort of sound that will have half the school looking around to see what happened, and of course laughing their butts off.
I remember to this day the thoughts as I laid there on the floor, my books spilled out all around, with everyone looking at me:
1. They've done some beautiful grout work on the tile floors of this school. People really should get a close up look at it. 2. As soon as I get some breath back into my aching lungs, I should get up and beat the snot out of Kevin. And 3. No - I deserve every bit of this. I want to remember what this feels like so I'll never be tempted to treat anyone like that again.
And so I laid there, not really as hurt as I let on, and gave Kevin his moment, and hoped it made up a little bit for my stupid thoughtlessness.
Because Kevin, you taught me that day probably the best thing I ever learned at that school.
All bullying isn't physical. Words can hurt even worse. And being silent isn't good enough when you see someone being mistreated. You have to step in, ask people if they are OK. Like I should have done for Kevin.
Every chance I get today, I try to tell kids that the most rewarding thing in life is to offer a hand to someone who needs it. Don't tempt karma. My lesson from Kevin.
In a way I guess I'm still trying to push myself up from that smooth, chilly tile, get some air back in me, and make up a little tiny bit for all of my shortcomings.
This week, I interviewed a volunteer helping to arrange a human trafficking conference in Storm Lake for next month. She said the problem isn't pimps - self esteem and bullying erode away at a kid, rendering them vulnerable to the advances of evil people. Wise lady.
No conference fixes this, though. What will stop it is the kids. They bring the the change. Always have.
We can't all be golden ones. But we all can seize the moment when we are needed. "Here, grab my hand. Let's get out of here. It's going to be OK." To be a friend to someone who totally needs one at a given moment - that might be the best stuff a kid ever learns.
Thank you, Kevin. Wherever you may be tonight, I wish you happiness.
Oh, and ...