Eighth grade was the worst year of my life.
My grandfather died, my home life got rough and school turned deadly. Oh, I’d had my share of troubles before, but all of a sudden, things started spinning into a whirling, feverish pitch. All at the same time.
School days began with dodging an assortment of jokers trying to spill out the contents of my notebook while I kept my eyes peeled for Bobby Graves. Bobby was a stocky, gross kid who looked like a small bear. He’d hide behind parked cars holding a piece of dog shit, which he liked to put in my face.
It wasn’t personal. Bobby had his share of grief and the bad energy flows down the social hierarchy, sometimes manifesting itself as a piece of shit. Bobby also liked to spit in his hand and fling it at people. Soon, everyone was doing it to everyone.
WHEN MY TEACHER LEFt … ERNIE AND ANGEL HAULED ME TO THE BACK OF THE CLASSROOM AND WRESTLED AWAY THE CASH.
Once at school, I’d shuffle into a period of bureaucratic accounting dubbed “homeroom” because, following Morrissey, “barbarism begins at home.” After attendance, George Della-Calce would try to pull me into a storage room at the far end of the classroom. If he succeeded, he’d punch me in the face until I cried.
Eventually, I learned to cry before he started punching. This would frustrate George because I guess he enjoyed the physical aspect of bullying more than its psychological-cum-terroristic qualities.
George was one of several kids in my class who had been “held back” a year owing to having committed undisclosed sins upon previous classmates. If my school was like a prison, these kids were like lifers: big and bad to the bone. They’d been through all the system could do to them and were defiantly serving time. The school had pronounced the execution of a year of their lives and they were spitting where they stood — sometimes literally.
We were told that the official policy was to mix the “good kids” and the “bad kids” together as a way of bringing up the latter, but the converse is what actually happened. Social engineers unleashed monsters.
Sharks swam in the waters and they could smell blood. Good kids were intimidated in class and beaten in the corridors. The vulnerable, like Richard West, were destroyed utterly. I still see him so beset with torment that he would uncontrollably retch, while rocking back and forth in his chair.
What turns people into sadists? Is it cultural, familial, psychological, biological, or even somehow spiritual? And are kids just getting caught in a cruel stream of energy stretching back to the murder of Abel and it’s just an aspect of being human that expresses itself when opportunity permits? I don’t know.
About halfway through the school year, we were asked to write short stories. I was a small, nervous kid who was dealing with some trying circumstances, and I had an active, if not wholly original, imagination. Although I didn’t always do my homework, it was fun to jot down a few fantasies concerning a character called “James Bomb.”
Unlike his suave namesake, “Meester Bomb” — as he was referred to by chattering nemeses — had no sex life and never survived an adventure intact. One of his signatures though was a reckless disregard for his own safety. In fact, his face was once peeled off by ghoulish captors, who tossed it out a window. To their shock, Bomb simply jumped out of the window, caught his face like a Frisbee and painfully restitched it later.
From then on, he’d occasionally make a throat-cutting gesture if I accidentally looked his way in class.
In my mind, a real spy was covered in scars, lacked a good bit of hair, suffered from terrible nightmares and had the teeth of a hockey player. Bomb walked with a jagged limp and winced from old injuries. It was said by his foes that Bomb was the ugliest spy of all time, a distinction he embraced.
Each morning, Bomb looked in the mirror and laughed, feeling scornful and triumphant. Bomb’s other key strength was his uncanny ability to calculate weak spots in glass windows and ricochet trajectories for bullets. His only companion was a small pistol, a Beretta, that he recalibrated for phenomenal accuracy.
As one of just a handful of students to actually complete assignments, I was asked to read my stories to the class. George actually liked James Bomb, never understanding that he was the inspiration for at least one of the humanoid monsters that Bomb shot repeatedly in the face. From that time on, George faded out as a tormentor, though my designation as a potential victim lingered.
Although I’d never read more than the first 50 pages of a book, I liked them. When school had a special offer to buy paperbacks at a group discount, I was able to get my folks to fork over the cash — maybe two or three bucks for two or three books. As it turned out, I was the only student in the class to order books, so my teacher returned the money to me.
Unfortunately, she did it in front of everyone. Ernie Jones and Angel Dupree, Bronx hooligans whose violent behavior had already led to their being held back at least once, took note. Neither paid any attention in class and both frequently interrupted the teacher. They sat in the back menacingly. By my reckoning, each was nearly 6 feet tall, which was about a foot taller than me.
When my teacher left the room to chat with another teacher in the hallway, Ernie and Angel hauled me to the back of the classroom and wrestled away the cash. Dissatisfied with such easy bounty, they picked me up and pushed me completely outside the window, three stories above the street, holding me by my wrists.
Our hero, pushed to the brink of annihilation, dangled miles above the teeming metropolis. Bomb could feel a pulse in his feet and he could sense the empty air below. He looked up to see his foes, their faces grotesquely distorted in laughter, monsters engorged with malicious delight. He looked down. Cars appeared like little toys and people looked like ants, unaware of the drama unfurling above them.
The city churned. Bomb strained. He wanted to get away from them and yet their grip was all that kept him from being smashed against the planet. And his trusty gun — his only true friend — was nowhere to be found. The sky was blue and the sun shone on, spellbound by the spectacle.
My teacher returned. Ernie and Angel pulled me back up into the room in full view. The three of us were brought to the principal’s office. Ernie and Angel were suspended for a week. My parents were dissuaded from pursuing further action by a principal concerned about traumatizing Ernie and Angel, who were seen as “at risk.”
When Ernie and Angel returned to class, they were mad — especially Angel. He’d wait for me after school and try to grab me. I recall once he came up and pressed a knife into my face, whispering, “Don’t make me cut you.” I could feel the blade make a dimple in my cheek.
From then on, he’d occasionally make a throat-cutting gesture if I accidentally looked his way in class. Angel had already been left back at least once and had been suspended. An angel of the unholy sort, fire and bullets and even the loss of a year of his life could not faze him.
It occurred to me that, rather than face Angel, I could escape by cutting my last period or two, so I often did. Compared to the cunning and astounding aim of James Bomb, this was, of course, a pedestrian solution, but? Well, it got me out of the eighth grade.