Well, five-and-a-half. My kindergarten teacher persuaded my parents to put me in first grade midway through the school year; I guess educational regulations weren't strict back then.
I kind of think it was a bad idea. I was small, chubby, introspective, and nerdy, and alliances had already formed among my classmates when I joined them. I spent the majority of my childhood as a follower rather than a leader, and was content to accept the way things were without too much trouble, docile, often not even aware that I could exert much, or any, control over my circumstances.
I was also the only boy in my class who didn't play football at recess, preferring two-square or goofing around on the jungle gym or drawing pictures.
All of this made me a pretty easy target.
Brian was, for lack of a better term, the alpha male in my class: a handsome kid, well-built, affable, confident. A natural leader, and, yielding to whatever instinct occasionally inspires playground cruelty, led the taunts. Most of the other boys followed suit, currying favor and vying for rank in the hierarchy. Some stayed neutral, some were my friends.
Nothing got too out of hand; my experiences were pretty mild, comparatively, and it wasn't constant. For example, I was threatened but never struck. My books got thrown, maybe I got pushed, my lunch cupcake taken. Most of it was just ridicule.
Other boys had redeeming qualities that allowed them to avoid similar treatment. They were good at football. They had Ataris and invited friends over to play. They had pretty sisters someone had a crush on. They were cool. My qualities somehow didn't stack up; I had only foreign currency.
Thus, Brian symbolized the reinforcement of my subconscious assumption that it wasn't my place to change things and that this is the way it would be: me at the bottom, fulfilling my role as that kid, the weird one, the one that got picked on. I didn't necessarily feel ashamed about it, strangely, but it profoundly shaped the way I learned to deal socially with others in various situations, and helped establish instincts that to this day I have to mentally stave off. I didn't know how to relate to peers. I didn't know how to treat friends as equals. What I was wasn't good enough. My confidence and poise were late to bloom.
I can't remember what prompted it, but I came home crying one day from whatever silly insults had been aimed at me. I didn't complain much about things at school, but I guess this day it got out of hand. Mom was concerned, and I blurted out that Brian was being a bully. Mom said "Let's call him and tell him, then."
Until then, the idea of confronting him simply hadn't occurred to me. I can DO that?, I thought. I felt kind of dumb, considering the simplicity of it.
She looked up his parents' number (everyone pretty much knew everyone else, from church), called it, and asked for Brian. She handed the phone to me. I imagine my eyes were pretty huge at this point, but I took the phone as it emitted his voice, asking hello.
My heart was beating hard, and my mouth was dry. Mom watched, arms folded. I swallowed.
"You're a bully." I hung up before he said anything.
I didn't feel triumphant. Somehow it didn't feel as if it was anywhere near the right solution. The next day, the days after, I fully expected to get beat up, but nothing. I don't remember if the bullying stopped, or changed at all. In fifth grade I was invited to his birthday party and he gave me $2 to buy a pop because I didn't have any money with me.
Brian and I eventually both attended a Catholic mid-high that closed down when we were in 10th grade; we would have been the Class of 1986.
I didn't go to the 20-year reunion that a couple of classmates organized two summers ago, but one of them sent me a CD with photos of those who attended. There's a picture of him on it: handsome, well-built, charismatic, with a pretty wife and a couple kids, beaming a warm smile. He looks good, doesn't look like he's pushing 40.
I wonder about the challenges he's faced, the demons he's wrestled.
I wonder how I changed him.