I don’t talk much about my senior year of high school.
The events of that year, for me personally, were integral in shaping who I am now and informed many of my opinions and the way I regard music, art, politics, other people, and life in general.
Truth be told, even today, as I look back on the events of that year, more than 25 years ago now, there’s still a lot to parse.
It was a year of some incredible highs: my first real girlfriend, the Presidential Classroom, acceptance to Georgetown University, watching events unfold on TV (the fall of the Berlin Wall being the most visible) and realizing I was witnessing history.
It was a year of devastating lows: the breakup with that girlfriend, mean things I said to friends, the hospitalization for an ulcer.
And the emotional torment associated with a single person whom I will not call out by name in this essay. While I wouldn’t pin all of the blame for the lows on him specifically, I can certainly see how the stress of the situation might have led to both the ulcer and the mean things I said.
This person was someone I’d known since the first grade. At times throughout all of those years, he and I were, if not friends, then at least on good terms with each other. Other times, it seemed as though he found my very existence to be the worst possible things imaginable.
But by senior year, he undoubtedly hated me. I just wanted to be left alone.
I remember the day after a particular episode of The Wonder Years first aired. It was the episode where the school walked out in protest of the Vietnam War. He asked me if I thought we should just give peace a chance, an angry tone in his voice.
When I mumbled that it was obvious he had seen that episode the night before, he got angrier and asked me what I said, so I told him. He then went off on an angry tirade against the kid who, in the show, proposed the protest and his rhetoric. He said he legitimately wanted to hurt someone for pointing out the wrongness of American foreign policy in a work of fiction set twenty years prior.
On multiple occasions, he vandalized my property, in and around my locker.
I worked in a retail store after school and on weekends. (It’s where I met my first girlfriend…) He made a point of occasionally showing up there to harass me.
He knew where I lived. One morning we woke up to find that someone had spray painted swastikas and a “go back to Israel” message at the foot of the driveway and on garbage cans we had put out for collection. While I can’t be 100% certain who did it, I’m reasonably sure that it was him.
He was in the junior ROTC in our school and it was common knowledge that he kept a knife in his boot. (I never saw it personally and I will readily concede — in hindsight — that it’s possible that this was a myth, but at the time it wasn’t something worthy of my skepticism…)
So I legitimately feared for my safety. Without my parents’ knowledge, I started bringing a Swiss Army Knife to school in hopes of defending myself at least a little bit.
To no one’s surprise, the school administrators found out and he and I were both suspended from school for three days, never having thrown a single punch. The official reason for my suspension was the knife. I never heard exactly why he was suspended.
Yes, I know that if that were to happen today, I would have been expelled.
After the suspension, he ramped up his already hateful rhetoric, egging me on to a fight which I had no interest in participating in. When friends — including guys on the football and wrestling teams — asked me why I didn’t want to fight, I usually responded with some variation on “I’m a lover, not a fighter…”
Instead of making a fist, I filed a civil complaint in the local courts. When the subpoena arrived, it was quite the news in our school. The judge, wisely, looked at the two of us and, in dismissing my case, told us to leave each other alone. After all, by this time graduation was just a few months away and we’d likely never see each other again after that.
In the last edition of the school newspaper before graduation, I bought some space in the “farewells” page and wished him success both in his chosen college (West Point) and in life. Rumor has it that this gesture — which I did just to gain closure — pissed him off tremendously.
I have had no contact with him since then although there was a time freshman year of college when I met someone from West Point who had come to visit a friend of mine in my dorm. I asked him if he knew the guy who had tormented me. When he said yes, I told him to tell him I said “hi” and then to duck.
I occasionally google him to see what he’s up to. At various points in recent years I’ve seen a photo of him bringing a thanksgiving turkey to troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, writing a particularly vituperative review of an army history book on Amazon, and teaching in Pittsburgh.
And I don’t doubt that he’s celebrating the recent electoral victory of Donald Trump. The overt racism, sexism, xenophobia, and antisemitism that pervaded Trump’s campaign and which has since emboldened his supporters to harass and attack minorities and immigrants (see this Raw Story article for details) is something that I don’t doubt appealed to my tormentor.
In hindsight I probably should have stood up to him more directly back in high school. His brand of hatred and anger just don’t belong in a civilized society and certainly don’t help to make America great (whether or not we want to append the word “again” after that). It’s why I’ve started wearing a safety pin on my shirt and why I will be going into Philadelphia next weekend to protest, not so much Trump himself but the rhetoric that he has used and which has poisoned civil discourse.
If you can, please join me.