Bonnie waddled along the left side wall peering at me through her pointy, sixties style glasses. Her deformed left arm caressed her books against her chubby body, the left hand permanently closed in a semi-fist. She couldn’t use her left arm for anything except to hold something close to her body. Her right arm swung out from her body with each step as if to keep her balanced and upright. Outwardly pointing feet did cause her gait to be a waddle. Her neon pink pullover and lime green spandex slacks clung to her body, highlighting every fold of her excess sixty pounds of weight. She wore lemon colored shoes to complete her psychedelic attire of the decade earlier.
Bonnie Pinser appearing in our middle school was a result of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA). As fifth graders, we only knew she was crippled, wore funny clothes, walked like a duck, and was probably stupid, too, which is why the school labeled her as a special needs child.
I didn't pass Bonnie often in the hallways. Since she was a special needs child, our paths only occasionally crossed. When they did cross, the story was always the same. Someone would yell, "Ooh, cooties!". Everyone would move to one side of the hall to make way for the crippled girl clothed in neon and wearing funny glasses as they yelled snide remarks.
One day, in the sixth grade, Aaron DeJesus and I were heading downstairs between classes. Aaron led the way and as we headed down, Bonnie headed up, hugging close to the railing with her head down as she had become accustomed to walking throughout the school. Aaron smiled and said, "Hi, Bonnie."
Bonnie quickly looked up and dropped her books. For a split second, I saw terror in her eyes. Not scared. Not startled. Real terror. A normal student dared to speak kindly to her and she was filled with terror at what might happen next.
Aaron bent down and picked her books up and tucked them under her crippled arm. He then bounded down the remaining steps yelling, "Hoo! That felt good." He rounded the turn on the landing and bounded down the remaining steps, three at a time. I remained fix at the top of the stairs and looked down as Bonnie passed me.
I don't know what Aaron had in him that I didn't. I always kind of felt sorry for Bonnie, but I always moved to the opposite side of the hall like the rest of the kids. I never joined in the teasing as she passed. I simply looked down or vacantly ahead as if Bonnie wasn't there and nothing mean was happening. Aaron, though, showed me how I was supposed to be. He showed me the beginnings of what it means to be a man, to step outside of the crowd and do the right thing even if it isn't the popular thing to do.
After Bonnie passed me, I slowly continued on my way to catch up with Aaron. I swore I was going to be more like him. I was old enough to know Bonnie didn't have cooties that might cripple me. Judging by how happy Aaron was bounding down the stairs because he did something nice and broke the mold everyone else forced him into had to be liberating and the right thing to do. I wanted to be more like him. I wanted to be my own man.
Several months later, near the end of school, I was walking to my next class. Up ahead, I heard, "Ooh, cooties!" and a crowd of students moved against the far wall. As the sinuous movement worked its way to me, I moved against the wall, eyes down, and pretended nothing was happening. One student got brave and walked up to Bonnie and knocked her books out from under her crippled arm. A couple of other students kicked the books and paper in a game of soccer as all the other kids laughed and cheered. I did nothing except move on to my class as teachers came out of their classrooms to Bonnie's defense. Whatever was in Aaron that day several months before still wasn't in me.
The next year, Aaron was gone. We were never friends so I don't know what happened to him. Like any student who is there one year and gone the next, Aaron's parents must've moved.
Bonnie, though, returned for another year of being harassed. Fortunately, I was in the seventh grade and most of my classes were on the first floor. I didn't see much of Bonnie for the next two years. The once in awhile our paths crossed, though, the story was the same.
Ninth grade was the big year for all of us eighth-graders. We started high school in Centreville. Like any kid, starting high school was a momentous occasion. For me, there were dreams of playing soccer and eventually earning my letterman's jacket. There were new friends to meet and girls to ask to the school dance. Four more years, the final stretch, and then there was college and endless opportunities ahead. I could be anything and everything I wanted to be.
The first time I saw Bonnie, she walked down the hall hugging the wall and looking down, afraid to look at all the new tormentors. The other kids didn't yell "Ooh, cooties!" nor did they cling to the other side to avoid getting Bonnie's cooties. A new school and new people and the game from middle school must've gotten old.
As she passed me in her bright colored, tight-fitting clothes and sixties style glasses, I suddenly realized she probably didn't choose to dress like a neon clown. Her parents were probably poor and hand-me-downs and Good Will shopping were all they probably could afford.
Seeing Bonnie walking alone, still scared and expecting the taunts, I realized my dreams were probably her fantasies. Dreams are attainable. Fantasies simply make us feel good. For Bonnie, there were no field hockey or cheer leading dreams. The cute boy who passed her in the hallway every day would never ask her to the school dance. College was the place where smart people went. Graduating meant she had to find a job because Mom and Dad wouldn't be able to support her all of her life. What company would hire a cripple?
"At least no one is teasing her," I thought.
I saw Bonnie a couple of more times that first year of high school. I was at the end of the school with all the kids who had a lot of dreams and a bright future. Bonnie was at the end of the school with all the kids who had a lot of fantasies and a predictable future. Our paths rarely crossed.
Two years later, a special needs girl rode our bus every morning. Every morning, when the bus came to her stop, all the kids would double up on seats so they wouldn't have to sit next to her. I never played the game.
One morning, she sat next to me. Subtle taunts and snickering came from the other kids as she took her seat. I smiled. My smile must've been a gesture for her to talk to me. She showed me pictures she had drawn and, after all these decades, I really don't remember much else other than I was nice and listened to her. I didn't realize it then, but now I know I simply did what Aaron did five years earlier for Bonnie. Maybe I was becoming a man, too. Funny how seeds are planted and it takes years for them to grow. Aaron planted the seeds and they finally took root in me.
When I got to school and started the daily routine, I realized I hadn't seen Bonnie since we first went to high school two years earlier. Like any student who is in school one year and gone the next, I figured her parents moved and I thought little more of her.
That should be the end of the story, but people have an impact on one's life in ways they never realize. Ten years after graduating high school, I had a dream horror stories are made of. No need to bore you with the details of the dream, but suffice it to say Bonnie was the center of it. She had a story to be told and I hadn't told it. She was upset.
Ten years after that dream, I set out to write her story based on my dream. It remains unfinished in my computer.
Thirteen years after beginning that story, I finally understand what unfinished business means. I never had the chance to thank Aaron for showing me what it means to be a man. More importantly, I had the chance, actually more than one chance, to make a difference, even a small difference, in Bonnie's life and I chose not to. Now, I don't have the chance to hug her and say, "I'm sorry."
God willing, this story will find its way to Bonnie and, although she probably has no clue who I am, she will take comfort in knowing she had a more powerful impact on the people around her than she could ever imagine. And, God willing, this story will find its way around to Aaron with the same lesson that it's the little things we do when we don't think anyone is paying attention that have the biggest and longest lasting impact on others...including an impact on a boy wanting to become a man.
For the TL;DR folks:
If you're a bully, knock it off. If you're not a bully, offer kind words and gestures to those who are bullied. You'll make a difference in their lives and others around you.
Ending on a positive note - some young people making a positive difference.
Posted by Five Drunk Rednecks