Sticking up for the fat kid
One of my students was telling me about a classmate who, being rotund, is widely ridiculed. The term he used was “man boobs,” which I’m glad(?) to see is still around from my student days. My student then said that he was one of the people who stuck up for this classmate, which made me extremely proud. I even teared up. And since this editor has a one-track mind of late, it got me thinking about Specialness, and how for me, nothing made me feel more special than sticking up for the fat kid. Ours was Matt Gross. Not really but that’s what we’ll call him. Matt Gross was not only a large lad, but he was without any social grace: a double whammy. Kind of like being stuck at the bottom of a hundred-foot well and, while down there, learning your ex-girlfriend is getting married.
Matt compensated for his size by bragging to and insulting other students. He even called me Shorty once–at which point I let him have it. And the more Matt bragged, the more the 6th-grade mob felt justified to heap insults on him, creating a vicious cycle of blubber warfare.
But I did try. I tried to tell others to get a life when they insulted him. I tried to talk to him when he came by, and not roll my eyes when he told me about some incredible thing he had done. I knew this was his defense mechanism, the only thing that kept him from falling apart. And being nice to Matt Gross made me feel Special. I felt l was like Atticus Finch standing up to the mob in To Kill a Mockingbird, or Jesus, or perhaps just the son my parents always wanted to raise.
And he was bad. How bad? I want you to picture a large, large boy, with tight cropped wiry hair, dressed in light blue sweat-pants and a yellow hockey shirt, running down the hall with his arms up in the air, shouting “Yeah!! We’re the chosen people. Yeah!! Take that! We’re the chosen people, suckers!”
“Matt, stop. Shut up. What are you—“
“Just learned about it in Hebrew School. We’re the chosen people. Yeahhhhh! We’re the chosen people!”
I slink away. That time even I couldn’t bail him out.
On one occasion, after putting it off for months, I agreed to go for a sleepover at Matt’s. Sleepovers are usually the great joy of elementary and middle school. That feeling when your parents acquiesce, and say, “OK, you can sleep over at Jonathan’s Saturday night, but don’t stay up all night!” and you leap into the air like the Toyota commercial, or high-five Jonathan, and you think, holy shit, I have a whole night—no school, no deadlines—with my best friend. And then there’s a sleepover at Matt Gross’s house. Three brothers shouting all night. Noise–all this noise. No rest, me holding my pillow over my head, Matt and his brothers shouting and talking about the Weird Al concert they’re going to. So much shouting. I know I’ve never been to war, but I do think I know a little bit of what it’s like to survive a night in a trench that’s being shelled. When my dad picked me up, he noted that I looked terrible. I blinked at the sunlight and almost kissed the blue Volvo. My dad scruffed the back of my head.
“Sounds like this guy is something of a bull in a china shop. You heard that expression?”
I hadn’t. The morning after Matt Gross was where I learned that expression.
“You did a good thing, you know that?”
Growing up, you can trust that your parents will appreciate when you do something good—ace a test, do well in the gymnastics show, stick up for a kid who’s shouting out that he’s part of the Chosen people. And they are so proud of you, because you’re showing that you’re special. This is something you can’t do as much when you’re older. Your parents have other things to worry about than your nuggets of accomplishment. They have their own problems. Or, in the case of my parents, their own globe-trotting vacations on the Danube to plan. Which is great for them. But which means we have to find our sense of worth elsewhere. Like in ourselves. Ugh.