I was a simple sixth grader, hanging myself along poles that formed a fence dividing the school from the strip mall. The ropes didn’t seem that tight. Joe grabbed me from my self-made death sentence.
It took a few seconds for him to untangle and loosen the ropes. There was a red mark near my Adam’s apple. Breathing was hard for a few minutes. No permanent damage though. Joe brought me into his antique shop.
Bullies. No one cared either. Mom was a single parent. Never with an answer—only a victim’s blank stare. Complaining to a counsellor at school about getting attacked did nothing. They’d say, “Tough it out.” Hard to tough it out when everyone wanted to give me a black eye. No one had the right to lay a hand on me.
Once while walking down a hallway to get a drink of water I was strangled from behind and dragged for what seemed to be miles. The teacher who found me gasping on the floor asked, “What did you do to instigate the fight? You need to practice tolerance.” That teacher always had a contrary attitude with me. It was always my fault according to her.
I would sit quietly at my desk taking notes and spitballs would hit the back of my head. My fault. Somehow I asked for the attention being ‘negative’ like she would say. I’d never smile. Never said anything. Never sat with anyone during lunch. Maybe I was intolerant? That’s why the kids attacked me every day.
Took her advice once and tried to make friends with some of the students. They pretended to be my friends and all jumped me at once. They laughed and laughed and laughed. Gave me scars on my arms from where they burned me with cigarettes. Started taking karate. Hitting back got me titles such as ‘bully’ and suspension trophies. Fighting back was pointless. Hurting others wasn’t the answer. Never wanted to anyway. Wanted to be left alone. Do my schoolwork. Read books. Watch TV between homework.
Wanted friends, but that seemed like a hopeless dream. Gave up on dreaming and faced the cold crippling reality that I’d be alone in this world forever. Not tolerant enough. Most of all, I needed to tough it out. My mom wouldn’t send me to another school. “Even Boot Camp’s fine. Just send me away.” Blank stare.
Decided to end my life after the last attack. I didn’t matter enough to live. That’s why they hurt me. Bought a rope from a tool store. Tied it to a pole and wrapped it around myself. Simple. Just tightened the rope, closed my eyes, and let my body drop. Didn’t feel as painful as imagined. Rope was surprisingly soft against my skin. Tough this out.
Then there was Joe: the tallest person in my life, releasing me. Watching over me with his worried fatherly gaze. Joe didn’t ask why or lecture me, just, “Need a job?” Got paid three-fifty an hour after school from then on. That’s a lot of pay for a kid, heck, better than minimum wage. The job involved dusting old furniture, watching for thieves, smiling. Joe had made smiling out to be the most important requirement.
Working took my mind off stuff. Bullies. Beatings. Backstabbers. It was easy to keep Joe happy. Stopped that attempted hanging mess and talked to him when sad. Ignored attackers at school. Stayed positive. Having something to look forward to helped block out the worst parts of my day. My dream even came true. Someone in my life listened to me. Someone really cared about me. A mentor and a friend rolled into one. Someone who didn’t say, “Tough it out”.
Worked for Joe throughout middle school, but after the eighth grade Joe had sold his store and moved away. Never saw him again. There were many more ‘nevers’ to come thanks to his influence. Never felt like killing myself because my friend showed me the value of life. Never was negative. Never discouraged others when they were down. Never ignored someone’s pain. Never let somebody hang. Never told another “Tough it out.” Nope. I’d give what I could, even if it was only my time, or three-fifty an hour.