I am 14 and have just started high school—an all-boys public school that is a long subway ride away from my neighborhood. Nothing is familiar anymore and nobody knows who I am. The juniors and seniors look to me like full-grown men—some of them even have scraggly beards. I'm still a long way from shaving or from anything else that might signal manhood. I want to be invisible—but soon learn that will not be possible. The seniors are all over us, taunting and teasing. Sometimes pushing and punching. The smaller, weak-looking boys get the worst of it. Hazing, they call it. Everybody seems OK with it, even the teachers, like it's some sort of funny game.
During phys. ed. class, I get my first real taste. Gym classes are all mixed together, freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors. Today, we are playing softball on a hard-packed dirt field, and I'm feeling pretty good about the game. I've already gotten two singles, and am now at bat for my third time. I've always been good at sports. I hit the first pitch deep to left field and start running, head down. The left fielder has to chase the ball all the way to the fence, by which time I'm rounding third and heading home, my team cheering me on. As I get close to the plate the catcher, a heavy-set senior boy, stands up to block my path and I have no choice but to run smack into him. I go down, scraping my leg across the rocky dirt. The catcher barely budges. Just stands there above me, grinning, waiting for the ball to finally get to him so he can tag me out.
Fuck him, I think, and scramble to my feet to try and tag home. The asshole pushes me aside, but then some guys on my team run out and push him away and I score the run. As I head back to the side of the field, I look down at my leg and see below my gym shorts, that my whole leg is scraped up and bleeding. It looks like a hunk of raw steak. I almost start crying, but catch myself. You don't cry at an all-boys high school. But the fat catcher has already seen the look in my eye, and grins. "Hey, come here, frosh," he says to me. "Let me take a look at that." And then when I walk over to him, he bends over, grabs up a handful of dirt and gravel and tosses it at my cut up leg. The gravel sticks all over the wound, caught up in the blood. "There, that'll fix it," he says. A bunch of the other boys start laughing.
I don't know what the hell to do. He's way too big to fight. And nobody else seems to give a shit, so I just walk away again, and sit down on the bench. I start picking the gravel out of my leg.
The next time I have to deal with this hazing stuff is with my friend Paul Blaze. Well, he's sort of my friend. It's more like I've decided to look out for him. Paul is like this very smart kid, who doesn't have the first clue about how to act around other kids. Maybe it's because he's skinny and stutters, so he's been picked on probably his whole school life. And, to top it off, he looks like a little old man. His hair is thin on top, he walks stooped over, and he wears coke-bottle thick glasses. Now here he is at Central High School, which is supposed to be this big deal, where only the smartest kids from around the city are admitted. And Paul thought that maybe here, for once, he'd be safe. But Central is just as bad, if not worse, than any regular high school when it comes to teasing and bullying. Maybe it's because without any girls around, the boys don't feel like they have to hold anything back.
"I don—don—don—don't know what to do," Paul says to me. "Wha—wha—why won't they la—la—leave me alone?" We're in the same Latin class during third period, and since Paul and I are the only ones to answer any of Dr. Sandstrom's questions, we naturally start hanging out together. I felt kinda sorry for him, but I didn't know what to tell him. I was having my own problems. Unlike Paul, I wasn't at all sure I was really smart enough to be at Central. I'd never had to study before. Didn't even know how to do it, but knew that if I didn't I'd be booted out. And my parents would be VERY disappointed in me. My mother had already told me as much. "I expect you to be on the honor roll, Butch. If you want to get into medical school, you need to get all A's."
Paul Blaze, though, he's a damn genius. He's already taking college algebra and physics. He helps me with my geometry. It all comes easy for him, but he explains the problems carefully, so as not to make me feel stupid. I like Paul for that.
"Just be cool," I finally tell him. "You can't act like you're scared or they'll just keep messing with you. It's like when a dog knows you're scared of it."
"What is?" Paul is looking more pasty today than usual.
"The dog, man. If it knows you're scared, it barks louder, and maybe even bites your ass."
"I ca—ca—ca—ca—can't act like I'm suh—something I'm not."
"Yeah, you can. Everybody has to do it. Nobody's who they really are."
Paul looks doubtful. "I've got—got an idea," he says.
"OK. I can't stand the suspense. Tell me."
"No, you'll have to wa—wa—wait and see."
"Till tomorrow," Paul says, and smiles for the first time in as long as I've known him.
When I first see Paul the next day, I know something is out of whack. He is twenty feet ahead of me in the basement corridor where we have our lockers. There is a whole crowd of kids around him and I can hear a lot of excited jabbering. I hurry to catch up, and push my way through the circle of mean-faced boys. Paul won't even look at me when I get next to him; it feels like he doesn't even notice me. He is bent over at the waist, even more so than usual, and his right hand is stuck out in front of him, belt high and is making a continual circular motion, and there's some sort of odd squawking noise going on, like static from a radio. I can't tell where it's coming from, especially with all the noise from the surrounding boys.
"Paul, what the hell is going on?" I say. But he won't look at me. He's moving ahead at this very slow pace, the hand going round and round, first finger pointing down. Then one of the boys gives Paul a hard push on the shoulder. Paul squeals, a terrible sound, though not one that seems to come from pain. In fact, Paul's expression has not changed one bit. I grab the boy who has pushed Paul and spin him around. "Cut it out," I yell. "Leave him the fuck alone."
"I'm not doing anything," the kid says. "He wants us to push him. It knocks the needle off the track." All the boys laugh. And before I can stop him, another kid pushes Paul. He stumbles forward and the squealing noise comes again. This time, I think I recognize what it sounds like. I try to get Paul's attention, and grab his arm. Out comes the squeal, metallic and loud.
"Hey, you knocked the needle off the record," a kid with a shock of red hair tells me.
"Yeah, man," another kid says, "Don't you like music?" Then he pushes Paul's arm and I watch as it skitters back and forth, like the needle arm on an old fashioned record player. When his arm settles back into position, Paul keeps walking, bent over, and making the staticy sound, which I now realize is supposed to be like classical music. All the boys are following him down the hall, laughing, and pushing him along and shouting.
"Hey Paul, play Elvis."
"You gotta put a quarter up his ass if you want music."
"What a retard."
It's a terrible thing, like my friend is being attacked by a pack of hyenas. I can't take it any more and run after them, and grab Paul out of their circle, dragging him away towards an empty classroom. He is squealing like a pig now, or I guess the record is squealing. The boys are yelling at me to leave him alone. Like I'm the one who's torturing him.
When I get Paul into the classroom and slam the door closed behind us, I turn to him. He still won't look at me and stays bent over, doing the dumb ass thing with his right hand, making the squeaky music noise. "Shut the hell up!" I scream. I am so angry. Even though I don't know why. "Why are you doing this? Letting everybody push you around. You're just asking for it."
"I'm a rec—rec—rec—record player," Paul says. And spins his hand around in circles.
"Cut it out. You're talking to me now. You don't have to put on a show."
"So?" Paul looks up at me for the first time. "What do you na—na—na—know about anything."
"I know I stopped your skinny ass from getting beat to shit."
"You don't na—know any—anything at all," Paul says. His voice is quavery, though not like he's going to cry. It's more like he really has something he wants to say. "You can buh—be who you are. I ca—ca—can't do that. You sh—sh—shitball."
I can't help laughing, which I know immediately is not the right thing to do. Paul comes flying at me, fists swinging in the air, like a crippled windmill. I try to wrap him up in my arms, but can't get a hold of him. Some of his punches are landing on my chest and shoulders, but they don't hurt much. "Fucker," Paul yells. "Dirty fucker."
"It's OK," I say. "I'm sorry, Paul. Really." He is starting to wear down, though still swinging his skinny arms. Then I do manage to grab hold of him and pull him in next to me. "Everything is going to be OK," I tell him again. And let him cry against my chest. "It is, man. It's all going to be OK." Though I know it's not true. Not for Paul and not for me.