A Lesson From Eric: My Almost Friend

Hey guys! This is a story about bullying I wrote on my old blog page a few years ago. It’s since been used in local classrooms to educate students about the effects of bullying. I’ve recently been asked to share it LIVE at a local story-telling gathering called “The Hearth” on October 9th at the Klamath County Library. I’ll try to post more info on my Facebook page and twitter as it approaches.

Due to the subject matter, perhaps you could share this with a young person you know who is preparing to go back to school in the coming weeks. This could help them to not just be a bystander of bullying.

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“I come from a people who gave the Ten Commandments to the world. Time has come to strengthen them by three additional ones, which we ought to adopt and commit ourselves to: thou shalt not be a perpetrator; thou shalt not be a victim; and thou shalt never, but never, be a bystander.”

                                                                                  — Yehuda Bauer, Israeli historian

There was a boy in my fifth grade class named Eric.

The school year had barely started and it didn’t take long to figure out who would be at the bottom of the pecking order. Although I had my share of being on the receiving end of bullying throughout my elementary years, nothing came remotely close to the type of bullying that was directed toward Eric.

He wore coke bottle glasses, old ratty clothes and messy hair before it was hip. He had no friends. He sat alone. He wandered the playground alone. The highlight of his day was when he would find a quarter on the ground so that he could play a video game at the local gas station after school.

The kids at school were cruel. They would constantly shove Eric out of the lunch line, making him go to the back. I saw some kids spit at him. Other times they would grab his glasses and throw them to the ground. One boy, named Brent, would hit Eric multiple times while a few other girls and boys laughed and encouraged the bullying. Most of us just stood there.

I seem to remember the teacher would keep an extra comb for him in her desk so that on the days his hair was really a mess, she would dismiss him to go to the bathroom and comb his hair. Even worse, he always smelled bad. It was the kind of stench that makes your eyes water. Some days were worse than others. One day, the teacher had the janitor take Eric out of class to be bathed. Once Eric was out of the room, the teacher apologized to the rest of the class for having to put up with his stench. With tears in her tired eyes, she rebuked anyone who laughed, explaining it wasn’t his fault. However, I remember times when she would give in to scorning him as well.

In the weeks that followed, I noticed how Eric’s mom treated him when she picked him up from school. I saw the bruises, the broken glasses. Eric was regularly late for school and then there were days he didn’t show up at all, even though everyone knew he wasn’t sick.

When he was home, he was neglected and abused. When he was at school he was bullied and harassed. There was no end to his mistreatment, humiliation, and torment. He was only 11 years old. So was I. What could I do?

In the spring, my best friend, Mark, had the idea to make an effort to befriend Eric. For nearly a week or so, our little group of four friends made it our mission to reach out to him. We invited him to sit with us, hangout with us on the playground, or just talk. But he rejected us. He was already so withdrawn and beaten down he didn’t trust anyone. He even said he believed our efforts to be friends with him were only to take advantage and humiliate him even more.

Where were we when he needed us before? The school year was nearly over. Why did we wait until now to reach out? Where were we when Brent would punch him in the stomach? Where were we when those girls shoved him out of the lunch line, making him go to the very back? Where were we the numerous times the sixth graders grabbed his glasses and threw them on the ground? And even worse, where was I? I was merely an innocent bystander. But the words “innocent” and “bystander” don’t go as well together as we would like.

The school year ended and I felt I had failed. Not at school, but at being a friend. I couldn’t wait until the following year where I could start the year befriending Eric. I even considered inviting him to my house during the summer, but I wrestled with the fact that mine and my friends’ efforts to befriend him earlier in the spring were rejected. Regardless, I decided the following year would be different.

Not long into the summer, my mom read a story in our local newspaper that piqued her interest. She asked me if I knew a boy named Eric who was my age. “Yeah, he was in my class…Why? What happened?” She read me the article about a family who was playing at a nearby lake and the boy named Eric had drowned. After bursting into tears, it took me quite a while before I could tell my mom everything about him and what our fifth grade year was like. I don’t know why I waited so long to tell her, and I’m not sure if I could bring myself to tell her everything I was feeling at the time. It was too much regret and remorse for an 11-year old to process. Even writing this and thinking of Eric makes my eyes fill with tears and my heart is in my throat.

Over the years I’ve thought to myself. “What if the last year of his life on this planet wasn’t so terrible?” “What if I had befriended him sooner?” “Why didn’t I intervene sooner?” “Why did this have to happen like this?” I even remember thinking the horrifying thought that maybe this was the best thing considering how awful his life must have been.

***

I recently attended a class reunion, which was organized by a good friend. It has been over twenty years since Eric’s tragic death. Even though I had moved to another school after my fifth grade year, my friend insisted I attended the reunion anyway. I agreed, with hesitance. It is a small school and a tough group who didn’t have much in common. Most of my remembrances were painful and uncomfortable. Some of the attendees had memories which carried on through high school, while some of us sat on the edge of our seats secretly considering an early exit strategy.

Until the reunion at a local pizzeria, I hadn’t talked to any of my friends or former classmates about Eric, but I couldn’t help but wonder after all of those years if anyone else carried the shame and regret that I had.

That evening, I sat across from a man who looked familiar but I couldn’t place him. He explained how he had a rough life and was recently released from prison. The more he talked, the more familiar he became, but I still couldn’t place him.

Everything was going about as awkwardly as any class reunion when I finally asked, “Does anyone remember the kid in our fifth grade class…Eric?” The table went quiet. Everyone’s eyes grew bigger and a few even welled up with tears. And then a group of thirty-something’s began to share stories of how horrible they felt after that year. Some shared how they wish they would have stepped in. Then the biggest bully of all spoke up. Sitting directly across the table from me was Brent, who, while fighting back tears shared how often he had thought about how mean he was to Eric.

In fifth grade, it was easy to separate the bully from the bystander. But twenty years later, I didn’t feel that different from the guy across the table from me. Sure, he was the bully. He had made criminal choices that caused him to live many of his adult years in and out of jail. But in this moment, as our eyes locked and we shared about an eleven-year-old boy who was tormented, bullied, and picked on followed by a horribly tragic death, it didn’t matter who was the bully and who was the bystander. We felt the same regret about the situation. We both bared the scars of having somehow been a part of inflicting pain and injustice on a boy with a disheveled life and broken heart. We both grieved the loss of a young life that was taken too soon.

We all have an Eric in our lives. Either in our community, schools or workplaces, beautiful people like Eric are everywhere. Life has dealt them a difficult hand. They are abused, bullied, and victimized. How we respond to the Eric’s in our lives may not only bring light and life to their world, but change ours as well. Even if we aren’t the perpetrator of evil, being a bystander doesn’t make us innocent.

Although we all share scars of bullying and regret, we still have a life of pursuing justice before us. Now that we know better, we can do better. Our tongues have been said to have the power of life and death. Let us consider how we treat one another and how we respond to the injustices of this world. We can be the perpetrator, the bystander or the hero. Sometimes being the hero of the story is simply being a friend to the friendless. If you have nothing else to offer, your friendship can change someone’s entire world. Together, we can face the bullies on life’s playground and be the change we want to see.

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One thought on “A Lesson From Eric: My Almost Friend

  1. Jonathan this is so beautifully written, and so profoundly honest. I hope it will spread like wildfire and save many people’s dignity, potential abusers and victims. I miss your making me regular lattes! But I have found a little place to the side of the Anglican Cathedral that has been set up to train vulnerable women in sewing and restaurant work. It’s no bigger than a trailer, with lots of tables and folding chairs outside under big trees. It’s the only place in town that has “mzungu” food (for Europeans and Americans). And they make lattes! (ok, so they’re barely recognizable compared to what you used to make, but still!) Blessings, my friend!

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