He was a small boy, almost elf like in appearance. Short, skinny, with a mop of dark, scraggly waves atop his head. His eyes were dark and sunken, almost vacant, sinking into his face making his nose seem even pointer and more elf like. He was foreign, as many of the kids at my school were, Russian or some eastern European. He both stood out and sunk into the background.
We were typical 15-16 year olds, giggling girls, jocks, drama and band geeks. A perfect cross section of our high school. All unwitting participants in sophomore gym class. Sophomore gym was co-ed, non-elective. Which means we did things that the curriculum writers decided were life skills we all had to know to be functioning adults in society. Like pickle ball.
This particular week it was square dancing. We lined up on either side of the gym in our royal blue polyester shorts, equally un-flattering on everyone. Our heathered blue tees with our names written across our chest, labeling us and drawing attention to the vast differences in our bodies.
We were put into groups, partnered up by our instructor. No say by us, to be fair, no warning of the ugliness it would create. The little elfin boy was in my group. I honestly don’t remember who else. Friends, peers, people deemed cool and “normal”.
Sophomore year is a hard year. The anticipation of driving, the hormones, all the changes in mind and body. Some of us still stuck in the awkward weirdness of puberty while others were already walking confidently in new adult bodies. This mix would have been volatile if we were gathered of our own choice and activity, but in the pressure cooker of sophomore gym it was ugly
We didn’t want to dance, to hold hands, to dosey doe or swing your partner. The poor elfin boy, either from nerves, or upbringing, or genes had an odor that couldn’t be hidden. To add cruelty on top of cruelty his small pale hands were sweaty and cold making them clammy and reptilian.
The girls whispered and mocked, refused to hold his hand. As the week wore on it only got worse. The teacher oblivious to the torture, the pain in the boy's eyes. The last day of square dancing should have been a celebration, especially for the boy, and end to the embarrassment and torture.
There was no excitement in the air on that last day, no quiet chatter, just stolen looks among mean girls. As we assumed our positions and the music started the girls exchanged looks and out they came, latex surgical gloves.
I don’t remember what happened. Just a sad vacant look in a boys eyes. The mean giggles of girls.
I wish I can say I was an observer that I fell to peer pressure. I wish I could say that I stood up for a poor outsider.
I wish I could any any other word than ringleader.
This was written as part of a recent memoir writing circle and edited with the group. If you would like to join in these intimate, online, writing groups we just announced new dates, the fill up fast so sign up today!