Virginia Real magazine
The real  Virginia, old and new
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Page 16

The Lost Classmate

A memoir of school bullying and selective memory

                                                By Harry Henson 

       Recently, I came across a high school yearbook with photos of my eighth-grade class. I was astonished by how much hair I then had, because I have very little now.

       That hair was startlingly red and curly, and went with a face that was a rash of freckles. I was attending a new school, among a horde of new students, and if you know anything about 13-year-old boys, you know the reaction all that provoked.

       I was picked on -- but not to the extent that the other red-headed kid in the class received. This was in an insular, rural county during the late 1960s. That boy was an outsider whose family recently moved to the area. A friend has described the response of some students to this poor kid as like that of a pack of dogs who attacked him on sight for no reason. Certain boys seemed to believe that when they beat him up, it gave them status in the eyes of their peers.  

       An interesting sidelight to this case is that at the same time another outsider family also moved to the area, and the response of the kids was completely different to them. Those new kids were blond, Aryan looking and athletic. The bullied kid and I were red-headed and Irish looking, and I, at least, was not at all athletic. So it seemed to be open season on us.

       I had the advantage that my family had been in residence in the area for generations, and I had friends.

       That other red-headed boy had nothing.

       After a few weeks, I got fed up with my own much more minor harassment and punched the most obnoxious of my tormenters. Realizing I would fight if pushed too far, the thugs left me alone. They were typical bullies.  

        Unfortunately, the other kid had the whole pack after him, and he could not fight back.

       Eventually, a gang of the goons attacked him at a football game and beat him unmercifully. His parents removed him from the school.

        Forty-two years having passed, I became curious about this young man's later fate. I wanted to contact him.

       How do you locate somebody after nearly two generations, somebody you can't even recollect having spoken to, and whose name, if you ever knew it, you have long forgotten? Fortunately for him, he was only at that school for about six weeks. The few people I was still in touch with from the time did not remember his name either, although they all clearly remembered the way he was treated.

       The principal was in the telephone book, but when I called him, he claimed he did not recall the incident.

       The town librarian, when I mentioned the incident to her, immediately contacted several people from the class whom she knew, and they also, while remembering the case, could not recollect his name either.

       Other people from the class did not return calls. The school administration, while retaining records, now has everything digitalized and without a last name could access nothing. They have a list of students who withdrew, but those names are not referenced to the schools they attended or by dates withdrawn. At any rate, the records are confidential, and they could not give me any other information to confirm he withdrew in that year, and to do even that they of course needed a full name.

       I discovered a couple of people who rode on the same bus with the boy, where much of the bullying took place. Vaguely remembering that the local paper used to publish bus schedules, I checked the archives. No luck. I could find no schedules from that year.

       I did at last get a likely first name. Two people independently remembered that, while one thought he also recollected a last name.  

       A local family of that name did have red-headed kids among their kindred, and since only 1 percent of the world's population has red hair, that seemed to be a lead of sorts.

        It was another dead end. Nobody knew how to contact this family either. They were long gone.   My sister went to school with some of them, but she had not heard from them in years.

       Then I got in touch with another old classmate, and he gave me a completely different name.

       I haven’t given up. I may yet find out what became of him. My investigation did disclose that his long-ago classmates, including those who treated him very badly,  haven’t forgotten him. But I hope, for his sake, that he’s forgotten us.

Harry Henson is a writer in Richmond County.
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