Mr. Smith was an old-fashioned cowboy. He wore tight Wranglers with a circle burned into the back pocket where he kept his snuff, and a big, shiny buckle on his belt. He was rarely seen without his hat and boots. His hat was usually white because he was a good guy.
Mr. Smith was my math teacher at Cache Middle School. I had him in the class right before lunch.
Cache, if you’ve never heard of it, is a small town not too far from Lawton. A single road runs through it. Its heyday has long gone, but you can still see the bones of old-fashioned ice cream shops, arcades, and pizza parlors—all shut down since Lord knows when.
Every day after Mr. Smith’s class, my classmates and I would head over to the high school cafeteria. We’d walk all the way past the old gym that looked like a rusty half-buried aluminum can in the ground. Eighth-graders got to eat with the big dogs.
But one day, I stayed behind in Mr. Smith’s classroom.
I stayed because I remembered a story he’d told us on the first day of class.
“I remember there was a group of kids pickin’ on a guy,” he’d said in his grizzly country accent. “They got to pushin’ him around and all that. Well, one of the boys in the group stepped up and stopped ‘em. You know what he said? Said, ‘Hey! You leave him alone!’ You know who that boy was?” He’d pointed at himself with his thumb. “That boy was me.”
* * *
“Hey faggot,” the familiar voice said cheerfully. “Where ya goin’?”
I didn’t say anything. I just kept my head down and kept walking. That was my strategy for survival. Just ignore them until they go away.
Justin was a big, husky guy. Corn-fed, they call it. He was a farmer’s son with broad shoulders, rosy, chubby cheeks, and hands like baseball mitts. Ric was a tall, slender kid. He wore the same John Deere shirt most days. People thought of him as the class clown. London was short and blond with a permanent grin on his face. He was from the city and clearly eager to attach himself to a group.
That’s the thing about small towns. If you’re new, good luck.
“What’s wrong faggot?” Ric asked while the big guy gave my chest a hard squeeze. The little one was laughing somewhere behind them. “Why don’t you want to talk to us? Aren’t we your friends? Huh? Don’t you want to be our friend?”
Starting around February, they waited for me every day outside of Mr. Smith’s classroom when I left to go to lunch. They’d put their arms around me, holding on to me just tight enough so that I couldn’t get away.
“What’s up faggot? Did you miss us?”
I never said a word back to them, even though my heart was pounding out of my chest. I kept my head down and walked on the sidewalk to the cafeteria, pretending, as best I could, that their arms weren’t hanging around my neck like a noose.
* * *
Justin hit me across the face with a hot dog wiener. It felt cold and wet on my cheek. I stared down into my lunch tray and acted like it hadn’t happened. There were three of them and only one of me.
“Do you like that?” He asked. “Huh? No? I thought you liked wieners. Don’t you like wieners, faggot?”
No matter what they said to me, they never left that word out. Not once. It had caught on with the rest of the kids and had become my name in school.
SOMETIMES I’D BANG MY HEAD INTO THE METAL PART OF THE TOILETS, HOPING THAT I’D KNOCK MYSELF OUT AND BE SENT TO A HOSPITAL.
“What are you doing faggot? Where are you going faggot? What’s the matter faggot?”
I became so desensitized to it that whenever someone said my real name it surprised me.
A teacher saw me get hit with the hot dog, but she didn’t say anything. None of them ever did. Some of them thought I deserved what I was getting.
Ms. Neal, my reading teacher, had told another class that “if I was going to be weird” then I should come to expect that sort of thing. I know she said that. Some of my classmates who had her were giddy to tell me she’d said it.
London pushed my books down in front of the Spanish teacher one time.
“You guys quit that,” she’d said, almost jokingly. She really liked those kids. She had them in class.
* * *
I clutched my books tight to my chest as I walked to Mr. Smith’s desk. He was grading papers.
“Mr. Smith?” I said quietly. He looked up at me.
“W’atcha need?” he said.
“They’re waiting for me,” I said even more quietly. “Do what now?” he said.
Mr. Smith was a good guy. He wore a white hat. He’d told us before that if he caught any of us picking on someone that he’d put a stop to it. I believed him, too.
But then, after hearing his country accent and re-examining his old-fashioned getup, I panicked. I saw, in that moment, the people who were bullying me. I left his room.
I still wonder what would have happened if I had spoken up.
* * *
I was failing two subjects. I didn’t care about grades or attendance anymore. I was either in survival mode or thinking of ways I could die.
Every morning on the way to school, I felt like throwing up. There was a perpetual knot in my stomach. Every little sound made me jump. Voices coming down the hall elicited such a panic in me that I felt like running away.
I started spending lunch on the stage in the empty auditorium. I had to sneak away from everyone else to get there. The floor was always dirty and it was dark, but it felt safe.
I’d take bathroom breaks during class to get away from everyone. Sometimes I’d bang my head into the metal part of the toilets, hoping that I’d knock myself out and be sent to a hospital. I beat myself with my fists at home. I cried into my pillow. I thought of the gun underneath my parents’ bed.
* * *
I remember pressing the gun to the side of my head and being surprised at how heavy it felt in my hand, like the iron core of a little planet.
Shooting myself wasn’t turning out to be as easy as I’d imagined it to be. My hand was shaking. Was the gun even loaded? Would it fire if I pulled the trigger? I wasn’t sure. My resolve began to weaken. I thought of my parents. I thought of my sister.
Growing up in the Oklahoma countryside, of course my family had guns. But I’d never handled one except for the time my dad had taken me out to the creek behind the house and had me shoot a log in the water. Back then, even while he was watching me, it had felt like I had a rattler by the tail. I was so afraid of it reaching back and biting me somehow.
Tears were rolling down my cheeks. I knew if I put the gun down then, I wouldn’t do it at all.
* * *
“Boys will be boys,” Principal Hoffman told my mother on the phone when she called. She was concerned for me.
If there was one person in the faculty who I believed actually, really hated me, it was Principal Hoffman. She knew exactly what was going on, but never did a thing to stop it.
My parents would have stopped it if they knew the extent of what was happening. But I couldn’t tell them. I was too ashamed. I didn’t know how to tell them without admitting I was gay, and in Cache, being gay was the worst thing you could be.
Boys will be boys.
I used to go to football games with my classmates. I sat with them on the concrete bleachers on cold November nights. I’d gone to the buffalo auctions where we ate burgers and listened to the auctioneer rattle off numbers. I’d decorated the pickup trucks with red and white streamers for the homecoming parade with them and ridden in the truck bed with my feet hanging off the back.
I did whatever they did without thinking too much about it. We were all Oklahoma kids. I was just part of the way of life there.
There were times I wondered, when did I suddenly become different and when exactly did they learn to hate me?
I never got a satisfying answer. Just “boys will be boys.”
* * *
I hugged my mother tightly, sniffling into her blouse.
She said she had taken a teaching job at a high school in Lawton and that, even though I didn’t live in the district, I could go to school there.
She promised me I wouldn’t have to go back to Cache. I used to think Cache was the whole world. I’d traveled outside of it before, but still. When you’re young, you think wherever you live is everything.
Originally published in This Land, Vol. 5 Issue 1. Jan. 1, 2014.