Do you ever wonder about somebody from back in your school days . . . and how they turned out?
Probably the one I’ve wondered about the most is Bub. A bully.
Because of what somebody said about him.
By the way, Bub is not his real name, and all the other names you’ll read have been changed to protect the guilty, the innocent and those whom we’re not sure about.
But there’s no doubt about this: Bub was an elementary school legend.
All through the fourth and fifth grades, I would hear stories about him.
Whether true or embellished by excitable young minds, the tales were fear-inducing, such as the one in which he beat up a kid beside a wall, grabbed hold of a hand, and rubbed the back of it up and down on the rough brick until all the skin was scraped off.
The legend comes to life
Have you ever walked into a place and seen something so unexpected that a shock goes through you?
That’s what I got the first day of sixth-grade class.
Having heard descriptions of Bub, I knew it was him sitting at a desk on the far side of the room, near the back.
‘Oh, crap!’ I thought. ‘How is this going to go?’
You can’t help it. You automatically wonder if you’re going to be one of his victims.
To be such a scary bully . . .
. . . he must have been bigger than anyone else, right?
Bub was average in height, but hefty, chunky, with reddish hair over a pale, round face that had some freckles and blubbery lips.
Academically, he was not one of the “smart kids.”
Personality? Not known for any, unless implied menace counts.
Put it all together, and there was nothing to recommend wanting to hang around him.
I become the Book Whisperer
Here’s something you need to know, because it will tie me to Bub.
Miss Havisham, the teacher, said you had to make book reports standing in front of the class, and you would be graded on how many you gave during each six-weeks grading period.
The thing is, she didn’t want the chore of keeping a record of which kids gave reports. Instead, each six weeks she was going to pick a different student to have that responsibility and keep a record for her of who reported on what.
She laughed when telling us about a record keeper in a prior year. He was caught charging kids a nickel to give book reports because there were always more hands raised than time available in a session.
When the second six-weeks period rolled around, Miss Havisham rotated me into the job. I guess I did it too well, because when my time was up she said I had it permanently.
But I didn’t mind, because I was a bookworm.
It gets wild after lunch
There’s something else you need to know.
Every day after lunch, to help us rest our stomachs full of government-provided cafeteria food, Miss Havisham held a freewheeling, two-way conversation with the class.
It was great, because we didn’t talk about boring school stuff.
Instead, she often brought up scary things such as how her daughter was having trouble sleeping after reading a story about a man who had tiny heads popping out of his arms.
Of course, that encouraged my fellow intellectuals to share something gross, like the time Marty said there was a story in the newspaper about a little kid who picked his nose so much that one day he died because he had picked all his brains out.
Miss Havisham didn’t say it wasn’t possible, so for us it had to be true, and it probably slowed down some index fingers for a while.
Hey, with stuff like that to entertain you, it’s no wonder Miss Havisham was the most popular sixth-grade teacher.
I wasn’t surprised by what he did
One day, I missed school because of a stomach upset. When I came back, the other kids told me that Bub had beat up Ricky.
I wasn’t surprised. It was expected.
You see, a couple of weeks earlier Ricky had come to school sporting an oversize belt buckle that depicted a rodeo cowboy on a bucking bronco.
I guess he thought it was pretty cool, but at recess it gave Bub something to disparage; and once he started on a kid, he didn’t stop. Day after day, it went on until Bub caught Ricky after school.
So, on the day I came back to class, we had a new after-lunch topic when Miss Havisham asked . . .
‘Can’t somebody beat up Bub?’
Yep, our teacher figured it was time to do something about the bully of the school.
Every class has a smartass, and ours was Jerry. He answered Miss Havisham’s question by running down a list of six boys who had the physical attributes that would allow any one of them to “pound Bub into the ground.”
It was like listening to a play-by-play sports announcer.
Miss Havisham did not appoint any specific boy to do the deed. I suppose she expected that at least one of the lads on Jerry’s honor roll would take the initiative to perform a community service.
I don’t know how Bub regarded the teacher’s plea or Jerry’s analysis of potential ass-kickers. He just sat at his desk, impassive. For a good while, though, he stopped picking on kids during recess.
I get an amazing surprise
As for me, I was in book nerd heaven, bringing new books to the class from the bookmobile, calling on kids to give book reports, and turning in a weekly record to Miss Havisham.
What I tried to do was give everyone a fair chance. No favoring the boys over the girls. No favoring the more popular kids over the less popular.
Then one day, a strange arm popped up.
I couldn’t have been more surprised if the arm had heads coming out of it.
Bub was raising his hand. I thought maybe he had to go to the bathroom.
Nope, he wanted to make a book report.
I called on him to see what would happen
Perhaps he would whack that wise-ass Jerry with the book while walking past him.
No such excitement.
Instead, Bub walked to the front of the class, faced us, held up the book, told us about the plot, and gave his critical opinion of what he had read.
It was amazing.
Wait, don’t get me wrong.
As a report, it was no better and no worse than many other book reports. It was amazing because of who was giving it.
Anyway, from then on, when it was time for book reports, I wasn’t surprised when one of the hands in the air was Bub’s.
I find out why Bub beats up kids
One day, out in the neighborhood, I was walking by the movie theater parking lot. Boys with bicycles were crowded around a man pulling newspapers out of a car’s trunk.
I hung around to watch him hand the newspapers to the boys who then stuffed them in canvas carrying bags.
One of the boys was Bub. Next to him was Ricky.
Nobody paid attention to me, so I walked up closer.
After getting his quota of newspapers, I heard Bub recommend Ricky to the man, who said he would give Ricky a paper route when one opened up.
I was puzzled.
You see, I’d heard in the past that Bub was nice to kids after he beat them up, but I didn’t believe it. I mean, it’s so out of character for a bully.
Also, at school, I’d noticed that Bub no longer picked on Ricky at recess, but actually talked and joked with him.
That’s when I had an epiphany.
I realized that beating up kids wasn’t really about Bub wanting to be mean.
What he wanted was a friend, even if he had to beat you up to get one.
I become a social worker
For a while, Bub took a breather from making friends his way, but he didn’t stop making book reports.
In fact, he raised his hand more often than anybody else.
As I said earlier, it wasn’t possible to squeeze in all the kids in the time allotted. But on the days when Bub raised his hand, I would call on him.
Was I trying to buy favor from him, to insulate myself from being his next victim? Nope, that never occurred to me.
You see, I felt like a social worker. If this kid was trying to do better — at least through book reports — I was going to encourage that effort.
So, I called on Bub disproportionately.
And then, for doing what I thought was a good deed . . .
I’m accused of graft
Here’s how it happened.
It’s book report time.
Bub raises his hand.
I call on him.
“How many nickels is Bub paying you?”
That came from Jerry the smartass.
If you recall, he was alluding to Miss Havisham’s story about a record keeper who charged kids a nickel to give a book report.
Jerry the smart-aleck is now grinning like a fool as he looks around at the rest of the kids to see how many are laughing at his witticism.
I didn’t see the humor.
“He hasn’t paid me anything!”
Even a bookworm has his limits. I stand up from my desk and head toward Jerry on the other side of the room.
Miss Havisham looks frightened. She scurries around her desk to block me, then herds me back to my seat.
I guess she didn’t want to lose my book report services.
Miss Havisham tops herself
Aside from that real-life excitement, the best part of each day continued to be Miss Havisham and the class sharing weird, amazing and scary stories after lunch.
One day, she told us how she kept her teeth really clean — she brushed them with baking soda. She said it tasted horrible, but it did a much better job than toothpaste. She also described how the baking soda made her gag to the point of vomiting.
After that pleasantry, the conversation veered around to Bub. He had gone back to picking on kids during recess.
Miss Havisham seemed annoyed that none of the boys who physically outmatched Bub had taken him on.
The fact is they were all nice guys who weren’t interested in fighting. They just wanted to have fun playing sports, not beat someone up.
Realizing that her call to arms would never be answered by anyone in our class, Miss Havisham sighed and said, “Oh, well, we all know Bub is going to wind up in the electric chair.”
No one said anything
I didn’t look at Bub to see how he took it.
Instead, I just stared at Miss Havisham.
What if she said that about you?
How would you take it?
I mean, if your teacher says something about you when you’re eleven years old, you’re probably going to wonder if it might be true.
Miss Havisham never said it again, and we kids never talked about it among ourselves.
It was too powerful a statement.
You keep on wondering
I started this post by wondering if I might become one of Bub’s victims.
I also wondered why Bub suddenly wanted to make book reports. As far as I know, he didn’t tell anybody.
The biggest wonder, though, is whether Miss Havisham’s prediction came true, or if Bub’s penchant for book reports signaled a different course for his life.
I don’t know, because after that school year I moved far away.
The only thing I know for sure is that during the rest of the sixth grade, Bub kept raising his hand, and I kept calling on him.
QUESTION: Who have you wondered about from your school days?
Good post, Phil. You always have something interesting. When I was in Grade 8, there was a boy who kept getting in trouble with the law. That was back in the 50s when that sort of thing in a small city was uncommon. I have no idea what became of him. Hopefully he straightened out, but who knows. I didn’t know anything about his family life except that he had a brother. He got the strap more than anyone else, too.
Your comment reminded me of a smart-aleck in my Grade 8 classes. He was always trying to mess up someone else . . . even had a little group of henchmen (i.e., dumb-cluck followers).
I wonder if he got straightened out after his dad got tired of his antics and shipped him off to military school.
Great post Phil – I was riveted. Partially bc you started off with a photo that was so much like one I have from that era, I checked it over carefully to see if I was in it somewhere. We probably all have a bully story, unfortunately. I think you have the nucleus for a great short story (or even longer) here. That teacher – at times she was a bigger bully than Bub. Poor kid.
Thank you, Lissa. By the way, I did the same thing, looking to see if I was in the photo and thought, hey, there I am . . . but then remembered that I was on the front row, not in the back. As for the teacher, I’ve never fathomed how she could say what she did.
Two very unlikely allies and an unconventional method of behavioral management. Great story, Phil!
Thank you, Naomi!