Bullying. There, I said it.
I just read a pretty decent article titled “Are Depressed Kids Bully Magnets?” The article is (obviously) about the possible link between depression and bullying. It doesn’t deal specifically with LGBT kids, but… c’mon. The author questions whether kids become depressed because they’re bullied or whether they’re bullied because they’re depressed. After all, the author reasons, a sad, downer kid crying in the corner is a pretty easy target.
If you have any connection to LGBT youth, you’ve probably already made mental connections between bullying and depression… and being gay and depression… and being gay and bullying… and have already realized how all these ingredients can mix together into a pretty nasty cake.
After reading the article, I was reminded of a short story I wrote a few years ago about an “extra credit kid.” (Hopefully) it raises some questions not only about the need each of us has for someone to look beyond our ordinary and see something special, but also about our ability to bounce back when they don’t.
And so, because I think it somehow relates to our larger conversation of the LGBT experience, I present…
When the boy was ten, his 5th grade teacher used the hour after lunch to teach her class the beautiful language of the deaf. Even though everyone in the class could hear – even though they all listened to their radios at home and turned their TVs louder than their mothers would have liked – this particular over-achieving educator wanted her class to know sign language. She wanted to teach their still innocent hands how to do something constructive. She wanted them to learn gestures that would communicate without offending the elderly.
The children loved their sign language lessons. Once, during a silent game of Ring Around the Rosie, they even got so rowdy that the teacher had to remind them to use their inside hands.
After the first week of learning to speak with silent words, the boy told his teacher that his mother was deaf. He said that everyone in his family knew how to use sign language. He had been doing it for years. Sometimes, before bed, he even used his hands to read out loud to his mother.
“But not the Bible,” he said. “All the whosoevers and wherefores make my knuckles crack.”
The teacher was amazed. Like an exotic exchange student from a quiet and faraway land, the boy was a native who already knew the language. He was a natural tutor. In a moment of instructive genius, the teacher offered bonus points to any child who spent time with the boy whose hands could talk.
He was the extra credit kid.
Within hours of the teacher’s edict, the extra credit kid became the most popular kid in class. His lunch table was always full. His seat was always saved. He never spent recess jumping rope by himself. He was extra credit.
Every afternoon The Extra Credit Kid leapt off a bus full of new friends, eager to tell his mother how popular he was at school. With exhausted fingers, he bragged about how everyone wanted to spend time with him because he was good at something. Because he knew something. Because he could do something no one else could.
Because he was extra credit.
The teacher asked The Extra Credit Kid to keep a journal of the time he spent with friends from their class. She wanted to be fair when she assigned extra points. The Extra Credit Kid soon noticed that he was invited to lots of birthday parties and sleepovers, but only on nights before the teacher tallied progress reports or just after difficult math tests. He played lots of video games with the lazy kids, but was never spoken to by the smart ones who had stars next to their names on the bulletin board.
In March, everyone celebrated The Extra Credit Kid’s birthday by singing Happy Birthday with their hands.
In April, his class took a special trip to a school where the children couldn’t hear. The Extra Credit Kid ate lunch at a table full of deaf kids and told a joke so well that a boy almost choked on his peas. Everyone from The Extra Credit Kid’s class turned around to look. The rest of the cafeteria hadn’t heard a thing.
In May, everyone waved goodbye to each other and promised they’d play together at the swimming pool.
In June, when school was over, the Extra Credit Kid’s new friends stopped returning his calls. His hands, once limber from telling jokes and stories, grew lazy and fat. Summer vacation wasn’t nearly as much fun as the school year had been.
The sixth grade was even more disappointing than the summer. His new teacher, Mrs. Espinoza, had severe arthritis and wasn’t interested in sign language. She wanted to teach the children Spanish. The Extra Credit Kid had never been to Spain. For a month he spent the hour after lunch memorizing conjugations with his hands folded politely in his lap.
It was hard crossing from extra back to ordinary. It always is.
During the seventh grade The Extra Credit Kid learned to play the trombone.
In high school his hands were often busy, but with a new sign language that involved him talking mostly to himself.
The Extra Credit Kid eventually went to college and found a job and became a man.
After a while, the man almost forgot that he had ever been extra credit.
But then, when his mom visited, they would sit together and tell stories with their hands. And laugh. And he would remember.