This is the story of a boy.

There was a boy, named Jack, who hung out with a group of friends from his neighborhood. They all did many things together, and Jack had a lot of fun doing them. For the most part, they did not do things to get into trouble, but that didn’t make them any less fun. His friends liked to kid each other, but it was something that they all did to each other, except Jack. He had always been kind of shy, so he did not have the courage to say things about the others, even if it was a joke. Years passed, and Jack increasingly became the focus of the group’s jokes. At first he tried to tell himself that it all was just a joke and not something that he should take personally. After a while he began to believe some of what they said. He would be the last to be picked for games, and they would make jokes about how he couldn’t do this or that. Then they would play and Jack would do well, but that didn’t stop the comments. The substance of the comments changed, but not the comments. More time passed and the things the group did for fun stopped being completely harmless. Jack found himself excluded from more and more of the group’s activities, in part by choice and in part by exclusion. This too he took personally. The hardest part of it was that he really liked, respected and even looked up to the other members of the group, before he became the focus of their “jokes.” They were the only friends he had, and everyone knew it.

They all went on to high school, and their lunch routine at school devolved into long sessions about what was wrong with Jack; sessions that Jack sat in on. They did not offer much in the way of constructive criticism. It was all done for entertainment, and Jack was left with the bill. He dreaded going to school because he hated lunch. He grew to hate the other’s company, but he didn’t know who else would be his friend. Why it did not occur to him that they were not his friends either is beyond me. I think he feared the awkwardness of eating lunch alone more than he feared the jokes at his expense, so he stayed. One day they all came over to his house to play football, something they had done more than anyone could remember growing up. However, this time they did not end up playing football. They somehow thought it was funny to taunt Jack’s mother and younger sisters. They spent the better part of half an hour running in and out of the house, carrying on like a group of wild creatures. Jack’s mother screamed at them to leave. Jack’s sisters were hysterical. His friends thought it all was hilarious, and it fed their enthusiasm like gasoline on a fire. Jack sat out side and listened to his mother’s screams. He just sat there, not knowing what to do. The others kept at it until the danger of Jack’s father coming home from work became too great, and they left. Jack felt responsible. He hadn’t taken part in the torment, but the others were there only because of him. The guilt, shame, and anger (both at his “friends” for doing it and at himself for not intervening) weighed on him heavily, perhaps rightly so.

Shortly thereafter, he was sitting at lunch, at school, and everyone was discussing how much fun the afternoon at Jack’s house had been. The one known as BJ said something cruel to him and he snapped. He rose suddenly and threw a punch at BJ. He was angry, but even in his angry state he did not really want to hurt the other boy, even if he thought he could (he didn’t). BJ chuckled nervously at Jack, and everyone else erupted in laughter. Jack sensed that his outburst would come to be more fuel on the fire, so he got up and left. He never went back. You should know that throwing that punch really meant something. You may be thinking that a school fight is no extraordinary event, in the grand scheme of things. You would normally be right but you should know that, as far as I know, this was the first and last time that Jack resorted to physical violence of any kind in public.

What I want to know is, what brings people to be so mean to other people? You might say that they were just kids, but is our capacity to empathize completely undeveloped at 15? Much worse things happen to people when they are growing up. Jack’s parents were loving, caring people – they did not physically abuse him. He did not have to overcome horrible illness as a child. And yet, if you know Jack, knowing this helps to explain the kind of person he is today.

I know Jack thinks about them all every now and again. He wonders what happened to all of them. He wonders why they turned on him. Did he make an easy victim? Was he partly to blame? I wonder if the others ever think of him. I wonder if they have come to regret the later years, if they miss his friendship, the one they threw away.

I was driving to work today when this story took me down memory lane. I hope you don’t mind my decision to share. I just hope you’ll be carefull about the little comments we somethimes make at each other’s expense. Sometimes it’s just a joke, but not everyone always takes it that way.