Tony sits in the back corner of the class, sobbing. He’s contracted the nickname Weepy Tony.
Mrs. Peterson stops her history lesson. “What’s the matter, Tony?”
“Nobody likes me,” Weepy Tony says. “I don’t have any friends.”
The rest of the class snicker and tap their feet in concert. This tapping is a unified signal that one of them’s said or done something stupid or embarrassing like farted out loud or worn plaid pants or come into class with a stupid, new haircut or puked in the hall – when their return to class from the nurse’s station is a walk of shame. It’s their temporary scarlet letter of shoe tapping.
“Class, stop. Tony, we’ll talk at recess,” Mrs. Peterson says, then continues with the history lesson while the rest of the class randomly turn to clandestinely jeer and chortle at Weepy Tony as he smears tears all over his face.
At recess, Mrs. Peterson tells Weepy Tony, “We’ve gone over this how many times now? You have to do more than cry to make friends.”
“But I’ve tried,” Weepy Tony says. “I’ve got a stack of Astronomy magazines in my desk. I’m willing to share or read them with somebody else but nobody wants to.”
Then Tony breaks down into hysterics, sobbing and gasping for wind.
“Kids oughta like astronomy,” Weepy Tony blurts through hyperventilating.
“But most don’t. Most kids prefer comic books or dodgeball to Astronomy for Kids. That’s just the way it is, Tony. And recess is limited. It’s a limited time for everybody to choose how to have fun between lessons. Astronomy’s not everybody’s idea of fun.”
Weepy Tony pleads, “It’s Astronomy for Kids magazine, Mrs. Peterson. Doesn’t anybody get it? It’s for us. It’s our special magazine. It’s not even for the adults.”
He stares at Mrs. Peterson through blubbering eyes, straining for sympathy, but cold-hearted Mrs. Peterson doesn’t flinch.
“When I lose in dodgeball is makes me feel bad,” Tony cries.
“It makes everybody feel bad, Tony. You’re not the only one.”
“But when I lose at dodgeball and feel sad, nobody tries to make me feel better.”
“They don’t try to make anybody feel better, Tony. They just keep playing and trying to win the next time.”
“When I lose they call me names,” Tony cries. Before Weepy Tony stuck, his classmates’ insult was Tony the Retard – a play on the frosted flakes cartoon tiger.
Mrs. Peterson isn’t sure how or whether she can explain to a child the nuances of shame. She figures shame can be a motivator, causing the loser to try harder. It puts everybody on the same page of trying harder to win next time instead of just sitting around and moping about the loss. In that way, it’s sort of a mechanism of mutual support whereby everybody strives their hardest and, as a consequence, the quality of both the player and the game rises. In this sense, shame might have some positive utility. It’s the kind of thing that might make Tony a better parent someday or he might employ against a wife or his own child or co-worker if they’re found to be chronically slacking. In this way, the quality of the adult game rises as a result of skillfully and appropriately applied shame. On the other hand, shame can be used as a tool for pure humiliation or self-serving manipulation too. So shame, like most things, isn’t absolute. But how to explain that to a child? It was never explained to Mrs. Peterson. It just played itself out so she keeps what she knows would be a fumbling explanation of the utility of shame to herself in hope that it might simply play itself out for Weepy Tony as it did for her.
“Don’t you understand, Mrs. Peterson?”, Tony sobs.
“I do. But, you know, you could trying bringing in some comic books,” Mrs. Peterson suggests. “Batman and Spiderman are pretty popular.”
“But I don’t like comic books,” Weepy Tony says. “Or dodgeball.”
“Then I don’t know what say.”
“But I’m not a bad person, Mrs. Peterson.”
“Nobody thinks you are, Tony.”
Mrs. Peterson looks out the window to a group of her kids playing kickball. Instead of rolling, the pitcher bounces the dimpled, orange orb at Herman. Herman rushes the ball, kicks and misses – falling flat on his ass. Even his own team erupts in laughter. Herman gets to his feet and looks at his hands for signs of scraped skin from the pavement he’s just splattered himself on. No flaked skin or bleeding, just specks of tiny gravel stuck his palms, which he wipes away with a few brushes against his jeans. His teammates and the opposition are still mocking Herman. Mrs. Peterson can’t help but chuckle too.
Weepy Tony, noticing her attention outside, interrupts. “Maybe you could you announce in front of the class that I’ve got a bunch of astronomy magazines that I’d like to read with somebody during recess?”
“I don’t think that will help,” Mrs. Peterson says.
“Why not?”, Weepy Tony asks.
“Because all the kids in the class like different things. I’m guessing from his lunchbox and his drawings and from his show and tell that Carl really likes Dukes of Hazzard but I don’t single him out about it.”
“But Carl’s already popular.”
“Yes. And maybe that’s why, because he doesn’t ask to be singled out.”
Weepy Tony, upset that his teacher is so uncaring, bursts into hysterics again while Mrs. Peterson goes to her desk to grade. Between marks on math papers she imagines that maybe someday Weepy Tony will look back on all this with resentment at her for not encouraging his interest and pursuit of astronomy. Maybe’ll he’ll see her as merely a tool for getting everybody in line. But she understands that future grievance holds no weight, it doesn’t even exist, when one’s present is mostly satisfying. She figures even if he finds his place in astronomy, that future still won’t be satisfying without a whole lot more than just stars and planets and black holes.
She puts down her marker and sets those math papers aside to look out the window again. Herman must have been his team’s last out because he’s playing defense now. She thinks of Herman out there picking his embarrassed ass off the pavement to kick again and how there might really be something to that. How it’s what you do through a disappointing upbringing and divorce and death and accepting that some hopes and dreams are gone forever and aren’t ever going to happen. It’s what you do when you come to realize you’re vastly imperfect and, even while trying to improve, you always will be grossly imperfect. And with those necessary and gross imperfections, there’ll be plenty of unpleasant consequences- a tragic but inextricable union like between love and loss – all necessary conditions of the other’s existence. Sort of like there’ll always be death waiting at the end, but you can at least improve the quality of things until then and do what you can to stave it off for a few years instead of tomorrow, if you really want to. And with the disappointments and effort and hardships and the inevitability of your imperfections and death, with it all, you still pick yourself up and swipe the gravel from your palms and move on with new hopes and new plans.
And she’s both taught and lived long enough to see how this works in everybody, not just her students. Some people are just inclined toward being social while others aren’t. And though the competition and mindlessness of games are easy targets of scorn for the loner, what it really is is an unease, sometimes dislike, of cooperation – like a sickness that accompanies opening oneself up to ridicule or scorn, even when it’s deserved. It’s the sickness from being the potential star for just a minute and the sickness from all the ensuing boredom while all the other kickers get their deserved moment to shine. But some folks, Mrs. Peterson’s seen, need all the spotlight of the kicker all the time and, were they ever to find it, even then, if they slip on their ass, want only the adulation of being brave enough to try. But this never happens. All their time they go through life seeking out those who’ll give them that spotlight. And when they realize there aren’t those who’ll give it they’ll seek out the one. And when there isn’t a one, they’ll resign themselves to the bitterness of none because the world’s too mean and selfish to have created and easily given it.
Then Mrs. Peterson recalls how her nephew likes comic books. That’s where she got the stuff about Batman and Spiderman. She wonders if maybe he’s got some he’s tired of or doesn’t like.
“What if I brought in some comic books for you, Tony?”
If not the comic books, she thinks this special, individualized attention might, at least, help sooth and satiate Weepy Tony – that it might, somehow, become a new starting point.
“We’ll just have to keep it to ourselves,” she says.
But this offer hurts Tony even more than her previous distraction from his suffering. Obviously, she hasn’t heard anything he’s said about himself. Obviously, she doesn’t care enough to try to understand him in the slightest.
Tony raises his head from resting in his palms. “Thank you, Mrs. Peterson, but I told you I don’t like comic books.”
Then, with elbows on his desk, he places his eyes back in his palms as tears flow down his arms and the recess bell rings.