Perry* did not belong. He was strange, socially awkward, and unattractive. His overweight body carried most of his extra fat in his gut. This is how he got the nickname “Pregnant Perry”. Kids can be quite clever in their cruelty.
Perry and I were in middle school together. For the most part, I didn’t have much to do with him. We had a few classes together, but we didn’t talk much. We weren’t really friends. Still, I was as polite to him as I would have been to anyone else. I had no reason to behave otherwise.
Until that day when I did.
It was after lunch, and some friends and I had arrived at our classroom a few minutes early. When we entered, we found Perry sitting alone waiting for everyone else to show up. No teacher was present, and his fear at our arrival was too obvious.
My friends honed in on it like sharks sensing blood in the water. “Hey, it’s Pregnant Perry! When are you gonna have your baby, Perry?”
The thing about Perry was that if you got him riled up, he would totally lose his temper. He would scream and cry and throw chairs. If you were a bored teenage boy willing to provoke him a little, Perry put on quite a show.
True to form, Perry stood up and yelled at my friends, “Stop calling me that! I’m not pregnant!”
To which, of course, we all responded as a chorus, “Pregnant Perry! Pregnant Perry! Pregnant Perry!”
Then, uncharacteristically, the fight just went out of him. Instead of picking up a chair and chucking it at us, he looked right at me and pleaded, “Not you too, Courtney. Not you.”
“Oh, Courtney! Not you too! I thought you liked me,” mocked my friend Grant in a crybaby voice.
I looked at my friends and forced a smile onto my face. “Yep. Me too, Perry.”
And that’s all I can remember of that story. I’ve wracked my brain trying to recall what he did after that, how far our taunting went, when it ended or how we transitioned to class afterward. None of those memories are in my brain. They were all wiped out by my overwhelming sense of shame.
As the sharks circled, Perry had looked to me for a lifeline, and instead I threw rocks at him. Before that moment, I never imagined that I was one of the few people he thought he could count on for fairness. He wasn’t asking for much. He knew I wasn’t really a friend, but he did believe that out of all the boys in that room, he could at least rely on me to refrain from cruelty. The memory of his surprised face still haunts me.
I never apologized to Perry. As ashamed as I was, I didn’t have the guts to face him. It ripped me up inside to witness my own cowardice. I knew that I had faced a fundamental test of my character, and I had failed completely. I avoided him from that point on, and he continued with his lonely, tortured life.
In spite of my gutlessness, the experience did shape me in a positive way. I vowed to myself that I would never again stand with the group against the outsider. I may not be brave, I thought, but I can at least stop myself from being mean.
* * *
Years later, in high school, I was involved in theater. After playing Huck Finn in eighth grade, I was sure that the only thing I wanted to do with my life was become an actor. I worked hard at it, and by my senior year, theater was one of the few areas of my life in which I had a good deal of confidence. I wasn’t “cool” or fashionable in many crowds, but in Drama class, I had earned my place. I knew I had chops.
That year in our Drama class there was a junior named Clay who pretty much defined failure in most ways. A lot of the time, he wasn’t even actually in class. He skipped it to smoke pot. When he did show up, he was usually late, and hadn’t completed the assignment. No one took him seriously.
The one thing Clay and I had in common was that we both smoked cigarettes. Our high school had an open lunch hour, meaning we could go off campus to eat. Even if I ate inside, I always took advantage of open lunch to step across the street for a smoke break. Often, Clay would be there too, so before long we just decided to smoke together.
We didn’t ever really spend time together outside school, but gradually our relationship shifted from two “smoking buddies” to what I would call actual friendship.
I kind of realized this one day when I was riding in a car with two other theater friends, John and Elizabeth. I was a bit of a third wheel, sitting in the back seat while the two of them gossiped about whatever. At one point, they were discussing other people in our Drama class, counting off who might be considered for some project, and I heard John finish with, “and then there’s Clay, but he doesn’t count.”
I knew what he meant, because we all understood you couldn’t really rely on Clay to participate in anything, but the way John phrased it bothered me. Just because it was tough to count on Clay didn’t mean that you could say Clay “doesn’t count.”
The next year John, Elizabeth, and I all went off to college together at the University of Iowa. One weekend we drove back to Des Moines together to watch a play at our old high school.
I was surprised to see Clay on stage during the play. But I was even more taken aback afterward when he came up to me and gave me a hug. “Did you see me up there, Courtney?” He was beaming. “It’s because of you. You believed in me when no one else did, so I knew I could do it.”
I didn’t know what to say. As far as I knew, I had never offered Clay any sort of encouragement. I was no cheerleader or life coach. All I really did was smoke cigarettes and chat with the guy. But apparently that was enough for him.
I think the world can be an awfully lonely place for some people. And I’ve learned that in a lot of cases, it doesn’t actually take that much to give someone the feeling of belonging. Most of the time, all we have to do is refrain from cruelty and treat people with a little dignity. It’s amazing to me what an impact that can have.
*Names in these stories are fictional, but everything else is true.
Brene Brown has some great things to say about shame and belonging. Check out this video to see what I mean:
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