WARNING: A little sad at first but it preludes a hilarious journey
We all have a Christmas which stands out a little more than the others. It’s the one that makes our heart skip a beat, brings back that certain excitement only kids get because the obligations of adulthood are still years away and Santa was absolutely the go-to when it came to our list of wants. We all have that one. Mine was Christmas of 1987 and brother, it set the bar so high, the years that followed never came close.
I remember the build up to that Christmas which never ceased in momentum of excitement and had me pacing the Eve, sick from too many Nestle Crunch Bells and worries that the inbound Santa would see me awake. But it didn’t start with such bliss. Actually, it could have been a Christmas to forget if it wasn’t for the “shot heard around Marietta” one fateful late November monday afternoon. It was my little “A Christmas Story” incident that is still talked about today in small circles with the family.
Growing up Catholic, I was forced to attend CCD classes one day a week after school. It was a version of bible study, all with the design to get a kid from baptism to confirmation without forcing the parents to spend thousands on a private Catholic education. I hated it. No kid ever liked to learn about why we are forced to go to church. It was like getting a quiz about the injection you were about to receive. But I hated it for another reason as well.
Every monday I would get home from school, have a snack and then collect my CCD workbook and pencil, get driven to St. Ann’s church and mingle with the hundreds of other kids until 4:00 rolled around and we separated into grade level classrooms to waste an hour listening to a lay person with no teaching ability. My real issue then was the fact everyone hated me. I was the only kid from another school since they built a new Catholic church closer to Mt. Bethel (my school). But, my mother had served for years in this church and there was no way I would switch just because it was five minutes closer.
Not being liked was a real issue for me back then for a couple of reasons. One, I had no siblings. There was no one to beat me up or compete with. My folks treated me as if I could do no wrong and everything was a gold star. I am sure that was a weakness which was obvious to kids I didn’t know but in my particular school, I was actually pretty popular. We had all grown up together since kinder care, so to be flung into a completely new environment with rich kids who all went to a different school together was like swimming with sharks. But that was only the start.
I didn’t understand this back then but it came to light later that my mom didn’t get along with a few ladies at church. One of these ladies in particular was Mrs. Conners, my CCD teacher for that year. In her disdain of my mom she fell right in line with my peers who teased me relentlessly in class. There was no safe zone for a kid who was forced, ironically, to learn about being kind to others for an hour after school. As an adult I can’t imagine being cruel to a kid who is obviously the target of class harassment and even more so, joining in on that behavior. But, the scummiest people can hide under the vail of religious institutions. Probably explains why I don’t go to church much anymore.
All of these factors were pretty bad but the leader of this torment was a kid named Bobby Clark. That is a name I will never forget. I don’t think many people forget their bullies. He was the devil who was the most popular in his own school and also the most popular in CCD. Even the fifth graders liked this kid and if memory serves me correct, it was in part to his big brother who had gone on to middle school, leaving a legacy Bobby could sail on.
From day one, Bobby never let up on me. At first I was more confused at why he didn’t like me and how all these kids can’t be laughing at me. I just didn’t understand but when we were waiting in line at the carpool area, Bobby and his buddy took things to a new level, challenging me to a fight as all the kids in every grade level laughed and taunted. I really didn’t want to fight but in a circle of shouting kids, you just can’t get hit in the mouth without doing something. And that’s when I found out what a shitty fighter I was as both Bobby and his buddy (Mike, I think) pushed me down and pounded the piss out of me.
As a boy in grade school, the worst thing you can do before, during or after a confrontation is cry. I knew this. It sticks in kids heads and you will wear that stigmata for years after. Not quite the same as shitting your pants but close. It’s a weakness and that afternoon I showed it after getting the wind knocked out of me. I couldn’t help it, all the adrenaline and anger came out in a rage of tears. I tried to stand up and run through the crowd looking for my dad who always picked me up on his way back from work but when I got to my feet my arm was grabbed by Mrs. Conners, screaming at the top of her lungs like that trombone teacher-talk only Peppermint Patty understands. Bobby looked at her and in a classic dick fashion stated, “He started it”. The other kids agreed and through my tears and disbelief of what just happened and what was about to happen, I sobbed harder, giving up all hope of redemption.
Mrs. Conners whisked me back inside and down to the bathrooms to clean up. I can’t fully remember what she said but it was essentially, “wash your face to stop crying and if you don’t tell your parents I won’t turn you in for fighting”. CAN YOU BELIEVE THAT SHIT? That really happened.
I collected myself, after a few of those multiple hyperventilating inhales, I opened the door and Mrs. Conners was there handing me my workbook and walking back to the curb to personally see me to my Dad’s truck. I honestly don’t remember the ride home but I remember not eating dinner and playing sick the next day from school. It was insult to injury because I still had to go to the doctor’s and get my finger stuck.
I thought a lot about the events from the previous day and had many fantasies about pulling a lightsaber on Bobby. But in my stomach, I felt completely defeated. Not only was I the gross kid to everyone but also the baby who cried. It sunk in and there was no one who could help.
I pleaded to not go back that following monday but the first week of Advent (Catholic thing) was then and it was a special mass and all grade levels from Monday, Tuesday and Thursday had to attend.
I remember a lot of detail, huh? Well, you’ll see why.
There had to be at least six hundred kids from first grade to eighth sitting in the main church. My class was smack in the middle and I felt every eye on me because I was sure that last week’s incident spread like wildfire. Bobby walked taller looking more smug than usual and the respect of his peers shown through their idolized gaze. Maybe I am being dramatic but that really was my perception. I was the slug. The weirdo no one would talk to or be caught being nice to for fear of reprisals. Even Mrs. Conners scowled in my direction, raising her eyebrows as if to say, “Remember what we talked about?”. It was as bad as it got for a privileged kid who should have been thinking about GI Joe and Optimus Prime.
It’s hard to rationalize this but what happened next, in my opinion over the years, is nothing more than divine help. Bobby sat directly in front of me next to his jock crony, Mike. They whispered and teased, glancing back every few seconds. Bobby writing “Hi gay” on his palm, pretending to stretch making sure I saw and also everyone else did too. The rage was welling and I couldn’t believe I was the butt of all these jokes and it seemed the entire CCD crowd was too. I tried to ignore it and just read words out of the thick bible/songbook held in the pew’s shelf. I had to distract myself to keep from crying again. I felt it coming on and that heat in my face building. I wrapped the book mark ribbon tightly around my hand and clenched it in my fist.
Then, loudly, Bobby put both palms to his face and blew, loudly mimicking a fart and shouted, “EWWW BILLY!”.
The entire church erupted in laughter. I was in the middle of thirty kids on either side and there was nowhere to go. I felt the tears run down my cheeks and then I made the decision. It wasn’t like a blacked out moment of adrenaline but one I made very delibrately to avoid sitting there in tears as hundreds of eyes witnessed my humiliation. I stood up and beat the shit out of Bobby and Mike with a bible. I swung hard, smashing the four hundred page good-book time and time again until the red ribbon separated, sending the bible sailing. Then my fists, fingers and elbows took over.
There were screams, I am sure, but I didn’t hear them. Mrs. Conners was trying to climb the pews to separate me from the fury I was unleashing on the two boys but it was a slow process because we were packed in there like sardines. I hit those kids so hard and so often, everyone around stood out of the way. When the teacher finally got there, she herself was hit (accidentally) and screamed bloody murder. I was probably 60lbs at most and unless she had that glass-bone disease, I think she greatly exaggerated.
I was separated from the two boys who were openly wailing at that point. I still had fight in me but not much. I hadn’t exerted that much energy ever and it went right to my stomach and the second I got outside I puked. I had been carried out by a male teacher who sat there saying words like “buddy” and “it’s okay”. I felt a sense that it really will be okay.
I sat in the church office across the street until my Mom came to pick me up. I remember there was a lot of apologizing from her and I had a long quiet ride home. Then Dad came home.
It was obvious that it’s out of character to for me to beat the shit out of kids with a bible in church. Possession was probably not out of consideration but it soon became obvious I was being tortured for months by my peers and when I told him that Mrs. Conners made a deal not to tell them, he lost his shit.
I don’t know the repercussions my Dad laid from my last CCD class as a 10 year old. All I know is I no longer had to go and later in the week, word spread in my school about how I “blessed” Bobby Clark to tears with a bible. That lived on well into high school.
My December of 1987 took a huge upswing and I think a little guilt led to my greatest Christmas ever and it all started with a find in my parent’s closet. You’ll remember this one tomorrow.
I still think about that time in CCD. I think of kids who experience this not once a week but everyday in school. It never left me and I have always looked for kids who might not fit in like Michael Garucci in high school who gave out Glamour Shots our freshman year. Someone has to take them aside and lead them away from Bobby Clarks.
I also think of people like Mrs. Conners and how at ten years old I can still remember what she said. Kids remember. Be mindful what you say and the example you set. Always pull the struggling ones by your side and teach the stronger ones how to do the same. Don’t be a kid like the ones you are in charge of.
And I hope Bob still twitches at bibles.
Tomorrow is all about the best Christmas TV specials and my Christmas finds on the road to the best Christmas ever. It’s a three part series. Goodnight.