my eyes peeled for body-checking goons that roamed the hallways. My stomach tightened and twisted, as if into a little rubber balloon about to burst, like a bout of diarrhea was coming on, except that it wasn't. I fumbled with my locker combination. All I needed were my shorts and T-shirt. They lay bunched and reeking on the floor of my locker. I looked both ways, turned, then swooped down, snatching them up. I was safe.
Who would I get for PE, though? Hamner I could tolerate; there'd be minimal torture. He favoured athletic types, of course, but thought kids like me deserved at least a smile, a pat on the back - even if I couldn't climb ropes or jump high. But Downie, he handed out only humiliation. He thought first and last of his runners, his jumpers, his hitters. They won big for him. They were his "men."
I made it to the change rooms without getting punched or noogied on the head. Inside, I grabbed a bench. I didn't want to be a target for the guys snapping towels over by the showers. I stayed seated, wriggled into my shorts. Those guys - all either half or totally naked - laughed and whooped freely in a way I never could. I wasn't a fatso or a gimp, but with my narrow shoulders, paunch and lack of coordination, I was called spaz.
Soon, that voice, full of vigor, bellowed through the change room.
"Hop to it, men! Last one in the gym goes down for fifty!"
My heart sank, and my stomach gave another sharp twist. Downie stood there with his square hairless head, bushy black eyebrows, barrel chest thrusting out. Within moments, a crush of boys had formed at the change room door, two taking rearguard positions to push back the slowpokes. Luckily, I burst into the gym ahead of Walter Coomber, who truly was a fatso. Downie made him eat the floor, use his flipper-like arms to rock his body up and down - a parody of pushups for thirty smirking kids to watch. We shared a common wretchedness, Walter and I, only he had it worse. If you were a fatso, you might as well be all three - gimp and spaz rolled in.
At the count of fifteen, Downie gestured for us to ignore Walter and look to him.
"The two-and-a-quarter to start today, men. Then back for a round of dodge ball. Off you go."
He turned his glare back to poor Walter. "Coomber! Get up and go with the others. Now! Finish when you get back."
I should've guessed. This miserable day in February, grey, teeming with rain. The two-and-a-quarter plus dodge ball was Downie's favourite combo, taken from the handful of lessons he used over and over. It began with a run, two-and-a-quarter miles through the neighbourhood. He called it a "warm-up," but for some like me it took almost the whole class. And he always made it happen on rainy days. Of course, he never ran anywhere himself.
To start, we did a lap around the school field, low-lying and paddy-like with spreading pools of rainwater. I jogged along limply, my sneakers slapping the turf, hugging myself for warmth. Half-way around, I saw Walter lumbering towards me. We were the only two left; the others had moved on long before. I raised a hand for him to stop. He was already huffing and wheezing, his face red in the cold and wet.
"Go with me, Walter," I said. "We'll run slow so we won't get back 'til the period's over."
He nodded, puffed, then began putting one foot in front of the other. I kept pace. The first stretch along Evergreen was flat, shaded by huge, leafy trees. We could almost stay dry.
"Downie's sure a dick," I said.
Walter squeezed his eyes shut and nodded.
"Don't do the push-ups after. He forgets crap like that. Just act like it never happened."
"At least Hamner never makes anyone do push-ups or anything. That floor hockey last time was a blast, eh? It's nice to not get yelled at all the time."
We turned off Evergreen onto Brookwell, a treeless drag winding up the hill to where the houses got nicer and bigger. My clothes clung to my body, Walter's to his bulk. Our misshapen bodies were no longer disguised by our tent-like T-shirts. Cars swooshed by; people stared. Walter, with the rain pouring off his face, made me imagine we were hacking through some Congo jungle, trapped way the hell on Devil's Island, outrunning the hillbilly mountain men.
"Wonder where Hamner is today," I said. Walter surprised me.
"I know," he said.
"You know what?"
"Where Hamner is."
"I didn't mean I wanted to know exactly, I just meant - "
"He's at home."
"How do you know?"
"Because it's Tuesday, and if it's Tuesday and he's not teaching PE, he's at home."
"Who told you?"
"Why would he tell you that?"
He broke into a jog. I kept walking but didn't fall far behind. Nearing the top of Brookwell, we turned right, the start of a loop through Copperdale. I'd often wondered why we couldn't just run around the field. Too simple, I guessed, not complicated, or cruel enough.
Walter pushed forward. I still wanted an answer, so I caught up to him and tried again. He shook his head. Feeling irritated, I jumped in front of him and pushed him on the chest. He stopped suddenly, then bent over with his hands on his knees. He almost coughed his lungs out trying to catch his breath.
"Gotta quit smoking, Walter," I said.
"I don't smoke!"
"I know, I'm kidding! Why won't you tell me why Hamner told you about his schedule like that? It's pretty strange for a teacher, you know, to - "
"Okay, okay," he said, pulling himself together. "He didn't just tell me. I met him once."
"At his house, doing this run, near the school. He was there, on his porch. He called my name."
"What did he want?"
"Told me to take a break, have some hot chocolate."
"Wow, that's incredible!"
"You can't tell anyone, okay Bernie?"
"Are you nuts? Hey, did this happen one time only or - "
"He said I could come every time we did the two-and-a-quarter."
"I gotta do those push-ups."
Then he took off. We ran together. I watched if he was looking for the house, or thinking about stopping. It wasn't necessary. Just before reaching the street the school was on, I saw Hamner. Standing on the front porch of a small yellow and stucco house with a big, curtained picture window. He was wearing a blue t-shirt, sweats. His arms were folded, his legs apart, and he was craning his neck forward as if to look around the corner. He quickly turned, waved and nodded for us to stop. I followed Walter.
"Hi, boys," he said. "And hello, Walter."
"Hello, Mr. Hamner," I said.
Hamner looked at his watch. "Let's see. You've got about twenty-five minutes.
He led us into a small kitchen, very tidy, warm and bright after the rain. I sat at the table, shivering. Hamner brought towels. He threw one to me and draped the other over Walter's head, rubbing vigorously. In a few seconds, the kettle whistled, he went to the stove. I watched as he scooped the powder into mugs, pour the water and stir. Then he sat with us. We sipped quietly. He was looking at Walter.
"So," he said. "How's Downie today? Giving you any trouble? Besides the infamous two-and-a-quarter."
"Fifty push-ups, for being last into the gym." Walter said it like it was a question, like he wasn't sure he understood what trouble was.
"Ah, an old trick. Somebody's got to be last." He turned to look at me. I saw something like worry in his eyes, like how my mother always looked when I showed her my report card. "How about you, Bernie? I can guess, but you tell me. How do you get along with Downie? You don't have to be scared, Bernie. Ask Walter. I'm just concerned. I want to help you boys if I can."
Walter was looking into his hot chocolate, slowly nodding.
"Well, sometimes he can be a real, um - "
"Asshole, Bernie? Is that what you want to say?"
"I suppose. Look, uh, I think we'd better go. It's been five minutes, right?" I slid my chair out from the table.
"Don't worry, just listen a moment. This is important. Now, I've talked to Walter a lot, and I'm guessing you're not so different. Tell me, when Downie yells at you, orders you to do push-ups for no good reason, calls you names or eggs on the others to laugh at you, what do you do? Believe me, I know exactly how you feel, but what I want to know is, what do you do?"
"Yes. Now tell me, how do you feel at that time? When you do nothing?"
"Exactly. Then, how do you feel about yourself?"
"Do you feel stupid right now?"
"You don't feel stupid for getting all wet and uncomfortable for no reason?"
I laughed. "That is pretty stupid," I said.
"Do you feel scared right now?"
"We're late, we have to go. Downie'll kill us."
"Yes. And what about me? Are you scared of me?"
"I was a little, I mean not of you, just being here, I mean - "
"Good, you don't have to be. Trust me. Now, Walter's been struggling with this, but I want you to think about it, too. You say you do nothing. I'm going to tell you something that is very simple, and that is, do something. I mean really do something. Like when he makes you drop to the floor for being last, look him in the eye and say, 'No, I don't have to. It's wrong.' When he calls you a weakling or a wimp, say, 'You can't call me that. It's wrong.' When he encourages others to tease you, say, 'You shouldn't let them do that. It's wrong.' It's very simple, but it can be very, very hard to do. But I guarantee, if you say these things, he'll do nothing. Absolutely nothing."
"He can fail me."
"No. He won't. Because we share the class, and I have a say in the grades. Look, I'm not here to favour you or anyone. I just want to stop Downie. I could issue a complaint, but that's a long, complicated process. Might have no result at all. At the worst, he'd be transferred. Start again at another school. No. This way, everybody wins. You won't feel scared or stupid anymore, and he will stop. He's just not used to anyone standing up to him."
I looked again at Walter, who was still staring into his mug. I wondered whether he'd every thought about standing up to Downie. I saw no sign of it. I thought this advice was pretty much impossible. Could I do such a thing? I'd dreamed of doing worse to the bullies at school. I'd seen kids lipping off teachers in class. But this was different. This wasn't random bad behaviour. It was challenging a teacher on the ground he stood on. No way, I thought. Then I felt Hamner's hand on my arm. He squeezed gently.
"What do you think, Bernie? Think you can? It takes time, and I want you to know, I'm here for you. Every Tuesday you do the two-and-a-quarter, you stop by and I'll be here. Hot chocolate, a towel, a word of encouragement. Call it, 'two-and-a-quarter Tuesday.' I see the period's going to end, you better go."
He led us to the door, a hand on each of our shoulders. He stood back as we let ourselves out. When the door closed, we ran faster than ever. On the way, I asked Walter if other kids visited Hamner. I wondered because he was young, good-looking, and all the hotties of Grade Eight paid more giggling attention to him than to boys their own age. It pissed off the popular boys. I didn't care, though. I never expected girls to look at me anyway. Walter said he didn't know.
I stumbled into the gym right behind him. Two teams of boys were pelting the last kid against the wall. Downie called my name.
"Robinson! You're last in, probably a record. On the floor. Fifty pushups!"
Walter gave me a puzzled look, shrugged, then joined the kid on the wall. Downie had forgotten about Walter. We weren't real to him. While Walter waited for the dreaded volley of rubber balls, I began counting.
* * * *
During our next PE class - this time with Hamner - we did calisthenics, then broke into four teams for floor hockey: strong against strong, weak against weak, a couple of wild cards in the mix. All the time, I sensed a strange and comforting bond with my teacher, like a secret pact. I felt pumped, tried to do my best, without fear. Walter was on the other team, and he won. I was glad. Hamner told us we had great sportsmanship.
At lunch, I sat with Walter in the cafeteria, the first time I'd ever done it. For a while, we didn't speak, just ate. A Grade Ten jerk knocked my juice box to the floor. I bent to pick it up, and he yelled, "What a spaz!"
"So you gonna do what Hamner said?" I asked Walter.
He shrugged his shoulders, bit into his long john.
"I mean, who knows Downie's gonna become Mr. Nice Guy all of a sudden? But then again, maybe we should, you know, just because it'll feel right."
Walter looked at me, his eyes watery like he thought there wasn't a hell of a chance of ever feeling right.
"But we got Hamner on our side, right? We're not alone. I mean, I never thought things could change. I always thought me and everyone, we were on our own. Now, there's you, me, and Hamner. What about that? How long have you been going to Hamner's? Every time?"
He finally squeezed a word out.
"Not every time."
"But how long? Since when? Since before Christmas?"
He nodded again.
He lowered his eyes, shook his head. No matter what, it was a long time. And he hadn't even tried to do anything to help himself.
"So, what? Has Hamner being giving you pep talks all this time, like the one he gave me? I mean, I was raging after that, but it looks like nothing's going on with you."
"Mr. Hamner's real nice."
"Yeah, and Downie's real NOT nice! Gawd, I get a stomach ache every day we have PE!"
Walter stood up, holding his lunch bag in both hands. "I got Personal and Career Planning now."
I checked my timetable. French. It was a subject I could lose myself in, like when I spoke I was just mouthing sounds. What I said didn't matter. Merde, I thought. I liked that word, the sound.
"Walter," I called as he walked away. "Merde!"
He turned, frowned. Walter was no fan of French.
* * * *
That Tuesday I woke up to rain smacking against my bedroom window. I knew how the day would go. My stomach rolled itself into a rubber ball. I skipped breakfast.
I didn't find Walter before school began. Thought I could try again to get him to join me against Downie. He didn't show for Socials either, the class right before PE.
I found him sitting on a bench in the change room, his arms on his knees looking glum. He'd already changed.
"Hey, Walter," I called. "Where've you been? We got Downie today, or what?"
Walter nodded, didn't look up, then stood and ran past me. At least he wouldn't be doing push-ups today, I thought.
Downie had just let down the four climbing ropes. He stood holding one, staring up at the ceiling as though that was where he wanted to be.
"Men," he said. "The two-and-a-quarter today. Then back for a rope-climb relay race! Off you go."
Walter moved as fast as his bulk could handle. I'd never seen him push himself so hard. I tried to not fall too far back. I wanted to be there too if he stopped at Hamner's. Get a boost, something to help me tackle Downie. Walter was sure no help. I thought he was even trying to avoid me.
I plodded down Evergreen, up Brookwell, through to Copperdale, and still Walter pushed. It was hard to believe. I couldn't see his face, but I knew he must be dying, each slap of his runners on the pavement like a knife in the chest. If any thirteen-year-old boy could have a heart attack, Walter Coomber was him. Maybe it was his way to beat Downie.
Eventually, he turned onto Hamner's street, disappeared. I pumped harder. Soon I saw him, just about at Hamner's, still running fast. He didn't slow, didn't stop, didn't look up. At the next corner, he was gone. When I reached the house, I had to look. Hamner was standing in the living room, almost in silhouette, his face barely visible. I waved. He did the same.
Outside the gym, I heard the cheers. The relays had begun. I threw open the door. I saw Walter. He'd fallen to his hands and knees. Sweat and rainwater pouring down his puffed, purple face. His chest heaved, he coughed, a hacking cough, over and over. Downie stood directly over him.
"You call that fast, Coomber?" he yelled. "What the hell does it matter? You're last as always. You must've run like a maniac, but look at you, still a fatso who can't compete. Better to walk the two-and-a-quarter, because now you're in no shape for the relays. But I'll give you a choice. Either lie down on the floor like a dog and do push-ups for the rest of the period or stand up and join a team, climb those ropes. What's it going to be, little boy?"
Some kids giggled. I wiped my face, waited to catch my breath. He hadn't seen me. I didn't exist. Never ran, never came back. At that moment, I was an outsider, a stranger, and free, very, very free. I wasn't one of his men. No. I was a nobody. And as a nobody, I could say anything I damn well wanted.
"Mr. Downie," I called. "You shouldn't say Walter's last. It's wrong, because I'm last. I'm Bernie Robinson. I'm last!"
He frowned, then smirked. I felt my skin burn, a buzzing around my eyes. He was waiting for me to speak again. It's wrong, it's wrong, it's wrong, wrong, wrong - a chant developed in my head, until the word was drained of all meaning, alien, foreign.
"It's wrong!" I shouted. "You shouldn't call Walter a fatso or a dog or anything, it's wrong. Walter's a boy, like me and all of us, like you, too, who can feel crushed and beaten and never stand up again. . . and, and, you shouldn't torture him with stupid choices and punishments because it's wrong, it's just wrong . . . He didn't do anything wrong, so you're wrong, always wrong, everyday you're wrong, and the two-and-a-quarter is wrong, this fucking class is wrong, it's wrong, wrong --"
I would have gone on, wouldn't have stopped. But Walter was screaming, on his feet, lunging, lunging at Downie, arms flailing like windmills, then slapping, hitting, pounding at anything, anywhere, as though Downie was merely in his way. Soon he had nothing left, his power gone. The man in his way hadn't moved even a muscle, and he fell to his knees, onto the floor sobbing, truly like a dog. Defeated. Done.
Downie stayed still. His face empty of blood, eyes unfocussed, inward. The gym was silent. Someone said, "Fuck, man," a tinge of awe in the voice. Another said scornfully, under his breath, "What a freak!"
I had struck a blow. So had Walter. I thought now I knew why Walter had never acted. He didn't have the words, only the feeling: broiling, impotent, desperate, alone.
That's what I believed. And I was scared. Better to be a nobody, I began to think. What would Downie do now? What about next class? The rest of the year? We were in for it, I was sure.
Eventually, Walter stood up. Downie focussed his eyes on Walter, then on me, then onto Walter again.
"I'll deal with you two later," he said, "There's going to be trouble. Class is over."
He walked slowly out of the gym, his arms hanging at his sides, limp and useless.
I looked over at Walter. I tried to smile. He didn't.
* * * *
The principal of the school, doing his job, warned us against further outbursts. Another one and our parents would be called, he said. Soon after, the two-and-a-quarter became laps around the field. Downie backed off, but never admitted doing anything wrong. He couldn't bear it, I guess, the thought of turning us into somebodies.
At the end of Grade Nine, Hamner was suddenly transferred to a small town in the interior. During the summer following Grade Ten, Walter moved east with his family. Then, Hamner made the news. Charged with thirteen counts of sexual abuse involving minors: boys between nine and thirteen. It's too hard to say how I felt - how to put them together, the Hamner who propelled me to my small triumph and the Hamner I was reading about now.
The papers said a boy from Donegal Junior Secondary had decided to speak out after over two years of silence. He was the oldest victim, now fifteen, still too young to be identified. Twelve others followed.
What I really felt I wanted was to hear from Walter, have him write or give me a call. It's true. I'd always hoped he'd speak, tell his story, even back in Grade Eight. Because maybe he could tell me how the boy from Donegal got the courage to act, where he got the strength, the words, and whether he's running even now, running against time, and the devils in our lives.
M C R
This work is copyrighted by the author, Alan Girling. All rights reserved.