As reunion approaches, a man regrets the weakness of youth

It is either a feature or a bug — after all these years, I’m still not sure which — that a good conscience never lets go.

It punishes us for the transgressions of our youth.

Star Tribune reporter John Reinan knows how that feels because his 40th high school class reunion is coming up, and he found out on Facebook that a classmate died of cancer. It was the one that was bullied in his small town, he writes.

Kids egged him on to sing his odd songs in his funny voice. Sometimes he seemed to enjoy it — he could see they were amused by his performance, and perhaps it made him feel accepted. Other times, people would demand one of his bits and you could sense that he was unhappy about being goaded. But he’d perform anyway. They wouldn’t let him refuse — surrounding him, penning him in until he yielded.

And these, of course, were the gentlest forms of torment he endured. He got wedgies. He was stuffed into lockers. I remember one time hearing some older boys — football players — laughing as they recounted how they made him climb atop a high shelf in the locker room. They left him with a warning that he better be there when they came back. Someone went to check on him two hours later and he was still on his perch.

I’m not innocent. I never threatened him physically, never went for a wedgie. But there were times when I was part of the crowd goading him into a performance. And I never stepped in when others were bothering him. If you made a scale with angels on one end and demons on the other, I’d be somewhere in the middle, maybe just a shade on the good side of “thoughtless jerk.”

What he could have done, Reinan writes, “is to treat him like anyone else in our class. A comrade, a friend, someone with shared experiences of the most formative time of life.”

Oddly enough, I’ve had the same experience in recent months. I’m facing my 45th reunion (I haven’t been to one since the 6th; our class wasn’t organized enough to have a 5th) and similarly noted that a “different” classmate had also died a few months ago.

These are the head-shaking moments we all have and for which we pay an awful lifetime price. Our only consolation is that at least we have a conscience, serving as the spokesperson for a decent person.

  • PaulJ

    If only we could impress on younger people how terrible guilt can be.

  • Jeff

    Maybe the physical bullying back 50-60 years ago was a bit different and everyone seems to be overly sensitive about it today…but I’m pretty sure almost everyone was on both sides of bullying growing up. I know I was probably bullied more often than not when I was younger but as I grew into who I was later in high school and played football (and did other activities) I became more popular and I did my best not to be one of those bullies picking on those with fewer social skills. I think I did okay with resisting the temptation of bullying, although I can only think of a couple of times when I said stupid things being a middle school kid (which they all do if you actually listen to them talk)…but sure bullying is bad, we regret those moments but taking those moments in and being a better person in every moment moving forward should be the goal.

  • Al

    “And I never stepped in when others were bothering him.”

    This is me. I never bullied as a kid/teen, but I never intervened. I wonder sometimes if that’s a worse offense.

    Later, in college, I’d half-heartedly intervene when a guy in some of my classes was the butt of jokes for knowing–and often singing, with gusto–the entirety of the Ewok song.

    Half-hearted intervention still isn’t worth much.