I Am Mitt Romney
In the middle of my sophomore year in high school, my father was transferred from Los Angeles to Portland, Oregon. This transfer was at my parents request. They were just starting to look ahead to retirement, and had zeroed in on the Rose City as a place they might want to be their final home. I hated the idea. I loved Los Angeles, and more importantly loved my life there. When they told me about it, I was both heartbroken and furious.
When we arrived in Portland, the people we were buying our new home from were having difficulties with their new house, the end result being that the first three weeks of my Portland life (and my sixteenth birthday) were not only spent in a constant downpour, they were spent with my parents and I crammed into a single hotel room. But the worst part was my new school.
I’m one of those people that just naturally likes most people, and am also blessed that most people tend to like me. Or maybe I’m just hardwired to not notice those who don’t. In any case, of all the anxieties that I had about being the New Kid at School, the thought that I might not be liked immediately hadn’t even occurred to me. I was sure I would just quickly start getting to know people, and friendships would ensue. And perhaps it might have turned out that way, were it not for a bully named Todd.
Todd was… well, I’m not entirely sure anymore. It’s been a long time, and I can remember almost nothing about him. I totally remember that he was an excellent athlete, and am reasonably sure he played football. Maybe quarterback, or running back? And… that’s about it. I have no idea no what he looked like, or his hair color, or even his last name. I think it’s possible that the only reason I remember his first name is because it’s mine as well. So I can’t tell you much about him, except that he absolutely, definitely made it his mission to turn me into that kid at school everyone picks on.
We had gym together, and whenever we picked teams for, say, basketball or volleyball, he would pick me first. Not because I was any good at either of those (or any) sports, but so that he could punch, elbow or throw me to the ground all period long. He was much bigger than I was, and had we gotten into an actual fight it would have been over very quickly, without me having landed a single glove. And so I used the bizarre strategy of never acknowledging him in any way when he was bullying, and to say “Bite me” if he asked addressed me of a more pedestrian reason, like, “You’ll be shooting guard.” Everyone else in the class, knowing a chump when they saw one, would delight in cheering Todd on whenever he’d walk over and punch me in the arm. This went on every day for months, and then… it didn’t.
I’m not entirely sure when or why the bullying ended, but it did. Over a time that seems short in retrospect but was in fact an eternity, the other guys in my gym class warmed up to me, and many of them started becoming friends. One of them ended up going to Robert D. Clark College with me, and we roomed together freshman year; he’s a professional singer songwriter now, and I get excited whenever he comes to town. (If you’re in L.A., where he’s based, you should totally go check him out some time. John Shipe. He’s awesome.) By the end of my sophomore year even Todd had stopped his bullying. There was never any ABC After School Special moment that preceded it, no moment of clarity hit him and allowed him to Learn Something, and there was never any burying of the hatchet. There just came this point in time when people didn’t cheer him on when he bullied me, and so he moved on to other things and that was that.
But I can still remember that dread of waking up and having to go to school knowing I had no friends or even allies, only enemies and strangers. It was unbearably stressful, and it affected everything else in my life outside of school. I couldn’t eat. I was surly and hateful to my parents for ripping me from my old life and shoving me into this new one. The boredom I constantly felt at home with no friends to call on was palpable. Even music, my natural refuge, stopped being any comfort. It was really, really awful, and I’ve never forgotten that. For the rest of my life I will always remember what it’s like to be the focus of the pack.
And having known that only makes my fall from grace all that much worse.
In the last month of my senior year, school life was good. I had a lot of great friends, and a girlfriend who was not only stunning to my eyes, she was the smartest person I knew. I had just been tagged by my fellow students to give a speech at our graduation ceremony, and a new life as an adult living on my own at college was just a breath away. I was as happy as I had been miserable two years prior.
The last class of the day was Newspaper. I remember signing up for it mostly because a lot of my friends had done so, eager to pad their transcripts. Our teacher, Mr. McCormick, was kind of a hippie in the very best sense of the word. He challenged our assumptions constantly in a way that, frankly, we never much appreciated. If you’d have asked me at the time who my worst teacher was, I might well have said Mr. McCormick. If you asked me today who, looking back, was the best, my answer might be the same.
Our editor was a fellow senior, Nick. I didn’t really like Nick, but I’d be hard pressed to say why. He was a nice guy. He was smart and worked hard, and took great pride in the final product we published twice monthly. It may have been that he didn’t care that much for me. He saw me as someone that took the class for an easy A, who didn’t care much how the paper turned out, and only bothered to put pen to paper an hour before deadline. In all of these opinions of me he was spot on. I really didn’t care how the paper turned out; and really, how much effort is required to say that the basketball team did or didn’t win last week? I was 18 years old, and lacked the maturity that Nick had. I didn’t yet realize the inherent reward of making something great just to make it great. So I wasn’t a tool that Nick could use to make the paper something to be proud of, I was an obstacle.
Outside of Newspaper, however, Nick was on the lower end of the social totem pole. Again, he was a nice guy so I’d be hard pressed to give a good reason why that was the case. It simply was. But where I approached my low ranking in my sophomore year with angry defiance, Nick seemed to take it in a good humored stride. He’d be walking through the commons and someone might yell an insult, and he might laugh and give them a look as if to say, “Good one!” It was inspiring to see, and it made me want to stick up for him when he wasn’t around – under certain circumstances, that is. If someone was complaining about what a tight-ass dick weed of an editor he was, I’d join in. But if someone claimed to have “inside knowledge” that he was a “fag” (the worst thing you could be back in the day), Nick seemed worth defending. (It is amazing, really, how many people would back up a challenged claim to knowing someone had actual gay sex by saying “I was there!” without thinking through the future conversation ramifications.)
And so there I was, near the end of my senior year with an editor I disliked and admired in turns, when our class had The Fight.
I can’t actually remember what The Fight was, or how it started. The people in the Newspaper weren’t getting along, and the process was breaking down. Mr. McCormick, in that hippie way of his, refused to lay down the law and instead had us hash it all out amongst ourselves. I remember being a passive observer through most of it, because I didn’t really care about the paper. It was the last period of the day, it was mid-May and a rare sunny day and all I wanted was to be outside. At one point Nick said something about me. I certainly have no recollection of what it was he said, but it’s a good bet that it was about my always turning in stories past deadline. Whatever it was, it was undoubtedly both true and relevant, but for whatever reason I couldn’t let it stand. So I started to talk about the things I didn’t like about the way he ran the paper. I could see nodding heads, so I kept going.
I started putting in “humorous” jabs about him, which got laughs, so I made more “humorous” jabs. And then, after a while, I wasn’t talking about Newspaper at all. I was in full spittle-flecked rant mode, and everything I said was mean-spirited and designed to draw blood. I even started throwing in taunts that I had heard others use against him in the cafeteria when I ran out of original ways to insult him in front of his peers. And his peers, for their part, kept egging me on. And I continued, unabashed, and none of it really had anything to do with either Nick or my feelings about him.
Because here’s the secret about being a bully, the terrible, terrible truth I learned that day: It’s fun. No, that’s not quite right. It’s more than fun, much more. It delivers a kind of primal pleasure that taps directly into your body chemistry. It opens the spigots to your adrenaline and your endorphins at the same time, and makes you feel in that one tiny moment like you’re the king of the fucking world. I must have gone on for a least five or ten minutes, but it felt like an hour. I can see how for some it can be addicting. At that moment, I wanted to keep going all day. And I might have, had Nick lashed back, or sat there stoically, or asked Mr. McCormick to make me stop. Instead, he did something far, far worse. He cried.
The tears were shocking, and felt like the slap in the face I more than deserved. Before long, he was sobbing, asking why people couldn’t just leave him alone. He was never mean to other people, why did other people treat him so hatefully? In one powerful show of honest emotion, he went from being an inanimate punching bag to a flesh and blood person, and I went from edgy class clown to what I really was in that moment: an awful, awful human being.
As I said, I can’t remember anything about Todd — not his last name or even the vaguest recollection of what he looked like. But I remember everything about Nick and that day. I remember exactly what he looked like. I remember the timbre of his voice. I can tell you exactly what he was wearing. More than anything, I can remember every self-loathing thought that went through my head when Nick broke down. I’d like to say that I instantly learned a lesson and became a better person, but that would be a lie. Swallowing such heinous actions of your own design is a hard thing to do. I remember after class pulling my friends aside, trying to get dishonest confirmation that I had done nothing wrong and that Nick was just being a puss. But despite all my various shortcomings throughout my life, I have always been wise when choosing my friends, and they let me know honestly how far I’d gone over the line.
I’ve made a lot of stupid mistakes in my life, but honestly I don’t regret many of them. My feeling about life is a bit Zen-like, and I recognize that all of my trips and stumbles have led me to right here and right now, which is exactly where I want to be. I only had a couple of really long-term relationships before getting married, and in them I was a terrible boyfriend. It’s easy to let go of that, because that’s what it took to get me to be the husband I am with the wonderful woman that was willing to be my wife. But that one day in Newspaper… I might risk my future to go back and erase that day.
I almost didn’t go to my 20th reunion, and it was mostly out of fear that I might run into Nick. I ended up going, but I didn’t see him and was thankful for that. After all this time and what I’d done, what in God’s name could I say that wouldn’t come across as so miserably little? My imagining his potential responses is even worse. In some of my waking nightmares, I envision him explaining how that one day was the beginning of his downward spiral toward repeated suicide attempts. A little over-the-top dramatic, I know, but I have them nonetheless.
Even worse, however, would be for him to forgive me. That I had so heinously mistreated a good man is bad enough; but to have done so to someone with the grace to forgive a trespass so unforgivable? That might be too much for me to bear. I don’t know how I’d deal with such a thing. No wonder we crucify those that forgive us our sins.
When I read the stories of Mitt Romney’s school days “hijinx,” my first inclination was to allow him the benefit of youthful indiscretion. My preference is to grant him his stumbles from inexperience into maturity. I want to be able to look at him and say that despite what he did in high school, he can be redeemed. He can be saved.
I want him to have this second chance, because I cannot bear the thought of not having it myself.