THE OUTCAST SPEAKS
(Written in June 1999, for my MFA Creative Writing class_
By David H. Lippman
The images were horrific enough, but it was the words that sent me into a flashback â€“ frightened Colorado teenagers describing the assailants who had mowed down their schoolmates as â€œoutcasts that nobody liked.â€
After that, television pundits and people with advanced degrees began to prattle about guns in schools, why high school kids turn to violence, and what is to be done.
I wished someone would ask one of the â€œoutcasts.â€ I was one 20 years ago. In some ways, even though I lead what many people would call a productive life â€“ wife, family, career â€“ I am still an outcast in many ways. And when I was that age, I came close to snapping and causing chaos. I fantasized about it. I wanted to kill my tormentors and myself. I didnâ€™t. But I know that world.
I was not as extreme as the kids in Colorado, with their trench coats and Goth music â€“ whatever that is â€“ and Hitler-worship. But I was still everything the average child dislikes and victimizes, whether in 1970 or 2000.
I racked up 100s in English and History and was proud of it. I could rattle off all the presidents of the United States, but didnâ€™t know whose song was Number 1 on the charts. And I couldnâ€™t throw or catch a ball, which is make-or-break stuff in a schoolyard. If youâ€™re a male who canâ€™t play sports, youâ€™re marked. So I talked weird, sounded funny, and was a klutz. Three strikes.
Worse, I showed an astonishing naivete about the games and tricks kids play on each other. I was regularly conned out of my baseball cards and lunch money. Tease me enough, I would break down in tears or have a temper tantrum. Those spectacles amused my schoolmates, of course, so they would push my buttons to enjoy the fireworks.
Kids are not sweet. Theyâ€™re cruel. Anyone who displays the slightest weakness or eccentricity is taunted and hounded until they break. I was socially clueless, and it showed. I gave them manâ€™s oldest form of entertainment â€“ watching someone elseâ€™s emotional display.
The kids had a double triumph, in that if I broke down in class, the teacher would stop the lesson to get me out of there, and not resume. She might be so distracted, she would not even continue the lesson or even give homework that evening. To the average kid, that was a big victory â€“ unnerving the teacher so much that they didnâ€™t have to learn that stupid olâ€™ algebra.
And I wasnâ€™t that good at stupid olâ€™ algebra, either. Or chemistry. Or physics. Or wood shop. And when I failed, Iâ€™d get frustrated, and my tormentors could laugh at my stupidity. â€œâ€™Sa matter, re-tard? Canâ€™t you add two and two?â€
I was not invited to parties. The only time a girl would talk to me was if she needed answers to a history test. After Iâ€™d tell her about the Dred Scott Decision, she would run back to her boyfriend. I didnâ€™t go out on dates until I was in college.
While my schoolmates read comic books, I hauled thick hardcovers to school, read them in spare moments â€“ which only made me look more eccentric â€“ and blotted out what was going on around me. I was often not aware of how my schoolmates felt, and would lash out at their teasing in anger. And lose. That only made me more of a target.
One tactic I faced was someone goading me to strike a blow. Often enough, I took the bait. After I swung the first punch, I was beaten bloody. To make it worse, teachers would berate me afterwards. For throwing the first punch. My schoolmates enjoyed that. Not only did they get to beat up the re-tard, the re-tard got chewed out by the teachers. That Lippman is such a jerk! What a dummy!
By the time I realized I was alone and despised, it was far too late. My attempts to reach out were feeble, weak, and misguided. They were treated as such. Nothing I could do would be â€œright.â€
The results were unforgettable. When I walked into my new classroom on the first day of school each year, all my schoolmates would see me and say, together, â€œOh, no! Itâ€™s Lippman!â€ They didnâ€™t want me around.
Sometimes I would be mobbed in the lunchroom. Or chased home. I was the class â€œretard,â€ and a host of other unflattering names. I walked through halls and felt slaps on the back of my head, elbows in the midsection, kicks in the ankles. When I turned, Iâ€™d receive the taunt, â€œWhatchoo looking at, re-tard?â€
The worst moment came in the 8th Grade. Every kid in English had to pop up in front of the class and tell a story. It could be their own tale, or a re-telling of a published work. All my schoolmates told theirs, and the stories were interesting enough that the kids asked questions. At my turn, I re-told James Thurberâ€™s â€œUniversity Days.â€ The class studiously ignored me. Some kids looked down at their desks. When I was done, I asked for questions. Nobody even recognized my existence.
My teacher, Mrs. Hardman, who was a fan of my writing, sat in back of the class, her jaw open, face perplexed. I walked up to her, shaking my head. â€œI donâ€™t understand,â€ I whispered.
â€œJust sit down,â€ she said quietly. â€œYou did fine.â€ She gave me a 97. I sat at my desk, alone in the crowd, uncomprehending the silent message.
When your life is like that at an early age, you donâ€™t know whatâ€™s going on. You donâ€™t realize that youâ€™re contributing to your own destruction, letting people push your buttons, letting people take advantage of you. You just know that youâ€™re on the outside, and everyone else is â€œin.â€ Theyâ€™re sailing along through life, basking in good looks, winning smiles, athletic prowess, cool clothes, cooler attitudes, accepted tastes, while you crawl through the mud of your own misshapen world.
You wonder if your life will ever be better. You wonder why people are out to get you. You think that youâ€™ll show everybody that youâ€™re really smart, and that 100 in World History will prove it. It doesnâ€™t. You think that some day youâ€™ll show everybody how wrong they were about you, and theyâ€™ll have to apologize. They never do. Or youâ€™ll die or run away, and theyâ€™ll all be sorry they hurt you. It never happens.
No one ever admits or owns up to being the class bully, tormentor, or the social snob. When Iâ€™ve run into my tormentors on rare occasions, theyâ€™ve either denied they hurt me, forgotten the incidents, mentioned that someone else taunted them, hinted that they were impressed by how I knew all that history, or shrugged and said, â€œWell, kids can be cruel.â€ Itâ€™s a feat of forgetfulness and rewriting that would do George Orwell proud.
The accounts of the recent Colorado mess say these alleged killers were into World War II history and playing Dungeons and Dragons. So was I. They heartily disliked the jocks and â€œinâ€ crowd that dominated the social scene. So did I. They came to school dressed funny. So did I. They gunned down their schoolmates.
Instead, I tried to kill myself in high school. That didnâ€™t work. The people I wanted to make upset werenâ€™t upset at all. I doubt they cared â€“ or knew. When I entered college, I drank heavily. I went to parties and tried to hit on every girl in sight. When they all turned me down, I drank some more, and started denouncing my own ethnic groups in a state of self-loathing. Then Iâ€™d berate myself, as loudly as possible, playing the role of my own tormentors.
I hated myself. I hated the loneliness, the taunts, the label of being a lunatic or an eccentric. If everyone said I was human garbage, who was I to argue with jocks who could run, math geniuses who could add, and girls who ruled the social cliques? I was the â€œre-tard.â€
This was life. This was normal. The world hated and disliked me, but kept me alive to use as a target, punching bag, and class clown. I wished the world would kill me, to put an end to my misery. If I could not fit into a world that disliked me so much, I didnâ€™t want to live in it. Unlike the kids in Colorado, I couldnâ€™t bring myself to actually kill people.
Instead, then and for years after, I screamed at my tormentors, or those I perceived as tormentors. I bellowed at them, or taunted them to go ahead and finish the job and kill me. Sometimes I flung my lifeâ€™s accomplishments â€“ even journalism awards â€“ on their desks and said, â€œHere, Iâ€™m worthless, I canâ€™t do this, so this is now yours, put your name on it.â€ Then I walked away, leaving behind terrified and frightened people nervously clutching award plaques that honored me for my writing skills.
In my worst moments, I would make a proposition to my tormentors that left them so frightened they could not talk to me.
I would offer to commit suicide in front of them, if they in turn would agree to retract their attack upon me. This way, I said, we would both get what we wanted â€“ my demise, their apology. My tormentor would be permanently rid of the re-tard, and I would gain the satisfaction of the apology.
The subliminal agenda was that I would end my misery and they would go through life drenched with my lifeâ€™s blood, and racked with guilt over having ended my life. Perhaps they might even think that my death would be a waste, and that I did, in the end, have talent to offer the world. They would have to admit, in my death, that I wasnâ€™t such a piece of filth after all.
Naturally, nobody ever accepted the proposition. Like the Colorado killers, it involved suicide and inflicting pain on tormentors. Unlike the Colorado killers, it did not involve their death, only mine.
And unlike the Colorado killers, I never actually went through with it. â€œSome dregs of conscience hold me back,â€ Shakespeare wrote of Clarenceâ€™s murderers in Richard III. Those dregs held me back. But I still walked through that hellish world.
Because I have been there, I know how these kids felt. We were both hemmed in, assailed at every turn, and could only find an answer in the idea of reversing and doubling the pain. â€œIt is villainy you teach me,â€ Shylock said. â€œIt shall go hard, but I shall better the example.â€
When you are told over and over again that you are something less than human, and are excluded from society, you no longer feel human, or bound by societyâ€™s laws. All I wanted to do, if I could do nothing else in life, was to hurt my attackers so hard, stuff their own words in their faces so fiercely, rub their noses in my filth so deeply, that they would spend eternity racked in my misery, unable to escape it. I couldnâ€™t actually bring myself to inflict that on anyone but myself.
But slowly and gradually, things changed. Instead of algebra, I took classes in British history and screenwriting, with people who shared these interests and wanted to talk about them after class or work. I finally had friends and a social group, which instead of using me as a punching bag, regarded me as a welcome peer.
I got into therapy and began to realize some of what had gone on. I learned that you canâ€™t go into a blind rage when youâ€™re being taunted. That somehow, you have to make an effort, if not to fit in, to avoid being an eccentric and a target.
I found things I enjoyed, work I did well, and drew some satisfaction from them. I also did things my schoolmates didnâ€™t â€“ cover major league baseball for a wire service, win journalism awards, get nominated for a Pulitzer, travel to Antarctica, get accepted to graduate school, get married and raise a daughter. It has helped, but not enough. Deep at the core, I am what I am. I live my life in fear of the next person I meet, afraid that he or she will use me as a convenient whipping boy â€“ for laughs, to rob me, whatever. The world is guilty until proven innocent.
But it also took me 20 years of struggle, failure, and periodic relapses. I still canâ€™t take smarmy jokes hurled in my direction. I still become enraged â€“ frightening my interlocutors â€“ when I feel myself threatened or attacked.
I regard my awards and thank-you letters not as achievements, but as bitter-tasting clubs to be shoved into the wide, gaping mouths of anyone who trashes me. You say I cannot write? Here, swallow these awards. You say I have done nothing in life to benefit my fellow man? Here, eat these thank-you notes from schoolchildren. You say I am a re-tard? Here are my degrees, shoved up your rectum. You say I am a worthless human being? Keep them and be gone.
Not as violent as a spray of .30-caliber ammunition across a crowded school library, but the intended impact is the same. Your assessment and view of me is wrong, and here is the proof. Now share your obnoxious ideas with my beloved wife and genius daughter â€“ they seem to value my existence, values, works, and energy. Perhaps they can explain it to you, since I seem to be incapable of â€œwriting a coherent sentence.â€ (an actual comment on my work).
Deep down, Iâ€™m still ready to offer my life to my tormentor in return for his apology. I still have enormous troubles with self-value and self-esteem. My wife logically worries that I have a self-destructive streak. I still have trouble in social settings, still canâ€™t make small talk, still stare numbly and uncomprehendingly at routine smartass jokes and quips, still take offense to remarks that others would laugh at, and often prefer working on my stamp collection to going to a party.
And when I turn on my television and see a story of teenage outcasts gunning down their tormentors at school, I still flash back to my own youth, seeing myself forever on the outside, on the bottom, in the wrong, and I remember.
These kids werenâ€™t lunatics from a â€œFriday the 13thâ€ movie. They werenâ€™t monsters from another planet. They were kids who just couldnâ€™t take being on the bottom, and didnâ€™t have the ability, wisdom, talent, social skills, and intelligence, to deal or cope with it. They couldnâ€™t take it any more. They wanted to throw that first punch, but throw it so hard and with so much velocity that there could be no answer. No follow-up chat with teachers spouting cliches about â€œignoring the comments.â€ No lecture from the assistant principal on â€œwho threw the first punch.â€ No giggles and laughter from classmates about how stupid the â€œre-tardâ€ was. No return beating from bullies whoâ€™d mastered karate and street-fighting.
The Colorado kids wanted to drive their point home with such violence and force that no one could miss the message, answer back, or even dream of ever hurting them again. They wanted their tormentors to live â€“ or die â€“ in a welter of pain, blood, and misery. For once in their lives, the Colorado kids accomplished what they set out to do, and nobody can really argue the point. Those jocks will never slap a Goth on the back of the head and then say, â€œWhatchoo looking at, re-tard?â€ again. Thatâ€™s done.
I know how they feel â€“ both victim and killer. I know why they did it. I know that the killers could have been me.
And I weep.
– 30 –
My story of surviving suicide
THE OUTCAST SPEAKS