There was a social hierarchy to the school bus. We all had assigned seats but the general understanding, the social contract that we had with our bus driver was the older you got, the further towards the back you were allowed to sit. I was aware of the mental fortitude required to be back there. The back was always louder than the front, the bus driver was out of earshot, and there were rumors that some kids scrawled lewd messages on notebook paper and pressed them against the window for passing cars to see.
At the start of my 5th grade year, I had graduated to back-of-the-bus status. We still had assigned seats, but now, with that last third of the bus in our grasp, we were elementary school kings.
My seatmate was this kid Kevin. He was was a gangly and skinny 10-year-old, with unfortunate avian features. Across the narrow walkway sat Paul who earned his cool status because he was the second kid on the block to own a Starter Jacket and, reportedly, decorated his room with a giant Stussy “S” he’d drawn on a piece of butcher paper. Paul’s goal was to make Kevin cry on a daily basis. When ran through all the usual scrawny insults and stick-man puns, he elevated his game to a scientific level. Once he learned in science class that birds had hollow bones, he used it on the way home, insisting, in shrill mocking tones, that Kevin’s bones were hollow too, which was his nose looked so much like a beak. Paul didn’t let up until Kevin cried, quietly at first, then burying his face into his Jansport sobbing.
Paul’s seat mate was Tommy, who, by virtue of pre-pubescent Darwinistic genetics, was considered the coolest kid on the block. He had blond hair. He could play sports. He was the first kid on the block to have a Starter Jacket.
I had been Tommy’s next door neighbor for the past three years and while, objectively, I didn’t have much cool cred to my name, Tommy liked me. He slept over a few times, we went bike riding, and tried to catch the local snapping turtle together. Tacitly, I had Tommy’s endorsement and protection, which sounds crazy seeing as how I was taller than almost all my classmates. I was bigger than them too, which wasn’t helpful. I was big in a wears-a-tee-shirt-at-the-swimming-pool way. And I was far from tough. I sucked at football, wrestling, really anything halfway physical.
I’d had my own brushes with kids like Paul. But now, with just one year left till (what I thought would be) the maturity paradise known as junior high, I was in the back of the bus and thought, “Let Kevin cry. Just be grateful it’s not you.”
That is until the day Paul started in on Kevin’s brother.
“Hey, birdie,” Paul said. “My brother said your brother killed himself.”
Kevin bit his lip and stared at the peeling dark green backing of the seat in front of him.
“Birdie,” Paul said, elbowing one of his friends. “Is it true? Is you brother dead? Did he off himself?”
Kevin started to cry, again. And then he started to quiver. And then Paul’s friends started to ask the same “dead brother” questions over and over again.
I had to say something. I’m neither then nor now good at confrontation. But nobody ever told Paul to stop, so the mere fact that I leaned across the doubled-over body of Kevin and said to Paul, “Dude. Not cool.” was enough to get Paul to stop. For a while.
Kevin didn’t come to school for two days. When he returned, Paul gave him another week of respite before getting bored and starting back with the bird stuff. It was better than the dead brother jokes. I’d whisper to Kevin some encouragement when I saw he was about to cry. It wasn’t much but it got him through the next few months.
Until Spring. Every year we had to do the President’s Physical Fitness test–a week of pull ups, push ups, rope climbing, and capped off with the mile.
I dreaded it and decided that, this year, I wouldn’t sweat it, by literally not sweating it. See, one just needed to complete the mile–they didn’t need to run it. So, I decided to walk the whole thing.
On the bus ride home, all the kids, amped by competition, were comparing times. Kevin, thin as he was, was safe from Paul, seeing as how he’d gotten one of the best times in the grade.
Kevin turned to me and asked what I got.
“I don’t really want to tell you,” I said.
“C’mon, it can’t be that bad.”
“It’s pretty bad,” I said.
“Look, just whisper it, alright?” Kevin said.
I checked over my shoulder. The bus’ loud rumble and rambunctious passengers made it easy for me to quietly tell Kevin: “20 minutes.”
Kevin’s eyes went wide, his mouth-beak split into an agape grin. He spun around the rest of the bus. “Guys!” he shouted, pointing to me, “he took 20 freakin’ minutes!”
Paul, Tommy and what felt like everyone else in the world laughed so hard the bus driver told us to keep it down. Then came the fat jokes, the lard-ass cracks, the heat-seeking self-confidence atom-bombs that only 5th graders can deliver.
Kevin laughed the loudest and longest. I could feel the pecking order shift. I could see the rest of the school year becoming hell. I could see dreading the school bus rides. I could see everything that my elementary school self valued crumble.
So, I did the only thing I could do.
I grabbed Kevin by the back of the neck and flung his face into the dark green peeling back of the seat. I aimed for one of the softer parts, but that wasn’t satisfactory. This was a kid I had stood up for. This was a kid who I tried to help. This was a kid who can, now, go fuck himself. On the rebound, I grabbed the scruff his his neck again and flung him, hard, into the firm top of the seat.
The boys went silent.
I heard Paul whisper, “Dude. Not cool.”
I looked out the window. And ignored the soft crying next to me.