Paul’s neck

I remember a boy from school named Paul. He didn’t seem to wash very often, and I remember once when we were lined up in the hall to go somewhere, probably the cafeteria, at Cook Elementary, when I got a good look at the back of his neck. It was covered with scaly gray dirt like matted old skin. It scared me because I was afraid if I forgot to wash behind my neck, I would start to smell like him.

Paul had some kind of physical deformity–I think it was his legs or maybe his spine. He walked oddly, sort of sliding his feet. His hair was always buzzed very short, and I wonder now if his mother did that because it was easier to keep clean.

One day in 4th grade, Mrs. Gormley gave us all a very stern lecture about fighting. I don’t know why; I don’t remember anyone having gotten into fights. She said that any fighting would not be tolerated and any students caught fighting would be suspended. A bit later, she had to go to the principal’s office and left us alone. Almost immediately, one kid in the class–his name was Billy, and to this day I don’t remember him at all except for this incident–started picking on Paul,calling him names like Baby, making fun of how he walked. Paul was crying. Some of the girls in the class kept telling Billy to stop, but he kept taunting Paul. It was like he wanted to destroy him.

I don’t know what made me do it–I was always terrified of getting into a fight–but I walked up to Billy and clamped one hand on his shoulder and said, in my meanest voice, Leave him alone, Billy. I guess I expected my words to have some kind of power, the way heroes in the movies were able to talk bad guys out of doing bad things, but of course Billy just started in on me: What are you gonna do? You wanna fight? Huh? He kept shoving me, knocking me backward. The whole class watching. And no, I didn’t want to fight; I just wanted him to stop bullying someone so obviously unable to defend himself. It was all a blur: Billy shoving me; me falling into someone’s desk and getting back up; him shoving me again; me saying stupid threatening things like Cut it out before I knock you across the room! while he was basically knocking me across the classroom. And someone yelled Teacher! and in came Mrs. Gormley, and she glared at Billy and then stared at me like she could not believe I was fighting (I wasn’t), and I thought I would die because she had just warned the whole class. But nothing else happened, at least to me.And though I was glad that I had stood up for Paul’s sake, I felt ashamed at not knowing how to fight, at not wanting to fight, and I knew that everyone now knew this about me.