Even though school rules forbid gum, Daniel was chewing his gum loudly, snapping and cracking it, blowing huge bubbles that covered the lower half of his face. He had me up against the brick wall on the playground, his arms caging me in on each side, but he was smiling as he talked to me. He had some of the most beautiful blue eyes I’d ever seen, light and airy, like your favorite pair of faded denim blue jeans.
“Hey, do you like Brian?” he asked, pushing his gum to the side of his mouth with his tongue as he leaned in toward my head that was already pinned to the red bricks.
“Yeah,” I answered as passively as I could, trying to contain my excitement. Brian was the most popular guy in fourth grade. He had longer hair that he flicked to the side with a toss of his head as he strode down the hall and slipped curse words into everyday conversation. He was everything a nine year old aspired to be.
“Well, he really likes you, too,” Daniel assured me. As one of Brian’s best friends, I trusted him to know. “Do you want to go out with him?”
“Okay.” Or, as I was screaming in my head, “Yes! Yes! Yes!”
As someone who had not yet had any experience in the dating world, I couldn’t believe my luck. My heart soared. I felt as if I had lifted off my feet and was floating above all the boring kids on the playground who Brian didn’t like, all the Nobodys with whom Daniel wasn’t having a life-changing conversation. I was Somebody in this world that revolved around Grand Avenue Elementary. I was going with Brian.
That lasted about ten more seconds.
Daniel dropped his hands and ran off around the corner of the playground to where Brian was playing basketball with the other cool boys, screaming as he ran, “Brian! You’re going out with Kelly Kizer!” This was followed by a torrent of laughter from Daniel, who had just pulled one over on his friend by tricking him into dating me.
I was mortified. I already knew that my thick, dinner-plate-sized glasses and inability to feather my hair did not make me the most popular girl in school, but I hadn’t considered myself to be so low in the pecking order that I would be considered the most embarrassing person a guy could date. I had friends. I was even friends with kids who were friends with Brian. I wasn’t one of the kids who went to special-ed classes; I wasn’t one of the poor kids who were made fun of for being dirty; and I wasn’t one of the overweight kids who were called tub-a-lards. But apparently I had my own category of awfulness that would make a cool guy cringe if he were declared to be “going with me.”
Fortunately Brian was so cool that all he had to do was say to Daniel, “No, I’m not, you dick,” and that was that. We were already broken up.
Daniel excelled at being a bully and getting into trouble. The principal and Daniel were so well associated that Daniel would shout out “Hey, Mr. Williams, how’s it hanging?” as he passed him in the hall as if it were a scene from a John Hughes movie.
In the sixth grade, our math teacher, Mrs. Schwartz, tried numerous methods for getting Daniel to behave. One day she placed a chair at the front of the classroom facing the rest of the students and had Daniel sit there until he could get the goofiness out of his system. I was ready to see Daniel burst into tears, just as all his other classmates who had been relentlessly picked on by him were probably itching to see as well. He sat there with his head down for a while, looking up on occasion, and the rest of us were instructed to go back to our multiplication worksheets. Then we heard a noise coming from the front of the classroom: a gush of air, a treble in the throat. Was this it? We looked up to see Daniel peering through his bangs, snickering as he watched the class. One of his friends began to giggle as well. Daniel lifted his head higher and looked around at all the faces, laughing outright at his awkward situation, and we all began to laugh too. It was contagious. Soon even Mrs. Schwartz was laughing, and to quiet the classroom back down she dismissed Daniel back to his seat.
This “punishment” may not have been the success she had been hoping for, but it was legions better than the week before when she had shouted at Daniel, “If you can’t be serious, then you should just leave.” At which point he had stood up from his desk, walked out of the classroom, and exited out the door into the parking lot.
Daniel was both a bully and the class clown. Even though he could be a total “dick,” as Brian would say, it was hard to hate him because he was as funny as he was cruel. Plus you aren’t allowed to openly hate popular kids. When I was young we didn’t call kids like Daniel “bullies,” we called them cool. Because that’s how kids who can manipulate to get whatever they want appear to other kids. But I knew Daniel fairly well, and despite the fact that he could be a combative asshole, I also knew he had a good heart.
My older sister and Daniel’s older sister were friends, so I had known Daniel longer than most kids. One of the first memories I have of him is a kind one. I was quite young, maybe only four or five, and I was graduating from my swimming class. On the last day the other beginner swimmers and I were all taken to the deep end where we were instructed to jump off the diving board and into the water. We were all a bit terrified to be in the big kids’ territory. I remember getting out of the shallow end and walking in a line to the deep end, past the bleachers where my sister and mom sat as they waited for my class to end and my sister’s class to start. They and everyone else on the bleachers would be watching me to see if I would be able to do the big jump. When it was my turn, I got up on the diving board and walked out to the end and looked down. There in the water was my swim teacher with the life preserver floating beside her. As small as I was, it looked like she was at least one of my body lengths below me. But I didn’t hesitate. I just stepped off the board and into the water.
I had been so excited that I forgot to plug my nose, and the water gushed up, burning my nose and filling my throat. I surfaced, coughing and gagging, as my teacher offered me the life preserver and floated me toward the wall. But I also heard cheering. I squinted and looked toward the stands where two kids were shouting and clapping for my accomplishment. As I got out of the water I asked my sister, “Who is that?” and she told me that Daniel and his sister had been watching my big jump.
Daniel was not fundamentally or inherently flawed. Like all kids who act up, there were reasons for what he did. Because our sisters were close, I knew things about Daniel that the other kids at school maybe never did. Daniel’s mother was mentally ill. She was institutionalized for a long time and his father was busy running a few local businesses, so Daniel and his sister were mostly raised by his grandparents.
Knowing all this about Daniel should have made me more accepting of his behavior, but when you’re a kid all you care about is whether or not someone is a jerk to you. He fell into drugs at a young age but turned it around just as young. As early as his high school years, he found the military and then found God. I remember championing his work to one of my teachers, trying to help him get a better grade on a beautiful world map he had made for a social studies final project. I wanted Daniel to be happy and succeed in life. If happiness is being married with two kids, working as a computer software engineer, and always having a smile on your face, then I think he has succeeded.