‘He’s Just So Weird’

Hunt or be hunted: the world of teenagers. Like wild beasts roaming the plains of Africa, the weaklings are soon picked off and devoured. The socially advantaged have a sixth sense for singling out those with especially low self-esteem. I am not by any means placed high on this food chain, having been a victim of harsh words and stinging insults myself. Although not comfortable withstanding the taunts of others, I have never felt worse than when the roles were reversed, as I watched my prey crumple from wounds I had inflicted.

In seventh grade a select group of students in chorus traveled to Washington D.C. for the annual Cherry Blossom Festival. Seating arrangements on the bus encouraged new friendships. My friends and I hovered around two boys, a bass and a tenor. By the end of the trip we had christened our group the ‘Huggy Bears.’ After the weekend, however, one person in our group began to lose favor. Ethan, the bass, recognizable by his long, greasy curls and volcanic acne, just did not seem to fit in. "He’s just so weird," we said when we met behind his back.

We used these superficial excuses to eliminate Ethan from our clique. As plans formed in our scheming minds, we kept up the front of friendship, snickering as an oblivious Ethan walked into our trap. Our chance arrived when we learned that Ethan intended to ask out one of the ‘Huggy Bears,’ the spunky and outgoing Nicole. The thought of them dating was nauseating but made us quake with laughter. A seemingly brilliant idea came to us; once Nicole rejected his proposal, our entire group of friends would discard him like a used Kleenex. When Ethan asked her out, Nicole would respond with biting profanity. Like a zealous crowd cheering as a matador provokes a timid bull, the rest of us planned to be spectators to the event.

The big day arrived and everyone was in place to witness the freak show. We shushed each other as Ethan shyly approached Nicole at her locker, posing his question with a hopeful smile. As soon as the vicious insults slipped from Nicole’s lips, the other ‘Huggy Bears’ rolled out from their hiding places, convulsing on the floor with laughter. But as we looked up to see Ethan’s reaction, our malicious cackles caught in our throats like sawdust. His confident smile had faded to a look of perplexed sadness. Utterly defeated, Ethan mumbled a good bye and slumped away. We exchanged looks, the realization of our inhumanity dousing our faces like ice-cold water. In silent agreement, we never discussed what happened, and guilty glances were our only form of apology to Ethan.

Years later my friends and I have all told Ethan how desperately sorry we were for our foolishly cruel actions. My stomach turns when I imagine the pain he went through as six of his close friends humiliated and disowned him. Today, Ethan suffers from depression and social anxiety, problems he tells me run in his family. However, I can’t help but wonder: how much of what we did remains with Ethan today? After all, self-esteem is fragile, easily shattered by careless words.

This essay originally appeared on Tolerance.org, the website of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Alabama.