Have you ever had that feeling - the one way down in your stomach that says you don't quite fit in? The one that whispers in your ear while you're busy pretending everything is fine? That feeling that says you're not quite big enough, or small enough. You're not quite smart enough, or you're too smart. You're not quite pretty enough, you're not quite athletic enough, you're not straight enough, you're different, whatever it may be.
That feeling, that if people knew the real you, knew the secrets that you don't tell anyone, no one would like you. The feeling that no matter how hard you try, you'll never be quite perfect enough.
If so, congratulations. That makes you just about normal. If not, congratulations, you are immortal. You are one of the golden ones.
The golden ones have their own special table at lunch in school, where it is never stated aloud, but everyone knows, that mere mortals will never be invited to tread. They never have bad hair days or get blemishes right on the tip of their nose so the whole world can see them or wear jeans that went out of style last year. They never worry that they will not be asked to prom or that someone will push the books out of their arm when they are walking to a class in which they will get an excellent grade without seeming to have to try too hard. They will graciously smile when the less glowing students congratulate them on a touchdown catch or a cheerleading back handspring or the lead role in the play or another offer for a college scholarship, but they will probably never ask that mortal student how she or he is, or what they might be feeling.
The rest can't help but look at the golden ones - take note of how they talk and dress and that smooth, effortless way they move through the world without ever stuttering or blushing, or seeming to feel anger or worry or fear. Some will try their best to emulate their clothes, movements, opinions and expressions, though it will never quite get them a seat at that table. Others will do their best to look as opposite from the elite as they can.
What one doesn't realize at junior high or high school age is that the golden ones are usually a little more tarnished than they appear. That great cheekbones or big biceps do not mean that a person doesn't have problems and fears - perhaps more fear, because that image of perfection is a tough act to keep up. Luckily, they are not yet aware that beauty, athleticism, popularity may be fleeting currency, it does not necessarily last forever.
The golden ones aren't out to hurt anyone, they are just so used to being admired that it may not occur to them to think much about other people. If they have a sin, it is one of omission - they don't usually speak up for those who could use a hand, because, they usually don't see them.
Then there are the bullies, whose job it is to loudly remind us of our every imperfection, magnify our fears, and more or less generally make life miserable for anyone they can get to.
I feel as sorry for these kids - and the rotten adults they may well grow into - as I do for their victims.
I know how pathetic and weak and insecure bullies are, because I was one of them - for about three minutes.
It was fourth grade at old Hawley School in Fort Dodge, I think. There was a kid named Kevin in class who got made fun of a lot. I wanted to fit in, so one day I made a joke of his surname too, which happened to be much too similar to a species of primate for a bonehead like me to resist.
I don't think I realized that what I thought was funny would hurt Kevin, but that's a lousy excuse. Apparently I was the last of far too many straws in his world.
When I was leaving the classroom that day, Kevin snuck up from behind and gave me a hammer fist square in the middle of my back.
He was a pretty solid kid, and anyone who has ever been hit in that particular spot knows that it kind of knocks the life out of you temporarily, and worse, creates a big echoing boom sort of sound that will have half the school looking around to see what happened, and of course laughing their butts off.
I remember to this day the thoughts as I laid there on the floor, my books spilled out all around, with everyone looking at me:
1. They've done some beautiful grout work on the tile floors of this school. People really should get a close up look at it.
2. As soon as I get some breath back into my aching lungs, I should get up and beat the snot out of Kevin.
3. On third thought, no - I deserve every bit of this. I want to remember what this feels like so I'll never be tempted to be mean to anyone again.
And so I laid there, not really as hurt as I let on, and gave Kevin his moment, and hoped it made up a little bit for my stupid thoughtlessness.
Because Kevin, wherever you are, you gave me much, much more that day. It was probably the best thing I ever learned at that school.
We all need to learn that when someone is getting teased, or abused, or threatened - that not physically hurting someone isn't enough. That not even silence is enough. You have to try to do something. You have to step between the bullies and their victim, you have to ask people if they are OK. Just like I should have done for Kevin.
No piece of writing, no awards, no business success, these days, gives me the pleasure that I get from working with a couple of charities for troubled families and children, teaching the littlest kid in the class my business adopts how to hit a basket, writing on behalf of fundraisers and projects to help those who are need a hand. That's you, Kevin. I'm still trying to push myself up on that smooth, chilly tile, get some air back in me, and make up a little tiny bit for all of my shortcomings.
If I knew nothing else about our governor, the fact that he put together the state's first Summit on Bullying recently would be enough to tell me he is a good man. It's a silly political move - getting caught up in a children's issue, knowing nothing you do will really stop bullying, and knowing when the next tragedy happens, people are going to scoff at you for trying and failing in public. I'm sure you party swanks warned you it was a fool's errand. But it is a brilliant human errand - doing what little you can as a person, in whatever position one has in life, to help. It's a step. Thank you, Terry Branstad.
Truth is, it won't be enough. No conference or expert speakers or prominent authors or slick video package will ever be enough to stop bullying, because it isn't in that world of campaign slogans that bullying is born.
What will stop it is the kids. They bring the change. Always have. An old generation that has fallen short shuffles grumpily aside, and a new one brings a new attitude.
Many of our forms of discrimination have died out or are being rendered extinct in this slow, patient, youthful fashion, turning over a new generation. In a generation's time, people will be amazed that we didn't let gay people marry, or let bright immigrant children achieve a path to citizenship, just as we are now amazed that women once couldn't vote, or blacks ride in the front of the bus.
When their peers look down on bullies for what they are - weak excuses of human beings who take out their own insecurities on others - bullying will begin to disappear. Because the one thing a bully can't live with is being pitied. When kids create an environment where it's OK for someone who is troubled - bully or bullied - to reach out for the help they need, they will find it.
I'm told that in local high schools, it's not the highly trained staff and counselors who are killing bullying, it's kids who see other kids suffering and stand up to it, or report it to someone who can help. We should be proud of them for that. It takes a hell of a lot more courage to stand up to a bully and say, "That it isn't right," than it does to be a shove a smaller kid against a locker.
We can't all be golden ones. We can't all be the biggest and strongest, kings and queens of the school and whatever world eventually waits beyond it. But we all can seize the moment when we are needed, when we can ease someone's pain, reach down to help someone up, just as we hope someone will do that for us when we need it. "Here, grab my hand. Let's get out of here. It's going to be OK." To be a friend to someone totally needs one - that might be the best stuff a kid ever learns.
Funny thing about the golden ones, and the bullies. There are a whole lot more of us than there are of either of them. We're the ordinary people - but we are capable of doing extraordinary things when we need to.
Thank you, Kevin. Wherever you may be tonight, I wish you happiness.
Oh, and ...
Dana Larsen is editor of the Storm Lake Pilot Tribune and a former staff writer at The Messenger.