I had decided to introduce Sharon to Judy, having cleared it with Sam. Sam was very possessive about our time with Judy because she was always so busy with her life and we didn’t get to see her much. Sam didn’t want to share her with too many people.
I told Sam that I had known Sharon from girl scout camp the summer between 4th and 5th grade and that she was definitely deserving, perfectly capable of keeping a secret, and besides she really needed to spend some time around someone like Judy. Sam finally agreed.
Judy was the most self-confident person either Sam or I had ever met. She seemed so totally at home and happy with herself and like she couldn’t care less what people thought of her. I’ve never met any kid like that and I’ve certainly never met any adult like that, ever. Judy didn’t seem to be either a kid or an adult. I guess she was an alien or an angel doing penance, but whatever, it didn’t matter. What mattered was that she talked to us like we were real people, not just kids, and that she said she enjoyed the company of little kids the very best because they hadn’t yet forgotten where they came from and who they were. It struck me when she said this because once in a Burger King in Berkeley, back when I used to eat meat, I heard this little boy say to his mom,
“Mommy, who are we?”
His mom answered, “Why, we’re Jason and Olivia, honey.”
Then the little boy said, and I’ll never forget it, “But who are we REALLY?!”
Even then I was smart enough to know the kid was trying to get to the bottom of something deeper than their names. His mom didn’t though, she answered, very, lamely. “We are Jason and Olivia and that’s that. Now eat your fries.”
I wanted to take the kid aside and say, “Hey kid, I know what you’re talking about.” Or, I sort of do. I mean, WHO ARE WE REALLY? Are we big giant turtles dreaming ourselves in this life? Or maybe super intelligent beings imagining multiple existences at once. Or maybe we’re just the axons and dendrites of a super human and our world is only in her mind, or just anything other than Jason and Olivia in a Burger King on planet Earth in the made up year of 1976!
Unlike Jason’s mother who didn’t get it, Judy got everything, even when not well thought out or explained. It was like she understood us from a place we didn’t have to explain ourselves, just intuitively. So Sam and I took Sharon one late November Saturday to the youth hostel where Judy was staying that particular week. She had recently relocated from some friend’s house where it was “no longer cool to stay.” A guy, I got the impression, but I didn’t ask.
“Hey guys, how’s it going?” She was leaning up against the front gate of this weird looking house in a neighborhood I’d never been to that seemed a little sketchy. We had taken the bus there. “Who’s this?”
“This is Sharon,” Sam said, she could use some help.
Judy invited us in and we sat in the main room of the hostel, a communal living room with cats-eyes on the wall and lots of macramé hanging plant holders with spider plants and ferns in them, and Judy listened to Sharon tell what was going on at school. I hadn’t even realized she was actually getting punched in the stomach by some of the boys. The BOYS! She hadn’t told me that part. I started to cry and Sam just looked at the floor and wouldn’t look up. We were all sort of waiting, I think for Judy to say something like, we should learn how to stand up for ourselves, or talk to a parent or teacher, or something. Teachers were of no help, by the way, they liked the popular kids just as much as the other kids did and always figured out a way to say it must be “a misunderstanding.” And even if Sharon’s parents had been a viable option, which they weren’t, it would have made things worse if they talked to the school about it. Everyone knew this from some other kids who had dared to tell their parents and whose parents actually cared enough to talk to the principle. Retribution was far worse for those kids than for the ones who just took it and kept their mouths shut. Better to wait it out and hope they get bored with you and move on to their next victim. Anyway, telling grown-ups was definitely not an option.
Judy sat and listened to the whole long, horrific tale and then said, “Wow, that’s intense. They’re making you a scapegoat.”
“What’s a scapegoat?” I asked, and Sam gave me a look like I was stupid or something. He was always afraid of Judy thinking we were just stupid kids after all and so never let on when he didn’t know something.
“In the old days, back in the days of the Bible and the Talmud and the Koran and books like that, she said, there was a practice of taking a goat and assigning all the bad feelings and bad things that happened to the village in the past year to the goat. Then the town’s people would beat it with sticks and drive it out into the wilderness to wander and starve to death. It was supposed to take the sins of the town from the town,” she said.
“That’s awful!” I yelled, “The poor goat!” Maybe I sounded a little too upset by this, but I like goats, they’re sweet. That’s why they have them in petting zoos. They don’t hurt anyone. They just look at you with those cute little goaty faces and sort of say, “Do you like me? I like you!”
“I don’t get it,” Sam said, for once unafraid of contradicting Judy. “What’s that got to do with Sharon being bullied?”
“They’re assigning their bad feelings about themselves to her and making her take the blame and suffer for the group as a whole. It’s madness, I know, but think about it: You’re kid “A” who feels insecure and uncool and kid “B” who is super popular, but secretly insecure and not at all sure he deserves coolness and popularity or can keep coolness and popularity, decides to divert attention from his possible uncoolness by pointing out kid “C” as being uncool. Kid “A” meanwhile, wanting to impress kid “B” begins to torment kid “C”. Then the others, kids D through G, wanting to be “cool” too, take up the cause and put all of their fear and anxiety onto kid “C” and pretty soon all the fear adds up and everyone either gets on board or risks a bad fate. It’s a mob mentality. It’s got nothing to do with Sharon herself, she was just in the wrong place at the wrong time and caught the eye of some insecure kid at the wrong moment.”
“Thank you,” Sharon said, and held her head a tiny bit higher I think, “for saying I didn’t cause it.”
“I am definitely not kid “A”.” I said.
“Glad to hear that,” said, Sharon.
“Great, so we understand their messed up heads now, and feel real sorry for them and their sad pathetic need to be popular” Sam said in a very sarcastic voice. “The point is, WHAT DO WE DO ABOUT IT?!” He seemed a little too mad, but I didn’t pay attention.
“Make it very “UNcool” to bother Sharon. Most people are sheep. They follow. You guys should lead.
“Easier said than done.” Sam said, “We’re not exactly popular ourselves.” But my brain was already ticking.
Suddenly, Judy stood up. “Are you guys free for the day?”
We looked at her and nodded. “Let’s go on a field trip.” She pulled a big old-fashioned door key from her pocket. The kind from a storybook, that goes to a really old big heavy door. It had a curly-cue top with a purple tassel attached, and a lot of mystery to it -the way she dangled it in front of our eyes like a hypnotist.
“Where to?” I asked. I felt like that key was the key to something bigger than just a house or an apartment.
“To a magical place, where we can get our Mojo back.” She said. “Who’s got bus money? I’ll need to borrow some.”