Thinking About You

Abuse Community Duty Empathy Europe Power Psychology

I got into trouble in fifth grade and I think about it every week. It was in the beginning of the school year. We had just switched from elementary to prep school. Except for three of us, everyone else was new.

While we were waiting for the next teacher, some boys had taken Stefan T.’s gym bag and passed it from one to another. Stefan was maniacally running back and forth trying to recover his bag. Other children might have been frantic but he was maniacal. Although Stefan felt the ridicule, he seemed to oddly enjoy the mistreatment and embraced the role that his tormentors had assigned him. With the benefit of time and hindsight, I realize now that Stefan liked being at the center of attention even though he was suffering at the bottom of the pecking order.

You see, Stefan was annoying. I suppose, we all have moments where we are begging for attention and when we surrender our dignity in self-defeating efforts to get the recognition of our peers. The difference was that Stefan behaved that way ALL.THE.TIME.

Pardon, the caps.

Stefan was never off. From the moment he showed up until he left you, he would beg for attention. Although Stefan was too annoying to be nice, he was a kind boy who loved us and who had a seemingly infinite capacity to feel for us. He could feel our pain, sometimes he would feel our joy, yet, tragically, he would rarely relate to us.

At the time, I didn’t understand all of that. But I did recognize that Stefan was alone, that my peers were excluding him, that nobody is that annoying without pain, if I could, I should support him and that it would have been callous and cruel to join his tormentors.

That’s what my mother taught me. Sympathy for outsiders was of the most important thing to her. So she had engaged us into empathy exercises at every opportunity. Therefore I knew exactly how much Stefan would have liked to be included as an equal.

Eventually, somebody passed the gym bag to me. I knew that I ought to return the bag to Stefan, not because I needed to be obedient to my mother. I could have cared less about that. I needed to return the bag to Stefan because I knew what he felt.

But I was too eager to be part of the dominant crowd, too cowardly to stand with the outsider. As Stefan was running towards me with his teeth clenched and exaggerating other elements of his body language, I did not return his bag. I did not respect his dignity. I threw the gym bag over him and . . . hit a girl in the head.

She did not get hurt, not really anyways, but she told on me. When the math teacher arrived, she took me to the administrative offices and wrote me up while the vice principal was barking a rhetorical question about what I might have been thinking. Getting written up meant that my parents would receive an official notice of reprimand in the fabled blue envelop.

In a German school, that is a big deal, worse than after school confinement. Surprisingly, my father, an infantry officer who could get very angry, only remarked that he was disappointed and that he didn’t want to hear about any incident of that magnitude again.

My feeling was that the girl was a tattletale who had no cause to tell on me but that I deserved punishment for cowardly joining Stefan’s tormentors.

In spring or late winter, surprisingly, I received an invitation to Stefan’s birthday party. There must have been seven or eight of us, none of whom were close to him. Nobody was close to Stefan.

Then there was Stefan’s family. If I remember correctly, he was the oldest of three children. They lived in one of the fifteen story high rises, which was exciting in and of itself because they were the highest buildings in our quarter of town. Stefan’s father was a quiet slender man, who must have worked in a leading government capacity because the family had spend some time in Washington, DC, where the mother had attempted to take a picture contrasting super blond toddler Stefan on a park bench with an African American girl, much to the displeasure of the other mother who didn’t appreciate to have her child used as a prop and removed her daughter.

Speaking of Stefan’s mother, when I met her, I knew in less than two minutes why Stefan behaved that way. She was the dominant spouse in that marriage who spend the entire afternoon dumping on her son.

When she related the photo shoot episode in the park to the birthday party, she started: “Well, back then, you were a sweet kid but today, you are just a piece of shit.” And it went on like that the entire afternoon. Within every span of two minutes, she would manage to refer to Stefan as a piece of shit three or four times.

Apparently, she fought it was funny. She was not vitriolic. She just thought it was great fun to call Stefan a piece of shit in front of his peers.

Since Stefan didn’t protest, I concluded that this was his usual fare in that household. He would just pull in his head and shrug his shoulders, not to shrug it off, it was more like an attempt to shelter his head.

It was pitiful and I was only too happy when that “party” was over. I realized, of course, that it was far from over for Stefan. For him, it must have been just another day. The only difference was that he was being humiliated in front of his peers instead of his younger siblings.

Stefan might not have been able to appreciate the concept of futility at the time but at some level, he must have known how his mother would treat him in front of us. Yet, he tried anyways. The birthday party was the one resource at the disposal of a German child to be at the center of attention and to break through social isolation. Having us over must have been his bid for friendship.

That’s why he had invited us and was so happy to welcome us when we arrived. Those of us who went to that party never discussed the event. I wish we would have. I don’t believe that I ever told my mother about it. If I did, it was decades later.

I wanted to help Stefan but didn’t know how. I considered inviting him to my place but with an alcoholic father that was not really an option. Since he lived on the other side of a six lane highway with a streetcar track, an invitation was necessary to meet with him after school. My friends, I feared, would not be willing to include him, you know, Stefan was really annoying. Spending time with him was taxing and I didn’t have the self-confidence to ask my friends to shoulder that burden.

Of course, I never put Stefan down again. I had already stopped that after the incident with the gym bag. And I would like to believe that I tried to facilitate to include him when the opportunity arose. It can’t have been much. I was just a fifth grader, after all.

The next year, my father got transferred and we moved to Cologne. I stayed in touch with my best friend Christian, to whom I was very close. But whenever I visited or called, I cared most about what might have happened to Stefan.

First, I was elated to learn that Stefan had become a math whiz because it put him in a position where he was the one to help everyone to understand calculus. Now Stefan was getting the attention he craved and deserved because he was excellent rather than annoying the bejebus out of all of us.

He proceeded to study mechanical engineering. Sadly, he was unable to procure and hold a job that would be commensurate with his intellectual abilities. He stuck to driving taxi cabs.

I hear that he keeps attending class reunions. While Stefan avoids telling our class mates how he sustains himself, I would like to conclude from his attendance that he still considers us his friends and peers even though we treated him poorly many times. At some level, I must be in denial but Stefan’s attendance indicates perhaps that we contributed to his well being in some way that was meaningful to him.

Another moment that I will never forget was when we were watching our children in kindergarten and a mother remarked: “You know, I observed that (your daughter) Mahalia, when she sees that a child is getting picked on, she tries to help.” I am still happier about that than about her beauty, intelligence, and achievements, although I take pride in those as well.

As for my friend Stefan, I wish that I had been a better friend to you. Given the hand that you have been dealt, I consider you the most successful person ever. And when I come to Mainz, perhaps this summer, I hope that I can relate to you for your sake instead of some cheap effort to make myself feel better.

Alles Gute, mein Lieber.

15 thoughts on “Thinking About You

  1. Excellently written, and thank you for sharing this. It is a constant challenge to all of us. It is disturbing to me how still, at my age, with all that I know… I often find it hard to extend grace to the outsider. As you said, it can be “taxing”.

    I know how you feel about your daughter receiving that compliment. My family is not LDS, but my daughter often goes to their young women’s group. Recently, they wrote letters describing things they like about one another. The leaders of the group had written that my daughter “looks to include those who are on the outside”. I got choked up reading that because I am proud of her, but also I am grateful that she has traits that as an adult I am still trying to develop. Our kids really are the hope for the future…. maybe the future generations are becoming kinder….

  2. Another moment that I will never forget was when we were watching our children in kindergarten and a mother remarked: You know, I observed that (your daughter) Mahalia, when she sees that a child is getting picked on, she tries to help. I am still happier about that than about her beauty, intelligence, and achievements, although I take pride in those as well.

    Well said. This is so true. It is something that we are trying to teach our daughters to be aware of as well.

  3. Congratulations, Andrew. That’s wonderful.
    Reaching out to outsiders is risky. It’s a struggle for me as well.

    When we had our second child, I realized how important status is to human beings. The younger child is incredibly sensitive about being treated well. He is much less concerned about pain. It’s all about respect and equality.

  4. Very cool — another thing to be proud of.

    My daughters had their Christmas carol concert for their school already (no separation of church and state here) and one played a violin duet and the other sang in the choir. The others are too young to participate but we were all there and were very proud of them.

  5. What a beautiful tribute to an outsider, and a remarkably honest look at your childhood experiences. Thanks for sharing this, Hellmut.

    I *was* Stefan through grade school and high school. Looking back, the reason I was tormented by my peers and the reason I sought attention so desperately are obvious, and are very similar to Stefan’s.

    Your story reminds me of one an experience I had as a 10th grader. There was a girl my year who was bold as brass – her name was Roya. Roya came over to my house once or twice, uninvited (I, unlike Stefan, was generally mortified to have anyone from my class visit me at home). After visiting the first time, she started regularly inviting me over to dinner at her house. She lived in the city in a tiny apartment with only her mom. Her dad was Iranian – had gotten her mother pregnant, and then returned to his home country, and left them to fend for themselves. Needles to say, Roya knew something about being an outsider at an all-girl’s Catholic school. Unlike me, though, she had a lot of social collateral. Whereas I was generally terrified of being an outsider, she relished it. She had enormous self-confidence.

    One day at school, one of my classmates sniggered at me and called me a rat, saying “Why don’t you brush your hair, rat head?” Roya was nearby. She turned to the girls, and defended me. She told them if they had to spend a day in my house, they would look far worse than I did. She told them not to talk about something they knew absolutely nothing about. She told them they were out of my league. Then, she told them to leave me alone, and they did.

    Now, I won’t say that my school life magically got any better from that point forward (it didn’t), but her word in my favor really went a long way to making people tolerate me a little more (or at least to leave me to myself, which was blissful). The fact that I remember her courage and kindness almost 20 years later means a lot to me. We were never good friends, but what she did that day was so invaluable to helping me be seen by others as a human being.

    I’m pretty convinced that “troubled youth” generally fall into that category not because they are inherently bad, but because there is some underlying issue at play that isn’t obvious to outsiders. In Stefan’s case, it was severe emotional abuse. In mine, it was severe childhood neglect and desperation.

    Thanks for remembering Stefan, Hellmut. I am sure your kindness – even if in not tormenting him – did not go unnoticed.

  6. Thank you very much, Madame Currie. I am glad that things worked out for you. It is remarkable how resilient human nature can be.

    Thank you too, John. One of those days I have to come by and hear them perform.

  7. Hellmut, that is such a beautiful essay, I’m so touched.

    I can relate to you because my mother also (often to my chagrin) used every opportunity to teach myself and my siblings to truly empathise. It worked, sometimes too well.

    I was not you, nor was I Stefan. I was not a bully nor a bully’s target, I was kind of just a fringe person and not overly upset to be that way. In some contexts I was very odd, but I was oblivious enough to not be hurt by it for the most part. The few times I really got wounded by people I considered friends, was in Mutual (MIA/Young Mens/Young Womens — whatever it is currently called), where my peers did a few very cruel things, that sort of ruined a year or two of my teens. By then I was old enough to work around it a bit, though.

    I’m rambling. Anyhow, I loved your essay, it made me think and feel a lot, and I hope you can meet Stefan and have a conversation again at some point. Maybe you will make a new friend. <3

  8. Thanks for this piece of biography … kids are cruel, and we all have memories of our cruelty, often tinged, even at the moment, with guilt, but we do it anyhow, and then remember those incidents the rest of our life. But you stopped joining in after the gym bag affair – could be the title of a children’s book! Hope you and Stefan can meet up sometime. “Salvation” is very much a process of recalling and retelling these stories – and in the midst of it all, we even find grace. Thanks Hellmut.

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