There used to be two kinds of people in my world. The predator and the prey. We all know that life for children is a dramatic balancing act on the line between bullying and being bullied, tormenting or being tormented. As a child I stuck close to Darwinism. I wasn’t raised that way. My father didn’t teach me to be so afraid of the world that I had to grind it down into the ground just to feel safe. My mother never told me that the only way to avoid cruelty was to be cruel but, being a child—and a particularly unlikeable one—that was the only truth life had taught me so far. And I, like everyone else my age, taught it to someone else.
In the second grade my parents, having no idea what to do with me, sent me to an after-school recreational camp. It was in the basement of a church, a place so unreligious a person could sit back, relax and completely forget the words kindness and compassion. It was always too dark and the food that was supposed to be warm was always cold. None of our counselors were particularly unkind, but they spoke to us as if we were their peers, and within days we began acting that way. Normally, children are taught the difference between being nice and being mean. An adult figure will take their hands and pull them into a corner to tell them exactly why they shouldn’t call Susie names or why hitting Michael is wrong. Not us. We were allowed to fester in every mean idea that came into our heads. Being in that camp was a lot like being alone. We all spent so much time being afraid of thinking or feeling out of the norm that we had very little room to form true friendships. Everything was temporary, everything was artificial. The dim, windowless rooms, and cold food made us feel like prisoners, and as prisoners we began to turn our lonely aggression on one another.
I’d had a friend in the beginning of the camp. She was a frumpy, inarticulate, all-around ungraceful girl named Joy. We would sit together at snack time and playtime as though it were completely normal to masticate sweet oranges in stony silence. Despite her unattractiveness as a person and despite my cold, little seven-year-old heart we called one another “friend” and took the time every day to laugh at nothing together and trade yogurts for pretzels. When you are a child, the notion of farce does not even enter your mind. If you were to ask me then, during snack time, if Joy was my friend—and I hers—I would have provided you with a solid, indignant yes. If you were to ask me now, I would tell you the truth: that I despised her wholly. I despised her unkempt hair, her dirty clothes, her putrid smell, and all the similarities between us. Above all I despised that she was the only person at camp willing to sit next to me.
An opportunity arose. It had become the fashion with us to choose one of our peers to ostracize, publicly humiliate, and then tear apart. Perhaps it was her unassuming nature, perhaps it was her inability to bathe, but Joy was chosen to be rent asunder. Being children, young children, we were creative in everything but our insults. The whole camp had gathered in the underground gymnasium and surrounded the poor girl, shouting her name as if it were a curse, shoving her. I remember this moment distinctly as if, because of my shame, it has followed me through the years to sicken me without warning. Someone, I can’t remember who, started the chant “Joy’s gay! Joy’s gay!”. To a child this is not homophobia. It is merely another barb to throw at one’s inexplicable enemies, and we did. After no more than a second’s hesitation, I joined in the chanting, grasping the shoulder of this girl who I called my friend. I remember that her shoulder was cold and skinny under my fingers. That day we drained her of her small power. We chanted and chanted with high, furious child voices until the girl Joy was gone, and only her pitiful crying remained. Only when she stopped protesting, stopped defending herself did we stop. All the fervor drained out of us in an instant, and the crowd dissipated. We left her sobbing in the hallway, alone. Joy left the camp that day and never came back. And if I’d thought that joining in on this destruction of her innocent oblivion would gain me acceptance, I was wrong. After that I was more lonely than I’d ever been and I realized, in my resultant solitude, how what I’d done was beyond unforgivable.
For the this part of my youth I was aimless. It is this way with most very young children, I think. We were still too young to have grandiose dreams about our futures, and we hadn’t yet developed solid moral character. Yes, we know that we should listen to mother and father, or we would not get our cookies. We didn’t grasp, however, the enormity of goodness for the sake of goodness. It was this lack of aim that left us susceptible to what some like to call the Lord of The Flies effect. We were left to our own devices and reverted to what might be our base natural patterns. We became like beasts.
When a person makes such mistakes as this, it is hard to determine exactly where the crime lies. Was it in my betrayal of Joy? I had not only abandoned her and thrown her to the wolves, but I bared my teeth and began growling as well. Or perhaps my crime was unto myself? Did I momentarily destroy some inner goodness in myself? Did I lower myself from what I should have been as a free thinking human to nothing more than a beast? Lastly perhaps, my crime may be that in the face of a real occasion, I did not stick to my worship of heroism. I proved myself nothing more than those I despised.
We all reach a point at which we can see the human nature in our actions, when we know that we are not completely unique from one another, as the idealists would have us steadfastly believe we are. When we reach that point, all the innocence and naiveté of childhood is gone, and we are adults. This has been the most prominent of many such human moments in my life. Yes, I was wrong to do what I did to Joy, and so were all the other children, but children we were. As children we only knew the simplest of laws by which to abide: that we should emulate that which we wanted to accept us.
Who was I then? I was a child without personality. I had no interests, no infant passions, no dreams of becoming. This grim, cruel revelation brought out a belated sense of justice in me. After the act, I felt sickened, and that very sickness was the first I’d ever felt that there was a distinct right and wrong in the world. My fellow attackers would later grow to represent the masses, a force about which I had to learn to make choices. Follow, do not follow. Believe, disbelieve. Together we displaced on her all the fear we had about the bigger issues of the world and the hate we replicated from the air around our caretakers. I will always deeply regret what I visited on her, and if ever given the chance, I will act as the adult that takes the child by the hands and pulls them into the corner to teach them that this is not the way. I’ve tried for years to figure out what it was that Joy herself represented. Was she my innocence? Was she the underdog of our small society? Was she the pathos that I lacked then, but so enthusiastically apply now? This is what I realize: Joy was merely Joy. She was herself and we made her hate herself for it. That is enough.
This set the tone for the rest of our lives. It’s a commonly known phenomenon that humans are bound by an innate compulsion to imitate, and we stretch this to the most ludicrous lengths. We see a crowd running and, without question, we immediately run with them. We fear what everyone else fears. We support what everyone else supports. We love what others love. We write what others write. Why? Why must we imitate to survive? It is simple: fear. We are trained from birth to fear rejection, and rejection is the punishment for deviation from the social norm. There are a million reasons that human beings fear rejection, but the simple fact remains that we do, and unfortunately always will.