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Facing down my eighth-grade tormentor

A new Salon series: I tracked down the kid who made my life hell and did the unthinkable -- had a conversation


Steve Almond
September 28, 2011 4:01AM (UTC)

Sean Lynden and I grew up together in the dumpy end of Palo Alto, a quiet college town that has since become the heart of Silicon Valley. We played soccer together as kids. We weren't friends, exactly, but we were friendly.

And then one morning, in our eighth-grade metal shop, he simply stopped speaking to me. He began, instead, a concerted campaign to humiliate me. At first, this took the form of neglect. But pretty soon he was mocking me to his friends, and then they were mocking me, and before long one of them was threatening to kick my ass.

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This went on every single day for months. I wasn't frightened so much as terribly sad and confused. I was an insecure kid, often excluded by my brothers, and therefore hypersensitive to social neglect. I spent weeks puzzling over what I'd done wrong. I cried in my room, not just at Sean's abrupt and unexplained scorn, but also at my own cowardice. Because, of course, I never said anything about this stuff -- not to my parents or brothers, or teachers, or anyone. I felt ashamed of being picked on, and that shame served as my consent.

Steve Almond

Above: The author, at 12

Even after metal shop ended and we moved on to high school and became friendly again, I never confronted Sean about his cruelty. But I also never forgot it. And, like every other bullied kid on earth, I spent more hours than I'd care to admit fantasizing about a day of reckoning.

Here, I suppose, is where the wonders of the Internet enter the picture. They are what allowed me to track down Sean Lynden in a matter of seconds, and to send him an email asking if I could interview him about our time together in that metal shop class, and specifically my memories of his bullying.

I hadn't seen Sean since our high school graduation, nearly 30 years ago. I'd gone on to become a writer and teacher in the Boston area. All I knew about him was that he still lived in California and worked for a venture capital firm. I was certain that he'd decline my request. But I'd underestimated him. He wrote back:

Hey Steve -- happy to talk. Your story is interesting as I honestly don't remember that. Then again, given human nature I find it easy to believe that I may have forgotten or purged a memory where I was the villain.

A few days later, we talked by phone. What follows is an abridged version of our conversation. (I've changed a few names, at Sean's request.)

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So, like I said, I wanted to talk about this brief, intense period of time when -- and I realize this is a memory, so it's totally subjective -- but it felt like you really hated me.

Really?

Yeah. It was mostly in this metal shop class we took together.

I definitely remember taking that metal shop class in eighth grade. And I was thinking about it, since you sent that original email, and I do remember being in a relationship with someone where I was the bully or the dominant, because I remember feeling that. But I never would have put two and two together and thought it was you.

I had this sense of being totally frozen out. And it was clear, or it seemed clear to me, that you were calling the shots. You were the alpha of that group.

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It's funny you would say that, because this was around the time that Billy Dempsey entered the picture --

Yeah, I remember Billy coming up to me at the lockers, I think you were there for this, and threatening to kick my ass.

I don't remember that, but it wouldn't surprise me. The thing is, we had this very tortured relationship where I spent the entire time trying to prove myself to him. Billy was athletically more gifted than me and he was fearless and willing to get into fights with anybody, whereas I always saw myself as an egghead nerd. So it's quite possible, I could easily see, if there was an opportunity for me to prove to Billy that I was his equal in terms of being the macho guy I would have grabbed at it.

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I spent years trying to figure out what I'd done to make you angry, and why you'd be angry at me specifically. This will probably sound crazy, but I wondered if part of the reason, unconsciously anyway … look, I don't want to step over any boundaries, but what I recall was that your parents had gone through a divorce.

Right. It was right around then, seventh or eighth grade, when they separated.

So I developed this theory that you turned on me because you saw me as coming from this happy family where the parents were still married.

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[Pause] You know, it's possible, I mean, I don't remember that specifically, but I'm sure I was going through all kinds of feelings and frustrations during that time period. But there's a yin and yang to the situation. Because I grew up in a family with two sisters who were much older than me. And I remember from elementary school on that I had a hard time making friends. So I don't think I would have gone after you just because you had the happy family. It would have been more the other way around: that if by bullying you I could actually get what I wanted -- the brothers, the friends, the whole thing -- then, I could easily see myself doing that, because I still find myself going out of my way to be someone I don't think I really am to impress people. As sad as this will sound, I've always struggled to be more popular than I am.

The popular jock?

Yeah. Like Jim Meaney. Remember him?

Of course.

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I can still remember watching him, the big soccer star, the guy who got all the girls, and telling myself: "Don't be jealous of this guy. This is as good as it's going to get for him." But everyone wants to be Jim Meaney in high school.

One other thing I should mention, there are different kinds of bullying and harassment at every different age. But you would not be the first person to accuse me of verbal or mental bullying. Actually, there's a woman I work with who, half-jokingly, calls me a bully, just because of the kinds of jokes I make, and because of the way I handle myself in arguments. And as you know, because you've always been a funny guy, too, once you find something that works -- you make a joke, "Hey, look at Almond wearing that ugly shirt!" and everyone laughs -- you go back to that well. Very quickly that can spiral out of control. And it isn't necessarily that I like or dislike you. It's just that I can make myself look good by making you look bad and you don't always care, especially as a teenager, who you hurt along the way.

It's weird talking to you about this so many years later, because I always felt like there was this split in your personality that I identified with. On one hand, you could be competitive and snide, even a little vicious. But that was more like a cover for this more introspective insecure guy.

Oh, definitely. And part of that, too … you know it's funny. If, like, you were advising one of your writing students you would never come up with such a hackneyed artifice, but if you think about where all this was happening, it was in metal shop. Remember metal shop? You had kids making throwing stars in the corner, all these big machines. It was like center court for the whole junior high school male machismo ideal. And part of it could be that you got picked out because you were safe. If I'd teased Tony Miletello he probably would have kicked my frickin' ass after school. But you and I both knew it wasn't going anywhere physically. We just weren't those kinds of guys.

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I was totally inept with those machines. Actually, for months after that class, one of my eyes would get red and tear up. My dad finally took me to a specialist, who used this very powerful microscope and he found this tiny little shard of metal that had gotten in my eye from one of those machines. And for me -- you want to talk about sentimental literary metaphors? -- but for me, what happened between us in that class was something I carried around for years, like a little shard of metal in my eye. I'm amazed that I never had the guts to say, like, "What was going on, man? Why'd you do that to me?" But I guess I was afraid if I brought it up at all it would make me seem like a wimp.

Honestly, what I remember is later on, in high school, when we were kind of friends. You remember that time your dad took us to see "Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sex," that Woody Allen movie? I'll never forget that, because we were, like, these prepubescent kids and suddenly there were these boobs on-screen.

I have no recollection of that whatsoever, though it does sound like something my dad would totally do.

After the movie we went to get ice cream at Swensen's, and I still think about that because it was the most awkward half-hour of my life.

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You know, one thing I was always curious about, because I remember hanging out with your dad, too, was why you didn't live with your mom after the divorce.

She did have custody initially. But the issue with my mom, she was working these weird jobs, like the graveyard shift at Hewlett-Packard, and I remember she also worked at Jack-in-the-Box. And my dad would sometimes stop by in the afternoon and there would be no groceries in the house. I was this absolute latchkey kid. So my dad finally said, "Look, I'm moving back in, because Sean needs to have a parent around." And my mom moved out. That was the break. I mean, I was 12 years old. I wasn't going to leave my house and go live in some apartment in another town. To my mom, that meant I had chosen my dad over her. But I was just along for the ride.

You seemed like this motherless child to me.

That was true. I still don't speak to my mom, to this day. My sisters have struck up a relationship with her. But I have two 5-year-old twins and my mom has never seen them. That's a topic for another conversation probably.

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Yeah. Wow.

Look, I really have to go. But I just want to say, even though I don't really remember it, I definitely apologize for being a dick.

End note: Obviously, I forgive Sean Lynden. In fact, there's a lot I didn't include in this interview that suggests how tough it must have been for Sean growing up. Whatever grief he put on me, all those years ago, he came by honestly.

The panic merchants of the Fourth Estate have done much in recent years to sell us various lurid bullying narratives, all of them rendered as compact dramas of good versus evil, and most ending in violence. This is how we, as a culture, like our cruelty served. But the question of why one kid, or a group of kids, decides to bully another kid is complicated. The tyranny resides both in circumstances and psychology. Behind every bully story, I mean, there’s a whole system of damage.

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What happened between me and Sean Lynden is an example of the emotional abuse troubled adolescents inflict on each other all the time. Talking with Sean after all these years, what strikes me is how, in crucial ways, we were the same kid: lonely youngest siblings who cracked jokes to mask how sad we were most of the time, geeks who turned on each other to prove ourselves worthy of the jocks at the top of the pecking order. In a kinder world, we would have been best friends.


Steve Almond

Steve Almond's new book is "Against Football." Follow him on Twitter @stevealmondjoy.

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