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Stand By Me
LIN JENSEN opens his heart to a
schoolyard bully and learns that there isn't much hope for any of
us when some of us are left out.
A few years after I undertook Buddhist
practice, I took the four bodhisattva vows, the first of which is, "Though beings are numberless, I vow to save them all."
"All beings?” I asked. “People,
birds, trees, stones?"
"All beings," I was told.
"How," I asked, "do I save all
The answer: "By letting them in."
Though I didn't quite grasp the
implications of it at the time, in taking the vow to save all
beings, I’d committed myself not only to “save” my family,
friends, and the checkout clerk at the grocery store, but my supposed
enemies as well—all the people I most feared and disliked in the
world. I’d undertaken a practice of total inclusion.
I’d already learned something of what
this might mean from Leo Schroff. When I was in seventh and eighth
grade, he was the shunned schoolyard bully—unpredictable and
violent. Once when a kid named Jerry stepped into the bus line in
front of Leo to talk to a buddy, Leo yanked Jerry out of line,
smacked him across the face, and threw his books into a mud puddle.
And when Jerry’s buddy complained, Leo grabbed him as well, knocked
him to the ground, and spit on him.
Having been held back several grades,
Leo was bigger than the rest of us. Teachers seldom asked him
questions in class or tried to include him in any way, and when they
did try to include him, he’d often say something that made no sense
at all. One of my classmates looked up the word “idiot” in the
school dictionary and found that it referred to someone with a mental
age of less than three years. And so Leo was alternately dubbed an
“idiot” or a “retard.”
Leo would sometimes get into our lunch
bags on the shelf in the cloakroom and take whatever he wanted for
his own lunch. When he stole a sandwich and chips from me, I was too
intimidated to protest and wouldn’t eat what little was left of my
lunch for fear Leo might have touched it. He often came to school
scabby and bruised, and he’d let his nose drip without doing
anything to wipe it clean. All in all, he was a social outcast.
But witnessing Leo in his isolation day
after day, at times I felt uneasy about taking part in the exclusion.
The day Leo’s father showed up during
recess challenged my views of this. I don’t know what Leo might
have done to so anger his father, but suddenly there his father was
coming across the schoolyard shouting at Leo that he was “a dumb
bastard.” Seeing him, Leo froze on the spot and started shaking and
crying. Leo’s father was a big man, and when he shoved his face
into Leo’s, Leo looked small by comparison. I heard him say once
more, “You’re nothing but a dumb bastard,” and then I saw Leo’s
head get popped backward. His father took off and Leo was left
spitting blood on the grass. I’d never seen Leo cry before and I’d
never known him as a victim of anyone else’s bullying. I came up to
Leo. “Are you okay?” I asked.
“What’s it to you, you little
bastard?” Leo said.
Well, what it was to me was that for
the first time I was actually seeing Leo as another human being, and
since my own father beat me as well, I knew something of Leo’s
feelings. Had I not been so small, hesitant, and fearful, I might
have been a bully myself.
Not long after Leo’s father appeared
at school, a new student, Ron Coleman, enrolled. Ron was athletic and
as big as Leo, but he was also quiet, easygoing, and not at all
inclined to use his size as a threat. Apparently, though, size itself
was threat enough for Leo, who quickly picked a fight with Ron. Leo
knew nothing of fighting fair and he gave Ron a bloody nose before
Ron even knew he was in a fight. But after that, Ron held his own,
and being quicker and smarter than Leo, soon had the advantage. Ron
could snap the fingers of his left hand above Leo’s head and Leo
would drop his guard and quite stupidly look up, leaving Ron to hit
him at will.
A bunch of guys formed a circle around
the fight, egging Ron on and taunting Leo with any insult they could
think of. And then Ron, realizing the sad limits of the person he was
fighting, simply stopped, and shaking his head in what I took to be
disgust at his part in the cruelty, turned and walked away. But
everyone else kept the circle closed around Leo, taking advantage of
the opportunity to pay him back for his bullying. Leo was bleeding
from the mouth and his eye was swelling shut. That’s when I went
and stood beside Leo, and this time Leo didn’t insult me or push me
away. And that’s when Ron came back into the circle and shook Leo’s
hand and, with an arm around his shoulder, led him away from his
Dick Ranney, the school’s unofficial
P.E. teacher, had come upon the fight just in time to see how it
dissolved. The very next day, he herded a bunch of us into a cleared
space in a maintenance shed at the far end of the schoolyard. He had
pairs of boxing gloves, and he explained to us that boxing was a
gentleman’s sport and that if we were going to fight, we needed to
learn to box properly. So the weekly lessons began, and Leo took to
it. The only ones big enough to spar with Leo were Ron and Dick
Ranney himself. But Leo got better and better at boxing until only
Ranney, who’d once been on a college boxing team, was able to
seriously challenge him. The consequence of this was that Leo now
thought of himself as a boxer and would tell anyone he could get to
listen that boxing was “a gentleman’s sport.”
In time, Leo more or less quit bullying
us, though you still couldn’t risk crossing him in any obvious way.
Ron started bringing extra lunch and sharing it with Leo and some of
the other students would hand him an extra apple or orange or
hard-boiled egg from time to time.
After that, Leo only rarely stole from
our lunches, for which we were thankful. I think most of us quit
casting Leo so much in the role of an outsider. We’d learned from
Dick Ranney and Ron Coleman’s examples to at least partially
Leo left school for good at the end of
that year, having outgrown the age of attendance required by law.
After Leo’s departure from school, I’d see him from time to time
at Friedson’s dairy wearing splattered rubber boots and herding
cows through the muddy yards into the milking shed. Eventually the
dairy was shut down and what remained of the dairy herd was carted
off for tallow or dog food. The weeds took over and that was the last
I saw of Leo.
At length, I came to understand that
there’s not much hope for any of us if some of us are left out. For
five years now, I’ve served as Senior Buddhist Chaplain at High
Desert State Prison, a maximum-security prison in Susanville,
California, where I counsel men who, like Leo and his father, are
caught in the downward spiral of bitterness and guilt. The Buddhist
inmates at the prison had been without a teacher for more than four
years when I was asked if I would please come. I had my plans pretty
well mapped out at the time and didn’t really want to undertake
anything more. Furthermore, High Desert State Prison is on the
eastern side of the Sierra Nevada, a drive of two and a half hours
from Chico, the town I live in on the western side. I said I’d
think it over.