I was in fourth grade when I became fully aware of the social world. Of course, this sounds like a pedestrian thing to say, but I mean it in a very specific way. I had an event (and even calling it that sounds melodramatic) that changed me. Forever.
I grew up with loving parents. Sure, they divorced when I was four, but I have no memories of hearing them fight with each other. They divorced very quietly; my father wanted to see other women, and soon after, my mother discovered she also wanted to see other women. They shared custody, I was never dragged into family court or asked who I’d rather lived with or if either of my parents had ever abused me. They hadn’t. They were good, decent people, even if Dad ended up a crackhead. Crackheads can be decent people, too.
But I digress.
I didn’t really care for the other students at school. Not that I actively disliked them, but I lived in my own imagination more than anything. I played four square and tetherball at recess but I didn’t have close friends. I didn’t really have anything going on socially. I existed, people were cordial to me, and I was cordial in return. And then I’d go home and hang out in my room, or with my family. Summers were spent in Illinois, far away from south Florida and any potential friends, because my mother’s parents took us in each summer, which saved my social worker mother a great deal in child care costs. My friends were my cousins, and I never had to worry that I would become unpopular with them. Cousins are the friends you can’t get rid of.
His name was Robbie. I couldn’t tell you his last name, all I know of him is an image in my head of small little boy with a long bowl cut, the kind that were popular in the ‘80s for little boys. He was skinny and he had scars on his face and his body from car accident. And he was poor. You could tell he was poor. His clothes looked like they were in poor shape. His fingernails were dirty. And when we walked home from school to the neighborhood next to it, Robbie went to a motel in the neighborhood while the rest of us went to a house (a duplex in my case).
Naples is where I grew up, and Naples is where wealthy people live. Larry Bird, Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise (when they were married), Judge Judy, the current owner of the Miami Marlins– all have had places in Naples. My dad was in and out of prison for my early years, and when he was out of prison… he still didn’t pay my mother any child support. Mom was (well, is, she is the real salt of the earth here) a social worker, with two kids, in a town with outrageously high cost of living, in the eighties, when materialism was at its height. What label were you wearing became an important question all through my school years.
But back in fourth grade, none of that truly connected. Not really.
I always made a habit of being nice to the new kid in class. I remember teachers telling me it was hard for new kids, because they didn’t know anybody, and I couldn’t imagine such a feeling. I never once switched schools from K-12. I always knew everyone. I made one of the best friends I’ve ever made in my lifetime, Kirsten, because she was the new kid in fifth grade. I still love Kirsten dearly.
Robbie was the new kid, and so I was nice to him. I noticed the other kids weren’t too friendly. He attached himself to me eagerly. Too eagerly for my comfort. I was just used to being nice to people. But okay, I was friendly back. We’d talk to each other on the walk home. I don’t remember much about Robbie. But looking back, I’d say he was sweet and cheerful despite the hand that had been dealt him in his tiny little life. He wanted friends. He wanted people to be nice to him. It’s what we all want. It’s what the teacher told us to do for the new kids. I was nice.
And for the first time in my life, my peers made me pay for it. They accused me of having a crush on him (how do you even have a crush when you’re 9?). They told me he was dirty and poor. And then they asked the worst question, the question I didn’t want to hear, the question I dreaded and the question I’ve regretted my entire life:
“Is Robbie your friend?”
What? Robbie? The poor, dirty kid? My friend? Of course not. I was just nice to him once and now I can’t get rid of him. Of course he’s not my friend, I assured everyone. I lived in the neighborhood proper, see? Not at the Sands Motel. My face wasn’t all messed up with scars.
And I distanced myself from him. I don’t know if he ever knew why. Why his one friend who was kind had suddenly gone ice cold. I’ve cried for Robbie in my 40 years of living more times than I can say. I’ve cried more for Robbie than I have for myself, when my middle school friends dumped me not once but twice (my mother still won’t forgive them for it, and I love her for that). I’ve cried more for Robbie than any personal social shame I’ve ever felt, and I know I’ll cry for Robbie again and again before I die.
Because it wasn’t just about Robbie. It wasn’t just about some sweet little boy the same age as my darling nephew being shunned by his one friend. It was about me, a loss of innocence, a realization that I had to start caring what my peers thought of me. I never regained that sense of carefree indifference again, no matter how badly I’ve strained.
Robbie is why I don’t want to care what anyone thinks of me. Robbie is why I want to shave my head just to have the weight of my hair off of my sore brain.
The other kids at school are why I’m looking at “cute feminine short haircuts for thick hair” instead of doing what I really want to do, which is go into the other room and grab the clippers and give myself a buzzcut. Britney Spears did it because she didn’t want people fussing over how she looked. She was sad and didn’t want to care what the world thought.
I don’t know where Robbie is now. But I’m crying for him again. I’m crying for that little boy who was poor and injured, and for that little girl who was too scared to be his friend. I’m crying for innocence that can never be taken back.
Wherever you are, Robbie. I’m sorry. You’ll never know how much.