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He used to talk to pigeons. He would crack his first smile at lunchtime when they would greet him on the playground. I suspect he conversed with them at other times too. Perhaps they followed him home, making sure he arrived there safely. He seemed most at ease when they were by his side.
Hail Mary full of grace the Lord is with thee…
I lived next door to the convent with its adjoining catholic school. I would reluctantly wake up at 8 am, roll out of bed and complete my morning routine with enough time to join the other kids before the morning bell rang. We would arrive on the playground wearing our uniforms, groomed to reflect our holiness. There, we would find our common allies so we wouldn’t have to stand alone amidst the ranks. We spent our time playing various versions of tag while waiting to be called inside.
I didn’t see him on those mornings. I think he knew better than to subject himself to his peers during those unattended morning hours. The schoolyard could be a dangerous place for all of us, especially if you were different.
Holy Mary Mother of God pray for us sinners…
It was 1976 and our school was our second home. God, our second father. It was a small building that housed wooden desks organized neatly in rows. A crucifix in each classroom watched over us, a constant reminder of how much Jesus endured so that we could be saved. The walls were decorated with construction paper trees, our self-portraits adorning the branches. The letters of the alphabet held hands and circled the room, stapled to the bulletin boards. A light chalk dust mist hovered just above our heads.
“The schoolyard could be a dangerous place for all of us, especially if you were different.”
The nuns taught us how to add and subtract, monitored our bathroom breaks, and led us in a chorus of hymns. Inside those walls, we learned about being good Christians, but when left to our own, we could be much less.
Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name…
We started our morning with prayer – disciplined to be good soldiers of God. By noon, we marched single file back to the playground where our social currency was on display for all to see. It was here that we rekindled our alliances so as not to be counted among the friendless.
His name was John. His classmates knew this though they used other names to get his attention. He sat alone on the hill each noontime hoping no one would see him and hoping someone would be his friend. But we didn’t take the lessons from the parable of the Good Samaritan. Instead, we shunned him, looking the other way as the older boys hurled their insults —
I could hear him mumble, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” That old saying. He whispered it to himself as if he believed it. I think he also told the pigeons, hoping they would agree.
O my God I’m heartily sorry for having offended thee…
After their antics at lunchtime, the bullies would straighten their ties and comb their hair, attempting to look presentable to their Lord. They stood in solidarity, satisfied that they weren’t sinners as they watched John say goodbye to the pigeons. Back inside, the day went on as usual for most kids while their classmate suffered in silence.
…and I detest all my sins because of thy just punishments.
As long as they confessed their sins, they were told, God would forgive even the most egregious acts. So at the end of each day, as they bowed their heads in prayer, the boys would say they were sorry. Tomorrow would be different. Their memories were short, however, and the next day, wearing their religion as a shield, they would continue where they left off. “Faggot!” “Hey, Faggot!” – those words echoed through the schoolyard.
At the time, the words “gay” and “faggot” were newly released to us, spilling out from the doors of Stonewall. Fear and loathing of lesbians and gay men had become more fashionable in the seven years since “those people” marched out of the closet. If you could, you ran fast from these words lest they swallow you whole. I remember asking my parents what “gay” meant. “Happy,” they answered. But John wasn’t happy. The incongruity in what I was told and what I saw stayed with me. Some 40 years later, I can still see John finding solace among the pigeons.
I didn’t participate in the bullying. I say this as if that somehow absolves me. I didn’t try to stop it either. They were older. To be seen with John would seal my own fate and I needed to belong. Perhaps I was afraid of being entangled in the web of homophobia. Perhaps I was afraid to respond. I was 10 years old.
“I didn’t try to stop it. Perhaps I was afraid of being entangled in the web of homophobia. Perhaps I was afraid to respond. I was 10 years old.”
During his weekend reprieve, you could find John at Sunday mass. He was an altar boy, attending every week, in service to the Lord. He found comfort while on the altar. Here he felt closest to God, whom, I suspect, told him he was perfect just as he was. I suspect God assured him – he was not a sinner. He felt relieved at least for a short time. But that relief melted away like the wax from the altar candles when he returned to the schoolyard on Monday. Not even his religion could save him then.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit…
His sister found him under the tree in their backyard. If you looked closely enough you could see the bullies’ words beside him.
We were all culpable. Except for the pigeons.
This post originally appeared on Medium.
Author’s Note: In 1976, John did not have access to resources that are available today. If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide call 1-800-273-8255 (TALK) for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
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