This probably surprises a lot of people that know me. But I was actually a happy, well-adjusted kid all the way through 6th grade. I grew up in a laid-back cow town in the middle of New Jersey. And I was the undisputed leader of my gang of friends. We roved all over town, at all hours of day and night, like a pack of wild animals.
Then, in the summer of 1968, age 11, my family suddenly packed up and moved to this suburb. This strange and up-tight suburb about an hour from New York City. Most of the parents worked at high-pressure, desperate-for-success jobs in NY, and I think that’s why so many of the kids were so weird, because they were under a lot of pressure, too.
When school started in September, 7th grade, I was in for a shock. The kids were all mean and cold-hearted. “Everybody is always mocking everybody,” I thought. And that was the word that always described it to me: “Mocking.” It’s like everyone was desperate to fit in, deathly afraid that they didn’t fit in, and ready to viciously attack anyone perceived as not fitting in.
This manifested itself in many odd ways. For example, if you dared to wear white sox, that was considered an affront to all that was normal and decent. God knows what it was about white sox. It just was. And if you ever wore white sox to class once, you wouldn’t do it again. Believe me. You would be viciously mocked by everyone. Taunting jeers of “WHITE SOX! WHITE SOX! GET HIM!” And after school you’d almost certainly be jumped by a pack of kids, stripped of your socks and shoes, and probably have dirt and grass rubbed into your face for good measure. It was a weird form of peer-pressure and group-think, I guess.
I was the new kid in town that year, and one of the smallest and youngest in the class. So I knew I was a likely target for abuse. But somehow, I got through junior high school relatively unscathed. I think because I consciously developed an obsequious charm, and an ability to blend in and not be noticed (I didn’t wear white sox, that’s for sure!). And I might have also had this little glint in my eyes that said: “If-I-were-you-I-wouldn’t-fuck-with-me.”
Anyways, there was this one girl in our class who, for whatever reason, took the brunt of most of the abuse. Sarah Gorge. I’m not sure what it was about Sarah Gorge that made her such a target. But she was the designated reject. The scapegoat. The punching-bag. The clown. The court jester. For the entire class. For that entire 7th grade year. I have never before or since seen one person subjected to so much abuse and mockery. I’m not sure what it was about Sarah Gorge that inspired such universal contempt. Because she was quiet and kindly and never caused trouble. I guess it was because she was a little odd looking. She was sort of mousey-looking, with these big ears. And she had big front teeth that gave her a horse-faced look. And she dressed sort of like a 12-year-old little old lady, with her frumpy, Good Will-style clothes. Or maybe she had cooties. Who knows.
Virtually everyone in the class picked on Sarah Gorge. People would call her nasty names and throw objects at her. Etc.
Sarah was subjected to the worst abuse in between classes. We all walked in the hallway to our next class in these double-file lines. Boys on one line and girls on the other. And whatever guy was lined up alongside Sarah Gorge, we would make a big point of walking several feet ahead of her, or several feet behind her. As if she had a terrible smell and we would be contaminated if we got too close too her noxious presence. Even the girls went along with it. The girls in line, in front of her and behind her, would make a point of keeping an extra large space between them and her. In this way (and many others), Sarah Gorge was publicly humiliated and isolated from the rest of the class on a constant and daily basis.
Sarah only had one person in the whole class that would associate with her, Debra Simmons. Debra was sort of a prim-and-proper young girl, wore glasses, and was Sarah’s only friend. The two of them would eat lunch together in the cafeteria every day. And Debra was the only one that would sit with her and walk with her and publicly acknowledge that she was a human being and not a cooty-infested humanoid.
Sometimes I wondered how Sarah Gorge withstood all that abuse. What it did to her psyche. But Sarah never publicly reacted to any of this, aside from occasional flashes of pain in her eyes. Mostly she tried to maintain this goony, brainless smile. As if she hoped that by being “nice” and inoffensive she might be left alone. But I think that only enflamed the sadist in the 12-year-old beasts. That she was so passive and submissive and never fought back.
The worst of Sarah’s tormentors was Johnny Goll. Johnny Goll was the undisputed king of the class. The leader of the pack of cool kids that ruled the roost. Johnny was tall and thin, one of the tallest in the class. And he had an innocent baby-face that usually fooled the adults. But he was feared by all the kids. He was mean, and you could see the coldness in his eyes. And his lips were always pinched like he was about to make a cutting remark. Which he usually was. That was his specialty. Making these stinging, mocking comments. With the power of the derision of the entire class backing him up.
Doug Greggan was second in command of the cool crowd. Doug Greggan was blonde and good-looking and self-assured, the star athlete on the football and basketball team. One league game he actually scored 32 points. And his girlfriend Melissa was waiting for him after the game, adoringly. Doug Greggan already had a steady girlfriend who had already developed breasts. So he was like a man among boys. He was living the life; he was the person we all dreamed of being. Doug Greggan could have easily over-taken Johnny Goll as the king of the class, but Doug lacked ambition and was happy to let Johnny run the show and just go along as the admired crown prince.
Doug’s best friend was Torry Mikan, who was also good-looking and athletic, and he had this aggressive gleam in his eyes, like what some guys with an overload of testosterone have. All the girls had crushes on Doug and Torry, so they were a formidable duo.
Rounding out the cool-kid clique was Moose Starkel. Moose was big and dumb and blonde and the lineman on the football team. And he was like a thug who provided back-up muscle if anybody got out of line.
Years later, I would wonder what exactly was Johnny Goll’s problem. Why was he so mean and vicious? Because he took a special, and almost obsessive, interest in constantly mocking and debase Sarah Gorge. It was like he had a need to lash out and hurt her. Like he got his rocks off out of humiliating her. With Doug and Torry it was nothing personal. They went along with it and heaped the abuse on Sarah. But it was just for fun. Something to do. But with Johnny Goll, you could tell he was out for blood.
It all reminded me of the movie “Lord of the Flies.” Where this tribe of wild boys ganged up and tormented Piggy as the designated scapegoat of the group. Systematically destroying him. Because they could. The most offensive and grotesque to me were this pack of toadies that circled around the cool crowd. There were about a dozen of these toadies. And they were constantly trying to win favor with the cool crowd by entertaining them with their mocking attacks on Sarah Gorge.
Anyways, this one day near the end the school year we were all in our Math Class, when our teacher, Mrs Fitz, was suddenly called away for some emergency. “I’ll be right back in 15 minutes,” said Mrs. Fitz. “So everybody open up your textbooks to page 127 and quietly work on the assignment until I get back.”
“YES, MRS. FITZ.”
Of course, the second Mrs. Fitz left the classroom, the entire room burst out into madness and chaos. Needless to say, Sarah Gorge became the designated target yet again. She was pelted with a barrage of spit-balls. It was like it was a snow-storm of spitballs, deluging Sarah Gorge. They were bouncing off her head and her back and her dress. People were spitting them out of their mouths, and shooting them like voodoo darts out of hollowed-out pens. And one of the toadies actually snuck up behind Sarah Gorge with two chalk erasers from the blackboard and clapped them together, engulfing Sarah in a cloud of chalk dust. Everybody was laughing riotously, of course, and hurling mocking insults at Sarah, as well as chanting the mocking jeer of the day: “SARAH GORGE-Y, HORSE-FACED PIE, KISS THE BOYS AND MAKE THEM DIE!!” And then everyone would make vomiting, retching noises in Sarah’s direction.
Just when the abuse seemed to be reaching some kind of frenzied crescendo of hysteria, Debra Simmons suddenly stood up and shouted:
“STOP IT!! STOP IT!! I MEAN IT!! STOP IT! THIS IS CRAZY! WHY ARE YOU DOING THIS TO HER! WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU ALL!! WHAT HAS SHE DONE! FOR GOD SAKE, LEAVE SARAH ALONE!!”
There was a momentary quiet in the classroom. We were all stunned. What was this? Someone standing up in defense of Sarah Gorge? It was so unexpected and unprecedented. We had difficulty assimilating it into our 7th grade minds. Who was this person, and why was she spoiling our fun?
“Ah, sit down and shut up, Simmons,” snarled Johnny Goll. “You stink like cow-pies.”
And then everybody went back to abusing Sarah Gorge. But it was like we had been taken down several notches. Like our balloon had been deflated. We still directed an occasional horse-laugh in Sarah’s direction, but it was like there was this metallic after-taste to our laughter now. And by the time Mrs. Fitz returned to the class, we were already silent and strangely subdued.
Years later I would think of Debra Simmons’s righteous speech. And it was one of the bravest and most courageous things I had ever seen. Like a lone woman standing up to an angry mob that was ready to stone a woman to death.
Sadly, even Debra Simmon’s would eventually turn on Sarah Gorge by the end of the year. It was like the cumulative pressure of being constantly ostracized by the group finally wore her down. Like she just couldn’t stand being a pariah anymore. She made a big show of repudiating Sarah in front of the whole class one day, and symbolically joined in with the rest of us. So Sarah was finally completely alone. Though, thankfully for her, there were only a few more weeks left until the end of the school year.
Well, eventually, we all graduated and moved on to the regional high school. Half the people in the high school were from another town, who knew nothing about Sarah and her past. So Sarah was able to quietly blend in with the crowd for the rest of her high school career. Her senior year, she actually drove to school in a big pick-up truck, and she took to wearing cowboy boots, which gave her the air of a goony cowgirl. Every now and then I would catch a glimpse of her face as we passed in the hallway. And I always wondered what she was thinking. If she still remembered that horrible year, or was scarred by it. She mostly just seemed relieved to be ignored and left to herself.
And Johnny Goll apparently peaked early in 7th grade. By high school he had metamorphosed into a faceless non-entity; just another face-in-the-crowd. One year he even came down with a bad case of facial acne. Which seemed almost like justice. Like now he was getting a taste of his own medicine. Finding out what its like to be publicly embarrassed and humiliated.