The cold metal of the revolver wavered above James’s temple. His finger flexed over the trigger guard. Droplets of perspiration glistened over his brow. James stared out at the shocked crowd. Horrified friends and family gawked at the scene. Faces shifted from one emotion to the next. Fear, confusion, worry, curiosity. Students cried, wishing the nightmare would end. James stood behind the cheap podium, trembling from exhaustion and anger.
The gun had accomplished its primary purpose of keeping people away from the stage as he tried to give the speech he prepared for the occasion. No one suspected a thing when he took to the stage to give the traditional Valedictorian Speech. Principal Philips went to pull the plug on the microphone almost as soon as James started speaking. That was when it became necessary to use the gun. Nothing was going to stop him.
Uniformed officers closed in on the stage, pulling James back into the present. “Get away from me, damnit!” he screamed. “I swear I’ll do it! I won’t let you bully me around anymore!”
Someone in the crowd must have placed the call to the police on their cell phone. First responders arrived on the scene less than ten minutes after he pulled out the revolver. Even though the police and medics must have been told what to expect, they were still rattled by the sight of a teenager holding a pistol to his own head. Police officers crept closer to the stage, firearms drawn but down. Philips lay curled up at the foot of the podium, clutching the pencil protruding from his leg. Blood spread from the wound, soaking his pants.
Some teachers grumbled about the inevitable controversy this mess would create once the media arrived. Every reporter with a police scanner would be swarming the school soon and remain there for the few remaining weeks of the school year. Others begged the boy to think things through, pleading for him to put the gun down before anyone else got hurt.
“No one is going to bully you, James, we just want the gun.” Sergeant Tompkins, the officer in charge, edged closer to the stage. “Can we at least get Principal Philips to the hospital? Can we do that, son?”
James nodded. The medics moved in to grab Philips and take him away. James checked and rechecked his surroundings, making sure no one tried to sneak up before he had his say.
Empty seats lay scattered behind him, abandoned by escaping graduates. The breathless crowd and tense police spread out before him. The stage allowed James to tower over the police and faculty. The school wanted a speech about good memories, hopeful dreams, and an open future. His parents wanted a speech about strong values, respect for authority, and a successful future. For once in his miserable life, people would listen to what he wanted.
“I swear if anyone gets closer, you will all watch me die. I’m not playing your games anymore.” Tears ran down his cheeks, leaving behind a crusty aftermath. His hand tensed around the grip of the gun, muscles burning. Tremors rocked James’s body. With his free hand, he tried to sort through the scattered cards remaining on the podium.
The faculty rejected his first attempt at a speech, due to the subtle message of rebellion and criticism. They cast it aside. “Too depressing.” The administrators had scolded him and explained he would see things differently when he was older. He didn’t want to see differently, though. Problems plagued the world, problems no one should be blind to. No matter the cost, James knew what needed to be said. Like Jesus on the Mount, those who wished to listen would hear, but there would always be those eager to persecute him for his words.
The police moved another inch closer. Tompkins smiled at James, speaking in a steady, friendly voice. “Come on, son. You don’t want this. I know you’re upset, but this isn’t the answer. Things are confusing now, but you’ll understand when you’re older. Please…” James interrupted Tompkins with a gun pointed directly at his face. A cascade of clicks made the crowd gasp in morbid delight. Only Tompkins’s calm hand gesture prevented chaos. James thought the soft murmur from the crowd sounded almost disappointed.
“When I’m older?” James asked, placing the gun back to his temple. A number of officers steadied their aim as veins began to pulse over white knuckled hands. “The last thing this world is another diluted adult. Right now, I can see the hypocrisy, the insanity. I shouldn’t need to try and make sense of all the pain and frustration. The world shouldn’t be so confusing that we need to be taught understanding. Teach me how to make a living instead of how to live. I refuse to leave until I’m heard. I won’t be ignored anymore.” The last few words pierced the air with a sharp crack from the school’s budget P.A. system. His gaze shifted to his parents. He may be addressing the crowd and the police, but he leveled each pain-filled accusation at his parents and teachers.
Tompkins signaled his men to stand back. They retreated one or two steps, guns remaining aimed and ready. James knew he was only a target to them. “OK, James, we’ll listen, just put the gun down.” said Tompkins.
Tompkins sighed. The friendly voice grew tired. “Fine, James, we’ll do this your way. What do you want to say?”
James watched the plump, pompous vice-principal dash forward. “What are you doing? That’s what started this. He stabbed Principal Philips, for Christ’s sake! He doesn’t know what he’s saying. Go and get the gun from him.”
Tompkins stared at the red-faced, sweaty, little man. “Sounds easy enough. By all means go ahead and try. Once the medics drop off Philips, I can arrange for a forklift to be here when they return for you.” Tompkins paused to let his words sink into the vice-principal’s brain. “ Or you can shut the hell up and get back.”
The vice-principal shuffled off to the side, muttering obscenities, but no one paid him any attention. Tompkins turned back to James. “OK, James, tell us what’s on your mind.”
James looked over the crowd. For the first time, he had everyone’s undivided attention. Of course, anyone who put a gun to their own head would get this crowd’s attention. Better than TV, the internet, or social networking, this held the promise of a violent ending, unedited and uncut.
James strained to focus against the headache thrumming its way. The noise from everyone’s muttering created a constant droning of recriminations. In the back, his parents argued, blaming each other for this latest failure. The familiar scene brought all the rage and contempt James kept bottled up to the surface.
“Will you two just shut up for once?” James cried into the microphone as he placed the gun under his chin. Squealing feedback forced his parents into a painful silence.
James smiled inside. He reveled as each person in the crowd cringed in discomfort from the high-pitched noise. Physically, they experienced a minute amount of what James suffered in the deepest recesses of his soul. An audible equivalent of all the harassment and hatred he’d tolerated at school, at home, or wherever someone bullied him.
The gun weighed more with each passing minute. Numbness crept along his arm, replacing the tense burning in his muscles with a rubbery weakness. James felt dead inside. Very little mattered beyond this moment in time, this opportunity to finally be heard.
“This is because of both of you,” growled James. Tears of frustration blurred his vision. Droplets splashed onto the index cards, smearing the disarray of words into nothing. The throbbing in his head thundered on, banging like a death knell. A hazy mist of emotion skewed the world. “Neither one of you ever listened to me. You both were always too busy. Nothing was good enough. Why didn’t you get the extra credit, James? Why didn’t you get the A, James? Why didn’t you get the A+, James?”
A tear trickled down his blotchy cheeks. Sobs crept up his throat, but he held himself together. “Why didn’t you ever say you loved me or that I was good enough for you? Why didn‘t you ever show me you cared? Why didn’t you just let me be me instead of this?” James tore off the valedictorian ribbon, shaking it like a discarded flag, nothing more than a faded, threadbare standard, void of meaning or honor. The accolades of his academic achievement were bitter ash, another demand on an already broken soul.
His parents gaped in disbelief, unsure whether to express outrage or guilt.
James addressed Tompkins. “When my parents stopped badgering me, the twisted imaginations of the kids at this school picked up the slack.” He pointed an accusatory finger at the faculty. “A school where teachers never once lifted a finger when I was being beaten or ridiculed. Why was I picked on? Because I worked hard and studied to avoid the disapproval of the hard-ass drill sergeants I went home to. I dreamt about parents only willing to show a passing interest who I was or what I wanted, instead of the lunatics forever looming over my shoulder.”
Tears coursed down his cheeks, but his voiced raged on, hoarse and ravaged. “At school, instead of a concerned and caring faculty, I got a bunch of tenured bureaucrats who only cared about when the period was be over so they could go catch a quick smoke before the next group of ‘damn kids’ walked in. Do you have any idea what it’s like to know the ugly, heartless things those bastards say about us? These people are supposed to serve as role models, not bored government workers counting the days to retirement, each year caring less and less about their responsibility to the children entrusted to them.”
James’s knuckles shown white against the dark wood of the podium, his arm was on fire. He couldn’t think straight. All he had left was the rage boiling in the darkest part of his soul. The only outlet left to finally be heard after twelve years of hell. The torment didn’t start in kindergarten or first grade, but the seed took root then. Pushed by parents who only concerned themselves with status and bragging rights left James little time for hobbies or relaxation. They were a waste of time and potential. Cursed with teachers obsessed with maintaining order over their totalitarian fiefdom, never taking the time to listen. Once forced to wait to use the restroom, James had an accident that gave birth to a demeaning nickname that still survived more than a decade later. Even his friends, if they could be called that, turned away, ignored every beating, every trial. Given a choice between standing up for him or being spared, they chose ignorance, safety.
Even if everyone else forgot what happened over the course of the summer, a summer spent hiding in dark rooms separated from the rest of the world, the specter of that humiliation lingered. The only thing preventing agoraphobia from setting in was the absolute disdain James held for the two adults he knew not only as his parents, but demons preaching worthlessness and malcontent. Physical scars heal, but the stories and ridicule can last a lifetime.
Was he homeless? No. Destitute? No. From a broken home? No. Disabled? No. Humiliated? Tortured? Downtrodden? Mentally whipped? Alone? A resounding yes. James searched the eyes of everyone present and knew once the show ended and the curtain fell all would be forgotten. Prison loomed in James’s future. He would be left to wallow inside the cold walls of societal exile, facing new horrors. Scars far worse than any suffered at the hands of some drunken football player or haughty prom queen would maim his soul. Someone needed to speak out, needed to plead for change before the next school shooting or teenage suicide.
“You say you understand, yet none of you ever tried to talk to me, not one teacher, parent, or supposed friend or classmate. The only attention I received came in the form of ridicule, beatings, and jokes. Not a single person tried to help me. You turned away. You ignored everything. You ignored me. Now you expect me to give some eloquent and hopeful speech then walk off this stage and into a future of college excellence and fruitful career paths? Will college teach me to think about all this differently? To understand it? Accept it? Will I understand war over oil is OK, no matter the cost to human life? As long as we win and the arithmetic of casualties falls in our favor, it’s justified. Or maybe I’ll accept everyone is created equal, unless of course they think or act differently than those in power. Does dissent void their human and legal rights? Or how allowing a child to be beaten, scorned, and mentally abused is now a common practice that promotes self-reliance and is good for self worth?
“Silly fucking me. How could I have missed that? It’s so clear if you’re an insane, sadomasochistic asshole. Children don’t have to be protected from themselves. They need to be protected from the politically correct, know-it-all intellectuals who blame video games, music, and movies for all the violence and despair in the world.” His jaw tensed. Every muscle strained to the point of exhaustion. Only pure hatred for a system he never wanted to be a part of pushed him past the pain. “You want to know who to blame for kids being screwed up? Blame yourselves! If you weren’t so busy trying to protect us and just did your damn jobs as parents and teachers, maybe kids wouldn’t be beating the homeless to death for kicks or having back alley abortions for fear of the repercussions. We’re not even safe from emotional abuse in our own homes when any decision we make is immediately eviscerated ‘for our own good.’”
His parents covered their faces, heads hung low. They murmured subtle insults back and forth. The typical exchange was completely hidden to all except James. They weren’t worried about their only child. It only mattered who carried the most fault, how this would affect their personal and professional lives. Concern for their child was non-existent, just another outburst from an overdramatic teenager, nothing serious.
James leaned forward, his mouth dry from talking, lined with foamed spittle. His eyes fixed on his parents in the back rows of the audience. “If I’m such a fucking inconvenience, why did you even bother having me?”
“James, no one thinks that,” said Tompkins.
“Are you serious? Do you really think I’ll buy that crap? You don’t know them, what they expect. I’ve had books shoved in my face one after the other since the day I learned to read. Why can’t I be allowed to follow my own interests and not be pressured to be a doctor, or lawyer, or an engineer? I want to be an artist. But that’s a stupid profession because there’s no money in it. Who cares? I could teach and create art at the same time. But, no, it’s apparently not my life to live.”
Tompkins started to say something back, but stopped. James caught the hesitation. Was someone listening? Impossible. Tompkins would turn on him, too. They always did.
“Well? Say something. Tell me why I deserve to put up with this and no one else does. Why am I the butt of every damn joke?”
“I don’t know, James. It’s not fair, but that’s life. We all have our crosses to bear. How we deal with them is what makes us who we are. No one can control you in the end, but you’re right, we do need to stand up for ourselves. I can’t tell you I understand what being under so much scrutiny must be like. You were forced to grow up too fast. Please, understand we aren’t given instruction manuals on how to be parents or adults. We fell into it just like you fell into high school. I can’t make things better, but neither will any of this. We’re listening now, James. Maybe too late, but we are listening.”
James found his parents huddled together at the top of the bleachers. Quiet desperation washed the color from their faces. They were holding each other’s hands. Not for as long as James could remember had they ever held hands, looked longingly into the other’s eyes, or shared a kind word.
He scanned the frightened mass of students, eyes glazed over like stunned cattle. Not the mindless glaze of cattle grazing a field, but the scarred awareness experienced at a funeral when the tragedy is so profound the truth can never be ignored again. His friends couldn’t meet his eyes, knowing they had betrayed him on more than one occasion. James looked at the deputies. Still shaken and confused, they relaxed a little, understanding a young man’s dilemma. But how? Did they really, truly understand, or would this fade? Would he be taken to jail or a mental institution for his actions? Was this only the calm before the storm?
“No!” James screamed, pointing the gun at Tompkins. “You know nothing about my life.”
Tears coursed down James’s face. The crowd jumped, ripped from the morass of melancholy and misery, jerked back into reality. The horrific experience was not over yet. Sympathy swelled within the observers, but so did pity. James didn’t want pity. He wanted everything to stop, to be quiet.
“I’ll end up in a home for crazy people or in prison because I was pushed to this. I didn’t want to hurt Principal Philips, but he came too close. No one was supposed to get hurt. I didn’t want to hurt anyone. It’s not who I am. I just wanted to be heard and no one listened. You’re just listening because of this. A gun. You don’t care about me. Once you have it, I’m going to jail. You’ll all forget about this. Some after school special that people ignore and say would never happen to them. I won’t be sucked into your damn games anymore. I won’t have it.”
James started to go weak in the knees. He pushed his free hand down onto the podium to support his weight. Sobs wrenched from his throat. An anguish held back for most of his life found the freedom of release. Despair, once locked deep down, hidden away lest it drove him mad, ran amok and ravaged James’s exhausted body. This was something he was forced into, right? He didn’t have a choice, right? It was the only way, right?
James caught movement through the window of tears as Tompkins started toward the stage. James snapped upward, his hand pushing hard on the podium. He aimed the gun, steady and true. “Stop coming towards me!”
The deputies tensed. A loud bang shattered the stilted silence. Tompkins screamed the order not to fire. A roar of confusion drowned his words in a wave of indistinct noise. Shots rained out over the graduation grounds. A strange, superficial warmth flowed over James, sucking the heat out of him. He reached out to the podium for support. His hands found only air. He’d pushed too hard on the pedestal, caused it to crash to the ground. An accident.
James fell over. His mother’s screams ripped through the panicked crowd. Tompkins ran forward. James coughed up blood. The gun lay inches from his hand. He stared at Tompkins, searching for an answer as to why they shot him. Dazed thoughts seeped one into the next. Only half-asked questions whispered through bloody lips.
“Never listen. Not even loaded…Why?”
While James wondered how he got on the ground, the world grew dark. Why were things getting dark? He only wanted people to listen. No one was supposed to get hurt.