Thursday, February 18, 2010

As important as it is to have good friends to turn to for companionship or in a time of crisis it's at least equally important to have a good enemy. For people like me it's perhaps more important.

A friend is someone you can vent to but a good enemy gives you someone to vent about. The right enemy can even create stronger friendships and even prolong a love connection. It's often said, usually by me, that a good relationship isn't based on liking the same things but on hating the same things. For example if you both like Dutch Paintings but one of you likes composition and subject matter but the other likes color pallet or painting style you can still hang your Vermeer in the grand dining room but there will still be friction as to why it's there.

Not so with shared hate though. One of you can claim "I hate her shoes" the other can respond "I can't stand how she talks" you then declare "she's a nasty slut" then you can't argue with "She's so stupid I hope she gets hit by a truck". Unlike a work of art you don't have to agree on the specifics of why you hate the person. Those differences somehow melt away when on the negative side of the spectrum. You're a united front and closer for it.

For me it's especially important to have an enemy to take the brunt of negative energy and dark thoughts that seem to multiply in my psyche like evil bunnies. Basically I have to have someone to think ill of so if I don't have someone I don't like to direct it at then I end up directing it at someone I actually care about or at least related to.

Going to school in a small town means it's not unusual to see people that are best friends one year to be enemies the next and then in high school they go to prom together. I had those kinds of enemies but I also found a really good one that lasted for years. I can still remember the exact moment he came into my life.

In third grade we were given short stories to read that would have some sort of moral overtone we would then discuss as a group in class. Our first one was about a shopkeeper from the late 1800's who finds himself being bullied by the illiterate wagon driver that delivered the products to the shop. The wagon driver was physically abusive and most importantly would tap into the barrels of whiskey drinking down a good portion of it. The shopkeeper being tired of the abuse ordered a barrel of wood alcohol that looked exactly the same as the whiskey barrels except for the label. Since of course the wagon driver couldn't read he drank the wood alcohol and subsequently dropped dead.

To me the moral side was obvious! If you're stupid and abusive someone will poison you. It's also a good lesson on not pissing off the people who touch your food before you do.The teacher was not content on my assessment and decided for good measure she would ask the entire class one by one if they thought what the shopkeeper did was right or wrong. Most of us agreed that what he did was right and justified and that he didn't really kill the mean man it was more of an accidental suicide. Admittedly with a little help from our hero the shopkeeper. One of us did not agree though. James Bilby.

Because our last names were similar we were seated next to each other. He had been writing or drawing and so hadn't looked up during most of the discussion. When the teacher got to him he said "The shopkeeper is wrong because it's never ok to kill anyone".

Even then I knew that just wasn't so. At that age I had a short list of situations where it was ok to kill. 1. if someone kills your parents or someone in your family, 2. Someone is going to kill you 3. you're at war". I'm still proud of how insightful I was at the time and still stand by convictions. However the list of reasons that make it okl someone has grown to include such things as "taking your parking space two days in a row, wearing a mullet and asking me why I'm single". I've also lightened up a little on the "killing someone in your family" exclusion.

It was at that moment I made James my official nemesis. There was just something about his arrogance and confidence about something he was so obviously and completely wrong about that made me crazy. It was that moment I looked at him too. I mean really looked at him. He wore jeans and a t-shirt like the rest of us but his t-shirt was more like underwear. He was pasty white with curly mousy blond hair that looked like it belonged on an abandoned doll. He was always shiny because of a thin film of sweat or oil that covered him no matter what the weather. None of these things were his fault of course and there was no good reason for it but at some visceral level I just hated him.

That Fall the school held a parent teacher conference. This was an annual occurrence that I always assumed my mother and stepfather would rather avoid so being the thoughtful kid I was I made sure not to let them know when it was. I didn't count on my brother having the same notes sent home. So this year we all went.

There's something surreal about your classroom at night. The windows you normally look out of all day are now darkened. Now instead of the playground and trees you see yourself and the room reflecting the room back to you contorted in the cheap glass. The corners now had shadows in them covering up the lint and hair that was normally collected there. Even our teacher was wearing a dress with big blousey sleeves, make up and had gotten rid of her glasses for the evening. This felt like a betrayal to me somehow. Like she was trying to make school look better than it actually was. A little bit older and I would have pretended not to know her. I would have looked her in the eye and said "your voice sounds familiar but I really can't place the face". I wasn't that quick yet so I just resented her in silence.

While we waited around for my parents turn to talk to the teacher I started noting the other families and my classmates parents. I was surprised at how old they were. Did some of these people bring their grandmothers? Were we supposed to bring ours? My confusion makes more sense when you realize my mother was twenty four and my grandmother was not yet forty years old.

It didn't take long to realize it was more than the age of the adults that made my family not like the others. First of all a lot of the kids looked like miniature versions of at least one of their parents. I however didn't look anything like the adults I was with. For me this was a little more evidence for my "swapped at birth" theory. Secondly in other families everyone had the same last name. I realized immediately how much more convenient that would be also saw it as a loss of individuality at home.

When it was my moms turn to talk to the teacher I showed my little brother where I sat and the contents of my desk. I was about to show him how well the sharp point of a compass could etch the fiberboard our desks were made of when a shadow blotted out the fluorescent light. "Oh is this your desk, Jim?". James was there with his parents. This gave me the opportunity
pass unfair judgment on them too.

Even if they hadn't walked up to his desk I would have had no problem spotting them in a crowd. They were merely older shinier versions of James. His mother had the thin blond hair that was probably clean but looked dirty and his father was completely bald. They both had the small turned up noses James did. In my mind I dubbed them Porky and Petunia the pigs from the Warner Brothers cartoons. Though technically a Petunia should be a brunette.

My stepdad knew the father and told me later that the family owned and operated a large animal processing business. The business wasn't large the animals they processed were. It was where people took a cow, a pig or a deer to be made into little freezer packets wrapped in white paper. Maybe they've just grown to look like the animals they've slaughtered for so long. This took on special significance when we read Animal Farm.

At the parent conference meeting Porky and Petunia had somehow gotten it into their minds that James was special and argued with the teacher for special classes in math. This was so they could advance his "spark of genius". I was sure I had a spark of genius but since nobody was willing to argue the point for me I had to take the same lessons as the rest of the dumb kids. Oh well, I didn't like math that much anyway. James was given a fake stock portfolio to invest in and every day he would look at the Wall Street Journal and track his fake wealth. This segregated him from the rest of the class and added more to his general weirdness.

I didn't have him in class in fourth grade but fifth grade had us sitting next to each other yet again. Our teacher, Ms. Sobanski, was sort of a cliche teacher type. Her hair was colored a shade of black so unnatural it looked as though she colored it in herself with a magic marker. Her permanent gray roots would stripe her head right down a part that was in a different position every day. I'm sure she thought where it was didn't matter since nobody paid attention to such things. The gay kid in the 2nd row did pay attention to such things and even wrote it down in a notebook for future reflection.

Ms. Sobanski lived in a tiny row home that my bus passed by every day on the way to school. Often times I'd see her leaving for school or coming home. She always wore dresses printed with tiny flowers on a background of off white that was roughly the color of smokers teeth. Her shoes were three colors of exactly the same style. They looked like blocks of wood with the material from old car seats held together with rusting buckles. It looked as though she was able to dress herself entirely in materials she found laying around an old farmhouse.

As fascinating as I found her fashion sense and living situation I never really thought much else about Ms Sobanski. I hadn't even taken the time to make up a nasty nickname for her since she came with one already installed.

Our fifth grade classrooms were connected to each other by a hallway and a little meeting room so it was decided that since we couldn't go outside during recess and because we were all going crazy that we would have a math competition between the two classes to blow off some steam education style.

Our class was very excited since we had James who was well known for being the math genius. Who even had special assignments because he was a genius. James however told the teacher that he didn't want to play with us because he didn't like competing. The teachers agreed it was ok and he retreated to his math corner, his version of Canada so he could avoid the upcoming conflict. Even I was disappointed that our ringer had wussed out. "Come on" I thought "you're nearly eleven years old. Be a man"

The rules of the contest were simple. One student from each class would go to either side of the chalkboard and one of the teachers would read aloud an algebra problem. The first one to write the answer correctly would win a point for their team. They teams were too evenly matched and the score was tied or close to it most of the time. It was getting boring and the kids were getting restless.

To spice it up the other teacher, Mrs. Baker, the teacher that I had hoped I'd get all the previous Summer, made the problems more complex. It was also decided that the person who won got to stay up at the board competing against the students This made for champions and real competition. It also added the the regret I had at not having Mrs. Baker for a teacher since now she knew how to appeal to my competitive side.

Before I could get called up to the board Marcus Johnson from the other team had taken out 10 of my classmates. My side decided it was time to pull in our ringer and started chanting "Bilby, Bilby .. . He ignored us as though he were deaf and continued to work on his math assignment. It wasn't until Ms Sobanski walked over and leaned down to him and asked him to do it that he gave in and approached the board. Marcus Johnsons winning streak ended there and Jameses started.

In almost no time at all the 25 students that were our competition fell to James and his superior math ability. It was obvious he was superior and the other team had pretty much given up. Then a girl from my class I vaguely remember being named Stacy yells out "Make Steve go up against James". I thought "Steve Hedges is dumb he wont' last up there". But everyone knew that . No that's the not the Steve they meant. They were all looking at me...including Steve Hedges.

Later I asked Stacy why she did that. Why she wanted me up there competing against a math genius. I was hoping it was because she saw in me a spark of genius nobody else did. Or that she believed in me and only I could come to save the class. Of course it could have just as easily been that she had singled me out to fail. It was none of these things instead She replied "because everyone knows you hate him". It wasn't the reason I thought but it was certainly one I could respect. It seems Stacy had an evil streak not unlike my own.

Jameses strategy was to write out the problem as it was being read and start to do the problem in his head as he wrote it. My strategy was to let him write it and guess the answer before he did. I had done some math of a sort in my head and realized I couldn't really lose. After all if I didn't get the problem solved before he did it was no big deal since everyone else up 'til now had lost too right? There was no shame in losing against a genius.

I went up to the chalk board and found the longest piece of chalk in the tray. Jameses face was impassive so I looked at him and smiled and said "Hi James!" and waved. The combined classes laughed. I could pretend it was a calculated gesture meant to unnerve him in the spirit of competition but really I was just being a dick.

We each lifted our chalk ready for the problem and I moved my feet apart in a pseudo karate stance. Ms. Sobanski slowly read the problem, James started to write out the numbers and I just guessed at the answer and scribbled it on the board.

I got it right. Both classes yelled in triumph! They weren't teams facing each other anymore. It was them and me against the smart kid. This is probably what it felt like to score the winning goal or shoot the winning basket. Two things I've yet to experience.

The losing math genius who had proclaimed not to be competitive turned red and stomped his foot and yelled "that's not fair he didn't show his work!". This was the first time any of us had ever seen him have any type of emotional outbreak. "HA" he was a fake. and now I knew it. He wasn't heard over the cheering so he said it again to the teacher "That's not fair he didn't show his work". I stated that showing work wasn't part of the rules and I couldn't have cheated off of him since I got the answer before he did. Looking back I should have said "WAY before he did" just to make the barb sink in a little bit more but being quick to annoy people was a skill that still needed developing.

It was a very satisfying moment to see him there having a melt down because I had beaten him at what he thought was best at. But that moment didn't last long. I saw him standing there in his short sleeved white collared shirt he had started wearing sometime in the past year and khaki pants with white tennis shoes his fat rolls stacked perfectly on top of each other like the cartoon spokesman used to sell tires. As he complained to the teacher wearing a flower print polyester dress and off white naugahyde shoes her fat rolls also stacked on top of each other like the wife of the cartoon spokesman used to sell tires I knew I was in trouble. They looked so much like each other that I knew she would take his side.

"Ok let's do it again because it was close" Ms. Sobanski announced. The classes were in an uproar of "no fair" and "He lost!". I didn't fool myself into believing the kids wanted to see me win I knew they just wanted to see him lose. I went somber since I didn't know if I could pull this off again. I looked at him.. went from somber to a smile that didn't quite reach the rest of my face a look I had probably picked up subconsciously from Richard Nixon and said "ok, let's go". That smile flustered James even more and I took note of that fact for future reference.

Ms Sabanski read the problem, James wrote it down, I guessed. In seconds we both wrote the same answer at the same time. This guessing system was really working! My drive to annoy someone I thought of as an enemy has surpassed my meager math skills. But this time it really was technically a tie. We were given another problem, James wrote it, I guessed it. Another tie. You could feel the tension mounting in the air. And since there were 50 kids in one classroom on a humid and rainy day you could smell the tension too. Everyone went silent in anticipation.

Another math problem, longer this time. James wrote it out as the teacher read it. She paused and I guessed and wrote an answer. Then that ugly, poorly dressed probably celibate teacher added a second part to the problem. James didn't have an answer yet since he was still writing out the problem. I had already guessed, so I lost. It was obvious I had been set up so there were a lot of "you really won" and "She is such a cheater" in the halls and during class over the next week. I had the feeling I had won and lost at the same time. A unique feeling few people ever experience. When Al Gore had the presidential elections stolen from him I felt like the only person in the world that could know how he felt.

I never found out if James thought he deserved the win and Ms. Sabanski never said anything to me about it either. When asked he would just say that he did it faster and would walk away if he could or just put on the deaf act he was so good at. He never defended himself and never fought back. This refusal to stand up for himself didn't sit well with our classmates.

I think fifth grade is when the cruel gene is activated. James was now everyones target not just mine. Nobody wanted to actually physically attack someone they knew wouldn't fight back but there was a general feeling of needing to get him. The opportunity came a few days later when one of the other boys farted. As the rest of the class giggled, pinched their noses shut and made makeshift surgical masks out of t-shirts someone yelled "James did it". From that moment on James always did it since he was the only one who would never deny it.

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