158.2 Interpersonal relations (according to the Winter Park [Fla.] Public Library)

Out of all the stories of growing up rolling around in my head, the story of Timmy Morrell stands out because it illustrates so well the power of well-chosen words, regardless of their source. Timmy was one of those kids I knew in elementary school who just seemed to disappear after sixth grade, as if his parents knew that taking him any further through the conventional public school system would be a death sentence for him.

Timmy was the most uncoordinated person I have ever met in my life. His limbs just seemed to have a life of their own. He was gangly, pale, high-voiced, had no friends as far as I could tell, didn’t really talk to anyone, had no special talents, couldn’t play games, couldn’t write legibly—just hopeless. And he scared easily. In fifth grade, he was so scared of the teacher he hid under his desk. That would have been inappropriate at practically any age except infancy. And the same guy who bullied me bullied Timmy—Brody Lumpkin.

Between the two of them, Brody and Timmy, it was a total mismatch. That didn’t matter. If Brody hadn’t focused his malevolent energy on this classic weakling for at least a day or two, people would have wondered why he didn’t take advantage of such easy pickings.

Harassing Timmy had important benefits for Brody: it would show people that he would stoop to any level to intimidate, to terrify, to make someone else feel as if living were not worth the effort. If Brody had stuck merely to picking on people his own size, we all might have begun to think he could exercise good judgment, discretion, moderation; that, yes, he was still a bully, but a bully with principles, someone whose actions we could safely predict and plan around. By picking on Timmy, he could show us all that he had no such good judgment, that we had all better be on our guard around him, and that, in the end, even that kind of vigilance wouldn’t do us much good.

Timmy’s Day of Reckoning: I knew it would happen one day. It had to. I dreaded it as something I didn’t want to witness, even as I welcomed it as some terrible thing that was happening to someone other than me. Brody had more muscles than any other kid in school. He was more aggressive than other kids, too. The only kid who came close was Jim Stort, and before him, Eddy Andreotti.

And so it began: Brody would push Timmy, tease him, threaten him, slap him, push him, whatever he could do to make Timmy upset. And Timmy took it, and took it, and Brody just laughed and smiled, and no one, including me, did a thing about it.

Then one day, instead of going psycho or breaking down and crying, Timmy just said, “You’re nothing but a bully!” And Brody’s expression changed. He still had that evil smile on his face, the grin of a sadist, but a look of concern had crept in; the corners of his mouth lowered a little, and he didn’t bare his teeth as much as before. You could tell that, with just a few simple, well-chosen words, Timmy had gotten to him. That may have been when Brody started in on me.