i think we all have them. that one person from our school days who we clashed with. there are no good reasons now, it just was the way it was. when you’re five you all get along, then one day one of you does something to the other - again, no reason, you just do - and things change. maybe you say something and it makes them cry, maybe they say something and it makes you cry. maybe they tell a teacher you did something to them on a day you weren’t even at school and it sets you off; “this kid is now on my shit list”, you think. and maybe this all plays out for 12 years. from kindergarten through high school. you once went to each others birthdays, then suddenly you were enemies. tom hoffman was that kid for me.
we grew up a block away from each other, but the way the neighborhood was situated, 81st ave and shingle creek ave didn’t jive north of florida ave. a different subset of kids. but we knew each other. we both went to crestview elementary a mile up the road. i remember vividly tom wearing brown leather sandals with black socks and green pants. we shared a laugh once about something silly. something five year-olds find funny about their shoes. then it changed. tom was epileptic, and a magnet for teasing. one day a few kids chased him around the playground, scaring him. the next day he told a few teachers about it, and named me as one of his pursuers. i was at home sick the day this happened. i never let it go.
tom and i clashed several times after that. picking name-calling fights with each other … mostly me. playing a playground game? i’d go in a little harder. he hated me, and i hated him. there is no why.
one day, while walking home from school, tom picked up a bottle and smashed it against the boards of the now-thawed hamilton park hockey rink. i lectured him for ten minutes. a kid his age lectured him. like my father would have lectured me, i scolded him for littering, for endangering children - possibly even me at some future time - because glass shards were now embedded in the grass. he smashed it because he was acting out against all the shit he took for years. from me, from everyone. and then i bitched him out for it. this was maybe 1983/4, and i have remembered that day with sadness since.
a year later we had choir together. one day, something got started. there is no why. he said something to me, talked back to me, did something 12 year-old me thought was unforgivable and i smacked him. open-handed on the back of his head. hard enough. it triggered a seizure. [fuck this hurts. fuck.] i hated myself. hated. i hated myself because i was low on the pecking order. short, buck-toothed, increasingly chubby. i was low, but tom was lower. and in the hierarchy of public school, things just were the way they were. there are no excuses. there is no why.
years passed and our paths stopped crossing. when they did, we found we’d grown out of that terrible stage, and became cordial. we even laughed a few more times. not as friends, but not as enemies.
we saw each other a handful of times at the junior college we both attended. chatted a few times. tom was sweet. the kind of person who, if you had any sense at all, you’d wish you knew more of. kind, true, honest, loving. a good person. a good man.
his health issues prevented him from driving a car, and over the years while visiting my parents, i’d occasionally see him walking to or from a bus stop near his parents’ home. i feel like i waved once or twice, but that might just be wishful thinking. more than once i thought of pulling over, saying hello … saying “i’m sorry.” i wanted to say that to tom so many times. those arguments, fights, one-sided lashing-outs have eaten at me for 30 years. i wanted to tell him. i never did. i think i was afraid he’d see not the me i’d become, but see the me i was when i was 10, and in his eyes i’d see fear. and that scared the hell out of me. afraid of me. that terrified me. i never stopped.
my 20th high school reunion came and went this past july. i did not go. i had no interest. my contention now, as it was 10 years ago, was that everyone i wanted to know from those days was still in my life somehow. however distant, i can always call upon a steady few. but the reality was, i was scared. one of my oldest and dearest friends killed himself in 2008. i didn’t want to have to answer questions to people i no longer knew, and no longer knew him. words don’t quantify what the loss has meant to my life. and as much as that, i didn’t want to see the faces of people i mistreated. maybe they’ve moved past it. maybe they haven’t given me a thought since. i’d like to think that, but the truth is, i haven’t gotten past it. i have gotten past the assholes who treated me like shit, stole from me, punched me, ridiculed me; but i have never gotten past knowing there was evil in me, too. we were kids, but that is hardly solace. i do not like who i was then, walking with my head down, staring at the hallway. smart-assed and assholish one minute, petrified and teary the next. the pecking order spared few. i have lost sleep thinking of that me. occasionally that me will come out. and i hate it now as i did then. i’ve tried to use that me as a warning. don’t be that me. i try. i fail. but i try. tom was one of those faces i feared seeing. i wanted desperately to tell him all the times those fights haunted me. and i wanted his forgiveness. i was never strong enough to ask for it.
tonight i read a note from another old classmate that tom was dead. a pure and kind soul, tom was. i never told him so. i could end this as others might by telling you not to wait, not to hold back. to tell those you love that you love them. but i won’t. i will tell it to myself. it is me who needs to learn. don’t wait, matthew. don’t hold back.
tom and i were friends once. i will remember him and thank him for being that. i’m sorry friend. i’m sorry.
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