William, King of the Blues

We hear so much about bullying today and the devastating effects it has on its victims. It’s good to keep in mind and to be watchful for, ready to intervene when we see it. I wish it had always been that way. I wish it had been something so front and center in people’s minds when I was growing up. Bullying was just something that happened, something you endured and, so regrettably, something so many kids like me engaged in if not actively, but passively by our silence and fear of speaking out. I think about a kid from my school days sometimes. What I remember almost makes me cry.

His name was William. He attended the same junior high as I did. He dropped out sometime before high school and slipped off our radar screen. It happens more than one cares to admit. William was a skinny kid who didn’t have any friends that I recall. Looking back, I think it’d be safe to say that William was somewhat mentally challenged. And, still looking back, it would be painfully honest to admit that we kids William tried so hard to fit in with were cruelly indifferent to his attempts at friendship.

It’s one of those things that gnaws the edges of your mind bloody sometimes at night as an adult when you look back with the wisdom of the years and realize that the sins of omission are as equally odious sometimes as the sins of commission. I had been bullied in my own childhood, much of it by my father. As such, I found it easier and safer to hold my tongue when I saw other kids being bullied rather than speaking up and taking the risk that I’d draw the ire of the bully.

It was cowardice and it still haunts me when I think about it. It wasn’t until I’d left home and joined the Navy and became a medical corpsman that I finally found my courage. But I digress.

William refused to be outdone by his shortcomings. Every day, in his own way, he was out there gamely making another pitcher of lemonade from the basket of lemons his life had been dealt. And there we were, his classmates, always making sure his basket was brimming. Most of us never set out to be willfully and wantonly mean to William. It generally doesn’t begin that way when kids single out another kid for teasing. But nevertheless, meanness and cruelty is the outcome.

William had his own way of coping. He carried around an old guitar that was missing a couple of strings most of the time. As I slip ever closer to the edge of my life, I find myself contemplating sometimes that the two strings absent from William’s pawn shop guitar were eerily emblematic of the things missing from his life. The couple of things that would’ve given his life the happiness he sought, like the the way a couple of strings would’ve made his guitar whole, were respect and acceptance. William got neither from his classmates. All he had was his raggedy old guitar and the chords of loneliness he knew by heart.

He couldn’t even tune the guitar but that didn’t matter to him. He was proud of the instrument and carried it with him everywhere, including school and the classroom. I can still seem him strolling down the road with his guitar slung across his back. Denied admission to the world of his classmates, William created his own world. In it, he was blues and guitar legend B.B. King. In that world, there were no handicaps, no classmates who shunned him, only a stage, blues licks on a fine guitar and throngs of adoring fans clamoring to be near him.

William practiced his art as diligently as he could and the only way he knew how. He’d strike a few discordant notes on his guitar, croak a few lyrics, then end his performance with a flourish, strumming the strings loudly while leaning forward to face his audience and growling, “B.B. Kinggggg!”

William was only too happy to perform upon request. Someone would walk up to him and say, “William, play some B.B. King.” He’d light up like the pep rally bonfires he never attended, unsling his guitar, render his performance and always end it the same way: “B.B. Kinggggg!” It never dawned on William that he was being made fun of. And it never dawned on us that our taunts were music to his ears. In his mind, he was the great B.B. King and we wanted to see him perform. He had center stage and an audience, if only for the moment.

The years passed and William faded from our lives like the lyrics of a forgotten song. We all grew up and went our separate ways and mostly lost track of each other, the way kids from small towns often do. One day, when I was home on leave from the Navy, I was talking with a group of friends about who was doing what. I happened to ask whatever became of William.

The silence following my question was soul shattering. The answer was worse. “He hanged himself from a pecan tree in his backyard one afternoon,” one of my friends finally said. I couldn’t have felt more guilty had I purchased the rope and fashioned the noose. And I know that my buddies felt equally guilty. We’d all taken part, in one way or another, in shoving William off the stage with the rope around his neck. No one said anything else about him. I never heard his name mentioned again that I can recall.

A wise man once said that we should make a list of all those we’ve harmed and be willing to make amends to them. Sometimes, that means apologizing to the dead, to the Williams of this world whose mortal remains lie in graveyards, some in places we’ll never know. If we’re to be forgiven our trespasses, we have to atone for them.

It’s too late to stick up for William. But it’s not too late to honor his memory by sticking up for others when we see them being bullied or victimized, even if doing so puts us in bad stead with others. Even if it hurts. It’s the only way to even begin to erase the stain of our own flaws.

I’m so sorry, William. I wish we could have a do over. I surely do. I hope you finally got the gig you wanted but never got here on Earth.