I'll call him Ed: his middle name, if I remember right. I cannot recall for certain. And that only makes me feel worse in a way — more guilty.
I remember he was a short, awkward boy, plagued with acne and a thick auburn mop he kept parted to the side. I remember the way his head always tilted toward that part, as though the sheer weight of the grease in his hair pulled him in that direction, trapping him in a constant downward stare.
His clothes rarely altered from the stonewashed jeans, Converse high-tops, and "Frankie Says Relax" T-shirts that were all the rage in the mid-’80s but considered passé by 1989. Once, he came to school with a Motley Crue patch sewn on the back of a threadbare jean jacket that always looked a size too small. Trying to fit in, I suppose. Ed never did.
Every school has its own self-imposed caste system. Nerds and jocks and partiers, the beautiful people and the not-so, the stoners, the left-behinds. Everyone becomes categorized by some strange consent of peers and friends, and there you remain. I spent seven years with Ed, from sixth grade through our high school graduation, and in that time he managed to find his own category: target.
It was the usual fare — wedgies in the locker room, pink-bellies after school; notes taped to Ed's back speculating as to either his level of intelligence or his sexual orientation; stealing his books; wrecking his locker.
There were rumors: his father sold drugs, his mother was a Satanist.
Ed took it all. He learned to dodge and run when needed, learned to keep his head down and bent toward his part. The few times he tried, he learned the futility of fighting back.
I never bothered him. Never picked on him, never teased. Aside from the occasional nod in the hallway between classes (when no one was looking, of course), I never acknowledged Ed at all. He was a nonentity, a barely-there ghost I chose not to see. And yet, even then, I knew that somehow made me an accomplice to all Ed was forced to endure, just as culpable as the football players who tormented him and the popular girls who taunted his ugliness.
Sometimes I think that if I had taken part in all that, I would at least have the option now of saying all that bullying was done in fun, or to toughen Ed up for the hard and wearying future we all knew awaited him. Those would be lies, of course. It was adolescent meanness that made Ed's life such a hell. Nothing more.
Nearly 25 years later, I don't have the comfort of lies when it comes to Ed. There is only the knowing that so many did so much to bring him down, I did nothing at all to lift him up, and the fear that what I did may have caused more damage — to Ed, yes, but also to myself.
There is a difference between regret and remorse. The former hurts because of what we shouldn't have done but did, the latter because of what we should have done but didn't. Regret always pains more. That has been my experience.
I don't know where Ed is now, or what's become of him. I've looked. So far as I can tell, he's gone.
Maybe he's built a good life for himself. Maybe he's the doctor operating on the prostates of all those high school football players who are now aging men. Sometimes I like to think so. It's better than the alternative.
Either way, I'd like to find him, shake his hand. Say I'm sorry. Because the truest harm in this world is done not by those who maim and malign, but by those who do nothing at all.
Billy Coffey is a part-time novelist and full-time father. He lives with his family in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. His latest novel is "When Mockingbirds Sing" (Thomas Nelson 2013).