It’s hard to tell when you’re bad at something.
You can be rubbish, crap on a stick, and folks will still tell you you’re good.
That goes double, maybe triple, if what you’re bad at is basic humanity. If you’re a shitbird, in other words.
It’s hard to know if you’re a shitbird.
I had this teacher in third grade…stop me if you’ve heard this one.
I had this teacher in third grade, and he thought I was a shitbird. He thought that from day one. He treated me like a shitbird, and I guess I rose to the occasion—but maybe I didn’t. There was something about him, something that told me his bark had nothing on his bite. Most teachers, they’d threaten you with detention if you stepped out of line. Mr. L. threatened violence, and I don’t mean a caning. His threats were grotesque: “I’ll skin you alive and leave you for the gnats” was a favourite, and “gonna hang you by your heels from the gym ceiling.”
Kids would laugh when he said those things, but sort of uneasily. He only said them to me. It was weird.
I had him for gym class twice a week. The weather was still warm when he hit me with a baseball, not hard, but not by accident. I was off in my own world, not minding third base, and he bounced it between my shoulderblades. I can’t remember how I reacted, but the kid on third base started running, then he stopped. He stood on the base line, gawping back and forth, till someone yelled at me to tag him out. I didn’t know what that meant, so I…didn’t, I guess? I don’t know. Third grade was long ago.
The next thing he did, he split my lip on a drinking fountain. That was probably an accident. He stepped back and bumped me. These things happen.
The big thing he did was during sprints. He was calling us up in groups of four, and each group had to race. The last group he called was mine, but he didn’t say my name. What he said was “okay, last group, so that’s Scott, Nicholas, Cameron, whoever hasn’t raced.” That last bit meant me, I thought, because I hadn’t raced.
Mr. L. blew his whistle and the four of us took off. I was barely off my mark when he punched me in the chest. It wasn’t a hard punch, but it knocked me on my ass. The boys all kept going, so I got up and did the same. I was good at long-distance, but not fast by any means. By the time I hit the centre line, the boys were coming back. Scott won the race as I touched the far wall.
Mr. L. tripped me when I turned to come back. He wasn’t too sneaky, so I didn’t fall down. I thought he was playing with me, though I wasn’t sure why. It felt wrong being roughhoused by a man who wasn’t my father.
I ran faster. He chased me. Kids were cheering me on. I skidded over the finish line and Mr. L. came out of nowhere. He grabbed me like a wet sheet, by my wrist and my ankle. He lifted me bodily and dropped me on the floor. I landed on my back and hit my head. I couldn’t breathe. A few kids laughed. A couple screamed. Mr. L. ordered me to my feet, but I was too stunned to move.
I can’t remember what he said, exactly, except he blamed me—something about gym class being dangerous, about kids getting hurt if they didn’t follow instructions. He told me to sit on the stage—the naughty chair for gym class—and there I remained till the bell.
This kid Mandy came up in the locker room, said her dad was a lawyer and I should tell. I told her no, it was nothing. I was fine. In truth, I was embarrassed. I didn’t want anyone knowing, beyond the ones who’d seen, but by lunch it was all over school.
Mr. L. got away with it. I never got called to the office. No adult intervened. They must all have known, the way the gossip was flying, but nobody asked for my side.
Things like that, they make you wonder, am I a shitbird? Is that why that’s allowed? You know some kids, it wouldn’t be. It would matter, what happened to them. Things would be done.
Mr. L. did one more thing, but it wasn’t till high school. He had no reason to remember me, much less hold a grudge, but he did all the same. I was walking home from the library and I ran into his daughter. She and I weren’t friends, but we liked each other okay. We were headed the same way, so we walked together, at least till Mr. L. pulled up and ordered her into his car. The next day in algebra, she said she got in trouble for talking to me. She kept talking anyway, till the teacher came in. I got the sense she liked telling me that, putting me in my place, but I kept that thought to myself.
Mr. L. was probably the shitbird, but you can never be sure. There’s always that niggling chance it’s you. You don’t have to shit on anyone to be a shitbird. There can be something on you, a sort of…shitbird stain. You can’t see it, but people know it’s there—something wrong with you. Something shit.
It’s hard to know when you’re a shitbird.
Speaking of shitbirds, I learned my first Russian swear. I got it off Russian Twitter. It doesn’t mean shitbird—Google translates it as fucked up—but I know a bad word.