Jethro Wilson ignored the whispers as he walked into homeroom. Kids in school were always whispering about him, always pointing fingers, always laughing at him. They'd been doing it since way back in first or second grade. He'd gotten used to it.
Not that he liked it. To tell the truth, he hated it, but what could he do about it? Nothing. Just ignore them. That was what his dad always said. Don't stoop to their level, Jethro. That was his mom's advice, although he didn't really understand what she meant.
But the whispers today ... well, there was something different about them. There was something different, too, in the way the kids looked at him.
This was Jethro's first year at Twinbrook High. Over the summer, he'd hoped that maybe things would be different now. Maybe the other kids would stop laughing at him when he tripped or lost his balance. It was because of his lazy eye, that's all. He'd hoped, too, that maybe they'd stop calling him names. Retard. Idiot.
That's what hurt the most.
But names were just words, right?
He could ignore them if he just tried a little harder.
Jethro tensed when he saw Larry Gee. Big, tall, star basketball player -- Larry and his friends were always harrassing him, always pushing him around, always trying to start trouble.
"Hey, Jethro, how's it going?" Larry asked, stepping in front of him to block his way.
"OK. I gotta get to class now."
Larry moved in front of him as he tried to walk past. "Been on the Internet lately?"
"Nah, not lately." Jethro frowned, not understanding why Larry would ask about the Internet. "Look, I don't want to be late for class." Once more, he tried to walk around, but Larry was quicker.
"Yeah, right. Everybody knows what you've been doing, I heard about that message you sent Georgia."
Jethro didn't remember sending any message to Georgia. Why would he send her a message? What would he say to a pretty, popular girl like her?
Just then Georgia came up to Larry. The two of them laughed together, and they forgot all about Jethro.
He headed on to his class, but the bell rang before he got there. Great. Another tardy mark on his record. It's not like he was late on purpose, it was just because of --
"Jethro Wilson! Get your books and come with me. Now. Mr. Shoemaker wants to see you."
He froze. He knew Mr. Carpenter was upset about him being late again, but why was he yelling? Jethro didn't understand what was happening. Why was he being sent to the assistant principal's office for one tardy mark?
June Wilson stirred up another serving of pancakes. She'd be glad when the breakfast rush was over at the diner. She'd worked every morning for the last two weeks straight.
"Phone call for you, June," said her boss, gesturing for her to come to his office. "It's the school."
June's shoulders sagged. Jethro was in trouble. Again.
Fourteen years before, when her little boy was born, June Wilson had been the happiest woman on earth. She and George had been married for such a long time, and even though they'd both wanted a big family, they'd all but given up hope of ever having a child. And then, Jethro came along. The day he was born was the happiest day of June Wilson's life. They were a real family, at last.
Even from the start, Jethro seemed a little slow to learn new things, but his parents loved him all the same. Children progress at different rates, their doctor explained. In time, Jethro learned to walk and talk. He fell down a lot, but he always laughed, got back up, and went on.
As Jethro got older, George and June were sure he'd do well in school. When he turned six and went off to Twinbrook Elementary, everything seemed fine.
Then, the problems began.
Miss Victoria, the principal at Twinbrook Elementary, minced no words when reporting Jethro's behavioral problems.
"Your son is extremely uncoordinated. He has poor motor skills, doesn't relate well to the other children in class, and refuses to pay attention to his teachers." She barely paused long enough to take a breath. "He's disruptive in class and is always starting trouble. If he doesn't learn how to behave, I'll have to have him removed from this school."
Removed? From first grade? Surely, she had to be joking.
June soon realized how serious the situation was. The other kids, she found out, were making fun of Jethro, teasing him, and ridiculing him. Of course he acted out! Who wouldn't?
But it really wasn't Jethro's fault. An eye examination showed that he had a "lazy eye", and a visit to an orthopedist revealed that one of Jethro's legs was a little longer than the other. No wonder he had problems running and catching a ball!
George and June talked to their son. "Don't let them upset you," they advised. "Just leave the other kids alone, and they'll leave you alone, too." Too bad it didn't work that way.
"Jethro's a sissy!"
That's when the name-calling began. If Jethro fought back, he was called a trouble-maker. If he refused to fight, he was called a sissy. Poor kid. He couldn't win no matter what he did.
June shook off the memories and fought to hold back tears. "I've got to go," she told her boss, rushing out of the diner. She didn't even have time to take off her apron. Jethro was in trouble. Big trouble.
She stopped just long enough to call her husband. "Meet me at Twinbrook High right away."
By the time she reached the school, she was shaking like a leaf. Never in her life had she been so angry -- or so afraid.
George and June met at the school. "Don't worry, we'll get through this," he assured her. "Things will be all right."
But June had a feeling that things would never be all right again. She was so upset, nothing George said could calm her down.
"I hope you have a good lawyer," warned Mr. Shoemaker, the assistant principal.
"Where's Mr. Kincaid?" George asked. He knew the principal was open-minded and willing to listen to reason. His hopes plummeted when Shoemaker explained that Kincaid was out of town attending a conference all week.
"I'm in charge here," the assistant principal said with a smirk.
"Tell us what happened, please," begged June.
"Your son brought a gun to school. He sent a message to one of the girls warning her that he was going to come in and start shooting. Fortunately she reported Jethro, so I was able to prevent it from happening."
"A gun? An internet message?" June and her husband exchanged glances then turned toward Mr. Shoemaker. "We don't have any guns in our home," June insisted. "And Jethro rarely uses the internet. He hasn't been online in over a week."
"Maybe you need to watch your son a little better." Mr. Shoemaker's eyes narrowed. "It's bad parents who make for bad kids. If you paid more attention to Jethro --"
George flew out of his chair, ready to throw a few punches at Shoemaker's smirky face. His wife restrained him.
"Don't lose your temper, George," she counseled. "That will only make things worse."
She struggled to remain calm. "Where is our son?" she demanded to know. "Did you find a gun in his possession? And have you seen the message he allegedly sent?" She leaned forward with her hands on Shoemaker's desk. "Who is this girl? Have you questioned her story?"
"Georgia Tessler is the student who reported Jethro." Shoemaker straightened his tie and resumed his seat. "I had no reason to doubt what she said. She comes from a good family. Mr. Tessler is on the City Council, you know." His eyes surveyed the Wilsons with a look of disapproval. George was a mechanic, and June worked at the diner. Obviously, in Shoemaker's eyes, they weren't quite acceptable. "Besides," he continued, "I had to act immediately. The lives of the students were at risk. I couldn't take any chances."
George nodded. "We understand your zeal to protect the kids. We worry about Jethro's safety every time he gets on the bus. But he's not the one causing the problems. Our son has been bullied and pushed around for years."
Shoemaker smirked. "And now, he's bringing a gun to school and planning to get even."
"Show me the gun, Mr. Shoemaker. And show me a copy of the message Jethro sent to Georgia Tessler. Until you can produce some evidence, I refuse to believe my son has done anything wrong."
"I didn't find a gun," Shoemaker admitted. "And Georgia says she deleted the message as soon as she'd read it. She said she was scared, so I can understand why she got rid of it." He picked up a file on his desk and handed it to Mrs. Wilson. "Here's the statement she gave me, if you want to read it yourself. She says she worried about the message all night. After she got to school this morning, she knew she had to speak up."
June studied the report and looked at the picture of Georgia paper-clipped to it. She recognized her, at once.
"She's been dating Larry Gee," June said. "The two of them have come into the diner together a few times. Along with some of their other friends." She turned to her husband. "Larry and his basketball buddies are the same boys who've tormented Jethro all these years." She looked back at Mr. Shoemaker and handed him his report. "For some reason, the school refuses to do anything about those bullies. It's easier to blame Jethro than to admit there's a problem." She got to her feet. "We're taking Jethro home now. He won't be coming back to this school."
"No, he won't," agreed Mr. Shoemaker. "I've expelled him. He's not allowed on school property, so you'd better make sure he stays far away."
None of it was true, of course. Jethro had no gun, he'd never sent any message to Georgia Tessler, and why would he want to hurt anybody? Yeah, the kids made fun of him, but he'd learned to ignore them. Once in a while, he did get angry or upset, but doesn't everybody?
At home over the next few days, things grew worse for Jethro. His parents believed him, of course, but he knew no one else did. He sat around the house while his mother and father worked all day, and he felt more and more alone. It was hard to get through life without friends. He'd never been happy, Jethro realized. Even worse, he knew he never would find any real happiness. He had no future. What was the point in living?
On Tuesday, June worked the late afternoon shift. George was working late at the garage. She was exhausted when she got home from work. When she reached the house, it was eerily quiet -- and dark.
Her heart lurched. Had Jethro gone out? She'd asked him to stay at home, and he was always an obedient boy. She hoped he hadn't gone back to the school and gotten into trouble with Shoemaker again.
She stepped inside and turned on the light, then screamed in terror! Jethro was hanging from a noose, his feet kicking wildly, his face turning a sickening shade of blue. Thank goodness, she'd come home when she did! Jethro was still alive! She raced across the room to help the son she loved so dearly, then with trembling hands she called 911.
She called her husband, too, and told him to go directly to Twinbrook Medical Center.
For several days, Mrs. Wilson sat at her son's bedside at the hospital. How close she had come to losing him! All because of those awful bullies at the school. Mr. Shoemaker stopped by the hospital one afternoon and made a feeble apology. His investigation had turned up no evidence that Jethro had done anything wrong. Still, the assistant principal defended his own actions. His first thought had been protecting the students. Mrs. Wilson understood that, but why didn't the school officials worry about protecting Jethro?
"May I come in, Mrs. Wilson?"
She heard a light tapping at the door of Jethro's hospital room. When she looked up and saw Georgia Tessler standing in the doorway, she stiffened.
"What do you want, Georgia?" she asked, her voice cold.
"I have to apologize. I'm really sorry I lied about Jethro! It was just supposed to be a harmless little joke, that's all." Georgia looked truly contrite. "It was Larry's idea. He thought it would be funny. I never thought --"
"That's right," June snapped. "You didn't think! You didn't think about Jethro. You didn't think about the pain you were causing his father and me. You didn't once think about the consequences of your little prank. Jethro nearly died because of what you did."
"You're right. I've gone to Mr. Shoemaker, and I've told him everything. Larry and I are both being suspended for two weeks, and some of our other friends are facing disciplinary action, too. We're all really sorry, Mrs. Wilson. We never meant for this to happen. Jethro can come back to Twinbrook High now, and there won't be any more problems."
Jethro went home from the hospital a couple days later, and the next morning, he got up, got dressed, and grabbed his books.
"Yeah, Mom, I want to go back to school." He grabbed his jacket.
"You know there will be trouble. I don't want to worry about something happening --"
"Nothing's going to happen to me," he assured her, putting his arms around her and giving her a hug. "I don't think those kids at school will be playing any more pranks. At least, not for a while. I think maybe they've learned a lesson."
Jethro had learned a few lessons, too, he thought as he boarded the school bus that morning and headed back to Twinbrook High.
He knew there would always be kids who picked on him, but he also knew he had people who cared about him. His mother and father loved him. He thought about how upset his mother had been over all that had happened, and Jethro was really glad to be alive. Things looked bleak at times, but every day was a new day, and he could be strong enough to get through life, strong enough to keep smiling, and strong enough to reach out to others.
A lot of kids -- and the teachers, too -- were surprised to see Jethro back. They figured he'd be too afraid to come to school again. But they were wrong. Jethro wasn't going to let them hurt him anymore. He'd hold his head high, go to his classes, and he'd even talk to the students around him. He'd speak up more often in class, and if he made mistakes or said something stupid ... well, it wouldn't be the first time. Maybe he could even learn to laugh at himself a little.
Jethro knows he'll never be one of the popular kids at school, but he's glad that he came back to Twinbrook High after that awful incident. He's accepted Georgia Tessler's apology for the part she played, and he's starting to make a few real friends. He especially likes being friends with Donna.
She's been picked on before, too, so she really understands how Jethro feels. He's thinking about asking Donna if she'll go to the Sweetheart's Dance with him. It's coming up in February. He's got a lot to look forward to in his future now.
~ The End ~