I’ve spent a long time not wanting to write this post. In fact, I still don’t want to write it.
Because it’s not silly or fun. Because it’s hard.
But I’m writing it anyway, because I have this nagging feeling that if I don’t, I’ll be lying.
I’d rather be glib right now. I’d rather tell you all about fancy homemade candy and red pandas and the time my sister and I got in a punching fight over the TV remote, but this is something we need to talk about. And by we, I don’t just mean Us—You and Me. I mean anybody, all of us.
Pharaoh. From Spanish II, from Sophomore PE. Is dead.
They announced it this morning, during 1st hour, the same way they always do with suicides, right away, so no rumors get started
It’s weird. Last year, on the exact same day, Boxer died. But he was this thin sad junior, who faded like a whisper before anyone even had a chance to notice he was gone.
[With Pharaoh] it’s not the same. I knew Boxer on sight, and most people couldn’t even say that much. I’d never had a class with him, never said a word to him, this skinny boy that no one noticed. He didn’t exist to most people.
But Pharaoh, Pharaoh was one of Those People. The ones who play varsity sports and drive nice cars and always get in the school paper, and go to all the best parties, all that. The best girls, the most popular friends, you know. And even if they aren’t Homecoming royalty, well, they still got nominated, didn’t they?
Pharaoh’s whole life, right there. The kind of boy who always gets picked first in PE, always makes it to the district basketball tournaments, always calls you “Girl,” instead of your name.
In drawing, our teacher stands in front of us, ringing her hands. “I have some sad news,” she says. “This is very difficult to talk about. One of your classmates committed suicide last night.”
And we sit quietly, expectantly. She’s looking at us like she’s never seen us before, or like we scare her.
“He was involved in a number of school activities, and some of you may have known him through church or other organizations. The counseling center is available all day.”
Then she says Pharaoh’s name.
For a long time, no one says anything. Then behind me, Dweezil mutters something under his breath, so soft I can’t make it out. It sound like shit, or else, dick. Which are two very different sentiments.
I turn to look at him, but he’s staring down at the tabletop, enigmatic. The feeling in the room is like a strange, complicated humming, electrical and mute. I tear my Poptart wrapper into tiny little strips.
This is not supposed to happen. When you think of boys dying, you think of boys like Boxer—the ones who get made fun of on the bus and ignored at home and pushed into lockers in the halls.
Not the ones who do the pushing.
Suddenly, all I can think about is this day in Spanish class last year, how Pharaoh knocked Milo’s books out of his hands and Milo’s binder fell open when it hit the floor, and all the sheets of paper flew away like birds.
“I heard he shot himself,” says Sarge after school, leaning back against the wall as we wait for the rest of the soccer team hopefuls to trickle back inside from our run. Her father is a colonel in the Air Force and of the varsity starters, she’s pretty much the only one who is ever nice to me. “I heard it was a .45.”
I think about that. Real death, sudden and messy, no room for hesitation. I think how he must have thought all this was permanent, like life would never be different.
I’m going to make varsity this year, I think suddenly, but I don’t know where the thought comes from. I don’t know how to be sad—or at least not sad in the right way—and that makes me sadder than ever.
Outside, the snow is not snow, but more like very fine mist and I’m wearing my spare socks on my hands. I just ran four miles in thirty minutes, and by the end, it was only me and Sarge, and everyone else was so far behind us you couldn’t even see them.
The day of the funeral, Little Sister Yovanoff and I walk into school under a giant butcher-paper banner that says Hugs Heal. In American Lit, only about a third of the class is there, but I can’t imagine all of them actually went to the service. I’m mad at them for that, and I don’t even know if it’s the truth. Pharaoh was mean to me. I can admit that and not pretend or sugarcoat it. He was really mean to me. But I still want someone to mourn him in the way a person should be mourned, and it bothers me that I can’t. All period, I make lists about him.
- Times he was the first to hurt someone: 0
- Times he stayed out of it: 0
- Times he ever disagreed with any of his friends: 0
- Times he laughed: when everyone else did.
- Times he picked fights: when everyone else did.
- Times he joined in when people were ganging up on someone weaker: every single one.
The lists are true, but that doesn’t stop them from being desolate and pointless. They are horribly incomplete.
Between classes, Little Sister Yovanoff comes shuffling up and leans the side of her head against our locker. After a second, she says, “I wish it was easier to be sorry. He was never kind or considerate, though. He was mean.”
“I know. He was to me, too.”
“He kicked my chair all the time in Algebra. He called me girl.”
“Yeah, he would flick spit-wads and paper footballs at me in Spanish last year. He used to take my pens and not give them back.”
“It’s sad,” she says.
And I nod because it is. More than anything, I wish he hadn’t done these things.
Little Sister Yovanoff sighs. She reaches out to adjust my necklace, and when she speaks again, her voice is serious and uncharacteristically adult. “I just like to think that he might have still grown up to be a nice person.”
All week, I keep waiting for something to be revealed. To at least be better. All I want is to feel the way I should be feeling—to make this terrible, abstract thing solid, or at least show the shape of how sorry I am.
In ceramics, we’re working on hand-built containers, coils and slabs. For the last week, I’ve been wrestling with the same squat, ugly jar every day, and now I take it down from my shelf and peel off the plastic. I spend the rest of the period changing the contours, making it taller, more graceful. Making it simple. I add an angel, building the figure out of the jar’s surface the same way I made Christmas ornaments last semester.
“Wow, that looks way different all of a sudden,” says the senior boy who sits next to me. He has the Shel Silverstein drawing from the Hug O’War poem tattooed on his arm. “What color will you do, you think?”
“White,” I tell him.
The tattooed boy seems satisfied with this, like white is the natural color of angels. Pure, luminous, pristine. But that’s not why. White is the color of paper. White is the color of the cipher. White is the color you are when you are always whatever your friends want you to be.
This doesn’t change the times when Pharaoh was cruel or destructive. It just makes it more complicated. But sitting there, resting my chin on my arms and staring hard at the vase, I think I might finally be feeling sorry in the right way. Or a least, a way that I’m okay with.
I’m not pitying him, or explaining away the bad parts. It’s not like that. But I’m just so, so sorry that he would have rather been dead than be someone scared and lonely and real.
I’m not a person with answers. That’s someone else, someone better at making distinctions or reaching conclusions. I wanted to tell you this story. I wanted to tell you because it matters. More than a decade later, that day—that death—matters to me.
I’ve always been the one with questions, the girl who is driven to examine and discuss things and take them apart (oftentimes even when it’s impolite or inappropriate or uncomfortable), because more than anything, I want to know the underlying truth. I want to know the how and why, but people are hard things to solve.
I’m not going to sit here now and say to you that bullies are just misunderstood, or that they’re crying on the inside. If someone is making you miserable, it sucks to be told that. It’s hurtful and frustrating, and even if it’s entirely, 100%, absolutely true, it doesn’t really help, because it still feels like saying that because someone else is in pain, they have a free pass to treat you as badly as they want.
So I’m not going to say that.
What I’ll say instead is that most human interactions are complicated. The reasons people do mean things is almost always complicated, even if the complication is just that they’re not thinking, or not empathizing, or they’re getting pleasure out of having power over someone else, or they’re going along with the crowd.
Those aren’t justifications. Knowing why something happens is not the same as deciding it’s okay.
Here’s the place where I usually ask a question or introduce a topic for discussion. Today, I don’t have a question (although, as always, you’re welcome to talk to me about anything that’s on your mind).
Today, I want to tell you something. I want to tell you that I’m too scared to post this. I am absolutely terrified to hit the button that puts my words where you can see them, I’m scared to talk about something sad and difficult that actually matters. And still, I already know that I’m going to do it anyway. Because there are people out there right now who feel the same way Pharaoh did, and I wish that were different, that it would change. Like I said, that matters.
I want to tell you something else too, because even though I’m pretty sure you already know it, I think it’s a good thing to say.
I want to tell you that you never have to be mean. And if there are times when you’ve been mean, or done things you’re not proud of, you can still wake up in the morning and not do what you did yesterday. No one is making you.
This isn’t coming from some ivory tower of enlightenment or moral superiority. To say that I know a secret about kindness wouldn’t just be unrealistic, it would be horribly dishonest. I try to be the person I wish I was—the kind, patient one—but I still get mean sometimes. I still do and say things I wish I hadn’t. Things there was no reason for except that it was easy, or I was frustrated and took it out on someone else.
But I don’t want to be mean, and I think that’s true of most people, so for everyone who doesn’t want to be mean (and remember, I’m nearly positive that’s most people), the answer is pretty simple: we don’t have to be.
There. That’s what I wanted to say. Also that there are people who love you. I know I do.