* Culture, Featured

The Smile

Read A. J. Finch's story and personal reflection on a fleeting high school interaction - long gone but not forgotten

I always think of Michael at Christmas and I feel ashamed.

Michael was the type of guy in high school that no one wanted to be friends with.  You know the type of guy I’m talking about. There is a Michael in every high school.

There were those of us who laughed at Michael, called him names, whispered loud, vicious things about him, to his face, behind his back, in the hallways, the playground – it didn’t really matter if he heard or not – in fact, better if he heard.

And then there were those of us, like me, who said and did nothing. Who pretended not to see, not to hear the comments, the unkind, hurtful things others would say about him –


“Fat. Disgusting.”

“He is so fat, can he even see his penis?”

“He took his shirt off in the change room – I got a picture – check it out.”

“Have you seen his arms man?”

“No – he’s always wearing a jumper, even in summer – probably why he stinks. Like wear some deodorant.”

“Yeh, but you know he wears it to cover his arms – he’s got pimples, all over his arms. And he’s so hairy. Com’n man, shave? Get a razor. It’s not hard.”

“He couldn’t get through the classroom door one time. The teacher had to push him into the room.”

“Come off it – seriously?”

“He’s totally blind. Have you seen his glasses? They are so thick – like two telescopes on his face.”

“Why doesn’t he do anything about it? It’s like he doesn’t care.”

“Have you seen his mom though? She’s a whale. Runs in the family.”

I’d cringe of course when I’d hear it – which was all the time. I heard it all the time. But I was just grateful. So, so grateful that it wasn’t me. I was grateful – relieved – that they weren’t saying those things about me. I was safe and secure in my tentative, hard fought popularity. I was finally hanging out with the “right people” and I didn’t want to jeopardise that – certainly not for Michael.

And if I was honest, I was scared – scared that if I said hello, or sat next to him, or defended him, that they would all turn on me – I could hear them, could hear the cacophonous calls of my peers at night, when I closed my eyes, when I tried to sleep. They would laugh loudly at me – haunting me with their smiles, their grins full of hatred and disgust. I could hear them at night, all of them turning on me as they had turned on Michael.

“Did you see her today? She sat next to Michael. Gross right?”

“He’s so fat. Do you reckon she likes him?”

“She must. Why else would she hang out with him? That is totally gross.”

“I mean, he is so gross man.”

“She’s gross.”

“Well gross people hang out together.”

So I avoided him. I avoided him for years. Year 8, year 9, year 10, year 11. He sat in the back of my homeroom class alone, his body hanging uncomfortably over the small school chair, tucked, in part, under the tiny school desk. I saw him every morning and I never said hello. And he never said anything; forced into a lonely silence by his tormenters and those of us who were too cowardly to do anything about it.

In term four of year 11, I was late to English class. It was not my fault. Mrs Carr the liturgy coordinator scouted me out and pounced trying to coax me into organising the school’s annual Christmas Nativity pageant.

“Look no boys volunteered this year,” she said to me. “So I was thinking we could get a female to play Joseph. What do you think?”

“Ms, no boys volunteer – ever.  Ms, maybe you could force someone to do it this time,” I sighed thinking about the school’s Easter pageant fiasco back in March, when Britney, who was playing Judas, surprised the cast and the entire school by flinging her 30 pieces of silver into the audience. It might have been effective – even visually spectacular – except that 10 of her 30 pieces of silver smashed into the principal’s face. The whole play was suspended while the principal went to sick bay to make sure he had no permanent eye damage.

Some students had cheered. Britney got detention.

“I can’t force students; you know, I want students to want to be involved,” Mrs Carr said.

Yeh right, I thought to myself.

“Yeh okay,” I said to Mrs Carr. To be honest, I didn’t really care and I was amused at the thought of a female Joseph and a female Mary in a Catholic school – the principal would be unimpressed. I smiled as I thought of all the angry letters he was bound to get.

“But what about Herod and the Three Kings? Who will you get to play them?” I asked innocently.

“Well I thought we could just get the girls to do it,” She smiled wildly. “I mean, it makes it contemporary right? More inclusive for our female population,” she declared with glee, her arms wide.

“Yeh sure Ms, whatever you think. I gotta go to class now,” I replied. My stomach churned as I thought about the hour of English I had ahead of me. Another soulless hour of Hamlet and his madness with Mr Knight. Kill me.

“Great. I knew, you of all people would agree with this new contemporary approach,” she emphasized.

“Ha, you know me well Ms,” I said turning away from her.

“Okay – ”she yelled as I started to march away, “I will organise a meeting of the volunteers; thanks for agreeing to do it.”

I hadn’t agreed to do anything, but teachers always assumed I would do it.

The corridors were empty and quiet, except for the eerie Christmas music crackling over the school intercom on low volume. I could just make out Boney M’s distinctive trills of Mary’s Boy Child Jesus Christ. The carols were only meant to play when the school bell chimed, but as with everything in our school, the intercom was old and broken and no one could turn the bell off. And so Boney M was on perpetual loop, during class, during recess, during lunch. It had been this way for a week and no one knew how to stop it. This was the principal’s way of making things more festive – but it felt like something out of a creepy Stephen King novel.

I powerwalked through the corridors. The school was so familiar to me I didn’t have to think about where I was going. I turned into English block A, where all my English lessons were held and rammed into a startled Michael. He was carrying a huge pile of books which tumbled to the floor.

“Sorry!” I said, “Michael, I am sorry, I wasn’t concentrating.”

“It’s okay,” he heaved.

He bent down, slowly to pick up his books. I eyed the empty corridor and then bent down to help him.

Together we gathered his books up; most were textbooks: Ancient History, Biology, Geography; thick heavy books – probably now shredded or sitting somewhere collecting dust in random bookcases.

But the last book, a thin, small book, was a novel.

“Slaughterhouse-Five?” I asked. “You like Kurt Vonnegut?”

“So it goes,” he replied back.

I smiled and so did he.

One of the classroom doors banged open and out spilled five of our peers into the corridor.

Michael hastily grabbed the book from my hands.

“Hey you,” yelled Thomas Varner, “Whatcha doing with this fat face? You like him?” He cackled. His group of cronies laughed wickedly as they walked towards us in a pack, eyeing both Michael and me.

I cringed and walked away from Michael towards my classroom. When I reached the classroom door, I could see Mr Knight, my English teacher, through the glass panes in the door. He was seated in front of class, waving his copy of Hamlet in the air. I hadn’t missed much.

I turned and watched as Thomas descended on Michael.

Michael looked back at me and smiled. A curious smile. It was neither kind nor cruel. Not warm nor cold. There was no disappointment, resentment, rage or anger. It was as if he had always known. As if he had anticipated this encounter and had known all along that I would come up short.

As I turned the doorknob of the classroom door I heard Boney M singing,

For a moment the world was aglow, all the bells rang out

There were tears of joy and laughter, people shouted

“Let everyone know, there is hope for all to find peace”

I turned away from Michael and opened the door and shut it firmly behind me.

“Nith of you to join uth,” declared Mr Knight, his lisp more pronounced than ever.

Years later, I know why Michael smiled at me that day. He knew then that one day I would remember and feel ashamed. He knew that one day I would wish that I had done something, said something. He knew that one day I would wish that I had been kind to him – been his friend when he had no one.

I know now that his smile was full of pity.

A. J. Finch