The release of Charles Shultz’s animated “A Charlie Brown Christmas” was poor timing for my classmate Tommy Shortall. Almost from the day he began his tenure at our small Catholic grade school, Tommy was compared to the character Pig-Pen – the one perpetually surrounded by a cloud of dirt.
The nuns started it. They used Tommy’s slovenly appearance to shame him, forcing him to stand in front of the class as an example of how not to come to school. It didn’t help. Every day he showed up looking as if he had just rolled out of bed wearing his uniform. Wrinkled and untucked, his shirt looked unclean, his hair unwashed and uncombed. The girls complained that he smelled “dirty.” No one wanted to sit next to him in class. Pig-Pen or Poindexter, the loser date in the Barbie Queen of the Prom board game, Tommy was to be avoided.
I felt sorry for him. Where were his parents to make sure he was cleaned, pressed and ready for school like the rest of us? Didn’t they notice? I also felt vulnerable, and scared. From the very first day of school, I was compared to my older siblings, falling somewhere between “smart” and “lazy” in the continuum of labels used to define us. Better to lay low than attract a label. I didn’t join the mean girls by reporting Tommy’s hygiene habits to the nuns, nor did I defend him. Like good little Charlie Browns, the boys didn’t care. They were aligned in their belief that girls, not boys (not even Tommy) had cooties.
By third grade, Pig-Pen was a codename for Tommy. He bore it well. A nickname means you are “cool.” Negative attention from a member of the opposite sex means you are “popular.” Such were the lies perpetuated by parents to help their children survive the cruelties of youth.
One morning, a nun came to our classroom to announce that three lucky girls would be selected to participate in the May Procession – a ritual to honor the Virgin Mary by crowning her statue with a wreath of flowers. The only requirement was that the girls had to wear their First Holy Communion dresses from the previous year. For a uniform-wearing Catholic School girl in the 1960s, this was the equivalent of dressing like a Disney princess for the day. Every girl raised her hand to be considered, even the ones who clearly had outgrown their dresses.
The teacher directed each girl to write her name on a slip of paper. One by one, she summoned three boys to pull names at random. The boys were less than thrilled. The girls vibrated like an audience of game show contestants. The first two girls shrieked like newly named Miss Americas when their names were read. Finally, the teacher called Tommy to pull the third name, pointing out that it was his reward for coming to school neatly attired that morning, most likely a Monday. The girls dropped their heads. No one wanted Pig-Pen to choose them. It would be bad luck in the board game of life, like drawing Poindexter (instead of cute Ken, athletic Bob or intellectual Tom) as your steady date.
I lost interest in the whole affair, and started picking at a scab irritated by my green, woolen knee socks. Then I heard my name.
I wanted to hug Tommy.
The girls would continue to be mean about it, but I was going to be in the May Crowning because of Tommy. With that one lucky draw, one sleight of hand, he instantly became my King of the May. I stood up against the girls who picked on him and offered sympathy when the nuns were less than kind. I began etching my own groove on the continuum: “nonconformist.” By the time I reached 8th grade, I was a doctrine-challenging, guitar-playing, Rolling Stone magazine reader, who idolized Bob Dylan. The nuns were glad to see me go.
I think of Tommy whenever the topic of bullying comes up, which is all too frequent, and the complicity we all share when we don’t speak up. Looking back, the word I would choose to describe Tommy is “resilient.” He grinned through the pain of humiliation. He was more like Christ than the rest of us.