Walking the hallways of a new school Billy seethed with anger and hatred. He looked different, dressed different, and acted different than everyone else but really he was just like all of us. Except in one major area; his parents didn’t care.
He would come to school dressed in the same clothes for days and reeking of no shower. I didn’t know if he didn’t have any running water or if his parents just didn’t make him. He also had a skin disease that caused it to look and feel scaly. Because of all of this he acted out very harshly. Billy kept everyone at an arm’s length and before you could try and make friends with him he usually just tried to punch you.
I can remember standing on the street next to my friend’s house when Billy came riding up on his bike. We shared a look that said everything about how we felt about Billy, but I also remember us trying to make nice with him. Our efforts got me a punch in the eye. I didn’t hit him back, not because I was afraid of him (he was much smaller than I was) but because I truly felt sorry for him.
Even at the age of 12 we could recognize that something was wrong in Billy’s life and we weren’t going to be a part of the problem.
And it wasn’t just us that Billy was like this with—it was everyone! There was a boy in one of our 6th grade classes that had special needs. He was the sweetest kid and was generally like by everyone because he was so sweet, except for Billy. Billy looked at him with hatred and I believe that he saw weakness. Not this other boy’s weakness but his own.
Here was this other kid that was different as well but he had friends, others liked him. This reminded Billy that he didn’t have friends and he didn’t have this and didn’t have that and it only served to make Billy him hate more.
One day in math class this boy was singing quietly to himself as Billy walked up to him, took one look into his eyes, cocked back his fist and dropped the poor boy with one punch. A massive noise quickly came from the writhing boy on the floor and we all rushed to his aid. Billy stood back with a smirk on his face. Billy had made that boy physically feel what was happening to him inside.
It wasn’t long before he started to get in trouble with the law.
He would steal and vandalize and destroy and threaten. It didn’t matter how many times people reached out to him he would swing back. Love would always be met with hatred when it came to Billy. I honestly worried about what was happening in his home.
I remember getting word the next day that Billy had been killed the night before. The story went that he was fleeing from having just stolen some baseball cards, when he rode out in front of a car. I don’t remember any other details other than he didn’t make it.
It was the first time that I had ever known a kid that died. It wasn't supposed to happen—we’re kids. Kids don’t die. Kids live forever. The reality of it all hit us like the proverbial ton of bricks.
I remember that from that moment on, life was different. A part of my innocence died when he did. (Please know that I’m not being dramatic or making this story about me.) The world looked differen because in this new world, this more grown up world, bad things could and did happen to people that I knew and even people that I was friends with.
Middle school can be a mine field for many kids. Billy walked in his mine field alone. I, on the other hand, did not. I will say it again and again and again: listen to your children. Hear what they are saying to you, stop what you’re doing and converse with them. Give them a safe place to vent and even in those moments when you disagree keep that place safe. Allow other adults in their lives that will speak the same wisdom into them that you do. Tell them no but try to say yes as much as possible. Encourage them to try and when they fail, let them. Be their moms and dads and love on them as much as you can, while they will let you.
I learned many lessons during middle school, some have remained with me to this day, and others have been long forgotten. Billy is the former. His face will stay with me always.
Billy’s face is the face of heartbreak, and brokenness, and life being unfair. His face reminds me that we live in a world where my children and your children will experience pain and heartache and there is nothing we can do to shield them from that.
His face prompts me to hug my children before they leave in the mornings, to whisper bed time prayers in the darkness of their rooms and to softly kiss them before sleep takes them. His face pleads with me to reach out to all of those around me in love and service. His face pushes me to teach those same things to my children, so that when they meet their own Billy maybe they will do a better job than I did. His face forces me to remember how difficult middle school truly is and to walk with my kids during those years, to stop lecturing so much and to listen better.
Billy’s face is the face I see in every tear of every middle school student I have ever counseled with.