“You wanna die, Schaeffer? You wanna die right now? Because I can kill you, you know. And there’s nothing that anyone can do about it. Would you like that?”
Although Stefano had no doubt intended the question to be purely rhetorical, I shook my head, even as Stefano tightened his grip around my shirt collar, making it more difficult for me to breathe. Nor did I really believe that Matt Stefano would kill me—though there were times when I wondered. But it would not be beyond him to hurt me very, very badly. Matt Stefano, I believed, was either seriously crazy or pathologically evil—and possibly both.
Behind me, I could feel the brick wall of the rear side of St. Patrick’s Elementary School. Why had I been stupid enough to wander back here after eating lunch? When you’re a twelve-year-old boy who is trying to dodge a bully, there is always safety in numbers. You want to be out in the open, where everyone can see everything and everyone.
The rest of the seventh and eighth graders—not to mention two or three teachers—were on the other side of the building. But they might as well have been a mile or two away. Back here, beneath the late autumn shade of the pin oak trees that dominated the rear of the school building, it was only Matt Stefano and I.
“Do you wanna die?” he repeated. “Do you?”
What did he expect me to say? I might have pointed out, for instance, that this was far from a fair fight. Matt Stefano was not only an eighth grader—but an eighth grader who had been held back at least once. (And there were persistent rumors that he had been held back twice along the way.) So I was twelve years old, and he was fourteen or fifteen. At that age among boys, two or three years of growth confers a big advantage.
Add to that the fact that Stefano was a naturally big boy. He was by far the tallest of the eighth graders, coming in at just over six feet and perhaps a hundred and eighty pounds or so. He could easily have been an athlete, but it was clear that Matt Stefano much preferred to be a hoodlum. He wore his hair long, even as long hair was now starting to pass out of style, a remnant of the recent sixties and seventies.
In those adolescent years in which the concepts of sex appeal and popularity are nascent, Matt wasn’t quite a heartthrob. Not quite. That honor was reserved for the more clean-cut, mainstream boys who excelled at basketball and baseball. But Stefano definitely had a following among both the seventh and eighth grade girls.
While I waited for Matt Stefano to do his worst, I had a random thought: Why had my parents sent me to St. Patrick’s Elementary School in the first place—instead of the nearby public school, Youngman Elementary?
Certainly they had wanted me to get a Catholic education. At St. Patrick’s we wore the typical Catholic school uniforms: white shirts and dark slacks for the boys, plaid skirts and white blouses for the girls. We attended mass once a week, and one of our regular courses was indeed called Religion—a mixture of church history, Bible study, and current events from a Catholic perspective. My parents were both devoted Roman Catholics, so that was important to them.
But maybe, I thought, they also wanted to spare me the indignity of being held against a wall by a school bully like Matt Stefano. What was he even doing at St. Patrick’s, I wondered? Who had signed the papers that had allowed him in here?
This town, Withamsville, was not even a town, properly speaking, but a “census-designated place” not far from the Cincinnati city limits. Withamsville was a mixed income community where the old money neighborhoods of the city bled into a semirural zone of body shops, trailer parks, and pony kegs. Withamsville was neither city nor farmland, but a no-man’s land where newly built suburbs mingled with postwar tract homes, and still older, decaying neighborhoods inhabited by the sons of Appalachian migrants, and white-flight refugees who had fled the poorer sections of the city following the race riots of the 1960s. It was a world that was alternately refined and rough, where upper middle class kids like me often fell prey to working class bullies like Matt Stefano.
That was about the time when we both heard the rock crash against the wall, not so very far from Matt’s left ear. The sound immediately captured both our attention, and Matt temporarily relaxed his grip on me. But he didn’t let go.
Matt turned around, and there was Bobby Nagel. He wasn’t on top of us, but he was within sprinting distance. The cavalry, I thought, or something like that.
“What are you doin’, Nagel?” Stefano growled. “Did you throw that rock at me?”
“Naw, I just threw the rock,” Bobby said evenly. “If I’d have wanted to hit you, I’d have hit you.”
I was more than a little amazed—and more than a little admiring—of the way Bobby stood there, staring down Matt Stefano. Bobby was only an inch taller than me, but he was a scrapper with a fair share of fisticuffs on his adolescent resume. Like Matt Stefano, Bobby came from what was then called “a broken home”. Although Bobby and I were friends, I had met his father perhaps once or twice; and Bobby claimed to see the man only rarely.
“Come on, Matt,” Bobby said. “Let him go. He ain’t bothering you.”
Matt now held me by the collar with one hand. He punctuated his next question by pointing his finger at Bobby.
“Or what, Nagel? Are you going to make me?”
Bobby paused to contemplate this. He was a lot tougher than I was; but he was no match for Matt Stefano.
“A teacher’s headed this way, you know,” Bobby said, dodging the direct challenge.
“Bullshit! You’re bluffing!”
“But what if I’m not, Matt? How many more demerits for you before you get suspended, huh? How many before they throw your ass out of here, and you’re off to Youngman Elementary with the other criminals?”
“You son of a bitch!” Matt yelled. “I’ll kill you!”
The subtext of Bobby’s insult had not gone unnoticed. When he called Matt a criminal, he did not mean the term in its generic sense. Everyone at school knew that Matt Stefano’s father, Tony Stefano, had recently been arrested and charged with burglary in Cincinnati. The elder Stefano was presently doing time at Lebanon Correctional Institute, about fifty miles north of Cincinnati. Bobby’s reference, however oblique it may have been, had touched a raw nerve.
I was sure that Matt was going to charge Bobby, or perhaps take out this new wave of anger on me. Then Mr. Malinowski came into view. Bobby had not been bluffing about the teacher, after all.
I hadn’t seen Mr. Malinowski approach. That wasn’t really surprising, though, given that Matt Stefano had me pressed up against the side of the building.
“What’s going on here?” Mr. Malinowski asked. That much was fairly obvious, wasn’t it?
“Nothin’!” Matt said, instantly releasing me. Though Matt Stefano was easily the toughest and most feared kid at St. Patrick’s, he wouldn’t directly challenge a teacher. That simply wasn’t done. A hoodlum like Stefano might get by with thinly veiled sarcasm and the occasional lie; but had he physically confronted a teacher, he would have been out of the school and off to Youngman—or maybe even reform school. Just as Bobby had said.
“It didn’t look like ‘nothin’’ to me,” Mr. Malinowski said. He was well into his fifties, but Mr. Malinowski was a big man. Moreover, I could tell that he didn’t like Matt Stefano. None of the teachers did, really; but Mr. Malinowski’s tone suggested a degree of antipathy that extended beyond an educator’s professional exasperation with an incurable problem student. Reflecting on this moment years later, I would sometimes wonder if there had been a Matt Stefano in Mr. Malinowski’s childhood. That would have explained a lot.
Mr. Malinowski, ignoring Bobby for the most part, walked closer to Matt Stefano and me. Matt now took a deliberate step away from me, as if to demonstrate his innocence.
Without warning, Mr. Malinowski grabbed Matt by his shirt collar, and shoved him up against the building, much as Matt had been doing to me a minute ago.
“Picking on other kids again?” Mr. Malinowski asked, bringing his face to within inches of Stefano’s. “Maybe you ought to try picking on someone your own size—someone who can fight back.”
I know what you’re probably thinking about now: There is so much about this entire exchange that would be impossible nowadays, or would result in multiple lawsuits.
But keep in mind: this was the early 1980s. Nearly two decades before Columbine, schools were much less vigilant about bullying. Unless one of the victims really made an issue of a bullying problem, the schools tended to make students work out these problems among themselves.
And as for a teacher laying hands on a child in a threatening manner: Corporal punishment was still practiced in many schools in 1980, and no one thought anything of parents spanking their own children. Not like nowadays, when spanking has become a matter for media worrywarts and United Nations human rights lawyers.
I was half-expecting Mr. Malinowski to throw a punch at Matt Stefano, but instead he let the boy go and shoved him away. Even in the early 1980s, a punch from a teacher would have constituted an “incident”. I also wondered, briefly, if Matt would have retaliated at that point, and what the outcome might have been. At six-foot-three and maybe two hundred and forty pounds, Mr. Malinowski was somewhat the larger of the two. But Matt was younger, probably faster, and almost certainly meaner.
“Don’t let me catch you doing that again, Stefano,” Mr. Malinowski said. “And to help you remember, I’m going to write up three demerits for you. They should add nicely to your total.”
By this time I had moved away from Matt Stefano and Mr. Malinowski. I was standing next to Bobby. Mr. Malinowski turned to Bobby and me. “Why don’t you two boys join the rest of the students in the front area of the school grounds,” he said. “Lunchtime is almost over.”
This was a command, not a request, though both Bobby and I were more than happy to comply. I shuffled away, Bobby at my side, while Mr. Malinowski continued his lecture at Matt Stefano. The teacher’s intervention had been a mixed blessing: On one hand, I had been saved from immediate peril. On the other hand, though, I had (however indirectly and without fault) subjected Matt to three demerits and humiliating treatment at the hands of an adult authority figure. Matt would be looking for a payback.
“Why does that guy have it out for you so much?” Bobby asked.
I shrugged. “Doesn’t he have it out for everybody, when you think about it?”
“I guess,” Bobby said. The truth, though, was that Bobby had never directly incurred Matt Stefano’s wrath. Matt might have been able to whip Bobby easily, if it came to that; but Matt’s favorite targets were the boys who lived in the newly built neighborhoods in Withamsville, the sons of attorneys, engineers, and corporate middle managers. It was a form of classism in reverse, though back then I wouldn’t have expressed the situation in those terms.
We made it to the front area of the school grounds just as the other teachers were summoning the seventh and eighth grade kids back into the building for the afternoon’s classes. It was one of those golden October days that hover just on the edge of summertime warmth. (That brief period from mid-September through late October is the only truly beautiful season in Ohio.) There was a small breeze, and the big trees that ringed the school grounds were an explosion of red, bronze, and burnt yellow. Neither of us was anxious to go back inside, where we would sweat inside the basement classrooms.
“I guess we should enjoy our recesses while we still can,” Bobby said, as if reading my mind. At St. Patrick’s all students from grades one through eight were given twenty minutes of outdoor time in the morning, followed by approximately half an hour after lunch. “There’s no recess in high school. Not at Bishop Stallings. Not at Youngman, either.”
Although Bobby was referring to the weather, his mention of the two high schools raised an uncomfortable truth: After next year, we would be parting ways, as I headed off to Bishop Stallings High School, and Bobby headed off to Youngman High School, the high school equivalent of Youngman Elementary.
Bobby—like many of the lower income kids at St. Patrick’s—received defrayed tuition from a parish grant. But Bishop Stallings was a consolidated Cincinnati archdiocese high school, and it cost serious money to attend. While the tuition was not an insurmountable burden for my parents, it was hopelessly beyond the reach of Bobby Nagel’s mother. And as for his father contributing—well, that notion was so unlikely that it was never even broached. According to my mother, Joyce Nagel was lucky to collect two or three child support payments per year from Bobby’s errant father.
“You might wonder why I did that,” Bobby said, clapping me on the shoulder. “I mean—sticking up for you like that.”
“Of course I know what you mean,” I said. “Thanks.”
“Well, I didn’t do it for you,” Bobby said. “I did it for me. I figure that Matt Stefano and I are bound to mix it up sooner or later.”
“Bobby. You can’t whip Matt Stefano.”
“Exactly.” Bobby clapped me on the shoulder again. “I figure I’ll show him that I’m not afraid of him now, while we’re both here at St. Patrick’s. Then when we’re at Youngman together, he’ll leave me alone.”
That logic didn’t make sense to me. Matt Stefano wasn’t the type to forget a grudge. On the contrary, he would spend the next two years calculating the interest on his vendetta against Bobby.
Moreover, while Matt’s “gang” at St. Patrick’s was limited to a handful of hoodlumish eighth grade boys, at Youngman he would be among his own element. By the time Bobby faced him there, Matt would be part of a regular gang of like-minded delinquents; and boys of that ilk had no qualms about fighting with unequal numbers.
It occurred to me that this might be Bobby’s way of making me feel less awkward than I already did about him functioning as my unofficial bodyguard.
I merely nodded. “Well, thanks anyway. I was in a jam back there.”
We were drawing near to the mass of other students now, who were filing into the seventh and eighth grade classrooms of St. Patrick’s in two single-file rows. The lower grades were taught in a separate building—a much older red brick structure that was built around the turn of the (twentieth) century. The junior high classrooms were housed beneath the church. That building had been built in the mid-1960s, so it was still fairly newish in 1980.
As was now my habit, I began to look for Leah. I had known Leah most of my life, and I had seen her on a daily basis since kindergarten, more or less. But that had all changed lately: each time I saw her it was now a special event. This was a season in my life in which I would often lay awake at night, wondering if Leah Carter might ever feel the same way.
I could not find Leah among the two queues of students. She must already be inside. Thankfully, no Matt Stefano, either. (The latter was likely still being detained by Mr. Malinowski.) I took my place in line, behind Stephanie Santangelo and Julie Brinson. I tried not to stare at their legs, which (as lots of campy male fantasy literature has made much of in the intervening years) were visible in their Catholic school girls’ skirts. Both sets of legs still bore the deep brown of the recent summer’s tan.
How long had it been since girls’ legs had been of any interest to me at all? Less than a year, I would say—and now I was all but obsessed with them. Not only girls’ legs, mind you, but their hair, their voices, and the degree to which they were “developed”.
Only a year or so ago, my sole concerns had been summer little league, comic books, and playing video games like pong and stunt cycle. (A few Christmases ago, my parents had presented me with a Telegames console from Sears. Crude by today’s standards, it was a forerunner of the Atari video game consoles that would take the country by storm within a few years.) But now I noticed seemingly every girl I came into contact with, and I was constantly trying to gauge their reaction to me.
I followed the flow of people inside. We passed through the main foyer of the building, past the staircase that led up to the church proper. Looking upward, I caught a waft of incense, and a glimpse of the statue of the Blessed Virgin, her arms outstretched, a serpent crushed beneath her sandaled feet.
We students went downstairs instead, toward the classrooms. I was passing through the downstairs doorway, still sneaking glances at Stephanie and Julie when I felt a much larger presence brush past me, deliberately knocking me into the doorframe.
Matt Stefano surged past me without doing further damage for now, elbowing his way through the crowd. But he did take the time to look back and glare at me; and his message was clear: It wasn’t over between us; no—it wasn’t over by a long shot.