There was a buzz of excitement as we shuffled into the classroom.
Books were stuffed into desks and chair legs scraped across the floor.
The teacher stood at her desk and waited for things to settle down. Her hand was resting on the shoulder of a kid we’d never seen before.
“Class, we have a new student joining us today. This is Leland …”
Leland was different, but kind of cool. His hair was longer than anyone else’s … thick and unruly, like he’d just gotten out of bed. He wore a black leather jacket and scuffed boots, and he talked fast and with a touch of an accent, like he’d come from somewhere exotic like Alabama or Minneapolis.
Fourth grade, and I couldn’t remember the last time we’d gotten a new student.
The teacher told him to take a seat and gestured at the empty desk in front of mine.
Free time after lunch brought the daily game of touch football. Leland was fast, reckless and more aggressive than the rest of us. It didn’t set well with kids whose idea of touch football was a little more polite.
Angry words were exchanged, and Leland showed that he wasn’t intimidated by being the new kid.
My dad would describe him as someone “who doesn’t take any guff.”
It had only been three hours, but Leland’s time at a new school had not started well and it quickly got worse. As the outsider, he soon became the kid to pick on. He didn’t back down, but everyone-against-one are pretty poor odds, and it created a vicious circle of anger and bullying.
Being nice to Leland would have been the right thing to do. I knew it then and I know it now.
Maybe he just needed someone to sit with at lunchtime, to help study for the math test or to invite him on a bike ride.
A way to kick-start the trickle-down effect of kindness.
But knowing the right thing was easier than doing it, and in a world of leaders and followers, I was a follower.
That made me guilty of bullying by association.
Looking back on it, Leland was only “guilty” of being different and wanting to fit in.
“’Different doesn’t mean better or worse,” mom always reminded us. “It just means different.”
She might have been talking about Leland.
Then, one day, he was gone.
I don’t think he said good-bye to anyone. He just disappeared.
I have no idea whatever happened to him. But I’ve never forgotten him.
And Leland, if you’re still out there – I’m sorry I didn’t have the courage to do the right thing all those years ago.
But I think I do today.
Dan Conradt, a lifelong Mower County resident, lives in Austin with his wife, Carla Johnson.