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Jen's World: Years of pain ... and a moment of kindness

I my second-grade class photo, two kids down from me, Ricky Jacobson is wearing a blue vest, held wide at his sides to reveal a T-shirt with an iron-on picture. I'm guessing it's of Star Wars. A proud smile crosses his face. I love this picture of...

In my second-grade class photo, three rows of students fan out from our teacher, Mrs. Bernhardson. The scene is a cacophony of late-70-something awesomeness. We might only be eight years old, but several of us are feathered or flowered like nobody's business. Mrs. Bernhardson's wearing suntan pantyhose with heeled sandals, for Pete's sake.

I'm on the very end of the first row, where I always stood, being the shortest girl in class. I'm wearing a red, plaid dress, white cotton knee-highs, and, inexplicably, brown tennis shoes.

Two kids down from me, Ricky Jacobson wears dark jeans and black sneakers. His dark hair could probably use a comb — or at least a teacher's hand to smooth the messy pieces in back. He's wearing a blue vest, held wide at his sides to reveal a T-shirt with an iron-on picture. I'm guessing it's of Star Wars, though the image is distorted in the camera's flash. A proud smile crosses his face.

I love this picture of Ricky. It's happy. It's free. It's before he became a target.

By third grade, there was a game. Someone would touch Ricky, then pass the "touch" along with an urgent and giggly, "Ricky's germs, no returns."


It was a bad thing to get Ricky's germs. No one wanted Ricky's germs.

Did I play? I've tried to remember this. I hope I didn't. I don't think I did. But I also don't remember standing up for him.

The last time I saw Ricky Jacobson, I was a senior in high school. It was late spring, the week of graduation. The doors of the school were open and there was a light breeze. We were walking down a hallway — he coming from one end, me from the other. It'd been nearly a decade since Ricky and I had shared the same teachers in grade school. Years since we'd had any kind of conversation.

His head was down, looking at his shuffling feet as he walked. Several dark locks of hair hung in his eyes. He lifted his gaze as I got closer. "Hi Jenny," he said. The words escaped his lips so quietly that if anyone else would've been in that hallway, I wouldn't have heard them.

I've thought of that moment of kindness many times over the course of my life.

Because who was I? A girl who — let's just say it — probably wouldn't have said "hi" if he hadn't said it first.

I've thought about Ricky Jacobson more in the past two decades than I have any right to. He is, for me, one of the ones I can't shake. When my kids entered school, and I started volunteering in their classes, I thought about Ricky as I ached for the students trying to fit in. And for the ones who just don't.

What is it that makes one kid picked over another as an outsider? What kind of internal and external forces must it take to overcome years of being ostracized? What if you don't have the strength or support?


Several years ago, when Ricky's father passed away not long after his mother did, I bought a sympathy card. In it, I wrote my condolences. Told him that I remembered his kindness. That my kids were the age we were when we met. That I hoped he was doing well.

That card's stacked on a shelf in my bedroom closet, its face bare except for the words "Ricky Jacobson" written in black ink.

I couldn't find him. I called a number I thought belonged to a relative, but the person who answered didn't know where he was. I asked a former classmate; last they'd heard, he was in a nearby town.

"He kind of disappeared," one person said.

"He might be in jail," said another.

Last week, my oldest friend shared a link to Ricky's obituary. It was a short article, saying little about his life: He enjoyed music and video games and playing with his nieces and nephews. He worked in the food service industry. He passed away at home.

I wish I would've tried harder to find Ricky (which, out of respect, isn't his real name). I wish, back in high school, when he said "Hi, Jenny" in the hall, I would've not only said, "Hi, Ricky," but also would've touched his arm and thanked him for being kind. I wish I would've known, then, that knowing him would affect how I'd see and treat others. But, mostly, I wish he knew.

Jennifer Koski is assistant editor at Rochester Magazine. Her column appears Wednesdays. Send comments to news@postbulletin.com.

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