Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Bad Mark

Mark Mitchell (not his real name) was regarded as a trouble maker by his teachers, and a “nerd” by fellow students. He was the Alex Barton of my grade school class. He was considered “annoying”— he interrupted people, talked too loud, and snorted when he laughed. Some surely thought he was “disgusting” or “gross”— his clothes were often dirty or stained by spilled food and drinks; his nose seemed always to be running, and he burped with alarming frequency. Something was always unzipped or haphazardly buttoned. Worst of all, he cried easily, something completely unacceptable for boys over five.

Mark’s name was next to my name in the roll book. He sat beside me or in front of me every year from first through sixth grade. He lived in my neighborhood, just a couple of blocks away.

There were a lot of Marks in my class some years. The teachers referred to Mark Mitchell as “the bad Mark.” His papers were always a mess, and sometimes his homework was incomplete. He was an enigma, a boy who talked about nothing but science, obviously bright, but barely maintaining a C-minus average.

Mark moved awkwardly, his speech was halting and nasal; he wore outdated clothing styles, and never figured out how to join a group of kids who were playing. As the class scapegoat, he kept me safely invisible. Fewer people noticed my less pronounced awkwardness. Since I hardly ever spoke, interrupting was hardly a problem. Mark served a purpose in my life beyond even the purpose he served for the more typical students. They needed someone to serve as an example of what they were not, all that was uncool and thus contemptible. I needed Mark to be that person, so I didn’t have to be.

I didn’t know any of this then. I knew that I was different, but when I say I was invisible, this is barely an exaggeration. My M.O. was staying off the radar. During recess, I played alone, making up stories in my head or examining the rocks at the edges of the property. I was good at not noticing certain things. Sometimes I think I chose isolation so I didn’t have to notice it choosing me. It worked fairly well for me, as long as someone else was around to be the bad Mark.

I was returning from vacation with my family, riding in the back seat of the car, when I heard Mark’s name on the radio. The small plane his father had been piloting had crashed; Mark, his parents and his sister had all died. We had just started seventh grade, at a much larger school. He got out of it. That was what I thought.

For the next few weeks, there was a lot of talk about Mark around school. No one had anything bad to say now. For most of us, this was the first time we had known someone our own age, one of us, so suddenly gone. I wondered if the other kids felt bad about the way they’d treated him. They seemed to have forgotten all that. History was rewriting itself. For many, many reasons, probably none of them having a thing to do with Mark, my life was about to get a lot more difficult.


  1. The Alex Barton incident has also made me recollect the "outcasts" in my early education. I feel incredibly guilty for my part in isolating others now -- I was mostly a silent partner to the "popular" kids but like you, I was glad it was somebody else being targeted and not me and also aware of how easily the tables could turn if I wasn't careful. The social stratus is so fragile, painful, and difficult for most kids. I only hope that I can raise my own children (and have some impact on those I teach) to not 'join the pack.'

    Thank you for your honest words.

    karen in ca

  2. Wow. This story just seems surreal. I think I was a lot like you in school.

  3. Beautiful story. And sad. Sad because it is as true today as it was when you were in school- only the names and faces have been changed.

    I had a terrible time in school. I remember the pain and awkwardness like it was yesterday.

    Bullying is unfortunately alive and well. In schools. On the playground. Within families. And even on the Internet.

    Hopefully we are (collectively) moving toward greater awareness.

    Thank you for sharing this story!

  4. My husband and I were discussing kids like that in school when we were kids too. Yours is a tad sadder though.

  5. You can get the bad label for the most trivial things, and the teachers and students never forget it.

  6. :( That was me at my first school.

    A special grip on my pencil and a few sessions of phsiotherapy enabled me to write. I got good grades after that, although I had to put up with a lot of hand pain and I never finished an essay-based exam in my whole school career. I became more like you were. The teachers liked me but I was alone. I was happy alone.


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