Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Hunting For Witches

It was my sophomore year of high school. I still remember my sister Skipper squealing about Billy Jessup. Apparently he was the number one crush of the eighth grade. I didn’t get the appeal. The kid looked like Howdy Duty with a bad attitude. I am not into awkwardly placed red hair and freckles, but my sister was in love with this bad ass Mortimer Snerd.
That year, she did a project with him in a science class. Skipper was always a top student, and won the award for best GPA. Billy, on the other hand, had recently been disciplined by the middle school principal for cutting school and heading to the mall. Fortunately, Skipper had not picked him as a partner, but rather the teacher felt the need for the kids to mix by assigning boy/girl pairs.
Billy’s parents rewarded his bad behavior by getting him the latest in video game technology for his bedroom television. It was a parenting move I didn’t understand. If I would have cut school, I would have been met with the cold, sharp end of my father’s belt buckle. Yes, we were a spanking house. No, we didn’t cut school. And no, we didn’t have TVs in our rooms.
While the project started with Skipper having a crush on Billy, the attraction faded when she was handed most if not all the work. Billy simply stuck his name on it and that was the end. Of course, I was sent to retrieve my sister from his academic misadventure. When I entered the palace called the Jessup home, my sister was helping Mrs. Jessup wash the dishes. Billy was no where to be found.
Mrs. Jessup seemed like a nice enough woman. Tired and beleaguered, it seemed like she was a walking, talking doormat. William, as she referred to him, was playing his videogames. Okay. Meanwhile, Skipper, always the helper, was embarrassed for Mrs. Jessup so she was pitching in. After all, Skipper was so abused because she was required to do chores. Meanwhile, this one and only brat was worshipped for living and breathing. I had just gotten grief for my C on my latest math test. Put me on that program please.
Weeks after the project, young Billy was arrested for shoplifting.  While he was a marginal hockey player at best, he was passionate. Instead of military school or even grounding him, his parents splurged and got him a private coach who had previously worked with The Pittsburgh Penguins. Positive reinforcement is a wonderful thing, but this was simply just rewarding bad behavior. As a matter of fact, my father had the best response when he heard about the Jessup’s approach to their son’s recent arrest: “If that isn’t setting him up to be a guest of the state of Pennsylvania I don’t know what is.”
The following year Billy went to high school. He played JV hockey, and he didn’t make much noise in my memory, that is, until he came to school with a black eye, cast and crutches on one day. Hobbling down the hall, everyone demanded to know what happened. Billy had a story to tell. Over the weekend, he had gotten into a huge fight with varsity hockey captains Mike Stelnik and Rob Thompson. Apparently, he had not moved their pads and they jumped him after practice. When they left him cold and bleeding, injured, they drove away. Billy made his way home and his mother was forced to take him to the hospital. Nothing was broken but his ankle was sprained, his arm was sprained, his ribs were bruised and his eye had actually swollen shut.
I was shocked. Rob Thompson was a big mouth who dyed his hair peroxide blonde and had a jerk father who sported his trophy wife at the hockey games. But Rob wasn’t a bully. If anything, he was a friend to a lot of people and was likely to give you a high five on a bad day. Mike Stelnik was just nuts. He made a career of being ejected from games and always had a black eye or broken finger, but yet still made his name as a wing on the ice. His family went to my mass, and his sister had severe spinal bifida. Stelnik’s dad owned a contracting business, and talked about making an obscene amount of money. His mom had black hair with a skunk stripe and kept her Halloween decorations up until Christmas, and her Christmas decorations up until the 4th of July. These kids were a great many things, but not bullies.
Nonetheless, the consequences came down very quickly. Thompson and Stelnik both got a visit by the police, and because the incident happened on school ground they were even talking about expelling them at a separate hearing. In between, because the school pressed charges, there was also an appointment with the magistrate.
Of course peer justice was also enacted on these two. While both fancied themselves swinging ladies men, their dreams were crushed when their girlfriends of the week dumped them. The words of Misty Trainor, head majorette and former flame of Thompson, “I watched a video about domestic violence. You beat Billy up. You are going to beat me up too.”
The football team took this as an opportunity to do some punishment of their own. While those guys liked Thompson and Stelnik, the football players often felt the hockey players were their smaller, flashier, richer, yet less tough cousins. (Hockey was a club sport). Josh Nichols, football captain, made it his business to bump into these two insisting he could do what they did to Billy in one shot. While he was a gentle giant, Nichols didn’t have much mental activity. Yet like the rest of us, he had joined the witch hunt.
Even the hockey coaches were having Stelnik and Thompson run and do extra workouts. These guys were being punished in a way that made the gas chamber look good.
Meanwhile, Billy Jessup was fairing quite well. Every girl in the freshmen class carried his books. Skipper took a turn, even though she claimed she was “over him.” His teachers were lenient with his grades. The hockey coach promised him a starting position if he recovered in time for next year. And his dad, auspiciously away on business in Thailand, came home early. Even his grandparents, who apparently had a lot of money, purchased him a horse. It seemed this injury was the best thing to happen to Billy.
As Stelnik and Thompson saw their lives going to complete ruin, they stopped me in the hall. “You got to help us Brucker. You got to tell people we are innocent.” Thompson begged.
“Why, because you didn’t do it? Please.” I said.
“We didn’t do it. We were away at a hockey tournament in Canada with our traveling team. I even got ejected from the game.” Stelnik offered. “Here is my latest broken finger. How could I have punched him with the broken finger if I wasn’t in the country?”
Now I was puzzled. “I was with him. It’s our travelling team. And we don’t even know who the kid is. I mean, we saw him once maybe. But how could we beat him up if we weren’t here and don’t even know him?” Thompson asked.
“Then why is he saying you did?” I demanded. “He’s injured.”
“Hell if we know. But the cops aren’t pressing charges because we proved we were out of the country. That’s why we aren’t suspended or expelled. He’s lying.” Stelnik explained. “Besides, why would I bully someone? My sister’s disabled.”
I looked at the both of them. Their eyes were big and fearful. They were telling the truth. They didn’t do this. I had known these guys for years. Sure, they teased. They made fun. But they weren’t vicious and violent without provoking.
“Then who did it?” I asked.
“My uncle’s a detective. He thinks this kid might be being abused.” Thompson offered.
“I have been to his house. This kid gets rewards for messing up. That’s not the case.” I said. And then the next words still echo in my mind as I assured them. “But I believe you.”
The next twist to the story would shock the living hell out of everyone.
After questioning and the police not pressing charges, it turned out Billy Jessup had not been beaten up by Thompson and Stelnik. He made the story up. And a family member hadn’t hit him either. Billy Jessup had beaten himself up. The truth came out after the stories of Thompson and Stelnik checked out, and his began to fall apart.
By beating himself up he got sympathy from his teachers, his father to come home from Thailand, a horse from his distant grandparents, the promise of a starting spot on the hockey team, and attention from women. Stelnik and Thompson were vindicated. And when asked if they would beat Billy Jessup up for real they replied, “Why? He did a better job of it than we ever could?”
Billy went from being temporarily popular to persona non grata very quickly. He dropped out of school the following year, and after another shoplifting arrest was placed in night school. Billy was then arrested for heroin possession, and after rehab his parents got him a brand new convertible to increase his self-esteem. This epic fail ended in Billy using those wheels, leaving their house, and buying drugs in a bad neighborhood where he overdosed on a bad batch and died.
In between, people who talked to him claimed he was super crazy. Talking about people following him and his food being poisoned. He also claimed he could speak troll. This could have been more nonsense to get attention, or it could have been something more. Either way, he was dead at 18. When my sister went to his wake, she said that while it was sad, he also looked like he was finally at peace.
As this was all happening, I was taking a college psych class and learning about mental illness in adolescents. Apparently it begins around the age of 15, the time Billy began shoplifting and skipping class. They also act out by self injuring, and more often than not self-medicating with drugs.
That spring, Skipper graduated first in the class and gave a speech to a round of applause. Directly after, Billy’s parents accepted his diploma. They looked sad, tired, and defeated. Their well intended over indulgence had failed. If anything, their son didn’t need a new video game or car, but professional help. And a hug while they were at it. Instead, they chose to ignore the problem hoping presents and treats would make it go away.
While the applause celebrated the deceased, the real tragedy was that every adult in his life had failed to see a young man who was in trouble. As we begin to understand more about how mental illness manifests, we also forget the people lost because so many missed a young person who was severely sick.
We also forget that we cannot always believe everything we hear. And yes, lying is a symptom of mental illness. Stelnik went on to play minor league hockey and now coaches in Vermont. Thompson brought the small private college he played for to the championships and now works for JP Morgan in Chicago. Both are still very loud but lovable and have extremely hot wives. They eventually got over the slander and moved on. Billy didn't. While his lies, often a symptom of mental illness, caused a lot of damage, in the end these two were right, he beat himself up more than they ever could. Billy beat himself to death. As I write this, I will say at the time I was disgusted, but now I feel remorse and regret for a person who fell through the cracks because of the stigma and misunderstanding surrounding mental illness.
I hope tonight Billy is safe wherever he is, happy and not being harmed by his own hand or another. I hope he is experiencing love and understanding outside of fancy presents and over indulgence. I hope he has found rest from the demons that so plagued him. RIP Dear Heart.

No comments:

Post a Comment