Leland Dodge spent his middle school years dodging one very bad kid.
He loved his middle school … he just hated the third floor quad. His math and science classes met there. It’s also where he met Dutch Holland. The one very bad kid.
Leland Dodge went by “Fiver”. That’s what everybody called him. He lived in a tricked-out wheelchair … festooned with anything related to the number five.
He was born on the fifth day of the fifth month … and he was the fifth kid in a family with a five-letter name. A gym teacher fastened a small 55 MPH sign to his chariot. He even had his own beat-up license plate … “FIVER” … scavenged by another eagle-eyed teacher on holiday in North Carolina.
He sat high in the upholstered seat … and managed his joy-stick like an Indy driver. Kids gave him the right of way … and he waved “thanks” as he zipped from one end of the quad to the other. On special days, he wore old-fashioned racing goggles … and squeezed a goofy horn which made everyone crack up.
But there were realities that weren’t so easily laughed away.
He also suffered from a devastating skin disorder that reddened his cracked and swollen lips. It peeled back the skin on his neck … and hands … and everywhere else. Even his ears looked chewed.
And he smelled. Very badly. All the time. And there was nothing he could do about it … because it wasn’t a soap issue … it was a disease issue.
Fiver owned a handsome round face and an upbeat personality.
I’d screw my eyes shut and imagine him free of his struggles … cured of everything that troubled him.
Running and jumping. Just being unspecial. One of the bunch.
He had the most beautiful brown marbles for eyes. They actually twinkled. Two gorgeous gems peering out from a mocha face that made you wince … because … because it was so painful to look at.
I’d steal stares at his sore hands … his ruptured black skin curled up in large, hard flakes. Skin cracked like a desert floor. And those big … and so sore … peeling lips. I wondered how the boy could smile and not bleed. Why he didn’t cry. All the time.
But he smiled lots. Because he was a brave kid.
Just not when Dutch Holland was around.
In September, his teachers were huddled and brought up to speed. Given strategies to handle the inevitable moments of unease … for Fiver Dodge and his classmates. Tips to make him more comfortable … and his presence less uncomfortable for the other kids.
The faculty was extra soft with Fiver. The student body, too.
Everyone gave him big greetings. On his birthday, pals hung a giant Number 5 banner from a second floor window. When his battery crapped out, the faculty got him back on the road. Teachers kicked in for steep van repairs … and once surprised him with a batch of personalized sport jerseys … all emblazoned with the number five, of course.
He was a special kid who got special attention.
But sometimes he’d get special attention he didn’t much like.
Fiver wasn’t a student of mine. I just looked out for him. I was a newbie teacher … third year … my tenure-year actually. I was twenty-four.
The minutes between classes schooled me about on-the-brink teenagers. The quad was a giant petri dish of social experimentations featuring some unusual characters.
There were cliques of every sort. Insiders … and outsiders. The noisy ones … and the quiet mice. Jocks and geeks … lonelies and gadflies. The hangers-on … and the beauty bunches. And the near-petrified incognitos who’d slink around the edges … and pray for invisibility.
And then there were the big personalities.
The middle school patricians. And the tormenter.
Larry Holland was a powerful sort. He was also cruel. And cold. And a sneak.
His nickname was “Dutch” … Dutch Holland … a bit too obvious for me. No teachers called him “Dutch” because that was his tough name. They wanted to call him lots of other names … but couldn’t.
Larry Holland was loathed because he hurt kids. All the time. And he terrorized kids, too. Intimidated them … humiliated them … and silenced them. That’s how he got away with it. No one would turn on him because … because he’d get even … in a bad way.
He took cruelty to a shocking level.
Larry Holland wasn’t particularly tall, but he was barrel-chested. Clearly powerful for his age. And he’d get right up in other kid’s space … and back ‘em down. Shrink ‘em … and then smirk ‘em.
His t-shirts were too tight and made him look like a muscled cartoon character. He had a kitchen-haircut that made his hair looked chewed up. He wore bad-boy wrist bands. A small length of bicycle chain dangled from his back pocket. Tough-guy jewelry, I guess.
His mother had run away from his cop-father … a six-foot-six bastard who tutored Larry in the art of intimidation. He’d show up once or twice a year and hunt down a timid teacher or some panicky counselor. Come off as some nut-job on the edge. Teachers told horror tales about his in-your-face confrontations.
I hated him before I met him.
The time between classes … six minutes or so … was Larry Holland’s stage time. He had an entourage of snivelers who preferred to kiss his ass rather than have their asses kicked.
He ruled the quad … and made the hard life of Fiver Dodge even harder.
Fiver drew Larry’s attention because Fiver drew more attention than him. He resented that. And he seized every chance to pound Fiver down.
Never around a teacher … no way. Too slick for that. But he’d word-stab Fiver relentlessly … in the middle of the quad noise … when he could run his mouth and ruin Fiver’s day … and get away with it.
Larry Holland did it to strut his meanness. To petrify other kids. He had the psychological stuff down pat.
And all the teachers knew this … and talked about Holland as if he was some bad-ass outlaw. A terror legend. Someone they just couldn’t do anything about because … because he was so oily. Always careful enough to be out of earshot … or out of view … when he let loose his terror.
Even his counselor washed her hands of him … avoiding my questions … saying the boy had lots of issues. As if that excused his cruelty. I guess it also kept her from dealing with Mr. Holland … the bad-ass Goliath.
Kids would fill me in … open up about things they heard or saw. I didn’t think a thirteen-year-old could be such a savage. Sickening incidents where Fiver was splashed with urine and had his lunch stolen from his knapsack … and replaced with a sandwich of shit-covered toilet tissues.
Another time … cans of air freshener were secretly taped to the rear of his wheelchair … and no one had the chops to take ’em off. Too often I could see Holland … across the quad … yuckin’ it up with his entourage of suck-ups. And Fiver without a grin.
During the Christmas season, someone left Fiver a Secret Santa gift of half-used perfume bottles. Larry Holland … safely tucked away in the crowd … laughed at Fiver’s confused embarrassment.
He was a middle school Caligula.
Kids usually spoke freely with me … but they were hesitant when it came to Dutch Holland. Scared to tell what they knew … because every whisper was followed by a plea never to mention their name.
And I didn’t blame them.
Holland was a predator.
I told everyone I could about this kid. And they did nothing. I was angry at his counselor … and the school psychologist … for not getting Holland off the scene and out of the life of Fiver Dodge … and every other child who spent their days in absolute fear.
He seemed invincible … and he knew it. To this day … I believe he damn well knew what he was doing because … because he wasn’t a dumb kid. Just vicious and wicked.
I hate using those terms for a child. I do. But if you saw what I saw … well … you’d have to wonder how childhood could take such an evil swerve.
I came from a manly house. That is such the wrong thing to be proud of in this day … in this moment … but I am. There’s nothing wrong with being a man.
I was one of six sons. My father never once referred to any of us as “boys”. Not ever. He called us “men”. Even when our feet dangled from the chair.
He was the queer father in the neighborhood. … the almost-priest, the college professor, Latin-speaking, Shakespeare-quoting, sometimes over-imbiber. And I loved him. And I dug his brain … and his soul. And his weirdness.
He taught us all to champion the weak … to befriend the lonely … and to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the truth. And be unafraid.
“Always look for the weakest. The under-dog. The person facing the longest odds. Find them … and make them your mission.”
I was the only neighborhood brat who knew the meaning of caritas … and the importance of being noble.
Noble. I never hear that word anymore. Why is that?
One day, my caritas for Dutch Holland dried up. And my nobility ran away. It nearly cost me my career.
It was an unspecial day. The usual between-class quad-show. Then … on the far side of the third floor … I saw Larry Holland scoring laughs at Fiver’s expense. As Fiver tried to maneuver away, Larry blocked him with a quick step … so the ridicule could last a bit longer.
I started across the quad, but Holland saw me and shut down his show. Called off the persecution … and split. I stalled my steps and headed back to my room … then to the elevator … to pop downstairs on some other mission.
But just as the elevator doors opened, Holland and his groupies sashayed by.
I could not resist.
Looking straight at Holland, I said …
“Hey! I’m headed down … wanna ride?”
The offer was too tempting … too self-glorifying for him to refuse. To ride the elevator … that was big-shot stuff. So he stepped into the cab … and mugged for his pimply posse.
Then the doors thudded shut.
I had him.
Just the two of us.
I pushed the “Emergency Stop” button … and smiled. He didn’t.
I backed into a corner of the cab … away from him … and folded my arms and stared at him. I let dread creep all over the moment … enjoying his squirm. And I made it last.
My face is ugly … but it’s beautifully severe. I know how to go Jack Nicholson real fast. Larry Holland probably still remembers it, too … because he let out a … um … a bodily signal. An alarm that he was in a moment of pants-panic. You know … a sound effect.
I wanted to laugh, but couldn’t … because I would’ve lost my seethy-crazy face … and by the sound of things, it was working very well.
Then I leaned right into his face. Thisclose.
“If you ever bother Fiver again … I’ll rip your lungs out. Turn ‘em into balloons. You got that?”
His lips went jumpy and his fat head nodded in hyper-speed. He voice wouldn’t work. His lips flapped, but only little gurgles seeped out.
I don’t remember everything I said. I was in a let-loose moment … fitting all I could into this unprofessional but cathartic explosion. Defending Fiver and every other kid who was ever bossed around by this brat-thug.
The Holland kid was a mess.
I was unproud of myself, but pleased with my self-restraint. I was capable of a lot more. A lot worse.
“Bother him again and I’ll track you for the rest of your life.”
I punched the elevator button … and we dropped to the first floor.
As the doors pulled apart, I lovingly put my arm around young Holland’s twitchy shoulder. Hugged him softly … and posed for his gathered pals who had raced down the stairwell like dutiful goofs.
I left the stunned Dutch-boy there. With his rat-pack. And headed straight to my principal’s office. To turn myself in.
He grinned throughout my confession.
Assured me it was a “private” moment … without any watchers. Told me I was smart to have a very “confidential exchange”. Said he wished he had a medal for me.
I was as stunned as the bully-boy. Except I was smiling.
The child must’ve kept our unpleasant rendezvous to himself because his dad … Officer Psycho … never showed up for his crazy close-up. I was lookin’ forward to that … I was.
And then … the Great Coincidence.
Fiver Dodge and Dutch Holland moved on to the high school that June. And I did, too. But they didn’t know it.
I was a last-minute transfer … in late June. Assigned to teach freshmen and seniors.
The next September … at freshmen orientation … I made a stealth entrance … and plopped down in the seat next to young Mr. Holland. I thought he’d flat-line.
“Looks like we’re gonna be best buds for the next four years.”
He sagged. I smiled.
That one was for you, Fiver.
I saw Dutch Holland pretty regularly in the halls. By sophomore year, we were on nodding terms. In the fall of his junior year, I broke the ice with a hot pretzel at a cold football game. Just dropped it in his lap. He ate it. And waved “thanks’. I nodded back.
By senior year, he was a new guy. Lots of real friends … headed for college. He also told me he regretted getting shut out of my senior elective. I told him I wished it had happened … that we would’ve enjoyed each other. He smiled. And I did, too.
This isn’t my success at all. Lots of very good folks worked on that kid at that high school. Invested in him. Believed in him. Taught him things he should’ve learned at home … but didn’t.
He lost lots of bad stuff. Ironed himself out. And found some good stuff inside.
He grew up. And I did, too.
“Always look for the weakest. The under-dog. The person facing the longest odds. Find them … and make them your mission.”