“Ugh!” I grumbled as I sat in the half-filled courtroom. My mom leaned past my public defender to shoot daggers with her eyes. I just rolled mine and turned away to whisper, “This sucks!” quiet enough that she couldn’t hear.
“There’s only four more cases before yours.” My public defender tried to reassure me that we were almost done. I knew my case would go quick, I was guilty and everyone knew it. Even without Jack Brown’s black eye and bloody nose, there were cameras at the school that saw the whole thing. So, we decided to plead guilty and accept whatever consequence the judge decided was appropriate, the lawyer from the DAs office said because I have no other history of violent behavior, and because I’m twelve, it will probably be community service.
It’s just so unfair! Jack Brown was the one being such an ass and I’m the one in court. As if she could read my thoughts, my mom leaned forward again to shake her head at me past the lawyer. I looked straight ahead at nothing, and replayed the events in my mind.
First, there was this girl, but it’s not like you’re thinking. Starting middle school had been hard enough, especially when your parents made you go to the school none of your friends attended. I had to start all over making friends while adjusting to the academics. And middle-schoolers were downright awful, cavemen who saw everyone else as a potential threat to their lives. Mom always said that was a result of being raised by the internet, I think maybe it’s just human nature. With all the challenges of starting a new school, feeling like an outsider, dealing with bullying, it was nice to find a friend. Jessie was in most of my classes, and was my opposite. She was bold and confident. She talked back to teachers, and didn’t take shit from the bullies. She always wore an oversized black hoodie and when she was having a bad day, her dyed hair would fall in her eyes and her hood would conceal the earbuds in her ears. She seemed to have endless energy, and while she could be prickly, she genuinely seemed to like people. For the first quarter, I put up with constant teasing from the other kids about being friends with a girl. They made lewd remarks about us that they probably didn’t actually understand. I hated every moment of it, but there was something special about Jessie so I did my best to ignore it and stay out of trouble. Not because I couldn’t take them. With 5 years of Jujitsu under my belt, I knew I could pin any of them in twenty seconds. But that’s the thing, I didn’t want a peaceful submission like in training; I wanted black eyes and broken noses. It wasn’t like I had plans to date Jessie, or anything. I’m only twelve. I just wanted a friend. I mean, she is pretty, and kind, and smart...qualities you look for in a friend, right?
It was a Monday, I remember because everyone had that dazed look on their face from staying up late over the weekend, and still having to be at school on in the morning. I was walking into the school when I saw them. They were huddled together, whispering. I discreetly passed them, listening for any hint about what was going down. All I caught were single words, “...bitch...juvie...cops...” Shit! Jessie. I kept my pace till I was out of their sight and ran toward the girl’s bathroom. As soon as I rounded the corner, I stopped dead. Jessie was being escorted out by the security guard and principal. Her eyes were red from crying, but they were dry now. She looked up, caught my eye and mouthed, THEM. I nodded in silent understanding, and turned around to walk right back to Jack Brown and his gang of bullies. I entered the cafeteria, shrugged off my bag at the door and walked right up the group still whispering with their heads down. I set my feet, tapped the left shoulder of the first bully, waited for him to turn around, and planted a solid right hook directly on his jaw. He crumpled to the floor. The other two just stared in shock. I stepped over the bully, now spitting blood on the ground, planted my feet again, took a deep breath, and with another right hook downed the second bully. Before Jack Brown could flee, I grabbed the straps of his backpack, pressing him into my rising knee and as I knocked the wind out of his lungs, I let him fall to the floor. Before he could turn over, I was on him in mount position. I gave him until I heard that first wheezing breath before I said with months of pent-up anger, “What did you do?” Before he could answer, I hit him hard and fast in the face. “Tell me!” I screamed.
“She...vape...report...” was all I could make out through his gasps as he tried to admit to what he did.
That was enough. I hit him once more, just to get it out of my system, right where I could already see a bruise forming under his eye. Confident he wasn’t going anywhere soon, I got up, and stormed back to my bag but as soon as I slung it over my shoulder and turned to go, I ran right into the security guard.
This is what I get for standing up to bullies. I thought to myself, sitting on the hard wood bench in the courtroom. Sure, Jessie had been caught vaping, but why was she getting the harsher punishment when those imbeciles had driven her to do it, through months of taunting, preying on her anxiety, then turned her in. They got off scot-free while Jessie and I were both suspended, and I’m in court for juvenile battery.
A clear voice quickly pulled me into the present. “Thomas Dagman.”
I looked at the lawyer questioningly and he nodded his encouragement as he gathered his bag and I followed him up to the front of the courtroom.
The process was pretty painless, actually. The judge read the accusation against me, then asked how I plead. “Guilty.” Considering this was my first offense, and that I was twelve, she let me off with community service and a warning. No classes, nothing on my record, and no juvie. I felt my mother’s sigh from across the courtroom as the judge finished doling out the punishment before slamming her gavel down with a definitive, “Dismissed.”
“At least you can volunteer for The Forge,” my mom tried to console me on the way home. “I know you've liked working for them before.”
The Forge was an organization that worked to revamp public spaces to encourage people to get outside. They had just bought space in an old neighborhood church about a mile from my house. They ran events nearly every weekend while the weather was warm enough. Last month I had helped them cut tiles for a mosaic at the nearby park. It really was more fun and creative than work. Mom was right, I did like volunteering for them. It felt like a cheat to do my court-ordered community service there when I would attend events on my own.
“Thanks, mom.” was about all I could get out. At least she seemed to get it, and we finished the drive home in silence.
I spent the whole next day in my room on my laptop. It was the last day of my suspension and I knew my teachers would have no compassion for late work because of what happened. When I finally emerged around dinner time, my mom was in the kitchen. “Hey Thomas, I called over to The Forge today.” She paused to see what I would say, when I said nothing, she continued, “Turns out they are one of the top organizations in the city for court-ordered community service for minors.”
“I thought all those people were there by choice, people who live in that neighborhood?”
“You could have worked with someone who was doing mandated community service and you wouldn’t have even known.” she said with one of those annoyingly adult smiles. “The person I spoke to said they’re cleaning up Cirrus Park to put in a new playground. They think it’ll take the next two Saturdays, if you work all day both days, you can complete most of your time before the end of the month.”
It was nice that this suspension ended on a Thursday, so I only had to endure one day of school before the weekend. “Thanks, mom.”
Friday was uneventful, and Saturday morning arrived too quickly. My mom woke me early so I could get ten hours in today. At least she made me breakfast first. After eating, I grabbed an empty backpack, my water bottle, and a protein bar before heading to the garage. I found a pair of gloves, shoved them unceremoniously into the bag, and donned my helmet. Cirrus Park was only about a mile –or three songs- away. I chose Muse and as soon as I hit play and jumped on my bike, I was lost in the music. It was chilly this morning, and by the time I arrived, my nose was red and runny.
After a brief chat with the supervisor, I discovered I would be raking leaves. She gave me a rake and pointed to the current dilapidated playground around the corner. It was covered with leaves in all states of decay, plus, there were more piles up against the chain link fence surrounding the whole park. This was going to take all day. With a sigh, I got to work.
Community service really wasn’t so bad. At least I could choose which music to listen to, and at least I got to be alone and outside. After an hour or so, the sun came out and it warmed up. I sat down on a bench to take a break and looked around. Right across the street I could see a few people sitting on their front porches or in their yards. This is what my dad would call a fifty/fifty neighborhood. About fifty percent of people cared what their houses looked like, and the rest didn’t even try. It was a lot like my neighborhood, but here, more people were out in their yards, even in the next neighborhood over, I barely saw my neighbors. Here, everyone seemed to know each other.
Over the next three hours I managed to fill ten bags with not only leaves, but lots of trash as well. It’s a good thing they’re cleaning up this park. It needs it. We all took a break for lunch together. I hadn’t paid much attention to the other volunteers today, some kind of self-isolation due to my sentence, I’m sure, but it turns out everyone was pretty friendly. Music was the main topic during the thirty minutes we sat to eat. Many of us liked the same thing, and I even got a few suggestions of new bands to check out. Most of the volunteers were older than me, but they were all in middle- or high- school. I thought I wanted to be alone, so it surprised me to actually enjoy lunch and talking to strangers. I mean, I guess we have this thing in common, but no one brought up why they were there in the first place. When lunch ended, I headed back over to the playground and pulled out my phone to check out one of those new artists. Just as I was putting my earbuds back in, I heard shouting from across the street. I didn’t want to be too nosy, so I put the earbuds in, but didn’t press play yet. I picked up the rake and moved closer to the chain link fence.
“You’re such an idiot, JB! Why can’t you do anything right?” the shouting was coming from a woman, about my mom’s age, but thinner, almost sickly looking. “Get out here and clean up this fucking mess!”
I dared a glance as casually as I could while pretending to rake leaves and when JB walked out the door, I dropped the rake. Jack Brown. It was Jack Brown, the bully I beat up. I was here, cleaning up his park after giving him a black eye.
I quickly picked up the rake, and turned my back to the house so he wouldn’t recognize me, but I didn’t turn on my music. “Mom, this isn’t my fault, a racoon got into the trash last night, look, it’s all over the driveway.”
“I don’t care what you think happened. It’s your job to take out the trash! No garbage man will clean up this mess. Get to it!”
Damn. That sucks. All I could do was shake my head. I knew if he saw me, it would make it worse. I listened to him cleaning up the mess that was not his as I cleaned up the mess that was not mine. But, I earned this. I broke the rules. I lost my temper and hit three kids, even though they were bullies and deserved it. No kid deserves to be picked on by their mom like that. I could hear bits and pieces of her continuing to point out pieces of trash he missed and to insult him the whole time. I just raked my leaves. A door slammed and I dared a glance across the street, through the chain links. I saw her turn and scream at him not to slam the door. “I’m just washing my hands!” came his frustrated response.
“How dare you talk back to me? Get out! I don’t want to see you till dinner.”
Ouch. I thought.
“Out!” she screamed one last time.
I watched him walk to the gate in their front yard, and like an injured dog look back to see if she was going to change her mind. She wasn’t. This time he walked through and didn’t look back.
It only took me a second to realize Jack Brown was headed straight toward me.
“Dammit!” I looked around frantically, but there was nowhere to hide. I turned my back and bobbed my head as if I was listening to music. He doesn’t want to see me either. I thought, Don’t recognize me, don’t recognize me, don’t recognize me. I was holding my breath.
“Thomas?” I heard Jack Brown say from behind me. I kept raking, it was dirt and tree roots now, I had been working this one section for the last ten minutes. “THOMAS.” Jack Brown yelled. There was no ignoring it this time. I slowly turned as my face heated.
“What are you doing here?” There was none of the usual vitriol in his voice, it was an honest question. I stood there for a minute, rake in hand, as if it weren’t obvious what I was doing, but then remembered the way the bully’s mom treated him and decided on honesty.
“I got community service for beating up you and your friends. They’re redoing this park.” I quickly added, “I didn’t know you lived here.” I hoped the bully would believe me, but this was Jack Brown.
I gave him I look I hoped was sympathetic.
“I don’t need your sympathy, all right.” he snapped at me. I just stood there dumbfounded. But then it came to me. Something the lawyer had said to me before we went to court, “Hurt people hurt people”. I didn’t really get it at the time, I thought he was talking about me and it didn’t make sense. They had hurt Jessie, not me, but it was me who hurt them. All of a sudden, that phrase took on new meaning. I was the one who beat up three kids at school and yet my mom came to court with me, hell, she even made me breakfast before I did ten hours of community service in one day. Jack’s mom blamed him for a mess he obviously didn’t make, and kicked him out of the house for a day. I had no idea how that felt. I gave him a black eye and my mom was still there for me. He didn’t do anything.
“I know.” I finally responded quietly.
Jack looked up at me with a question in his eyes. I just met them, and looked back. I let him see that I was serious. That there was no hate, just understanding. That I didn’t blame him for turning Jessie in. I hoped he saw that there was some good out there, even if it looked pretty bleak from his home. “This organization, The Forge, they’re pretty cool. They let kids volunteer to help make public spaces better. I’m court-ordered to be here, but you don’t have to be.” He looked at me with curiosity. “Want something to do today?” I think he was so surprised by my olive branch that he didn’t wait a beat before nodding. He quickly climbed the fence and landed on his feet in my pile of leaves, spreading them all over. “C’mon man!” I complained. He just picked up the bag and held it open for me.