When I was in junior high in Baltimore County 35 years ago, I would wake up in the morning and hold a thermometer over a lit match, hoping to fake a fever that would keep me out of school. I would sit, comatose, in our living room, watching both television and the clock, for I knew I had just minutes to go before they made me carry my books back into hell.
From my first day in 7th grade, when I had the temerity to walk into gym class with black socks and white tennis shoes, I was bullied by a group of boys and girls who seemed to derive their popularity, and their power, from verbally assaulting the rest of us. These kids would attack anything that did not conform to their warped standards. They would mercilessly tease us about our shoes, our jeans, our hair, our mannerisms — anything that made us different from them.
It was the late 1970s, and schools didn't talk about bullying like they do today. There were no assemblies about how human beings should treat each other. I never saw a teacher or administrator step in to stop it. And so it went on, and on, and on, for three years. The bullying group seemed to grow over time, recruiting new members who, probably out of fear, competed for who could be the cruelest.
But every horror has a hero. Mine was a kid named Tim Hillman. By most accounts, this boy should have been bullying me with the rest of them. He was a jock. (I wasn't.) He was popular with the bullying group. (Obviously, I wasn't.) He had every right to be arrogant and mean.
That's why I was always surprised that when we talked, he was kind to me. We would joke about things, and back then, I didn't laugh much. He was interested in what I had to say, and he was seemingly oblivious to the taunts I experienced with the others. He wasn't concerned that I had the "right" Pumas or the "right" Levis, or if I hung out with the "right" people. I don't think it ever crossed his mind. And why should it?
I remember thinking at first that he must be playing a joke on me. There was no way a popular kid like this would just be nice to me. That's how bad my mental state was back then.
As a grown-up parent of two boys, one who is out of middle school and the other getting ready to start, I have thought a lot about Tim Hillman over the years. I wasn't a close friend of his, but he had a profound impact on me — then, and now. In school, he made me feel valued, as opposed to worthless. In life, he taught me that you needn't be mean to be "cool" or successful. I learned from him that being true to yourself and quietly confident about yourself are among the best attributes a person can have.
Tim Hillman died of a heart attack this month at the age of 49. Amazingly, The Sun's obituary described the man I hadn't talked to since junior high in exactly the same terms I remember him. The newspaper wrote of a quiet man with a great sense of humor, someone who was universally respected in his job as a beer expert.
"Tim was a gentleman from head to toe, and no one in the industry ever had an unkind word to say about him," his employer, David Wells of Hampden's Wine Source, said. "He cultivated a lot of good will, and no matter how big or small a brewery you were, Tim gave you a good hearing."
His death made me wonder if good people are just wired that way. I mean, if you substituted the word "person" for "brewery" in Mr. Wells' quote, he could have been describing the Tim Hillman I knew in 1977.
Conversely, I thought about those who led the bullying in junior high and if they remain the insecure, superficial and pathetic people they were back then. What's more, I asked myself if it's true that only the good die young. Why are the haters allowed to live to a ripe old age?
I'm sure that Tim had no idea he affected my life in this way. He might not even have remembered me. But I've always remembered him, and I always will. At various points in my boys' lives, we've talked about avoiding the temptations of popularity, and just being a good person. And I've ended the conversations with the same advice I would give to anyone, child or adult: "Be Tim Hillman."
John Patterson is an advertising creative director and writer in Baltimore. His email is email@example.com.