Note: this story deals with adult situations and descriptions of self-harm.
On June 17, 1982, Jacob was alone watching TV in the family room, taking copious notes for Mr. Borland’s current events project in seventh-grade social studies.
Jacob loved that current events project. He would record the news with a cassette recorder and then transcribe every word later.
In class, he’d know every fact of every story covered, so much so that Mr. Borland eventually grew tired of seeing his hand shoot up when he asked for someone to explain another news topic.
NBC’s Tom Brokaw introduced what was to be the first-ever story on the network about AIDS.
Jacob’s hand did not shoot up once the next day. He had the stories all written out before him, but he no longer cared about current events.
Instead, for the first time, he realized he was not only different but hated for being different.
He liked girls as well, but he had no idea that there was so much anger directed at people like him. People who didn’t quite fit.
The misfits who can’t conform? He realized he was one of “them” thanks to AIDS and the ensuing hysteria.
That same newscast marked a clear dividing line between Jacob’s childhood and what would become the rest of his life.
“Let no one be discouraged by the belief there is nothing one person can do against the enormous array of the world’s ills, misery, ignorance, and violence. Few will have the greatness to bend history, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events. And in the total of all those acts will be written the history of a generation.”Robert F Kennedy
As he stared straight ahead, re-reading a quote by Robert Kennedy on the wall in front of him over and over, Jacob heard snickering in the back of the schoolroom when classmate Anne Hawthorne read the AIDS story.
“Fag.” “Homo.” “Fudge packer.” “They should die.”
All of the horrible taunts added to his dread and despair.
Over time he would find that alcohol, pot, pain pills, Xanax, food, and cutting himself failed at permanently burying those feelings.
Mr. Borland called Jacob to his desk when the period ended. He asked him if he could watch the news, and if so, why didn’t he take part in the class.
He told him he was sick. And, he meant it.
Cutting provided Jacob with the most immediate release of anxiety.
He happened upon it accidentally while slicing an apple with a very sharp chef’s knife.
The polished blade quickly moved through the fruit and came out the other end toward his hand.
The knife’s point slid just above the skin, while the tip penetrated the ball of the thumb and palm with little effort and without registering much pain.
As he kept pushing it very gradually along its path, the blade glid further down into the layers of meat, and still, only a little discomfort.
He didn’t cease until he got to the heel of the knife. Once he finally removed it from his hand, he concentrated on the ruddy red blood running down his wrist and over the glossy green Granny Smith.
The colors seemed overly rich, as if everything else within his view was in black & white.
For the longest time, reliving that first experience would continue to provide Jacob with some measure of serenity.
Of course, cutting is not a long-term coping strategy. Sooner or later, like all of the shortcuts, Jacob would eventually have to find less destructive ways to cope.
The cutting came to an end on one extremely distressing night. Jacob lay in bed under his blankets. The apple knife, which he had taken great care always to keep very sharp, was held tightly in his right hand.
As tears ran down his face, he was sure that in addition to taking his own life, he had to remove part of his “defect” beforehand. He had to cut out his sexual organs.
He thought that if he did it rapidly enough, it would only hurt for a short time. Blood loss would quickly cause unconsciousness if shock didn’t set in first.
All he could do was lay in bed, frozen in time, sobbing while holding the knife tightly in his hand, rubbing the cold steel spine against his thigh, eventually letting go of it and falling asleep.
He stopped harming himself after that night.
Two years after Mr. Borland’s class, as a freshman in high school, Jacob was as quiet and reserved as he could manage so as not to give anyone a hint that he was different enough to warrant further examination.
Only a week into the first semester, Jacob’s family would be amazed to learn that he was a part of the junior varsity basketball team, helping out the coaches and going on away games.
It’s not like he showed much interest in playing team sports, but maybe this would at least get him out more, they thought.
What Jacob didn’t want to admit to even himself was the fact he was experiencing his first male teenage crush.
The team’s point guard was almost six foot two and thin. Dean Byrne came from a big Irish American family that lived on the shore in a sizeable colonial-era home initially built by a whaling captain.
He had dirty blonde hair with lots of waves and curls. He was one of those guys whose hair magically falls into place in the morning and stays that way all day without the assistance of a comb or product.
On his right wrist, he had a white sailor knot bracelet, frayed at the edges because he would frequently pick at it while daydreaming.
He usually had a tan from being out on his little sailboat, sailing all around Stoneytown pond by himself. He was always dressed like he was about to sail off to the Bahamas and Jacob felt certain Dean could land a job as a J Crew model.
Like Jacob, Dean mainly was quiet, and when he did talk, it was evident he was intelligent and insightful beyond most of their classmates.
Most of all, he saw Jacob.
Dean looked him in the eye when they talked. He remembered things Jacob said, even when Jacob thought Dean wasn’t paying attention.
After a few weeks of basketball practice, the team had its first official game on Friday, October 12, 1984.
They lost, but not by much. “The Junior Varsity team had come a long way in a short amount of time,” is what the school newspaper would report.
Jacob would usually avoid the locker room at all costs because of the good chance of bullying.
The JV basketball coach, Mr. Sproule, had taken Jacob under his wing, encouraging him to not only help the team on the sidelines but consider joining as a player.
Jacob waited outside the locker room, on the bleachers. Dressed in what the coach deemed “proper young male attire,” he had khaki’s, a white dress shirt, and a black tie, which was his father’s slightly frayed clip-on.
Looking like a “respectable young man” was always crucial to coach Sproule, as was good sportsmanship and teamwork. He was a deacon at Saint Isidore and respected his players, as most were parishioners.
Jacob jumped when Sproule beckoned from his locker room office.
Jacob put the clipboard and his gym bag down and hesitantly went into the locker room. Most of the players were ready to pack up; only a few were walking out of the showers with towels around their waists.
Jacob’s anxiety level escalated when the worst bully on the team exited the showers and started to harass him.
“Look who’s here! Malone!!! Whatcha’ want, Malone? Cheap thrills?”
Rumor had it that Billy Franklin put a kid in the hospital at the last school. Transferring to Crimson High was supposedly his last chance.
It didn’t look like the therapy and anger management classes were working.
Franklin moved close to Jacob and wrapped his arm around Jacob’s neck.
“That’s okay, Malone. I’m just joking with you. What’s that?”
Franklin leaned in as if Jacob was whispering to him.
“You wanna do what?! To the whole team?!”
Dean was exiting the showers and walked quickly up to Franklin, breaking Jacob free.
“Knock it off, Bill! That’s NOT how we act on this team.” Dean said.
Franklin momentarily tensed, and a flash of anger darted across his face that gave Jacob pause.
“Hey. No problem here, just kidding around,” Franklin said.
For the rest of his life, Jacob would never forget the feelings he had when Dean stuck up for him. It would be quite a while before he felt that way again.
At that moment, coach Sproule broke the tension.
“Get finished getting dressed and get outside. Next time, someone’s getting suspended for a few games. Malone, in here.”
He and Dean were also on the yearbook committee, so when they both weren’t staying after school together for the team, they were attending yearbook meetings.
The next several weeks went by quickly for Jacob. Every day he woke up, he looked forward to getting on the school bus.
If you or someone you know is thinking of harming themselves, help is available. It is anonymous: National Suicide Prevention Hotline. (800) 273 – 8255.
For information on cutting and other self-injurious behaviors, go to the National Alliance on Mental Illness website. You can also call their helpline: 1-800-950-NAMI; or text “NAMI” to 741741.
• For help with bullying: Healthy Children.
• For sexual & gender identity issues: Teen Source.