The 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 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 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 repeatedly, Jacob heard snickering in the back of the schoolroom when classmate Anne Hawthorne read the AIDS story.
“Fag;” “homo;” “fudge packer;” “(they) ALL 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.
Jacob 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 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 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 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 waking up the following day half-naked with the knife under his thigh.
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 hair 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 alone. Jacob felt certain Dean could land a job as a J Crew model.
Like Jacob, Dean was mainly quiet, and when he did talk, it was evident he was intelligent and insightful beyond most of their fellow 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 time,” the school newspaper would report.
Jacob would usually avoid the locker room because of the excellent 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 Docker slacks, 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 players were ready to pack up; only a few walked 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 his last school. Transferring to Crimson High was supposedly his last chance.
It didn’t seem 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 it happened again.
At that moment, coach Sproule broke the tension.
“‘Finish 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 weren’t staying after school together for the team, they were attending yearbook meetings.
Since Dean had access to his father’s professional 35mm camera, lenses, and lights and knew how to use them, he was the junior photographer behind a senior on the committee.
Dean asked Jacob to assist when he was assigned to get pictures of a game or special event. They were even able to get out of classes and weren’t ever bothered by staff or hall monitors.
One morning, the yearbook staff stood around the teacher’s desk, looking at layout samples. Each student was making a case for their favorite.
Dean and Jacob were standing on the opposite side of the classroom over a long table with stacks of books, papers, and supplies.
They were looking through stills from the soccer game they had recently covered.
“So, did you watch the movie?” Dean asked.
As basketball players and cheerleaders passed by him, Dean sat on the bottom steps, scrolling through his Instagram timeline.
“Yes, I watched it. I didn’t think it would be as graphic as it was.”
“It wasn’t porn. Come on, Jacob. Was it the fact it was about two guys?”
Stammering, Jacob denied it was the subject matter that he found graphic but the explicit sex scene.
“…I didn’t expect it.”
“The whole thing made me crazy horny. I did it twice, once while watching it and once afterward.” Dean said, laughing.
Jacob was embarrassed at the suggestion Dean was masturbating to the movie about a guy, a girl, and another guy exploring their sexuality.
Dean looked back at Jacob’s unease and said quietly, “Don’t be so serious, man. Relax.”
Dean moved his right hand, which was on the table’s edge, allowing him to touch Jacob’s left pinky.
Jacob stood frozen, his heart jumping out of his chest.
The next several weeks went by quickly for Jacob. Every day he woke up, he looked forward to getting on the school bus.
Not only would he be seeing Dean, but the bullying had subsided after word got out about what happened in the locker room. His grades started improving, and even his drunk father couldn’t put a dent in his good mood.
Later that day, the yearbook committee met for the last period to review the senior superlatives.
Dean didn’t show.
When the final bell rang, Jacob cut through the phalanx of students rushing to the buses and front parking lot to get downstairs to the gymnasium where the basketball team was meeting for practice.
As he reached the second of the third flight of stairs to the gym, Jacob slowed down because he recognized Dean’s shoes and khaki pants.
Before he could yell out his name, Jacob stopped on the last flight of stairs as he could now fully see Dean standing in front of the gym doors, talking to someone.
When Dean bent down, Jacob saw it was Lynnell Bell, a basketball cheerleader and a friend to both of them.
Dean held the door open to the gym and she arched her back, standing on her toes in order to kiss him.
Jacob walked briskly out of the school toward home as soon as the gym doors closed shut. As music blasted in his ear buds, his right hand ran over the scars on his outside right thigh.
He kept quietly repeating the same thing:
“You’re such a stupid, disgusting freak.”
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.