What might have been

By Jon Hillenbrand In Photography, Stories


My recovery from grade school began the first day of high school. It was the very definition of a clean slate due mostly to the size of the student body. Grade school involved less than 200 students, most of whom were vastly different ages. High school had more than 2000 students, most of whom were within two years of my age. Anonymity was what I wanted. My reputation from the last seven years was gone. It was heaven, but not at first.

Academically and socially, I learned a few good lessons. The first was when I found myself picking on a smaller kid in the cafeteria with two other semi-bullies. He was an obvious nerd, as was I, but I was growing out of my nerd look. My friends and I stole his milk or messed with his tray or something when we saw him sitting alone. I think I wanted to feel the power of the bully, having been victimized myself for the last few years. Immediately, some older kids who were sitting down the table from him, juniors or seniors, came to his aid. I left with my tail between my legs and returned with my two near-bully friends to our table at the other side of the cafeteria. For the rest of the year, this small nerdy kid ate with those older cool kids every day. The hot girls paid attention to him and I sat with my two slacker male friends. I learned that I didn’t want to be a bully, that it held no real power or appeal because there was always someone larger to beat down on you or someone smarter to out maneuver you. I also learned that your friends can turn you into a jerk if you let them and you can end up as that thing which you most despise. In order to make peace with myself, I reasoned that I helped the kid make cool friends and part of my punishment was that he eventually surpassed me socially. I never talked to him again or intimidated him and internally I hoped he felt that he had gotten the better deal out of the encounter. But I still feel bad for doing it to this day.

Because I had skirted through grade school trying to survive and somehow still got a good education, I found myself coasting big time in high school. The other kids just weren’t up to the level that I was at when I graduated from grade school. So I didn’t try too hard and, because of grade school, I didn’t think school was important to me. So I proceeded to flunk second semester freshman high school English. I hated my German-nationality teacher with her thick accent and angry disposition. I warred with her the way I warred with the grade school teachers. But the difference was, she had no problem giving me an F. We concentrated the whole semester on mythology. I liked mythology from afar, but once we started studying it in intricate snowflake-level detail, I found it horrifically boring and I couldn’t do anything to keep Greek vs. Roman vs. whatever straight. I just didn’t care. It all seemed like we were studying a long dead belief system and I didn’t see the point of examining it if no one was going to use it.

But getting an F woke me up. I had never gotten an F before. I had to take summer school which to me was horrible. But I had an amazing teacher who was young and fun and really cool and nice and patient and spoke clearly and she taught us things that were useful and blah blah blah. I got an A. My academic career was realized. I started to see the benefit of good grades, and I felt good being acknowledged for working hard on something. It was definitely an important turning point in my life. If I ever went back in time, I would have to ensure that I flunked second semester high school English. Otherwise I would continue to just get by and I would end up in the military and I’d go to the first Iraq war and end up not shooting anyone. I’d consider myself an unproven soldier so I’d stay in the military until the second Gulf war. But by this time, I would be a Master Gunnery Sergeant because I’d been in for so long, and because the Marines taught me to buck up and be a man and try. So I would be taking care of my men when we attacked Iraq. And then Hawkins would get hit. I’d rush into the middle of the street to drag him to safety, but by then the sniper already had a bead on me. I started to drag him, but the shot rang through me and crashed into the dirt. I knew I was hit but I couldn’t scream for a medic because my mouth was full of liquid. I collapsed there with my men just off to the side taking cover. They can’t reach out to me, and I can’t crawl to them. So I crawl over to Hawkins who looks like he is fading fast. I do my best to cover his body with my own to block him from the sniper fire. No more shots pierce the mid-day heat and I become acutely aware of the sound of the wind and distant thunder. And there my life goes by, grade school, the tests of youth, high school English and that D I got after struggling with mythology. Dropping out when I was 17 and a half to the shock of my physician and masters-degreed parents. On the bus to boot camp with the angry instructor scaring everyone but me. Shaving my head high and tight. Drinking with my friends all night and fighting with the local boys. Falling in love with the girl from the P.I. who called me the funny jarhead. The horror of the carnage of the first Gulf war. The easy win and the let down from the months of desert training. The boredom and the terror. All of it spilled out onto the deck in a Baghdad slum. Hawkins looks scared but I know he’ll be OK and at home with his new daughter. My family will cry but I’ll see them again. Thirty-three, in great shape, tired but not alone, serving my country, being proud of my men and my flag as the world closes around me into darkness. “There’s nothing to be scared of,” I whisper to myself.

Of course, none of that happened. Instead I sit at this desk writing this blog about a man I never became, wondering if I have ever done anything real. We all have a choice. Choose apathy and silence or activity and involvement, good vs. evil, fear vs. action. Change the world or let it slide by and look back at the person you have become and the life you have chosen through a thousand million daily decisions. Some are called and some are chosen. The sands of time shift across the mirage and we all contribute our wind to the infinite storm.

What do you think?