“What a man desires is unfailing love …”
Saige was fat. Really fat. Three years older than me, she was as big as some kids’ dads. Her size caused me to think of her as grown up. And grown ups were big enough to handle cruel jabs. Right? Besides, I thought maybe she deserved what came her way. I reasoned that from the way other kids taunted her, she’d committed some crime. If she didn’t want all the bullying, maybe she shouldn’t have let herself get so fat.
Did I really think like that as a nine-year-old? Not consciously, I suppose. I simply didn’t know how to battle the “Fatty, fatty, two-by-four” or “Here comes the bride, all fat and wide” taunts which were murmured every morning when it was Saige’s turn to board our school bus. To me, she appeared indifferent. No emotion showed on her set face. She’d just lower her gaze, hold fast to the stack of books which seemed permanently fixed to her arms, and aim for the first available seat.
It didn’t take long before the taunting wasn’t enough. Who, or why it started, I don’t know, but suddenly a devious plot emerged. Kids started arranging themselves so that the only open seat was at the back of a very long bus. Aware of our driver’s impatient race against time and bad habit of lurching into gear before everyone was seated, someone was betting on a precarious situation for Saige.
Sure enough. BHAM! Six inches from her seat, and the bus catapulted into action. Saige tottered slightly forward, then dangerously backwards, wavering for just an instant before landing full force on her butt. Books flew everywhere, one causing a first-grader to cry when it hit her in the arm.
“Mooooo!” Someone bellowed.
“Elephants on the loose!”
“Watch out kids! We’re going over.”
“Shut up! Just shut your stupid faces up.” Saige screamed the words. The kids loved it. The taunting just warming up, a sick thrill had been awakened. They wanted the anger. They wanted to see how far they could push. No one paid attention to the tears running down her face. There were just the moans and groans which erupted when the bus driver commanded everyone to sit down and be quiet. “One peep from any of you and you’ll all spend the morning in the principal’s office.” We obeyed to the point that all you could hear were stifled sniffles from the back seat.
I was a frozen bystander that time. I wish I could say it remained that way, but it didn’t. The older boys on our bus route decided they were at war. What they were fighting for was likely unclear even to them, but somewhere along the way though, they decided to enlist me as one of their troops.
It was intoxicating to be a third grade nobody with pigtails and thick, plastic-rimmed glasses and to suddenly have the most popular boy in town start talking to me. One day he just randomly started being nice, asking me about school, noticing that I carried a lot of books myself, and must like to read, etc, etc. I thought maybe Jimmy felt forced to talk to me because after the “falling episode”, the driver put us in a seating arrangement, and this cute boy had the seat across the aisle from mine. It never occurred to me that his lavish attention had anything to do with my seat being directly behind Saige’s.
One morning, he got right to business. “That’s a thick book,” he pointed to a volume on seashells I had been lugging home and back all week. I dreamed in those days about a career in biology or oceanography, but the boy wasn’t interested in my life pursuits.
“You should hit her with it,” he pointed to the seat in front of me. He sat quiet for a moment, letting the idea germinate.
“Really,” he leaned close and whispered, “She’s fat. She won’t even feel it. You’ll prove to her how strong she really is. Come on. Just do it.”
Did I even think about what I was being urged to do? Did I even care that I was being used? All I can say is that in a rush of nano-seconds, that book was off my lap, whooshed through the air and slammed down with all the force my skinny arms could manufacture – slammed onto the crown of Saige’s head.
She shrieked. It came out at a volume way above any scream I’d heard before. The driver slammed on the brakes. Kids howled, the laughter ebbing into tears. Jimmy winked at me.
“Moron,” he said before turning to his laughing friends.
Four or five years wrapped themselves around that shameful moment; years during which I tried to avoid Saige. But then – oh my goodness! – her family moved into the house right next to ours. Our parents were friends, so we were forced into each others’ lives. Reluctantly at first, we awkwardly listened to music, played Monopoly, and traded books. It became natural, even fun to hang out, and I learned a lot about Saige then. The books she devoured so greedily were romances. (She still walked around with armloads of them.) Her parents, both heavy drinkers, were not her real parents. Some distant relative had gotten into trouble and didn’t know what to do with a baby. Her adoptive parents had two boys, but no girl. There were no other takers, so they brought her home.
Until this point, I didn’t know that it had not been Saige’s plan for her life to be someone’s “If we have to” … or to be extremely heavy … or to be ignored most of the time. I didn’t know she was funny, incredibly smart, and loyal. And yes, she was forgiving.
I also didn’t know Saige was brave. In our high school years, I talked her into running for homecoming queen. After all, our teachers kept saying it wasn’t about outward beauty but what’s inside. Something in me wanted to prove to the world and to Saige that those sayings were really true. Well, the kids didn’t vote her in as queen … BUT she was selected as a princess! A bit dazed at the announcement, I remember catching her eye and sharing a private look. It was a liberating moment where you realize you can enjoy your life no matter what limits you or others put on yourself.
I was a sophomore when Saige graduated and left home. I’d like to say that the upswing of her last high school years resulted in a Hollywood style ending where all her friends rushed in and created a marvelous make over just as a studly member of the football team amazingly realized what he’s been missing all along. Sadly, her story had no screen writer to help her along.
Dramatically opposite of a Cinderella story, a year or so after living in the city, Saige met a guy in a laundry mat who paid a lot of attention to her. At the end of a stellar six weeks, they were married. Before the year finished, she gave birth to a baby boy. Another year didn’t make it through the entire calendar before the husband ditched her. He left blows and deep, black bruises as a parting gift.
In the years following, my parents got a Christmas card from Saige once in awhile and pictures of her son, a nice looking kid. The last we heard of her, she went to the Midwest to look for her birth mother.
A decade or two have passed since that day when Saige went down on the bus. The language of diversity, tolerance and acceptance have permeated our culture since then. I’d like to look out my window and believe that those terms have done their job. But I fear not. I look and see not just the fat kids anymore. It’s the Fat Kid … and the Goth … and the Emo. It’s the Cutter, the Gangster, the Loner, the Video Game Geek, the BMXER, the Skater Dude, the Punker, the Snobbish Rich Kid …
On and on … they wear their pain on the outside defiantly or shove it under the perfect clothes and haircut, hoping no one will notice. They scream wordlessly their abandonment, their pain, their anger, their confusion, their desire to be loved. Whether it’s the person in the mirror or nearly everyone seated all around us, we’re surrounded with cries of “Why am I here?” “Do I matter to anyone?” “Does anyone care?” yet we all tease, jab, and poke, either unable or unwilling to give love.
It’s this kind of crazy, screwed up world that the Creator stepped into and said, “Enough! I love. I have always loved. And I want you to love one another.” The story of Christ is just a fairy tale to so many, but when I think of Saige and the countless like her – when I think of the bizarre loveless ways we approach life – I realize that He’s the only thing that makes sense. We need a Savior, and we need the gift of love that we’re incapable of manufacturing on our own. What I ultimately didn’t know about Saige is that I’m really just like her, just as lost, just as needy.
So Saige … wherever you are … please know that I’m sad. I’m sad for the way we treated you. I’m sad that the generations that follow continue to do the same thing, even though everyone pretends that they’re not as cruel or as selfish.
Saige, hold on to the truth … you were not … you ARE NOT a mistake. You are wonderfully designed. You are special to God, sought after by Christ, cared for by His Spirit. May the bravery that prompted you to run for that homecoming court so very long ago, lead you to take your rightful place as princess and daughter of a King. What we both didn’t know is this world will sputter and squeak to an end, but you can live in peace for ever and ever. You are deeply loved. I am sorry I didn’t know that before.