Sunday, April 7, 2013

2013.04.07 Phineas

The sanctuary’s emptiness made it even more hallowed than when it was filled with exuberant hosannas and bloated hallelujahs—echoes of Easter spent.   

I felt spent too. I sat alone in the pew of a tiny suburbanish church, its steeple piercing the blue sky, humming the hymn of the 50s, What’s it All About Alfie?”   Out of the corner of my eye I saw something green poking out from under a front pew. I stooped and discovered a leftover palm—aging and beginning to brown and dry.  Its still sharp point stuck stubbornly into the aisle.  Inexplicably, I thought of Phineas.

Phineas was like a perfect storm: thick glasses, overweight, duck-footed and lumbering. His face was pocked with teenage acne, and he played the violin.  Put those ingredients all together, then put poor Phineas in teenage terrorist camp, by which I mean the daily school bus full of testosterone-challenged seventh grade boys.

Every single day Phineas would slowly climb onto the bus. Every single day the boys would call to him to come to the back of the bus and sit with them. Their cooing was not friendly. Girls tended to sit in the front of the bus, as did I.  Yet, how could Phineas sit with the girls?  It would have made his perfect storm even more disaster-bound. So he lugged his violin to the rear of the bus.

They pushed him to the floor; they grabbed his hat; they spit on him; they opened his violin case and tried to play on it while singing dumb songs; and every single day Phineas would miss his stop and have to walk back to get home.

God knows what awaited him at home. Love, I hope.  But if I were his parent I’d drive him to school and pick him up. But he might not have told his parents about his daily torture. Why add to his humiliation like Mr. Fitz, the paunchy bus driver, did? Mr. Fitz laughed and scoffed and never intervened to save Phineas, or me.

To witness such suffering and feel helpless is a trauma as vivid to me now as it was sixty-three years ago. My choices seemed almost as paralyzing as Phineas’s must have felt to him. I could fight, flee, or freeze. I was too scared to fight so I froze in my seat, wishing and wishing, fervently as a prayer, that Phineas would fight. 

After a few weeks of school bus culture, I chose flight. I made my mother drive me to school. Knowing she’d remember my carsickness, I told her I now had bus-sickness. I did, but it wasn’t motion sickness; it was compassion nausea.  I didn’t tell the truth, nor befriend Phineas because I feared repercussions.

By senior high school my own hormonal rage kicked in, and I actually dated one of those bus bullies to see what he was really like. He told me his father hit him, then laughed. I was sixteen years old when I understood that bullying was total avoidance of vulnerability, mostly because someone had bullied you first and you had to make sure it never happened again. This boy had turned into a macho hot shot, full of bravado and just as scared inside as Phineas, and me.

After high school I never saw Phineas again, but I never forgot him. I never knew him except by heart. When Google-God came to be, I searched Phineas but found no data that fit my Phineas. It’s funny, but I count him as one of the inspirations that called me into ordained ministry—one way to make up for having been a silent complicit bully myself.  

Sitting in the pew fingering the palm’s green tip, I said one small alleluia for Phineas. I hoped he was alive and a concert master violinist in some major symphony orchestra where huge crowds applauded and never hissed.