garden lizard
Garden lizard, by George Tan

Middle school was… difficult. And it felt very different from elementary school. In my town, the middle and elementary schools were right next to each other. Only a dilapidated cyclone fence separated their respective playyards. Yet, they couldn’t have been more different. Their vibes were different.

Elementary school uniforms consisted of yellow shirts and brown pants for boys and skirts for girls. The contrast ensured maximum indentifiability. Middle schoolers on the other hand, had to have a light brown shirt with brown pants as uniforms… It was like we were being camouflaged as dirt. The mandatory colors for school uniforms weren’t the only difference. Or the most profound. In middle school, boys were beginning to deploy ruthlessness that verged on cruelty. Girls didn’t lag far behind in this.

There was a kid. Very thin. Smallish. He wasn’t really white. And he wasn’t really black. And he wasn’t mestizo or trigueño. In the Caribbean there’s all kinds, but this kid didn’t fit into any of the color categories we knew about. He didn’t easily fit with us. I don’t remember his real name now, but they called him “Lizard”.

I tried to be buddies with Lizard. I… Pitied him. Many of the other kids were rough with him. And some of the girls laughed at his face. Whichever hierarchical institutional low rung I myself occupied within the school grounds, Lizard was in lower one; much, much lower. In modern times people would call all of this bullying. But back then… Being in school, and being a victim, were synonymous. It comes with the territory. And it is always that way for kids like Lizard.

If you were observant, you could tell Lizard was a smart kid. But this didn’t fully translate to academic endeavors. Math specially. I… would try to help him out… but only as much as was strictly necessary. I kept Lizard at arm’s length if not more. I was afraid of whatever it was that determined that Lizard could be the subject of aggressive behavior by the other students to rub off on me. I felt I had enough going against me already, being fat, being ugly, and having good grades was a trifecta that determined I never got invited to birthdays, to games, or to any group that tangentially connected to girls. I didn’t have it as bad as Lizard tough, as I was plenty big and most, but not all, kids my age didn’t dare to bully me.

Lizard talked a lot. A lot… Too much. Obviously a defense mechanism. Definitely learned at home. I imagined that being able to make a sound, to form sentences, to sound human spared him from more inhumane treatment at his residence. When I was growing up, where we were growing up, not all adults saw children as fully human. At school however, Lizard’s defense mechanism wasn’t as effective. Girls would ask him inane stuff, so that he would start talking in class, and draw the ire of teachers. Girls would do the same during rec time, and invariable one of the bolder boys would eventually imitate a teacher and scold Lizard. Sometimes they would yell at him, but other times… they would straight up hit him. I would like to say that I was brave, that I stood up for Lizard. That I defended him from these indignities. But nothing could be farther from the truth.

Getting hit or punched at school is a traumatic experience. It happened to me even though I was one of the big boys. I remember being slapped once. To this day the memory doesn’t sit right. And yet I feel even worse for Lizard… There was one time. One of those days a group of girls made him get excited and talk incessantly. One of the bullies came over and told him to shut up or else. But Lizard kept talking, the boy slapped him. Lizard tried to keep talking, too nervous to respond in kind. But every time he started to speak the other boy would slap him again. Each slap stronger than the one before. Until one side of his face was bright red. His eye on that side ateared.

It’s been more than 30 years, and even now thinking about it, I feel guilty for not stepping in. I was a coward. Maybe I am still.

I wonder why Lizard didn’t break down in tears then. I wonder if he hid to do it and I didn’t notice it. But I suspect that was also a defense mechanism. Or worse. I hope it’s my dark imagination, but I suspect not crying after being abused was a learned response. Learned at home.

That name. Lizard. I can’t remember if they called him that even before I was “friends” with him, some friend I was. Or if the nickname came after, and was the product of Lizard displaying certain… abilities.

I don’t know how the fuck… but Lizard was able to tame the small reptiles that scurried around in the school yard. He would chase them, catch them… then somehow accustom them to his body heat, or his body odor, or whatever. I probably asked him how he did the trick. But he probably talked so much that I lost track of what he was saying. He worked his lizard spell until the lizard wouldn’t run away anymore. Lizard would then just put the lizard on his shoulder and walk around with it on. He was like a Lil’ Doolittle of the saurians, a Tiny Noah of the reptiles that skulked about in the yard’s bushes and trees.

The girls at school started to notice him more, but perhaps with horror. Like coming up the road and suddenly seeing the fresh guts of an animal that has been recently ran over. The girls at school couldn’t ignore him. Specially because of Lizard’s ultimate trick. He would dominate those garden lizards so thoroughly, that he made them open their mouths and then clamp down on his earlobes. Wearing those lizards like living earrings.

And even though it caused them some revulsion, the girls liked that…