By Eddie Whitlock
Gordon (Junior, at the time) College was not a respected option for most of the kids at Griffin High School. At Griffin High, Gordon was called “the thirteenth grade.” It was only twenty miles from Griffin, so you didn’t even have to move out of your parents’ house to attend. The admission standards were low. I joked that the only admission question was “Did his check clear?”
Instructors at Gordon would point out to us over the next two years that admission was easy, but graduation was not. That was true. Finishing my associate degree in two years was a challenge. I was – at best – a lazy student.
Gordon had been a military college before it was turned co-ed and made a part of the University System of Georgia. It was in a good geographic location to meet a need. As years went by, the campus expanded and added lots of areas for study and for recreation.
In the late 1970s, it had a cafeteria and a game room.
The game room had an air hockey table and two pool tables. I loved air hockey and played whenever I had a chance. Most of our leisure time, though, was spent hanging out in the cafeteria. It was as passive a location as possible and didn’t threaten to turn into a study center because of the blaring juke box.
Schedules and personalities led a little group of us to become regulars middays in the cafeteria. There were eight to twelve of us, depending on the day and the personal inclinations. Some I knew from Griffin. Some were from neighboring communities. Everybody was working to get the two years done so they could apply to the University of Georgia or some other “real” school.
In the meantime, we saw ourselves as stuck at Gordon. There was a history professor who had served in Europe during World War II. We should have respected that, but instead we were amused by his slippery upper plate that gave him an odd speech pattern.
We would complain about the difficulties we were having with math classes. I don’t think one of us was destined for a career in numbers.
We would tell tales about the latest mishap in the chemistry lab and wonder – legitimately – why they let us handle dangerous things.
I think we were – sadly – normal college kids.
I can’t remember all the folks in our little group by name. My Griffin friend Marie was a regular as was her roommate Julie. There was a guy from Thomaston who had initials for a name. There were several other kids in the group, including a tall, thin girl named Ruth.
This story is about Ruth.
I don’t remember Ruth’s background. I don’t remember where she was from or what her parents did for a living.
Ruth wasn’t as smart as the rest of the group. She was even more naïve than we were and not up on the latest pop culture references. Jokes would often go over her head, but she would laugh and comment in a way that showed she didn’t really get it.
She became a target of our acidic humor when she was not around. Gradually, we would say mean things to her face. She didn’t get the jabs. This made it even funnier. We laughed and laughed.
One day something broke. We broke.
For some reason, Ruth was telling some story that we thought was foolish. We stopped her and told her so. We told her that she was foolish. We told her that we had let her sit with us because we couldn’t stop her. We made sure she knew we had been laughing at her, not with her.
How can people be so cruel? Because they can. I don’t understand it. I did it. We hurt that poor girl for no good reason. We were intentionally cruel.
I remember Ruth walking away from us, looking at us over, her eyes welling with tears. She stared like she had just suffered a hallucination and wanted to see that it wasn’t real.
But it was real. You don’t belong here, Ruth. We don’t like you. You’re a fool.
There was no event after that prompted introspection. We just kept on being the people that we were. We didn’t get our comeuppance. We didn’t feel guilty. We moved on.
I saw Ruth with a different group one day, participating in laugh-filled conversation with them just as she had done with us. I caught her eye and smiled and said hello. She nodded, which was generous of her, but her wilting smile stabbed me. Seeing me reminded her of the pain we had brought.
That which does not destroy us? It hurts us. It changes us. Sometimes it destroys us, but too slowly for us to catch on.
I wish I could say that was the only bad thing I’ve ever done. I wish I could say that it was the worst. Neither would be true. I’ve been a jerk many times.
There is nothing I can do to make up for what we did to Ruth. I have no idea how to track her down. I can’t remember her last name or where she was from. I just remember that fading smile and those welling eyes.
I barely graduated from Gordon. It took me three years at the University of Georgia to earn my bachelor’s because I continued to be a lousy, lazy student.
I hope Ruth did better. I hope Ruth rose above us and excelled. Forty-five years later, I hope she is now retired and happy, surrounded by people who love and respect her. I hope she never thinks about us. I do hope that with all my heart.