Joining me at the mucky bottom of the William D. Cuts school Grade 4 social ladder was Dennis Vilich. Dennis always came to school wearing second-hand clothing in an odd array of colours and quality. He always kind of smelled funny. I think he saw in me another boy who fell outside the inner clique of cool kids and that made me his new target.
I have some vague memories of Dennis’ family. His parents had immigrated to Canada from the Eastern Bloc cultural area that was known at the time as Yugoslavia. He was an only child. I remember seeing his father a few times, a gluttonous, bald man with a dark beard and unkind eyes. My description may be coloured by the fact that I have little love for a man who would beat his family, whose alcoholism would leave such a devastating legacy.
I landed in an odd mixture of hyperactive children who checkered my class lists for the next few years until we all matured a bit in junior high. I learned that our class earned some notoriety as we advanced through our elementary years – the sixth grade permutation of students combined with a rookie teacher in way over his head earned us the moniker “The Class from Hell” amongst the pool of substitutes who dreaded filling in even for one day amongst the chaos. The Grade 4 child combination wasn’t much better – anytime the teacher would leave the class it would descend into madness. And that’s when Dennis would strike. He liked to clobber me over the head with textbooks. He was relentless. My first bully.
Dennis refused to leave me alone. He would always follow me to my locker, punching and pinching me, tweaking my nipples, giving me snake bites. If I didn’t hang out with him at recess or over the lunch hour he’d threaten me. He was bigger and stronger than me. His constant presence was also an albatross, a weight preventing me from climbing the social ladder. I don’t recall him having any other good friends. This lack of a social life gave him more time to torment me. The threats and the bruises became too much. My feelings of self-worth were at an all-time low.
It must have been a shock to my parents to see their formerly bright, popular son who loved going to school suddenly dread the thought of walking in the classroom every day. They arranged extracurricular counselling for me. I don’t recall her name but I remember she once made me stand on her office desk and yell “This is about you! This is not about me!” It helped to talk about my problems but it never seemed to have much of an effect on the realities of school life the following day.
I ended up in Mr. Lof’s class in Grade 5. So did Dennis. My social situation was gradually improving. I had a few friends, a few new people to hang out with and play Tennis Ball Soccer with at recess. But Dennis was still a constant harasser. At the end of every day I would hurriedly get my coat out of my locker, hoping to escape before Dennis found me and made me walk home with him. He usually did anyway. I was getting confident enough to tell him to stop punching me all the time but he didn’t seem to want to listen. I just wanted him to leave me alone.
On our walk home from school one cold day I told Dennis that I had borrowed what is now considered a rare piece of late-80s gaming history – a Nintendo Power Pad. This was a giant replica of a series of Nintendo controller buttons on a mat you lay on the floor. It came with a special Track & Field game with different events. My favourite was the hurdles where you would run and jump around the pad to move your character on-screen. Dennis was dying to try it and, in his usual manner of forcefulness, invited himself over. It was the first time Dennis and I had played together at my house. He was really into it; I remember him running himself into a sweat on the Power Pad, taking off his shirt, then running some more.
My mom later told me she was shocked that not only was the kid who had been tormenting me for the last year and a half suddenly in our house but how much fun we were having, the sounds of laughter streaming into the kitchen as she made dinner. She said it sounded like we were two old friends who had done this together many times before.
In some ways I think we were old friends; our complicated relationship had developed into a kinship, a mutual understanding, an uneven balance of power that had suddenly flipped. Because the target that Dennis had placed on my back was not one of a victim but of a friend. Only, the filter of his world had been skewed by his abusive father. To him, violence was love and love was violence and he didn’t know how to show it any other way.
Although I’ve had a long time to relive the meaning behind the details of a day that remains vivid in my mind all these years later, I think my preteen brain understood enough to realize things had changed between Dennis and me. He still intimidated me but the meaning behind his actions were suddenly and abundantly clear. We laughed and played video games together until the winter’s early darkness settled over our neighbourhood. He asked if he could come over again sometime. I said yes. It was a play date that would never happen.
About a week later Dennis came to school dressed to impress. His standard faded sweatshirt was replaced by a sharp new sweater. His hair was cut and styled. He looked good. I told him so at recess when we hung out and had a great conversation about whatever seemed important to two Grade 5 boys at the time. I imagine he was wearing the same sweater that evening as the sole passenger in his family’s small car, his dad behind the wheel, speeding down 170th street near Edmonton’s Golden West golf course, crossing the centre line, and slamming head-on into a semi. Neither of them stood a chance. I took comfort when I found out Dennis would have died instantly, that there would have been no pain. He was 10 years old.
When the ashen-faced school guidance counsellor came into Mr. Lof’s classroom the following morning, tears streaming down her face as she told us the news, I sat there in silent shock. But before that emotion was able to register, another one took hold, if only for a brief second. My first facial expression upon learning the news had been a smile. All these years later I still don’t fully understand why I smiled. My counsellor told me at the time it was okay to have mixed feelings about his death, that my relationship with Dennis was complex. It was the last appointment I ever had with her. The reason I was in counselling no longer existed.
It’s been over 27 years since Dennis died. I now have a family of my own with two wonderful young boys. The oldest, Ben, has been having problems with a kid at his school who threatens whenever Ben doesn’t do what he wants. Yet the sounds of laughter and fun fill the room whenever he comes over to play video games with Ben outside of school hours. So I told Ben the story of Dennis, and how sometimes your tormentor really just wants you to like them, they just don’t understand the hurt behind their actions. After I was done telling it I realized this was probably one of Dennis’ only stories. He was never old enough to have a job, a romantic relationship, a life outside of his awful family situation and a group of classmates who never really knew much about him. He existed before the internet, before everyone had a camera in their pocket, before parents documented the lives of their families on social media, leaving it forever etched on the public record. I heard his grieving mother moved back to Europe shortly after she lost her family. If she’s still alive she would have stories about a little boy named Dennis Vilich. And so do I.
I will never forget your story, Dennis Vilich, and I’m compelled to share it to tell the world that your all-too-brief life profoundly affected someone. You taught me to stand up for myself. You taught me to listen to people, to try to put myself in their shoes to understand the real meaning behind their words and actions. Most importantly, you taught me that relationships can evolve and change over time. That a first impression should never be a last impression. That a bully can become a friend.
Rob A. Murray grew up in St. Albert and now lives in Canmore-Banff area.