My sister sent an e-mail notifying me that an old friend of my parents' had died. I went online and signed the condolence guest book. Then, one of the deceased's nine children called me. His family had nine children; so did ours. It took us a few minutes to figure out who each one was. He finally asked me, "Were you `the helmet boy?'" I wanted to reply: "No, I was certainly not the helmet boy. It was my brother Patrick."

His question recalled an uncomfortable memory. As a child, I had some issues with balance and concussions. The balance problem led directly to the concussion problems. The doctor said I needed to wear a helmet. My mother cried, "My baby!" My dad just took the facemask off a real football helmet, slapped it on me, and I was ready to go. Thank God, my unusually large head fit the helmet. They normally don't make regulation helmets for 4-year-olds.

There was a stigma attached to wearing a helmet. Some kids made fun of me until I head-butted them. The reason I didn't hear too much teasing was because it was hard to hear inside the helmet. In addition, I was bigger than all the other kids, and I had a weapon on my head. Nevertheless, the teasing I did hear hurt.

I was a short-busser, even though our district didn't have short busses. I always felt part of the "special" program; even as I outgrew both the helmet and the need to wear one. The next time I wore a helmet, it was for the intended purpose. I played football.

It's funny the way we remember ourselves in school. I went on one of those reunion sites where you describe yourself. A girl I knew from high school described herself as "popular in high school." She humors herself. She was a borderline helmet girl.

I think the term popular now indicates mean. My daughter's good friend is having problems with some popular kids. My daughter talks of popular kids with a mix of disgust and envy. Popular kids, my daughter tells me, hang out in a mean crowd. Not Jets vs. Sharks mean, but they gang up nonetheless. One of the reasons her friend changed schools was because of mean kids.

I try to explain to my girls that the reason these girls hang out together is for security. They are not secure on their own. And most people's definition of "popular" and "mean" are different. To a kid with a helmet, everyone is popular.

I like to tell my girls the story of their mother. My wife was once accused of being a mean girl. In school, she would sometimes sit with her friends in the cafeteria and quietly make fun of some of their classmates. Which is the exact definition of a mean girl? When she was accused, she realized for the first time that what she did was mean. What she thought was good-natured goofing; someone else who overheard it thought was mean.

I was also accused by a teacher of being mean. It was in junior high, and I had a crush on a girl. The best way to impress her, I felt, was to tease her. It was the first of many ways that I would learn did not impress women.

My wife did not consider herself mean. I'm sure I did not, at the time, think I was mean. My wife and I were young and insecure. Others perceived us as mean. I'm sure the mean girls of today do not sit around and say, "Ya know, now that I think about it, I am really nasty. I am a horrible person. I deserve to be head-butted by a giant kid with a helmet."

In the end, I took no pride in being helmet boy. Instead, I claimed it was my brother Patrick. He asked, "I know he had some troubles. How is he doing? I said, "He is doing really well ... considering." Was that mean? Probably.

Thomas Lawlor lives in Southport with his lovely bride and two daughters. His day job is at M Communications in Stamford. He can be reached at tlawlor@mcommunications.com.