One of those bumper-stickers crossed my Facebook feed today, on the subject of bullying (“repost this if you are against bullying” — which is a little like, “repost this if you are against unprovoked genocide,” with the implication that if I don’t comply with this stupid chain letter request, I must somehow be for the atrocity in question — I always ignore these).
But it did remind me of an incident I witnessed when I was in seventh grade.
Bullying was endemic in our public schools in Cheyenne in the 1960’s. As I recall, grade school featured someone being “called out” to fight at least once a week, usually a little kid being called out by a bigger kid. An after-school fight would ensue where Big Tough Todd would take a couple of manly (fifth-grader) swings at Pussy Mark (who might be a fourth-grader), knock him down and split his lip, and then it was over, obligations of preening machismo satisfied.
My mother insisted that I not fight the other boys, and I complied — complicated story, there — which gave me the reputation of being a “mama’s boy.” Knowing that I wouldn’t fight only made me an especially convenient and low-risk target for being called out. Not that I didn’t want to crush the life out of those cocky little bastards that made my life so miserable. But family life as I knew it didn’t permit such things, on top of which I was a pretty scrawny kid before sixth grade, and didn’t think I could manage to inflict the mayhem I so ardently desired to inflict. So I avoided the fights behind the gym, and behind the swimming pool fence, and behind the church, and in the vacant lot, and found ways to get home without encountering any of the nascent “gangs” of Big Tough Todd types who had called me out, ways which sometimes involved running very fast.
The one time I got dragged into a playground fight was in sixth grade, which was the first year I had male teachers — both sixth-grade tracks had men teaching them. Years later, an old grade-school friend and I were catching up, and he reminded me of that fight, my first and only actual fist-fight, and he told me that I’d delivered a “karate chop” to the other kid’s shoulder and ended the fight right there.
That certainly wasn’t how I remembered it. Frankly, I didn’t remember much about the fight at all — it was fast and chaotic. I remember at one point he had me by the collar, and I had him by his; we spun around like contra dancers, and I could not get myself in a position to knock his head off. I took at least one punch to the face, tasted blood — a familiar taste, as I was prone to nosebleeds at that age in the high, dry air — and then I remember that the bell rang, and we all lined up like dutiful little 1960’s duck-and-cover citizens, and I figured I’d lost the fight. Badly. Humiliatingly.
I remember walking into the classroom area where we hung our coats while spitting blood all over the floor. I looked at the blood, and realized I needed to clean up the mess, so I went over to the classroom sink, got some paper towels wet, and mopped up my own blood while the other kids sat down like good little duck-and-cover citizens. I don’t know if they were watching me — I kept my back to them as I mopped blood and dripped more on the floor. I don’t recall any “coddling” from the (male) teacher of the class. He just let me clean up the mess. No one helped. Maybe I got sent to the nurse afterward, maybe I stuffed some dampened paper towels up my nose and sat down. I don’t remember.
All that I remember clearly is that inside, I was a white-hot inferno of rage.
It wasn’t so much about the fight. It was about the male teacher of the other sixth-grade class, who had been on playground duty when the fight happened. When I’d come into the building, blood streaming down my face, he’d — smirked. It was a very long time ago, and memory is a shifting bog covered with mists, but my adult mind tells me that it was an “Attaboy!” smirk. That is, he was proud of me for (finally) getting my nose bloodied in a playground fight, and standing up for myself. At the time, as the perpetual target of every wannabe Tough Guy who needed an easy target, I didn’t see it that way. I saw it as just another smirking bully, an adult bully, a fucking goddamn grown-up siding with the little shits who chased me home most days. The injustice and betrayal of that smirk was complete and pure in a way that is only possible for a very young person to appreciate.
Mine was the rage of being trapped in Hell, not allowed even to scream.
Junior High was worse. We had mandatory education in the state through eighth grade, but Junior High ran through the ninth grade, so most of the true psychopaths — and we had a fair number of those, some of whom ended up with life sentences in high-security prisons for brutal killings later in life — hung on through all of Junior High, right through that growth spurt at fourteen that gave them an extra six inches in height and a full bush of hair around their cocks. I spent a fair number of days at home during those three years with full-on panic attacks, and I remember noticing with fatalistic detachment how my hands would shake on bad days during the school year, and toward the end of summer vacation as Hell once again came into season.
With High School, everything changed. The psychopaths dropped out to pursue their twisted dreams (none of which required a diploma), and because High School was no longer mandatory, the school felt no qualms about expelling kids, permanently. The teachers weren’t required to pass anyone. School became a privilege, rather than a sentence.
I loved High School. I thrived, and my Junior High anxieties dissolved and did not come back. Though I never quite grasped the fact that I had somehow become both a bit of a celebrity — I was involved in everything that wasn’t sports, from debate to music to theater to high-profile pranks (we once set out to steal October 20 and hold it ransom) — and a Mystery Man of Intrigue, since I’d been such a cipher through Junior High. I discovered only many years later how easy it would have been to lose my virginity my senior year, something I would not have believed if my future self had invented a time machine and come back in time to tell me in person. At the time, I still considered myself the butt of every joke, and rebuffed every admirer, fearing a trap.
But I wanted to talk about seventh grade, not High School.
One of my good friends in grade school was — let’s call him Mark. Smaller and scrawnier than me, platinum blond hair, delicate features, Swedish by surname. Quiet, and a sweet kid. I stayed over at his house a couple of times, and I seem to remember we had special pancakes for breakfast that his father made for us.
In sixth grade, Big Bad Todd called out Mark, and Mark responded by foolishly showing up at the appointed time and place. As Mark was taking his jacket off, Big Bad Todd rushed him, punched him in the chest and knocked the wind out of him, then strutted away like some triumphant Nacho Libre surrounded by his Big Bad Entourage of groupies. My best friend — the one I would reminisce with years later — and I stayed with Mark, and waited for him to catch his breath. He was injured, I don’t know how badly. Maybe a cracked rib, maybe just a bruise, maybe just humiliation. We walked him home.
I lost track of Mark shortly after that. There were family troubles. As I recall, his mother got ill, and then died — or maybe she just left. I’m not sure I ever heard the real story about his mother, other than that she was gone. What I do recall is that his father, who had apparently always suffered from depression, killed himself, and Mark was taken out of school. I remember my parents reading about it in the paper and talking about it. I remember thinking about Mark’s father, whom I’d liked, and wondering why he’d done such a thing.
Seventh grade was very different from sixth. We changed schools, no longer the elementary school down the block, but an overcrowded penal institution (or zoo) nearly two miles away. The Junior High facility had been designed for 900 students, and had something like 1700 by my ninth-grade year. We encountered for the first time the classroom-by-subject, rather than the classroom-by-teacher, with the consequent random migration through the halls every fifty minutes, a commuter traffic jam of a sort that only people in Boston or Denver can fully appreciate. We had to deal with lockers, and combination locks, and PE where we were required to get naked and wear jock straps and march through needle-spray showers in a line and deal with ninth-graders who needed to shave their backs. It was chaos, and devils roamed the halls, ready at any moment to dump your books or rabbit-punch you in the neck.
It must have been the Spring of that year when Mark showed up in one of my classes, the first time I’d seen him since sixth grade. Mark was clearly … broken. He’d put on some height, but he was even thinner than before, and everything about him looked bruised, ungroomed, uncared-for. He did not make eye contact. He did not respond to people. His soul had checked out for some kind of deep-grief rehab somewhere very distant, and his body was just making the rounds, hoping and waiting for his soul to return.
The class, seventh-grade social studies, was taught by Mr. R — a grizzled lump of a man in a green suit he wore every day, iron-gray hair cut in a severe 50’s flat-top, face pocked by some childhood disease and lungs destroyed by a lifetime of smoking and more recent emphysema, only a few years from retirement and in a clear race with Mr. Brink for the first-place prize of his pension, or the second-place prize of his life insurance policy. I later learned there was kindness in the man, but early that Spring, he played the martinet.
On one of the first days in class, he asked Mark a question. Mark did not respond. Mr. R repeated the question. Mark did not respond. The room grew deathly quiet.
Corporal punishment was still the norm in those days. The male teachers, and some of the female teachers, had “the board” hanging on the wall, a paddle about three feet long and shaped like a cricket bat. They occasionally used them, and when they did, they swung hard — the contact of wood with buttocks made a sound like a crack of nearby lightning, or of a sniper rifle, and it would echo down the tiled halls. The student would limp for a few hours, but there was a strong ethic of “not blubbering” among the students singled out. After all, they deserved it.
I was terrified that Mr. R would use “the board” on Mark. As fragile as Mark looked, it seemed it could break him in half. Perhaps Mr. R could see that as well — I don’t recall him using “the board.”
Instead, he did something worse. He spent the next five, perhaps ten minutes, tearing down Mark’s character in front of the class, like a drill sergeant tearing down a recruit during boot camp. He held Mark up as an example of everything that was wrong with “young people these days” — a lazy slacker, a waste of teaching effort, of food, of air. A speck of nothing destined for nothing. The degradation went on and on, and I cringed in my seat, staring forward, unable to watch, unable to listen, unable to do anything.
To this day, there is a part of me that blames myself for not standing up and shouting, “His father just died, you miserable baboon’s arse!” Or at least the first part of that. Some act of support. Some act of acknowledgement of Mark’s pain, his loss, his legitimate grief. Some act of humanity.
I did nothing. I was a good little duck-and-cover citizen in a classroom with a green-suited drill sergeant and a board hanging on the wall. I was cowed, and afraid. As was intended.
Shortly after that, Mark vanished again, and that is the last I remember of him.
Bullying never occurs in a vacuum.
Bullying occurs in a cultural environment that reveres bullying, encourages it, supports it, and rewards it. An environment where adults smile fondly when a bullied kid “stands up for himself.” Where a person in power can tear down a child’s character as an example of what happens to bad little boys who don’t answer when asked a question.
A culture where an authority figure can bind your hands, and then, because they didn’t like the way you looked at them, or the color of your skin, or the name on your driver’s license, can knock you down, beat you, kick you, choke you, peel your eyelids back and spray mace in your eyes, sodomize you with a nightstick, break your bones, and then shoot you dead, and the other sixth-grade teacher on playground duty — the district attorney, the judge, the jury of peers — smirks, and comes back with a verdict of, “No, you deserved that. You fucking well deserved that. Justice is done.”
You want the cause of children bullying other children? The children learn it from us.
It’s really that simple.