On the first Friday of every month, First UU here in Columbus features a potluck and social evening known–appropriately enough–as First Friday. There is a meal, followed by several different activities (board games, workshops, speakers, or a movie). On the first Friday of January, I made one of my rare appearances at First Friday.
The featured film was Bullied, produced by the Southern Poverty Law Center, about anti-gay bullying in a public school in Minnesota. The young man who was on the receiving end of the bullying took the school district to court because the principal and other school officials turned a blind eye to his numerous complaints and pleas for help.
As someone who was bullied from kindergarten through senior high school, I applaud any anti-bullying actions that schools may take. On the other hand, I think I’m enough of a realist to know that anti-bullying rules and measures are about as realistic and enforceable as anti-thunderstorm edicts. Bullying is by no means confined to the schoolyard, and very few studies or memoirs dealing with the subject mention bullying that is encouraged by parents or adults in authority.
When I was 11, a little boy (pre-kindergarten) who lived next door befriended a boy his age (we’ll call him Mick–only because I’m listening to the Stones’ Some Girls as I type this) who lived a block or two away from where we did. All of us (adults and children) took an instant dislike to him. He was dirty, we heard he had a pretty foul mouth (which he learned at the knee of his mother), and the house where he lived with his mother and three siblings was somewhat ramshackle. I know you can’t judge a book by its cover, but my dad fueled our dislike for the kid by telling me that he had seen Mick throwing rocks at the letter carrier one day. (Not even in kindergarten, and he had already committed a Federal offense: assaulting a Federal employee while in the performance of his job duties.)
The parents were all a united front: This kid, and his equally reprobate siblings, were trouble. I can’t even think of anything they did that led us to believe that. What we did know was that the mother didn’t work (“She gets a check” was what one of them told me when I asked what Mom did for a living), and the father had been killed in Vietnam. The mom seemed to have an endless parade of boyfriends who came over, and all the kids were in fear of them. (“I’ll tell Bill!” was the ultimate threat I heard one sibling use on the other.)
A side effect of bullying is that a kid (or adult) who is bullied will all too often relish the chance to be the bully, when that opportunity arises. On Facebook, I mentioned I was reading Dave Cullen’s Columbine, and I quoted a line from W.H. Auden’s poem “September 1, 1939”:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.
The “evil” that I did was subtly encouraged by parents who turned a blind eye to what we did. No one egged us on, but neither were we taken to task about it. Being the oldest of the other kids, I was a de facto leader. Mick and his siblings usually traveled in a pack from their house to ours, and they rode Big Wheels.
For the benefit of my younger readers, too young to remember Big Wheels, I offer you the following visual aid:
Mick was the youngest of the kids, at about five. He had a brother, Kevin, who was maybe about eight, and a sister who was nine but looked much younger. As I said, they moved in packs, all of them riding Big Wheels. Before long, all of the older kids in our neighborhood (and our parents) could sense their imminent arrival. It was like Radar O’Reilly on M*A*S*H‘s ability to know choppers bearing wounded were en route before anyone else.
We were on hand to greet them. Something the commercial neglected to show was how fast someone could U-turn a Big Wheel. Parents would sit on their front porch and see the same scenario played out several times a morning that summer. There would be the roar of Big Wheels, and when it got closer, my friend John and I would come running out with baseball bats, croquet mallets, or tomato stakes, making these hellacious “battle cries” as we did it. The invading force would very quickly reverse direction and head back home.
Fortunately, none of us ever actually struck one of the kids with these weapons. As an adult, I often wonder what would have happened with (or to) our parents had we actually connected with the bats, stakes, or mallets that we waved at these kids. Yes, these kids were a pain in the ass, and no one liked them. (They certainly didn’t win any friends when they peeled all the bark off a crabapple tree “to keep away vampires.”) But never did a parent sit us down and tell us that baseball bats were not toys, and if we actually decked one of them, it wouldn’t be play, it was called assault and battery.
I am realistic and honest enough with myself to realize that the only reason I never hit one of them wasn’t my inherent virtue, it was the fact that they could pedal faster than I could run. I had plenty of anger inside me, and by age 11 I was a virtual storage battery of anger. I could only constructively vent in my diary, but that wasn’t enough for me. I do not relate the above anecdote out of pride–far from it. However I was able to do it, I was able to channel my anger into constructive channels. It would be untrue to say that I’ve discharged it entirely. (I still bear grudges from nursery school.) But Mick has not. Whenever I’ve subscribed to The Marietta Times, either by U.S. Mail or online, his name featured prominently in The Docket, the column devoted to arrests, court appearances, and sentencing. Usually, it was (is) alcohol-related, some of it petty misdemeanors such as possession of an open container of alcohol, or as serious as OMVI or criminal assault. I often wonder how much our pre-teen brand of vigilantism contributed to this.
We were kids, yes, I know. At the same time, the parents who should have told us that what we were doing was wrong, no matter how wrong these kids were, stood by and did nothing. Maybe what we (I) did comes across as petty to the average reader of this blog. (I’m reminded of a story, probably apocryphal, about Martin Luther’s days as a monk, pre-95 Theses. The story says that young Luther would stay in the confessional for hours, reeling off the most petty or idiotic of sins–inattentive during Mass, desiring to sleep instead of pray, taking an extra portion at meals–and finally his confessor threw up his hands. “For God’s sake, man!” he cried. “Sleep with a man’s wife, steal some money, kill someone! Then come back and confess to me!”) But I’m laying it bare as a way of reminding myself, and anyone else who reads this blog, Qui tacit consentit–He who remains silent, consents. So my purpose in writing this down for public consumption is as an indictment to the parents who watched with amusement as we went after other kids with baseball bats. Susie is not a bully, and doesn’t have it in her to hurt anyone, so I have never, thankfully, been placed in that position.
Speaking of Susie, I will veer off this depressing topic by sharing with you some of the pictures she took yesterday. Yesterday was a snow day for Columbus Public Schools (but not for State workers–the last time that happened was the 1978 blizzard), so Susie took my camera and took pictures around the neighborhood, including the playground at nearby Weinland Park Elementary School.