Monday, February 6, 2017

Bullying and Beatty's Betrayal

Back when I was teaching high school, when we were discussing a work that included characters abusing the vulnerable just because they could,* a student would often give me a little lopsided combo smile-smirk and ask, "Doc, did you get crammed into a locker when you were in school?" 

This usually playful question was no doubt prompted by my "slight build," as the euphemism goes, one that I've had since I was about, oh, five or six.

Surprisingly, I suffered very little at the hands of bullies. Skinny little dweeb that I was, I did a bit of bullying myself. It wasn't physical smallness that invited harassment back then, and it probably isn't now.
Abigail Williams, the bully queen.

And speaking of "back then," the most vocal group of my generation, or as I call them "The Drinking-from-a-Garden-Hose-Meme Gang," minimizes bullying by looking back through nostalgia-tinted lens at a time when they'd tell their parents that Billy Joe was picking on them, and their parents would say, "Be a man, even if you're a girl! Stand up for yourself. And if you come home with a black eye, then Billy Joe better have two of 'em."

This is a shallow, antiquated, oversimplified slather of bullshit, something my generation is quite adept at dispensing. To my much maligned millennial friends, I apologize for that, and I assure you we'll all be gone soon.

I must've been about 8 when I became annoyed for no good reason about the presence of a fat boy a year younger than I. His voice sounded clogged and strained as if he were about to cough. He was pale and had curly, reddish hair, and his eyes drooped, giving his countenance a perpetual lugubrious look.** He reminded me of Baby Huey.

So my friend and I would try to get him to cry once in a while. When we succeeded (I'm pretty sure he was faking it, but seeing a big kid like that even pretending to cry was quite satisfying), we'd go on back to our normal playing.
Young Jane Eyre pays for her sins.

Then there was this overly sensitive girl who sat at the same table with me in first grade. A very gentle child, with large, trusting eyes, always in a neat little dress with puffy sleeves, wearing those round-toed black patent shoes, with the thin white socks folded at the top. She also had the audacity to be left-handed. What was I supposed to do? 

Occasionally nudge her elbow, of course, to smudge her punctilious obsession with staying within the lines, with creating the absolutely flawless lower-case "k." That and hiding her pencil once in a while would generally produce sufficient quiet weeping.

Look at these two: Clearly they invited our abuse. They might as well have worn tee shirts with "VULNERABLE" written across the front.

I must have worn a similar shirt during my later elementary school days. During 5th-grade, a new kid moved into our tiny rural community, and I will use his real name, because I'm pretty sure someone has slammed his head in car door by now, rendering him incapable of reading: Charles "Chuck" Macintosh. His bullying was limited to threatening me with what he was going to do "tomorrow," which was actually pretty effective since that's all I could think about for the next 16 hours or so.

As I reported in an earlier post, a couple of my larger friends soon strongly encouraged him to stop threatening me by beating the living shit out of him -- without threatening him. He never bothered me again.
Stanley Kowalski chats with Blanche

A little after that, an aunt from Jacksonville unloaded her son on our family for a while, probably so she didn't have to deadlock herself into a panic room 24 hours a day just to survive the monstrous little shit, easily the meanest human being I've ever known, not counting Kellyanne Conway, of course. I'll save his sadistic shenanigans for another post, but trust me, his bullying of me and my sister was sufficient to cleanse us of the bad karma we had attracted by our own bullying and to waive every second of purgatory we would've otherwise had to endure after death.

Besides the intermittent shame flashes I continue to experience from my treatment of the fat boy and the sensitive girl, I'm not aware of any lasting effect from the good ol' days of pre-teen bullying.

But later, another incident either transformed me into someone else or revealed my real self. 

Beatty (as I will call him) was a junior at Madison High School. He lived just east of town on the main drag, Highway 90, just past a dying shopping plaza, once home to Setzer's grocery store, a bakery and a bowling alley. Beatty's neighborhood was made up of dilapidated wood-frame houses, the wood turned gray from age. 

They couldn't possibly have had indoor plumbing. Some had crooked, jury-rigged TV antennas, giving license to the more fortunate passers-by to cough up the old saw, "They ain't got a pot to piss in, but they sure got to have them some TV."

Beatty walked to and from school, typically wearing an old short-sleeved, threadbare collared shirt that was too small for him and missing a button or two, and a pair of dark greenish work pants that were too large, kept up by a tightly knotted rope. He never wore jeans, and apparently owned only two pairs of work pants and no more than three shirts. He wore the same scuffed and weathered loafers every day and never appeared freshly showered or right out of the bath.

He was in my English class and it was hard for me to keep my eyes off him. He sat next to the wall and would often lean his large, narrow head against it while he pondered God knows what. He always had a pencil in his hand and another perched behind his left ear. He kept an old-styled zip-up, fake-leather notebook open on his desk, and when Ol' Lady Faught said something he deemed significant, he'd write it down, or write something, anyway.

Beatty conducted himself like a scholar. Quiet and respectful in class, he always appeared thoughtful and engaged and he carried a load of textbooks with him on his daily pilgrimage to and from Shanty Row. He was so much "the Studious Young Man," it was as if he were playing the role of one. This is not the kind of company most high-school kids seek. 

So yes, he kept to himself, because all the other students kept away from him.

One of the few things I ever heard him say was "No, ma'am," in a flat, bass voice, when Ol' Lady Faught asked him if he had done his homework or if he could answer a question. He hardly ever turned in anything. I once saw a quiz he had taken, and the paper seemed to have been wadded up before its use, his writing, in smudged pencil markings, tiny and illegible.

He made all F's, with perhaps a mercy D tossed in occasionally from a generous teacher. His scholarly persona was pure theater, but why choose such an unappealing role? 

So, even though he was a muscular young man -- I'd guess 5"11, 180 pounds -- he was prime bullying material.

And he was black. And it was Madison High's second year of integration. And he was segregated from both blacks and whites.

One day after Phys. Ed., the last class of the day, he was in the locker-room changing back into his grubby wardrobe. He was by himself in a small enclave of lockers with a lockable gate. It resembled a jail cell.

Some kids decided to make it one. They locked him in. One of them scribbled on a sheet of notebook paper "DO NOT FEED THE MONKEY" and taped it to Beatty's cell. 

The alpha punk howled for his henchmen, and they gathered round him, making ape calls and monkey screams. Some threw playground balls and wadded paper against the gate.

Beatty said nothing. He looked at them with neither surprise nor outrage. His eyes said "I see you," and that is all.

I would like to lie and say I heard about this outrage second hand, but I was there when it happened, the middle part of it anyway. I didn't see them lock him and I do not how he got out. 

I was sickened by it, literally. I felt lost, like I had fallen into a bad movie. Of course I didn't participate, because I wasn't friends with this particular pack of rabid hyenas, and I wasn't friends with Beatty -- no one was. I was just a bystander, doing nothing about his misery.

But Beatty's public humiliation did something about me. I witnessed firsthand prejudice, difference and fear commingle to form an elixir of cruelty, and that elixir's shelf life extended by cowardice. I saw who we are.

The last time I saw Beatty, I was sitting on the porch of our ratty little rental on Marion St., less than a block from MHS. It was the last day of school, and Beatty was trudging past the house on his long, long walk back home.

A classmate, riding his new firetruck red scooter, pulled up next to Beatty, stopped, and leaned toward him with one foot on the ground, the engine still running. Time for a chat.

"Go home, nigger," he said, "and don't come back next year."

And as if he really were in a bad movie, Beatty pivoted slowly toward the shit-head and said, like a young James Earl Jones, "Oh, I'll BE back."

But had it been a bad movie, I would've broken character, been brave, leapt off my porch, run out to the road and spoken the truth: "God, I am so sorry, Beatty. I hate them, too."

Instead, I sat on the swing and watched him walk back to Shanty Town, the fumes of that fucking scooter still in his nose. 

*"Hansel and Gretel," Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried, John Fowles' French Lieutenant's Woman, Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles, Tennessee Williams' Streetcar Named Desire, William Styron's Sophie's Choice, Arthur Miller's The Crucible, Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, Tobias Wolff's "Hunter's in the Snow," Toni Morrison's Beloved, F. Scott Fitzgerald's Great Gatsby, Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-5, Mark Twain's Huck Finn, Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, Raymond Carver's "They're Not Your Husband," come to mind, to name a few. 

**Editor's note: The author has been waiting since the first Starknotes post to use "lugubrious."

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