Monday, July 06, 2009
Finally Escaping the Imprint of Old School Discipline
I had a moment that caused me to gasp this morning as I encountered another obituary for a school mate. I graduated high school in 1971 and our class has lost somewhere between 15 and 20 members since that June. It is becoming more frequent. At the 30th reunion, as we paid tribute to the 11 who had passed, we recognized that this number would only increase from that point on. In fact, that reunion was one month before the fall of the Towers and the tragedy that was 9/11/01 for our nation and world. One of us passed just a day or so after of heart failure, I believe.
This passing was a challenging surprise. Let me step back to my 3rd or 4th grade year (not quite sure which anymore but I am inclined to say 3rd). It was a fall day, gray and damp. A boy who was in my class followed me past the street where he lived for several blocks, taunting and bullying. He threatened me and forced me into a back yard of a house on my route home, a long walk in itself. He forced me to kneel in the leaves. He was rough and it was the first time I had ever been accosted by another kid. I had long hair, nearly to my waist, curly and thick. He took my hair in his hands, wrapped it tight in his grip, placed his foot in my back and pulled as hard as he could over and over again. He had grabbed my arms too in forcing his will on me so I was hurting all over. I think I cried. I don't know why he stopped when he did but all I remember is that he stopped and left. I never knew why he did this. We had no beef, no conflict. I barely talked to him, hardly knew him. He just was a boy sitting in a desk on the other side of the room. I was stunned at the whole thing and deeply shaken, disturbed enough to cry myself the rest of the way home and tell my mother.
Mommy was fierce when she was pissed. I take after her in that. Somehow she appeared at school the next day to talk to our principal, Elsie Plato, a stern woman who looked like she walked out of a Frank Capra film in her black sensible shoes. Mrs. Plato asked me in to tell my story. Then she brought this boy in to attest to his behavior. She demanded an apology from him, which is all I wanted from the experience. Then she forced me to sit there while she took out a hefty ruler, instructed the boy to place his hands on the desk, and she smashed his knuckles with the disciplinary tool.
Witnessing this punishment was as horrifying as the threat and fear of the previous day. This boy was in so much pain because I confessed. We never spoke again that I can remember until that 30th reunion.
I would see him as we were adults in community and I always had a pit in my stomach from the lingering memory of both of the violent experiences. It had been the first time I felt true threat from a male peer and, as I grew older, it seemed deeper than just being bullied. It was always a violation and I was afraid of him most of my life.
When I was 16, I experienced date rape and I never told anyone exactly what had happened. I could not stand the shame and I could not face being forced to witness another punishment, so I pushed the memory out of my head entirely. These events are somehow linked.
But in August of 2001, I saw this man who was a bully boy, I saw a man with his wife having a great time, just another classmate looking back and noticing that life was skirting past at an insanely rapid pace. He had a stable job. He had a home, a family, just an ordinary Joe. I lost my fear that evening as we all toasted each other and our lives, our differences, our bellies and graying pates.
Today, I read his obituary and tears are there for him once again, but in celebration of his life. A Navy man, a Viet Nam vet. A good father and husband, an admirable, reliable employee. He passed away at 56. How could that be? I wonder if he remembered? I wonder if he hated me? I wonder why he hurt me in the first place? I wonder if his knuckles ever healed properly? Or his child self's pride? I wonder what his parents did? I wonder how many people will carry his memory of the fine life he led as a man? I am sure to and I am no longer afraid or ashamed. I have offered a private prayer to his family mourning his unexpected death. I will make a contribution to the charity named by the family and give myself a moment of silence to remember my classmate fondly.