Oct 9, 2011

Freedom to Leave

Gary Dewberry was his name. It rhymed. He was a bully who always wanted to beat me up in grade school and sometimes did. He would say "I'll see you after school," and taunt me to be there to face him . He did this by calling me names like "chicken." There would be no reason.

I don't know what event precipitated his hatred of me. I suspect that there was such a first incident, thought it could be that I just looked the type who would not fight back. I did not know how to fight nor did I want to. The important pattern in the taunts was that I was forced to feel guilt about being afraid to fight. It was like a scene out of the Yellow Badge of Courage or more appropriately Catch-22.

I was a shy little kid and Gary was a walking talking bully cliche. After the taunting, I would be consumed with terror for the rest of the day knowing I could hardly avoid Gary after school. Then, after school, I would leave the grounds as quickly as I could, peddling my bike furiously. Sometimes I got away without seeing him. But the next day I would have an even stronger warning, with some shoving, that I would have to meet him after school. It was an unbeatable strategy for Gary once he knew I was frightened enough to run away the first time. Yes, my strategy of avoidance was full of holes. It is odd because that strategy has mostly worked in my adult life. Avoid those who cause trouble. Where it has not worked in my later life is at the workplace.

Freedom of speech, of worship, from want, and from fear are the standard four great freedoms. However, it seemed to me another freedom, the freedom to leave, would be a practical way of ensuring the other four. Freedom from fear would never be part of my life in my school days. Only in college would fear disappear, and there I had the choice of walking away. No matter the situation, I could vacate in some way. Nerds did better in college though, so, I  hadn't much need.

Trying to exercise my freedom to leave in junior high school was a bit more awkward. I could vacate the school grounds pretty quickly as I was a good bike rider. My bike was a Schwinn. It was built for quick speed and doing wheelies but not much else, having just one gear. What speed one could get with the right amount of push on that peddle!

My bike also sported a banana seat that could accommodate two riders, a dangerous concept really, but I guess it sold bicycles. In today's world, there would be all kinds of warnings but back then it was just a bike. When I was even younger still, I had learned to ride my bike better than most.  I used to put a clothespin on the bars near the tires. This held a playing card which would flap on the spokes making a motor sound, or at least it sounded like a motor to me. Playing cards wore out pretty fast, though. The first card to use would obviously be the joker that had some words printed on it. I can't remember the reason for the text, but probably it contained the company name and copyright information. When that card wore out I would use the other joker. After this card also ceased to make much noise, the deck would pretty much be ruined. So I would pick the cool masculine cards next. Kings, then jacks. Perhaps the ace would be next. But never the queen.

Other bigger or older kids would use pretty much any excuse to label and call me a sissy. I remember it happening mostly at the other end of Meadowview, where kids knew me less and were therefore strangely mean. It is odd to think that of those early days of bullying leading to adult political thinking where name calling is today an accepted logical way of debate. Or is it that there is some basic truth that underlies the actions of both kids and adults. Was it ever always this way? Since I was usually the one being called names, and not doing the name calling, perhaps I somehow survived this period of childhood without giving into the temptation of ad hominem logic as a basic way of typifying the world.

Kids don't play outside in the same way we did. I rarely see kids on bicycles but the sidewalks of Meadowview were like small freeways for kids' conveyances when I was young and street riding was not permitted. After school, there were so many kids of all ages in the various courtyards created by the arrangement of the apartments. So from my perspective there were plenty of kids around all of the time, in school and out. We only went inside when we had to, when there was not enough light to play outside, or when the rain or weather made it impossible.

About 12 years ago I had to go to an elementary school to give a presentation to the teachers. It was the first time I had been in an elementary school since the time I was actually attending one. It was absolute craziness. It was raining that day and all kinds of problems resulted. I certainly did not remember rain at our school causing this much of a problem. Either my mother or some other family member came to pick me up, or I walked home in the rain. There was a preplanned place for me to look for Mom and then after that, I was on my own. No biggie. At this modern school everything was a grand production. I was amazed at how many kids there were with problems and how much trouble it seemed to be for teachers. They couldn't handle a little rain when years ago I had a bully to worry about. Perhaps, unlike the rain, that hasn't changed.

Finally, all the teachers gathered together for a staff meeting that was to precede my presentation. Teachers came in at all times after their personal rain problems. The staff meeting was full of teachers interrupting and having negative opinions. Finally it was my turn to talk. I think it was on the way to being best most concise presentation I had ever given and the negativity just kept coming. Basically, the teachers wanted to go home. Some said rudely "I've got to go." Finally, when I was about halfway through I decided to pretend that this was all I had to say. Great... time to go home. They were certainly not the teachers I remembered when I was in school.  They seemed to lack a certain degree of professionalism that I remembered. It's like the contrasting the movie "Breakfast at Tiffanys" and the music of Henry Mancini to the movies of today. There is more realism today, but something is missing.

I was a lucky child, as poor as we were in fact, because I grew up in an apartment complex where there was this multitude of playing companions around. We all went to the same school. Even luckier, we had an apartment complex pool. Kids from far outside the apartments would want to come  swim in the pool. They would dress in bathing suits and try to cajole us from the fence to let them in as our guests. We had to have a "pool card" to get in. Sometimes outsiders would make it in and they always seemed to disobey the rules. Some were regulars and got in with actual friends. They lived close enough to qualify as "Meadowview Kids" and I was too young to know much difference. The experienced swimming poolers like us, knew that infringements of the rules carried swift action from Mrs. Whately, her name being "whale tail" to my Dad. I guess it does seem obvious where kids got the idea of calling each other names.

For guests that had successfully begged at the fence and gained admittance, after the inevitable rule infraction that would occur, they would be escorted out of the pool area with their apartment sponsor in tow. It didn't take much experience of this kind for apartment kids to realize that being thrown out of the pool was a heck of a lot more important to us than our guests. The outsiders were always so secretive about getting our attention from outside the fence. They whispered and promised all sorts of things that they would never actually come up with in payment for our bringing them in as a guest. It was a sad lesson in greed and broken promises.

Rarely did these outsider boys (all seemed to be boys) know me or even my name from school. I would get out of the pool because they had motioned me over to them. Each time I would, of course, suspect that all they wanted was to be in the pool. They would lie and cajole. I would lean over and, for cover, pick dewberries that often lined the pool fence and say "Sorry, my mother won't let me have guests in the pool." Mom always told me to use this strategy on a number of various situations. Outsiders would try to convince me and I would eventually go back to the pool and jump in. I must have seemed like a privileged snob to these kids. I was just living my life. Eventually they would call me names when it seemed their plight was impossible. My fear was always that someone else would let them in later. They would of course be ungrateful to those who did not let them in. I remember leaving the pool and going home a few times just because of this. But usually we apartment kids were a pretty united force once the name calling began.