This is an important contribution to our discussion about racism, but for nuanced reasons. The seven-year-old in this story learns what it feels like to be bullied for being different, but, in this instance the difference is not so visible as skin color; rather, it is because he assaults the value his classmates place upon physical prowess by his indifference to it. And then, of course, there is the inexcusable betrayal of his peers by actually excelling in intellectual pursuit. These heresies will not stand, but as tribal justice is meted out, the capacity for empathy for others who are persecuted for their differences takes root, becomes a characteristic, even, a virtue as the seven-year-old became a man.
A Little Hell from My Friends
Michael R. Dilts
We are not born with hatred in our hearts. Prejudice is something that develops over time. Even when we have been educated about the evils of discrimination, it grows like a fungus in the dark corners of our souls. I remember the first time I saw it raise its ugly head, and it had the face of a seven-year-old boy.
There were no “colored” families in our lily-white neighborhood in suburban Northern California, and there were no black faces in the Catholic Grammar School where I was enrolled. Our first-grade teacher was a nun in an order committed to social justice, so we learned to sing songs by Joan Baez and Bob Dylan along with our ABC’s. We heard a lot about racism back then in 1959, but the problems of segregation seemed far, far away.
Every community, however, must have its scapegoat. Even in the homogeneous population of white middle-class Catholic children at our tiny school, someone apparently had to be singled out for that role. For some reason, that someone ended up being me. My lack of aptitude for kickball and dodgeball wasn’t a concern for me, but perhaps it provided my classmates with the excuse they needed. Or maybe it was because I was the only student in the class of 50 who could read “The man published a book about prehistoric animals” written on the blackboard. Sister awarded me with a holy card, and the boys gave me my first taste of harassment on the way home from school.
It became a daily pattern. They swooped in on their bicycles, surrounding me as I wandered home on foot. I wasn’t sure what they wanted from me and neither were they. They just stopped me and blocked my way. A few days before, they had been my friends, but now they were playing the part of Gestapo agents. Forgetting our daily religion lessons about “turning the other cheek,” I struck out at one of them.
“Hey, watch out!” They warned me. “Eddie had his appendix out and the stitches might break open.”
“Maybe he should get out of my way,” I suggested. And they did. But the next day, they were back.
The situation was finally resolved when my mother got tired of picking me up after school. (Parent chauffeurs were a rarity in the 50’s before the many dangers associated with being a grammar school student had been fully recognized.) She spoke to some eighth-graders who attended the school, they threatened my tormentors and the extracurricular encounters ceased. Later I changed schools and lost track of my classmates, but I assume that they all grew up to become upstanding citizens. My teacher, the nun, traveled to Selma, Alabama, to march with Martin Luther King. While she was there singing, “We Shall Overcome,” a new generation back home in her classroom was choosing their own scapegoat so they could begin to master the fine art of intimidation.