Category Archives: bullying

Richie Incognito

Legacy 3: Of Jocks and Fags

Of Jocks and Fags

Memoir: 1976-80 (-present)

Picture a boy growing up in the same home from birth to the end of Junior High at age 15. The friends he made in first grade remain his friends, and his world, for the next nine years. It is an endless idyll, this childhood: everything and everyone is familiar, friendly, playful. Even school is bliss: he learns easily, his grades are high,  he plays Little League Baseball, then junior high baseball, basketball, and football.

His teammates are his friends. They are and always have been teammates in life as well as sport: together they begin as shiny boys playing spaceship and avoiding girl-germs during elementary recess; the seasons roll by until, suddenly, their voices crack; they experience an unexpected stirring at their cores until puberty rips from its cocoon like some mad, winged demon and deranges them all; they read the troubling runes of new hair on each others’ bodies as they shower in the locker room after football practice, and they laugh and kid each other to beat back their fears.

The demon drives the boys to haunt the local mall in search of girls. The boy meets a girl from a distant suburb. They exchange phone numbers and spend the next months talking so late into the night that they usually fall asleep with the receivers next to their ears. They see each other at the mall on weekends only occasionally. It doesn’t matter: the conversations intoxicate them for months. Then he—or she, it doesn’t matter—meets someone else and life goes on. The break-up doesn’t hurt.

It doesn’t hurt because the boy, though he doesn’t realize it, is blessed. Yes, he is backing into the future with no view of the road ahead, and it’s unsettling. But his friends are doing the same, and they are all there for each other. The camaraderie steadies them, like soldiers joking in the trenches, waiting for orders from above that will end their momentary idyll .

That order comes when the boy’s father decides that it is in the boy’s best interests to move to a new community in order to go to an all-white school, rather than the desegregated, predominantly ‘black’ school he is currently zoned for. The boy dutifully packs his belongings—his comic books, his varsity jacket, his “Most Popular” award from junior high graduation—and unpacks them in his new bedroom in the suburbs.

The only person he knows in his new community is the girl from the mall. It has been years since they have spoken.

Summer football practice begins two weeks before he starts classes at his new school. He signs up. He doesn’t know a soul. But on the first day he sees the first girl-friend’s best friend and she is excited to hear that he is joining their school.

Football practice poses problems for him. He has never been a new kid. He has never had to introduce himself to others. He knows nothing about the rituals involved in gaining acceptance to a group. Somehow neither his parents nor his school equipped him for this. So he does nothing, expecting acceptance to just happen.

He doesn’t understand why an upperclassman walks by him before practice and throws such a powerful roundhouse punch to his shoulder that it immediately forms a knot. The boy has observed that the attacker, the fierce star line-backer on the team who always has a lower lip swollen with snuff, is very popular. And that this line-backer seems to be the best friend of the other team star, who is held in almost godlike esteem by all the players for his bodybuilder’s massive, well-sculpted frame, for his two State Championships in wrestling, and his two state records in football rushing yardage—all while a freshman and sophomore. This god is now only a junior, so he has not one but two years remaining at the school to add to his miraculous record. The boy, having come from his old school, which ends at junior high and has no high school, has never seen or known that high school boys could look so much like grown men. He still feels like a boy himself. He has no script for dealing with this new social breed, the high school upper-classman.

So when the god, muscles bulging and lip trollishly stuffed with tobacco (the disfiguration of the face from this was a new visual experience for the boy, and it triggered gene-deep fears) approaches him in the locker room and says with no smile so you’re the new guy, the boy says yes and offers his hand and gives his name. The god looks at the boy’s hand and back into the boy’s eyes and offers no hand in reply. The boy doesn’t understand what is happening but he begins to fathom that it is not good.

The god says I hear you know my girlfriend. The boy doesn’t like the god’s slow, deep, emotionless drawl. The boy says and who would that be. The god pierces him with a gaze strangely menacing and pronounces his girlfriend’s name. It is the name of the girl from the mall that the boy had known in sixth grade. The god gazes deeper into the boy’s eyes as he pauses for effect. Then he says, and I don’t like you, faggot, and walks away. The boy watches him go, and notices that all the rest of the team has stopped to watch this encounter. They all look at him with the same impassive expressions as the god. At that instant, inside the boy a new cocoon breaks and a new demon emerges. It will fill his high school years with one ceaseless chant: Escape. Escape. Escape.

The boy doesn’t quit the football team. Nor does the football team quit sucker-punching and insulting the boy—except for one player, a wrestler and student council member who the boy would learn many years later was gay. This player treats the boy kindly. But he cannot help the boy. The boy is too busy over the next two years with his daily strategizing for survival: how to pass from class to class without crossing the athletes’ turf in order to avoid the choruses of faggot they would hoot. How to disguise his depression and act normal when girls he likes try to get to know him. How to prove himself to the football coach he overhears at practice telling the one friendly teammate, who had nominated the boy for a position, you know that boy doesn’t want to play football, and saying this in the midst of a huddle of almost the entire team. How to care about geometry. How to care about his sudden decline to a C and D student. How to skip school. How to find the students who sell pot and quaaludes. Whether to fight the group of tens calling him faggot every day. How he can alter his face by maybe paying someone to pummel the prettiness out of it. How to find an adult who can help (he never does). How to express himself in art class with a block print of a boy hanging from a noose. For which he earns a B, and teacher feedback suggesting how he can improve his technique, and praise for the print’s title: Escape, Escape, Escape.

Where are the boy’s parents? They are working more hours than ever in his life because the economy has taken a downturn due to the OPEC oil embargo. Interest rates for home-buyers have skyrocketed, his father’s real-estate sales have dried up and threatened the family with foreclosure on and loss of their new home in a safe suburb with all white students. One day, however, the boy’s father seems to get wind of the boy’s troubles, and pulls him aside and offers his solution: we’ll just go up there together and whip those boys’ tails. This was a noble possibility in the time of Odysseus and his son, but the boy is not interested—there are dozens of them, and there are laws against such things too.

“Self-medication” and a few unpopular country-boy friends get the boy through the first two years at the school, and the god graduates. Maybe the final year will be easier.

It is, somewhat. The god’s devotees in his class are still around to carry on the tradition, but the boy is not so scared of them. One day he picks a fight with one of them in the cafeteria. After his suspension ends, the boy returns to school and the best friend of the guy he fought invites the boy to join the jocks at lunch. The jock means it. All of his group seconds the invitation. The boy realizes that this must have been the ritualistic key to acceptance from the start. But he hates these boys now, and their type. He declines that sick ceremony. He also decides against playing sports with these fools his senior year.

In the first month of his senior year the guidance counselor holds a transitional session with the boy. The counselor congratulates the boy for scoring the highest SAT score of all the boys in his class, but regrets the boy’s GPA is in the bottom third of the class. What does that matter, the boy says. Look at my SAT. The counselor explains that GPA is as important for scholarships and admissions into good schools. This is the first the boy has heard of the practical value of the GPA.

It doesn’t matter anyway. The demon has decided the boy’s future. As soon as he graduates, the boy will escape, escape, escape, on a one-way Greyhound bus to Los Angeles and never look back. He will never again live near his family and his friends from childhood.

He will he never again find it easy to like athletes and popular, group-oriented people. He will like the solitaries, the dreamers, the readers, the rebels. He will always, often unfairly, harbor a certain skepticism sometimes bordering on scorn for officials of all stripes and people desiring power. He will always be somewhat aloof and never assume goodwill in others. He will always be uncomfortable in groups, and feel that he never did learn the social skills that other people use to escape that discomfort. Often he will find himself wishing that he had.¹

But he will go on to study, to discover a home in literature and philosophy and history and art and religion and classical and jazz. He will make his way into college, despite his guidance counselor, and even graduate Phi Beta Kappa. He will go on to experiment with his life, to see lands torn by war, to see Michelangelo in Florence, Mahler in Prague. He will kiss Wilde’s tomb in Paris and lay a flower at the graves of Abelard and Heloise. He will play hacky-sack with saffron-robed novices in Laos, swim a species-bridging five-second spiral with four wild dolphins off the coast of New Zealand, hike bamboo forests in Thailand with a simple Buddhist guide who seemed the most perfected human being he’d ever met.

This boy from a respectably middle-class, all-white suburban high school in Tennessee will even go on to trust a few people, though awkwardly.

In his 38th year, he will meet a woman beautiful and intelligent and kind beyond his wildest expectations, and be unable to understand how she could agree the following year to marry someone like him. He will follow her career path and become, like her, a teacher.²

And he will come to understand, late one night in Spain while writing a story about a boy, that he owes it to that boy to always watch over the new student, and the one who doesn’t fit because he is too pretty or she is too large, and the one who doesn’t fight, and the one who doesn’t know how the present shapes the future. And he will try to help them learn what he was never taught.³

The Spanish Moon

The Spanish Moon

¹Funny, five years later he has found that comfort, that confidence, that pleasure in good society.
²The marriage ended in benevolent divorce; “irreconcilable difficulties” indeed.
³This was written years before the “My Suicidal High School Years: A Happy Ending Bullying Story” podcast post. It was my first attempt to write the story. I’d change the tone now.

*Earlier Years:
Legacy 1: Baptist Childhood
Legacy 2: Comic Books

Diplomacy

I’m thinking of so many public attacks on so many contributors to this community – adult and young adult – recently, in which the victims of the attacks did nothing to provoke those who attacked them.  I’m not going to link to any of them, because I don’t want to give them publicity.  I just want to try to articulate some things keeping me from sleeping tonight.  And since I do want to try to sleep again, I think I’ll condense them into a list:

1. Stats and rankings seem increasingly insidious to me. The more we value them, the more prone we are to follow the path of Fox News in a race to the bottom, for the sake of pushing our stats to the top. Dylan said it well in “Idiot Wind”:

Now everything’s a little upside down
As a matter of fact, the wheels have stopped.
What’s good is bad, what’s bad is good,
You’ll find out when you reach the top
You’re on the bottom.

(–On a personal note, I’ll share that the unexpected and completely surprising rise of this blog’s readership over the past few months has tempted me more than once to publish posts that now embarrass me. I wanted more “fame,” which is a ridiculously overblown term for such a small niche in the web. I’m going to keep my Technorati widget, because the connectivity it provides is good; but I’m going to remove the reactions rating.)

2. To insist that we know better than others because we’re “trained professionals” is dangerous. Lobotomists used that argument in the ’50s and ’60s, and blood-letters before them. Readers of Pink’s A Whole New Mind, regardless of their views of the book, may remember reading that today’s physicians are being trained, as “professionals,” to learn how to listen to their patients. The web has made it possible for us to listen to our own customers – students – in a manner unparalleled in history. To insist we’re professionals, with drop-out rates soaring and basic educational knowledge and skills plummeting, is a flimsy argument against listening to students who care enough to add their voices.

3. Speaking of physicians, these lines from the Hippocratic Oath seem applicable to educators – sheesh, to people generally – as well as to doctors:

I will prescribe regimens for the good of my patients according to my ability and my judgment and never do harm to anyone.
I will preserve the purity of my life and my arts. . . .
In every house where I come I will enter only for the good of my patients, keeping myself far from all intentional ill-doing and all seduction. . . .
All that may come to my knowledge in the exercise of my profession or in daily commerce with men, which ought not to be spread abroad, I will keep secret and will never reveal.
If I keep this oath faithfully, may I enjoy my life and practice my art, respected by all men and in all times; but if I swerve from it or violate it, may the reverse be my lot.

4. We can talk about controversial ideas without mentioning individuals.

That’s all I’ve got for now. Here’s to diplomacy and openness.

Meaningful Meme: Your “Bullied Then, Successful Now” Stories

lockers-by-steven-fernandez

I received this comment recently on my podcast post, “My Suicidal High School Years: A Happy Ending Bullying Story.” The comment is from a teen named Jack, who is experiencing now what I experienced 30 years ago. I’m sharing it because it’s evidence that the meme I’m about to propose – voluntary, as usual – could have more social value than the bevy of “Stop Bullying!” messages we most often see in response to this ugly subject. Here’s Jack:

Clay,

I googled bullying stories because I wanted something to help me through troubles that I am currently facing in ninth grade. “Stop bullying!” sites really didn’t help me. This was just the kind of story I was looking for. I get called names feverishly because I didn’t make the best impression first semester. I try not to care what other people think of me but it feels like I am always watching my back.

Anyways, this story was very interesting indeed. Thanks a lot for sharing. It helped substantially. [Emphasis added.]

I’ve already thanked Jack, but I want to thank him again. He confirms that for him, at least, “Stop Bullying” messages may be nice and all, but they don’t do much to comfort those trying to cope with being bullied.

I’m not saying anti-anything messages have no positive value. I’m just saying they often fail to help the victims of the thing being opposed. Telling bullies not to bully may be worth the effort, though it’s apparently predicated on the dubious belief that it’s effective to appeal to the compassionate side of bullies, who in my experience have almost always been a pretty heartless bunch. Bullies enjoy psycho-social benefits from bullying – profits, in a sense – in the same way arms dealers do from selling weapons. Appeals to delicate instincts require delicate audiences, and delicacy is a thing usually absent from these hardened types.

But as Jack testifies, just hearing Bullied Success Stories – that survival is worth it and life gets better? That’s a speech-act worth performing.

So the Meme: Share Your “Bullied Then, Successful Now” Stories

I did it in my podcast, a 30 minute story – literally, a story – of my experience of three years of bullying in high school. It’s actually just an mp3 of the class session in which I told the story to my students (there was bullying going on in that grade). I just fired up GarageBand and recorded it as I shared it with my class.

That’s one way to do it. Other ways:

  • a blog post
  • a webcam video
  • a Skypecast
  • a Comic Life or photo-essay
  • a VoiceThread
  • [your idea here]

If none of those work for you, but you have a story to tell, you can also leave a comment or drop me an email volunteering for a Skype conference call, where we can take more of a group story-telling session. I can do the editing and turn it into a podcast.

I hope this makes sense to you. It does to me. Jack’s comment strengthened my belief that, short of somehow stopping bullying – and come on, it’s been with us as long as war – one of the most helpful things we can do is offer ourselves, and our stories, as living proof that the nightmare can be survived, and this dream called life can become sweeter as it moves into adulthood.

I often throw dreamy ideas like this out on this blog, and they land with a thud. This one seems a likely candidate as the latest in that series. But I hope not. My bullying podcast gets a surprising number of visits from people googling “real life bullying stories” and such, and it gets downloaded quite a bit too.

So there is a need.

And instead of putting more energy into “stop bullying” sermons (which I’m not saying we should stop), we can maybe devote it to stories of hope.

I know it’s a busy time, so if you can only get around to it later – this summer, even – that’s fine. Just link here whenever it’s done. If we get enough of these, we can make a permanent site for them on a wiki, or even a dedicated blog.

And by the way: this offer is open to any students out there with anything to say as well. I’d love to host a Skype conference call about this topic.

Photo: Locker by Steven Fernandez