EDITOR’S NOTE: Welcome to the A to Z Challenge, an exercise in self-flagellation we bloggers inflict upon ourselves to teach us discipline as writers and to build audience. During the month of April, I’ll be posting 26 times, once for every letter in the alphabet. Looking on the bright side, we can each be thankful this is an English language exercise and not Khmer, the language of Cambodia, which sets the world record with a 74-character alphabet! After some misgivings, I’ve decided to proceed with my initial idea of blogging about the special people in my life whose names begin with the appropriate letter. There will be difficulties, like having more than one special person whose names begin with the same letter, forcing me to choose. And then there are those letters — O, Q and X among them — where no name springs readily to mind. What will I do then? We’ll have to wait and see!
K is for Keith
School may be the place where we learned readin’ writin’ and arithmetic, but it was also where we learned to be cruel.
In my junior high, teachers and administrators routinely got away with things that would attract a battalion of lawyers today. At any time during class you might hear the echoing thwack of boys taking “spats” out in the hallway, which meant they were getting swatted on their buttocks with hefty wooden paddles. Just about every male teacher in the school had a specially designed “spat board” that was employed early and often.
Most of the women teachers farmed out their discipline problems to a male colleague across the hall, but a rare few had spat boards of their own. In fact, the only spats I received were from a woman art teacher who saw me answering the boy next to me, who’d dared to ask what time it was during roll call.
Mrs. Tatum sent me to the supply closet with orders to bring back a piece of lumber she’d been hoarding for some art project. When I returned with the board, she whipped out a utility knife and carved a handle on it, right before my wondering eyes. After being told to grab my ankles, she administered punishment — four spats — right in front of the whole class. All that for whispering “1:35” to the other kid.
It was during those years that students started to develop cliques and a pack mentality. You could be ostracized for being too fat, too skinny, too stupid, too gay (although that term hadn’t been invented yet), too clumsy, too ugly, or any one of those other toos that are far too numerous to list.
Junior high was where, for the first time, we gathered to dress out in gym shorts and t-shirts for PE class. Later, we’d strip down and step into the communal shower, and it was there that Keith was ousted from the pack.
When he was wearing street clothes, Keith had been just one of the guys, but when he stripped, it quickly became apparent that he was a man among boys. We hung nicknames on him like Horse and Tripod, and being just a boy, it moved him to tears.
Coach probably wasn’t aware of Keith’s torment, but it’s doubtful he would have cared; there were other acts of cruelty that he aided and abetted. Since PE was all about fitness, two of my obese classmates drew his particular ire.
I remember Coach gathering us on the sideline of the football field — 50 or 60 boys in blue shorts and white t-shirts — and it was there that he held court. He told the two fat kids to start running a lap around the field, starting at the 50 yard line. He said that when they reached the opposite 50, directly across from us, he would unleash the hounds, and if we caught the plodding pair before they completed their lap, we could “dog pile” them.
To this day, I can hear those boys’ wheezing breath and cries of panic as the fleet-footed pack closed for the kill. Of course we caught them — there was never any doubt — and we knocked them to the ground and dog-piled them under hundreds of pounds of writhing humanity, because Coach said that we could.
Fat boys needed to be taught, didn’t they?
On the opposite end of the scale, literally, was another kid who was painfully thin, perhaps suffering from some eating disorder. The poor kid never made a sound, and was so skinny and weak that he wouldn’t cast a shadow on a bright sunny day. One afternoon I saw another boy pick him up and squeeze him, “just to see if I can make him squeak,” he said, before rolling him down a hill for no reason other than because he could.
It’s easy to blame the teachers, and indeed they should be blamed for helping to cultivate a culture of bullying and cruelty that has no place in any school. But the fact is, I did know right from wrong. I could have said something, should have said something, but I was part of the pack, and the pack is where the cowards live.
I don’t know what happened to those other boys, but today, as we celebrate the letter K in the A-to-Z Challenge, it is Keith who stands for all who have been bullied. It is my hope that with maturity and the dawning of enlightenment, they, like him, enjoy the last laugh.