Born and raised in Indianapolis, author Kurt Vonnegut attended Shortridge High School, a setting which contributed to his wit whilst only marginally damaging and corrupting his sprightly soul. My favorite of his novels announces Kurt’s intent via its one word title, “Slapstick” — which provided my most beloved quote in all of literature and which I must not share in a family oriented newspaper. I’m determined to read his entire body of work because both Kurt and I received our share of warped inspiration, whether subtle or outrageous, from the bullies in our lives!
For Valentine’s Day, I’ll offer some impressions of an elementary school bully of such monumental scope that I only now am beginning to cease shuddering and to shrug off thoughts of the West Ward Elementary School “Blackboard Jungle” and this …”Peck’s Bad Boy”, or my mom’s more apt description, “Imp ‘o Satan” — take your choice!
We met in kindergarten. Unfortunately, He had a perverse crush on me, I believe? We seemed to part sometime during puberty. His family moved to another state. My prayers finally got answered!
He rumbled through schoolrooms which we shared for nearly six long years and swaggered the length of cloak-halls and hustled up and down aisles separating rows of school desks. He rivaled any professional linebacker then or now. Playground equipment barely remained intact following His volatile lurching and lunging from jungle gyms to fistfights and back again for 15 minutes of recess twice daily. Undeniably a Rockwellian child-brute, to some this creature possibly qualified as “cute” as well as directly issued from “central casting”, but I swore that He must be approximately 43 years old, eight feet tall and sorely in need of returning to his own “Black Lagoon” post-haste!
Teacher’s raised arm and beckoning hand and a tweet on a referee’s whistle signaled “recess over”–but never for Him! Our rustic merry-go-round consistently suffered a parting assault as His muscular limbs reached out to administer either a jolting halt OR dizzying, bolt-removal, whirling dervish, nearly-airborne, rapid-fire, head-spinning multi-twirls often while tinier, intimidated kids barely remained seated as sea-sick passengers, their startled faces fading behind His grudging march toward Miss Demaris Smalley’s or Miss Betty Leffel’s side. I swear that the earth moved when that kid walked!
My mind’s eye contains a picture, in its vintage gallery featuring believe it or not memories, of this incredible hulk enduring, unbeknownst to Himself, frantic pushing by Miss Smalley who boomed aloud “to let you know just what it feels like” (HER words) to be bullied! The solidly-built fourth grader scratched his head while our 4′ 7″ educator shoved him repeatedly, this 10 year old “boxer” (bent on rebellion) never going down for the count.
Early, premature sex education also reared its head when our class thug with the pug-nose and the toothy leering grin pestered all of us little girls, one by one on the sly, with a book opened to a graphic-enough line drawing of a nursing mother. Actually this wild fellow had nearly lost his life to our fifties childhood polio epidemic, so maybe some of the teachers were giving him an odd pass to terrorize the rest of us daily? However, my parents stepped in, on my behalf, when I received a special valentine in our home mailbox on those terrible stressful days when we all lugged abundantly over-done doily-decorated shoe boxes to school to see who would be most popular and receive a record number of home-made cards and who might rate not even just one. My hand-delivered romantic note from this grade school gorilla suggested that the West Ward recess ruffian enjoyed peering up my pleated skirt when I ascended the flight of two staircases separated by a landing in a rather isolated stairwell. Our merry-go-round menace consistently positioned Himself upon the lower steps at an opportune time.
“Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up?”– or so the unsettled enigma goes!
Principal Willis got a phone call, a hasty visit and a look-see at the poorly spelled love letter of sorts — by way of special delivery from my irate mom and dad…but our bully had some connections, so his reign of terror continued. And not only did I suffer when ascending upstairs, but each time I strolled downstairs I encountered a disgruntled female bully whose face grew beet red even at the mention of my name. She habitually blocked my passage…to lunch at home? (At the turn of the century, we spent our noon hours at our own individual little houses across this big city of ours!) Tomato soup, peanut butter sandwiches, tears and pleas to my mom followed: “I beg of you to home school me even if the truant officer arrests our entire family!”
What does being thrown into a social atmosphere against one’s will teach a person? I eventually learned to hold my own in gender wars and political dissensions and to stand up for my principles (and principals like Dale Pence who’s among the best ever) and to withstand class clowns, jocks, bullies, roller derby wenches, and May Queen types and to empathize with wallflowers, bookworms and good-hearted souls wherever they may be. Not too shabby. Would I ever wish to return to those once mandated public education days? Never in a million years…except LIFE itself seems to be a continuation of that repetitious, imposed, artificial structure.
My idol Vonnegut writes in his introduction to “Slapstick” that if there is a heaven, one fine day we surely must mill around way up there at that earlier precise age when we existed at our very best…for me that would be age ten. I looked pretty great — skinny, with a small nose. My hairdo reflected that I occasionally brushed my tresses. I got my favorite doll ever for Christmas. My mom had forgiven me for requesting a picture of a duck-billed platypus during breakfast the exact morning of my science project’s due date! I discovered how to really care about animals and their welfare and their rights to life. I wore a wonderful necklace, allll of the time, which consisted of a teensy Bible — which actually could be opened a la locket — dangling demurely from a delicate chain. I learned a great deal about those “boys who must be boys” and about those girls who sometimes block the progress of other girls and about those adults who are not always wise. Enduring a little brutishness made me the person I am today, scarred, wounded, yet determined that if given the opportunity I could forgive past transgressions but would positively either ban or reform “Scut Farkus” (see “A Christmas Story”) and his ilk forevermore.
“When you’re a Jet, you’re a Jet all the way from your first cigarette to your last dyin’ day. When you’re a Jet, if the spit hits the fan, you got brothers around; you’re a family man! You’re never alone; you’re never disconnected! You’re home with your own: when company’s expected, you’re well protected! … When you’re a Jet, you’re the top cat in town; you’re the gold medal kid with the heavyweight crown! When you’re a Jet, you’re the swingin’est thing: little boy, you’re a man; little man, you’re a king!” … ~ “West Side Story” ~ Leonard Bernstein & Stephen Sondheim