The Beatdown

November 5, 2011

Ironing out balled up paper, a bullying symbol, November 4, 2011. (Donald Earl Collins)

An anti-bullying video’s been trending in the social media sphere this week, in which a teacher demonstrates to her class the effects of bullying on a student’s psyche. All courtesy of balled up, stomped on and unfolded yet crumpled pieces of paper. It’s a good, though incomplete description, because it doesn’t address the great feeling of superiority that those dispensing the verbal, physical and psychological abuse get from bullying their classmates.

Though I seldom have thought of myself as someone who was bullied, by today’s definition, that’s exactly what happened to me for the better part of five months of seventh grade, from November ’81 through February ’82 and late-May to early June ’82 (see my post “The Legend of Captain Zimbabwe” from May ’09 for much more). I guess I’d been called so many names by so many people in 7S so first few months — and, to be truthful, did the same in response to a fair number of classmates myself — that I didn’t think too much of it as November ’81 began.

About two weeks after my fight with Brandie (see “Adverbs and A-Holes” post from last month), I experienced a serious physical bullying altercation (there were one or two attempts by neighborhood kids while I went to Nathan Hale and Holmes Elementary, and a couple of attempts in high school). The best way to describe it is that I got jumped and then beat-down after the end of the school day on the first Friday in November ’81.

It wasn’t a random jumping or beat-down, and not one that involved Davis’ Black or Latino students, who were always described to us super-nerds as “dangerous.” No, the perps in this case were from what I euphemistically called the “Italian Club,” a full two years before we had an official Italian Club in high school. They’d been on me in 7S homeroom and in Italian class with nearly constant verbal abuse for the two weeks or so since my scuffle with Brandie. Apparently, my decision to ignore them didn’t work well enough.

The leader of this pack of uncouth Italian or White working-class preteen Humanities boys was “A,” who presented himself as between John Travolta’s character on Welcome Back, Kotter and Arthur Fonzerelli from Happy Days. A’s favorite move those Humanities middle school years was to walk into our homeroom and belt out The Police’s “Roxanne” refrain, as if he were Eddie Murphy in 48 Hours. The way his band of Italian or Italian-esque brothers hung around him, you would’ve thought he was a rock star, someone like his fave, Mr. “White Wedding” himself, Billy Idol.

A Christmas Story (1982) screen shot of bunny suit kid, December 11, 2009. ( Qualifies as fair use under US copyright laws, between low resolution, cropping, and intent of use.

Led by A, about ten 7S classmates attacked me after school as I was on my way out the school’s side door closest to the Humanities wing to walk home. They grabbed, punched, and kicked me, and called me everything but a child of God. A, of course, wasn’t actually involved in any of the dirty work of beating on me. Like a about half a dozen other 7S classmates, A watched as he directed his gang.

That was my third A Christmas Story moment. Except I’d been better off wearing the pink bunny suit over my kufi! Bullying is a funny thing, even when you’re one being bullied.

But unlike the piece of trampled, stomped, balled up paper, I wasn’t scarred in the sense that my self-esteem was shattered. Far from it, my self-absorption and delusions of academic grandeur shielded me, made it possible for me to iron out most of the wrinkles in my psyche from being jumped that day. It took my grades, a crush, and events that played out at home, at 616, to shatter my childhood.

Of course, being called a “dumb ass” as if it were my nickname, or “Captain Zimbabwe,” as a proxy for “Negro” or the N-word, wasn’t exactly besides the point. Nor was the idea that a bunch of White kids could decide that they could gang up on me essentially because I was an enigma to them. Like me being weird, uncool and smart was too much for their pubervescent heads to handle.

The best revenge, though, was going through puberty myself, to find myself growing ten inches in twenty months, between March ’82 and December ’83. That, and taking care of my body, mind and spirit over the past thirty years. Not that I have a dart board of my tormentors or anything, but I think it would be hilarious if any of them attempted to bully the 225-pound me today. Of course, I’d probably laugh so hard that they’d get a couple of licks in, at least before my sense of righteous rage would kick in.

The moral here, I guess, is to have a sense of how to deal with bullying if and when it does occur, to not shrug it off as “boys just being boys” or, for that matter, “cliquish girls being cliquish girls.” By middle school, though, it’s not just about reporting it to teachers or parents. It’s about other students stepping in, and students the subject of bullies’ discontent defending themselves. And that is what I’m instilling in my son. Of course, I’ll step in when necessary, too.

Flexing muscles, as in too bad I didn't have these 30 years ago, November 4, 2011 (Donald Earl Collins).

Humanities: First Contact, Full Circle

September 9, 2011

Creme Anglaise in a pitcher next to a ladle, the closest thing I could find to represent my foodie image of "creme de la creme," the mantra of Humanities administrators during my six years of travails, September 9, 2011. (Source/

It’s been thirty years exactly since I made the most horrible set of first impressions in my forty-one years of life. My first day of seventh grade at A.B. Davis Middle School in Mount Vernon, New York was also my first day in the Humanities Program, a magnet program for the gifted track (and also the way the powers that were decided to desegregate the school district in ’76).

But it was so much more than that, for better and certainly for worse, at least for me. It was the flip side of a coin that represented the worst six years of my life (the coin’s other side being my life at 616 with what can only be loosely called my family). But it was also the six years of my life that made the past three decades of success, struggle, more success, and more struggles possible.

After putting together Boy @ The Window — in which a large measure of text was devoted to what occurred with and around me during my time in Humanities, one question still remains. Did my time in Humanities, with my classmates, teachers, counselors and principals have to be as difficult as they were — and not just for me? There’s no real way to answer that question, because “of course” is a cold and callous answer, while “of course not” belies the important psychological changes that made me a better thinker, student, writer and person as a result. But if I could, I’d build a time machine, jump into my eleven-year-old version of myself, and make sure to have my dumb ass take my kufi off for my first day of school in 7S. At least then, I would’ve been normal-weird, instead of standoff-ish weird.

My main problem, though, was that I arrogantly believed I was the smartest person in the world. I paid dearly for having that kind of naiveté, to the point where certain classmates still see me as that idiotic preteen, and refuse to see me any other kind of way. Too bad for them, for I know I’ve long since changed.

That day, at least for the past decade, has also reminded me of another beautifully warm, powder-blue sky day that turned tragic. With two days before we reach ten years since 9/11, I think about the way I used to be, and see so many similarities to how we see ourselves as a nation. “We’re #1,” we love to say, even though we’ve long since stopped being #1 in so many respects. We have the largest economy and military, the largest debt, make the largest contribution to climate change and pollution, and complain the most about how the rest of the world isn’t like us.

Like me three decades ago, America is naive and arrogant. And unfortunately, it faces competitors — some as unfeeling as my more entitled or more unscrupulous classmates — who are clobbering us in education, economic growth, health care, social welfare, even in protecting their citizens and their citizen’s freedoms. It’s sad, because there are millions of people now experiencing the severe fall into poverty — and all of the pressures that places on marriages, parenting and children — that I faced, very unsuccessfully at first, thirty years ago.

I’ve come full circle. Between the struggle to find a home for Boy @ The Window and my struggle to continue to do meaningful work as a writer and educator, I find that even on my worst days, my best days thirty years ago were a thousand times worse.  My first contact with academic competition, Whiteness and diversity, racial strife, religious differences and straight-up elitism is what has given me a greater appreciation for who I’ve become since that sunny day so many years ago. As well as how much I’ve gained.


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