Archives for posts with tag: students

DISILLUSIONMENT

 

 

I wistfully recall my excitement when I visited Washington, DC on a fifth grade trip. We took a bus to the Capitol and walked as a group through its marble hallways.  Legislator’s offices were heralded on both sides by imposing wooden doors. To me the doors signaled power, purpose and prestige.  A flag or motto indicated which state’s representative was behind each door.  The vast enterprise of American democracy impressed me so much!  We were hushed and uncharacteristically well behaved for twenty or so eleven-year-olds.  When a door opened and a middle-aged man emerged, adrenaline swept through me.

“Could it be?” I wondered.  “Could I be just steps from a real-life senator?”   My classmates craned their necks.

“That was an aide to a committee,” the tour guide announced.

“Oh, just an aide,” I told myself, unimpressed.

Still, the aura of being in our seat of government was awesome.

 

*****

 

Fast-forward fifty years.  If I were to take a word association test, I would associate “Congressman” with “narcissist,” “crook” and “hypocrite.”  The personality traits “craven,” “obnoxious” and “needy” come to mind.  Of course, it’s unfair to paint with such a broad brush, just as it was naïve to perceive total greatness half a century ago.   But the aura is long gone.

For me, the first cracks occurred with the election of Nixon and the subsequent secret bombing campaigns. Attending a Quaker school during the Vietnam era compounded the daily drip of skepticism I received at home. My father snarled, “Good for nothing” or worse in response to mentions of politicians in the news.  He was even-handed in his distaste.  It mattered little whether Democrat or Republican, just as it mattered little what denomination a religious leader represented. The man called out hypocrisy when he saw it, and he perceived it everywhere.

The Watergate hearings of 1973 probably finished off whatever confidence I had had in individual politicians.  At least, I felt, the process vindicated our system.  It wasn’t fast or easy, but a reasonable amount of the truth eventually came out, and some of the bad guys were punished.

 

*****

 

Political focus dimmed during my prime working and child-rearing years in the 1980’s and ‘90’s.  Following the bumbled election of 2000 I reluctantly tuned in again.  I realized I had no respect for our president whatsoever and succeeded in never hearing him speak for longer than it took to reach the remote.

When the Iraq debacle was ginned up, I resurrected my father’s reflexive disgust.  “Liar, idiot,” I said to the television, and anyone within earshot, whenever the evil vice-president or arrogant Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld appeared. I noted how smoothly their messaging evolved from “We will be greeted as liberators” to Rumsfeld’s formulation: “Iraq will be a long, slow slog.”

The night in 2003 we commenced “Shock and Awe,” my eleven-year-old son, Sam, and I were in our basement kicking a soccer ball, as was our wont.  CNN murmured in the background.  Their ubiquitous “Breaking News” noise (something they used sparingly compared to present-day constancy) alerted us to pay attention: flares, fireballs and bombs lit the sky over Baghdad.

Commentators excitedly speculated about our chance to hit Saddam Hussein directly and end the war in just one day. I was extremely doubtful there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.  I believed our motivation was nothing besides Lesser Bush’s desire to outdo his father who’d refrained from sacking Baghdad in 1991.  I take credit for declaring IMMEDIATELY the only beneficiaries of the fiasco would be the mullahs in Tehran and the likes of Lockheed Martin, who produced military hardware.

Yet, I’ll admit to considering Dick Cheney’s formulation here:  “the one-percent rule.”  For him, it meant, if there was even a one percent chance Iraq had nuclear weapons, we had to eliminate them.  For me, it meant, maybe, just maybe, there is a one percent chance our military could actually succeed in changing Iraq’s regime.   I would have been pleased enough with that result, I suppose, despite my lingering sense that we were simply making Iran great again.

After a few months, it was clear to anyone with a brain (not to Fox watchers, in other words) that total, one hundred percent cynicism was warranted. My one percent of hopefulness was gone.

 

*****

 

And so we come to another round of warfare as distraction in 2018.  Shall we call it Desert Stormy?  Once again, we have a clown who declares:  “Mission Accomplished” when any objective observer knows Syria is mission impossible.  Though I harbor some hope in the ingenuity of individual humans, I question the sanity of anyone who aspires to political office.  The dishonesty and fecklessness of our “leaders” is displayed daily on cable TV.  I’m sorry to believe the ideals I felt as a child, however naively, will not exist for today’s youth.  Sad.

 

 

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BULLY

My high school was the farthest thing from “The Hood.” A Quaker-sponsored bastion of liberal sensitivity and pre-Ivy-league curriculum, it tailored its philosophy to a student body presumed unified in the pursuit of excellence, knowledge and tradition. Most of the fifty students in my graduating class of 1974 attended Friends’ Academy from kindergarten. My addition at the beginning of seventh grade, as a rare public elementary school product who lived “in the city,” was a nod towards diversity. Nearly everyone else lived in some degree of splendor on “the Main Line,” Philadelphia’s western suburbs of legendary opulence and distinction.
Our class was divided into three “sections.” Pre-selected before my arrival, the top group were kids most likely to gain scholarships to the likes of Yale, Princeton or Swarthmore, Not all of these students could walk and chew gum at the same time, but they were perfectly capable of memorizing Shakespearean sonnets or the Big Bang Theory or the time table of Munich, Germany’s subway system. I was placed in the middle group, the capable students who had not tested at Einsteinian levels, and were destined to end up at Muhlenberg, F & M or Dickinson. The third group contained the economic scholarship students on either the low end (Friends’ Academy was doing a good deed) or the high end (some really rich kids are not very bright). These students would eventually be inserted by the school’s high-powered placement office into state universities or other institutions known more for Heisman winners than Nobel winners.
The top group contained some personality or behavioral outliers, what might have been called “weird kids” by the politically insensitive, but I never questioned why they were there. Their out-sized intellects smoothed the way. The second and third groups also had students who did not fit in with the Friends’ Academy zeitgeist of earnest learning and social consciousness. Several students had prickly personalities; several others had gone “hippie” in a big way, to the extent that attending school in sandals had to be specifically forbidden by an otherwise tolerant administration. One out-of-the-mainstream student may even have come from a family of Republicans. But the oddest member of the Class of 1974 was its bully.
Donald Worley was known as “The Donald” before the tabloid media was blessed with Trump. Physically impressive, an unnaturally solid 170 pounds or so, he towered over my average 120. A mop of brown hair topped a broad, freckled face, broad shoulders, massive hands and thick thighs. If only we’d had a football team, our two-way lineman was already in place.
The Donald snarled with a deep, raspy voice, enhanced by the cigarettes he smoked at every opportunity from the first day he intruded into my consciousness. He flaunted the school’s prohibition on smoking by keeping his pack, with half-an-inch protruding, ostentatiously displayed in his shirt pocket. He treated every classmate with equal contempt. He called soccer players “sissies,” basketball players “dorks,” the artistically-minded “A-holes,” and punctuated every sentence with the “F” word and the “S” word when those words were still not generally spoken aloud (unlike today, when movies strive to include them).
The Donald kicked seats, farted aloud, talked back to teachers and entered classes late. Basically, he checked off every requirement of anti-social behavior and made me wonder, to myself and to others, “Why is he here?”
I never received a satisfactory answer to my question. To the students who’d been classmates of The Donald since they were five, he was simply part of their lives. He was a one-man catalogue of unacceptable behavior. He represented the prized category of “variety,” yet displayed not a single positive characteristic. Repulsed by him from my first awareness, I think he was able to sense my discomfort like a dog.
I managed to make it to the spring semester before I had my first one-on-one encounter with The Donald. All the members of my science class had to maintain small garden plots on the opposite side of the playing fields, about three hundred yards from the classroom buildings. We each planted whatever we chose and then charted its progress. I recall my plant was a gardenia bush. The class usually tended to the gardens as a group with the teacher but, one day, like a young wildebeest separated from the herd, I found myself walking back across the open field trailed only by The Donald.
“Hey, faggot,” he called from behind, using the all-purpose epithet of the 1970’s.
My heart raced with adrenaline as I considered my options. I could ignore The Donald and possibly infuriate him; after all, unless I was deaf, there was no way I did not hear him. I could turn towards The Donald and respond pleasantly, hoping to ingratiate myself in spite of the distaste that would have emanated from my expression. I could turn and confront The Donald, with as much likelihood of success as the average lamb has against the average lion.
“Hey, pussy,” he added, while I remained paralyzed in indecision. I heard his footsteps closing behind me at a jogging pace.
“You like your little garden?” he said, as he fell in beside me. Somehow, his tone alone conveyed a “garden” to be some combination of perverted, effeminate and useless. At the irresistible recognition that The Donald could insinuate so much with just one word, I imagined for just a moment that he could be a great actor. I smiled.
“You should be in the spring play,” I blurted, my tendency to sarcasm disastrously overruling my caution.
“What are you talking about?” he asked, warily.
“You are able to say a lot with just a little,” I said. “You have a way with words.”
The Donald regarded me for a moment, probably trying to decide if I were making fun of him or sincerely offering a compliment. Apparently, he decided, even if I meant a compliment, suggesting that he be in the spring play was not a desirable outcome.
“You think you’re pretty smart,” he said, finally. “But I think you’re an ass-hole.”
By now, I knew not to respond. I tried to quicken my pace, but we were still a hundred yards from a building. Everyone else had disappeared, alone as though we were in a remote desert.
“I hear you like baseball,” he said.
“Yes, I do,” I said, not certain about this turn of the conversation.
“You probably couldn’t play with a broken hand, could you?” he asked.
I tried to keep walking but felt him grab my right just below the elbow. I tried to run but The Donald held tight to my wrist. He started to squeeze my fingers.
“What do you want!?” I shouted.
He continued to twist until I went down to my knees and, essentially, wordlessly begged him to stop. We looked into each other’s eyes. He certainly saw fear and helplessness. I saw triumph and evil. He let go of my hand.
“Keep your fucking mouth shut,” he said, and departed, leaving me to get up, wipe some dirt off my pants, and flex my fingers, sore but still intact.

I managed to survive the next five years without again being one-on-one with The Donald, not an easy feat in a school so small. He tallied up a predictable set of depredations during his high school career. He was suspended for fighting several times; he was caught drinking in class; he ostentatiously drove a beaten-up truck onto campus as a sophomore, when only seniors were allowed to drive to school; his favorite smoking bathroom was referred to as “Donald’s house” by students and faculty alike; and, he was caught in several cheating incidents.
As the years went by, I was amazed to find my classmates idolizing The Donald for his nonconformity, his boldness. They thought he was “cool.” When our yearbook was intended to capture the essence of our class, no one appeared more prominently than The Donald. His grinning face adorned a two-page centerfold in the middle of the book, a cigarette jaunting from his lips as he sat, James Dean-style, on the hood of his truck, wearing a leather jacket. By that time, I was no longer surprised, just resigned. The messy, violent Donald had become a folk hero to kids otherwise disposed to sensitivity and order.

Nearly twenty years after graduation, I received an “In Memoriam” card from Friends’ Academy. The Donald had died in a car crash on his way home from work. The only member of our class who had not attended college, the notice described him as a prized member of the staff at the local A & P where he was assistant produce manager. It invited me to a “Celebration of Donald Worley,” and asked, if I could not attend, if I would send a written “remembrance,” to capture the “beauty” of Donald’s life.
I was ambivalent about The Donald’s demise. Though I’d wished some sort of misfortune upon him for a quarter century, death seemed out of proportion to what he had done to me. I pondered for a moment what had made The Donald the way he was. Were his parents abusive? Was his economic or social background difficult? Did he suffer from a mental deficit that caused a lack of impulse control or compassion? I concluded all those things were possible, but even if he was afflicted with any or all of them, they were rationales, not excuses. The nicest thing I could do for The Donald was to NOT express my remembrance of him. I threw the card away.