(From Sandra Frank’s upcoming memoir, “The Corner of Burch and Grace”)
In 7th grade, two kids: Cheryl Newsome and Peter Wenter – were randomly selected to be bullied. They were normal-looking kids: Cheryl had blonde hair and blue eyes (she wore glasses that made her eyes look a little magnified, but so what? A few other kids did, too). Peter had brown hair and brown eyes. They were both normal height and normal weight and they dressed in normal clothes. They were both quiet, but so what? A lot of other kids were quiet, too. And, they were average students – maybe a little above average. Just like a lot of other kids.
They were bullied everywhere they went:
- On the bus-where no one wanted to sit next to them or be sat next to by them.
- In gym class- where they were never chosen to be on any team. They were always assigned to a team by default, just because they were the last ones standing.
- In regular class – where kids grumbled openly if assigned to work with them either in tandem or in a group.
- Walking the halls, especially. They were pointed to and laughed at as they passed. Kids put their faces right up into their faces to make an ugly noise or a grotesque expression, or both. Their possessions were knocked out of their arms, leaving them scrambling on the floor to collect their splayed-open books or chasing after papers that got loose. Or running after an apple that escaped from their lunch bag. Kids walked past them while they were at their lockers and slammed their lockers shut. They were pushed and tripped and sometimes they stumbled or fell to a knee. Or two.
- Kids played “Newsome Germ” tag. Here’s how it went: some kid would pass you, or come up right next to you, tag you, then say: “Newsome Germs”. Then, that kid who had just been tagged was expected to pass it on to another kid. This happened regularly right within earshot and direct sight of Cheryl Newsome.
I never played along with any of it. I thought it was all plain stupid. I mean, who were these kids bothering? They were just unassuming, quiet, good, sweet kids. I never even understood it. So, on the rare occasion when some kid tagged me with “Newsome Germs”, I never passed it on. I figured my immune system could handle it. Another reason I didn’t play along was: I myself was bullied at home, constantly, and I knew what it was like. Why would I want to inflict punishment on two gentle kids, who, unlike me, had no idea how to defend themselves? I ALWAYS fought back. Living with my brothers demanded it. These two kids NEVER fought back.
After lunch one Thursday, right before Mrs. Harris, our English teacher, was about to begin class, she turned to Peter Wenter. “Peter,” she said, “could you please go down to TheOffice and ask Mrs.Jablonski for 25 report cards?”
We kids were surprised. Usually the teacher asked TheTeacher’sPet to run these types of errands, which were always considered a privilege. When Peter left the classroom, Mrs.Harris closed the door behind him. She was angry, but also looked pretty sad. This was odd because we’d never seen her angry before. Or sad. She was usually strict and serious, and occasionally fun.
“Class,” she began, “what has Peter Wenter ever done to YOU?” Collectively, the class stiffened. And, of course, no one answered. “Every day,” she continued, “that poor boy is picked on and mocked and ridiculed and teased and bullied. I would like to know why.”
From one moment to the next, our classroom turned into a morgue.
Mrs.Harris looked at LindaKamanski. “Linda, can YOU tell me why?” Linda was one of the popular and rich girls. She twisted her shiny blonde hair out of its precision page-boy and looked down at her all-leatherPappagallo shoes without answering. Mrs.Harris pointed to DanielBitts, one of the crappy students and a hoodlum in the making. “Daniel, can you tell me why PeterWenter is mocked EVERY SINGLE DAY? “ Bitts looked down at his dirty fingernails, then his eyes dropped to his TwinFair work boots. “JimBlankowski – can YOU answer the question?” Jim was a pretty good kid. A bit of a wiseacre, but a good kid. “I don’t really know, Mrs.Harris”, he said, looking at her, but not looking at her. “I dunno.”
Mrs.Harris positioned herself dead center of the room. Her long, yellow piece of chalk , round-angled at the tip,dropped out of her hand and bounced off the carpeted floor, blowing a puff of dust. “Kids,” she said, trying to control her lips from quivering, “ you MUST stop this NOW. You are hurting Peter for no reason and YOU MUST STOP IT NOW.”
Tears had formed in Mrs.Harris’s eyes. “Imagine if you were in his position,” she said. “Would you like to be treated the way you are treating him?” She glanced around the room, her eyes landing on each one of us. Our heads dropped like two-day old tulips. Every single one of us entered into a deep inner silence, where we felt the pain of PeterWenter, our classmate. At least that was my take on it. Maybe we just felt bad because we were being scolded by one of the most dedicated, even-tempered teachers we had.
“No?” she said. “I didn’t think so.”
At the very moment Mrs.Harris was dabbing tears from her eyes with the light pink hankie she always kept up her sleeve, PeterWenter entered our classroom with the 25ReportCards. The class was so still, so unwavering, that he could tell something was up. The only thing we could hear – besides our own silence and shame- was the sound of PeterWenter’s bell-bottom pants swishing together as he took his seat.
Mrs.Harris walked behind her desk, sat down, then slid on her reading glasses. She looked at us over the top of the black frames. “Okay”, she said, “lets’s open our books to page 315.”
For the rest of that Thursday, no kid dared pick on PeterWenter It lasted all day Friday, too.
But, the truth is: the only thing that changed that day was that we got to see one of our teachers, Mrs.Harris, in a different light. We got to see a whole other side to teachers in general. A real human side that cries. And got angry. Out of concern. Not just because some kid was misbehaving.
Everything else remained the same. By Monday morning, a fresh, new week of bullying had begun. And continued………right up until PeterWenter and CherylNewsome graduated from high school five years later. They had endured all the same bullying that they had prior to Mrs.Harris’s intervention that day in seventh grade. Every day. Every where. For five more years. For no reason.
I have often wondered whatever became of these two kids. Either they were disciples of Gandhi, or they were simply scared to death. Whatever it was, I can tell you that these two kids handled themselves with grace and class. They NEVER, EVER fought back physically. They NEVER, EVER responded verbally, either. They just took it all in stride. By that, I mean, they just kept going. Day after day after day. From the first day they were bullied in 7th grade until five years later when they, and we, finally graduated from high school.
PeterWenter’s quote under his 12th grade graduation photo said:
TO LIVE IS TO ENJOY LIFE.
HAPPINESS IS: HAVING A FRIEND YOU CAN TRUST.
Last summer, while my 11-year-old nephew, Spencer, and I were out for a nighttime stroll, Spencer told me about his school life: his friends, his teachers, his favorite subjects. We talked about bullying and I asked him if he had ever been bullied. He said no.
Then he looked up at me, his innocent green eyes wide open with wisdom, and said, “You’re never going to stop bullying.”
Copyright 2010 Sandra Frank. All rights reserved.