Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Bullied into Silence



    "Never be bullied into silence. Never allow yourself to be made
a victim. Accept no one's definition of your life, but define yourself,"
said American industrialist Harvey S. Firestone (1868-1938).
     Brave words from a magnate of industry. Impossible words for a
twelve-year-old Florida girl with cerebral palsy who was repeatedly
taunted and humiliated by a group of bullies on her school bus. Tired
of seeing his daughter mistreated, the girl's father finally put an end to
the abuse by boarding the bus one morning and confronting the bullies
himself. His much publicized rage, caught on the bus security camera,
garnered the support of parents across the country. Most people are
calling him a hero for defending his daughter. I certainly think he is.
     Yet I know his daughter's ordeal is far from over. In the span of
a week her private pain has become so very public. It is no surprise
to me that she is in the hospital, suffering from stress. When she gets
better, more transitions await her. Her father may be spending time
in jail for his actions. She will be going to a new school, making new
friends. Wondering, I would guess, who she can trust. Hoping, if she
became the victim of bullying again, that her new friends would not
be afraid to stand up to the bullies.
      Like I was.
      It was a warm spring day, 1968. The tall. screen-free windows in
my high school Spanish class were flung open. The scent of lilacs filled
the room. A gentle breeze rustled our papers.
      Just before the class began our vivacious Cuban teacher was called
away. She was only a short time, but it was long enough.
     "Hey, your briefcase is open, nerd," I heard someone say.
     Turning, I saw it was Jeff, one of the most popular boys in school.
He was directing his observation at a quiet, awkward boy. Giggles
rippled across the room while the targeted boy squirmed. One by one,
Jeff's friends chimed in.
     "Yeah, and your shoe's untied, dweeb."
     "Your fly's open, spaaz."
      I wish I had told them to stop. But back then, I caved into peer
pressure, afraid of risking the wrath of the popular crowd. So I sat
in captive silence as the insults escalated. I am ashamed to admit that.
But I want to believe I would have said something if I'd known the
boy was going to jump up, scramble over several desks, and dive
through one of the open third floor windows.
      What I remember is seeing the sole of his brown Oxford shoe
oddly suspended in midair in the unobstructed opening. Just before it
slipped away a girl screamed. Then I saw a hand fly out and clamp
down on the boy's ankle. A crowd of boys rushed over to help. Among
them were theones who had been taunting him seconds before he tried
to take his life.
      He was not grateful. With all his might he kicked and wrestled to
free himself from their grasp. Girls started crying. I could only sit there,
frozen in shock, while the boy fought against his rescuers. His chilling
wail, more animal than human, rang in my ears.
      At last his body went limp from fatigue. Four boys were pulling his
dead weight back into the classroom just as the teacher reappeared.
      "Are you crazy!" she shouted, running over.
      Furious, she scanned our faces for an explanation. Not getting one,
she turned back to the trembling, sweat-soaked boy. Looking into his
glassy eyes, she tried to get him to talk but the only sound he emitted was
that strange moan. Gently, she coaxed him to his feet and led him out the
      I never saw him again.
      To the best of my recollection, the bullies were never punished. Soon
they were telling wide-eyed admirers about the "nut case" in their Spanish
class. About how they were the ones who saved him from certain death,
leaving out the part about how they drove him to do it. It was a collective
lie that got better with each telling and became the official version of the
      But I've never forgotten what really happened. Or the feeling that I
failed my classmate by sitting idling by. Over the years, I have tried to
rationalize my actions. Or shall I say, inactions. I was young, I was
insecure, I was afraid. All of that is true. But I know I was also a witness
to cruelty that day and I did nothing to stop it. Each time I read another
story about bullying, I am reminded of that.
      Adolescence is such a tenuous journey. While so much of it is joyful,
there are moments of regret that haunt us forever.
      My moments can be found in 1968, in a third floor Spanish class, on
a warm spring day.

Friday, September 10, 2010

A Plan for Redefining 9/11

            My father, a veteran of WWII, was a Knickerbocker. A proud New Yorker who grew up on Long Island Sound, he reminded me a little bit of Frank Sinatra and even more of James Cagney in Yankee Doodle Dandy.
Dad died in September of 1999, two years before the morning of September 11, 2001. I am glad he was not here then. It would have broken his heart to see New York attacked. There is no doubt in my mind he would have demanded we retaliate by invading Iraq. No doubt he would have fully supported President Bush when he did just that, in March of 2003. Back then, frightened and horrified by the events of the day, I may have even agreed with him. One of the few times I would.
But as the ninth anniversary of 9/11 approaches, as reports of a pastor in Florida wanting to burn copies of the Koran fills the news, I find myself longing for a new way to acknowledge and honor what happened on that bright, clear September morning.  A way of remembering the victims that is more representative of the principles I believe this country was founded upon. A way that gives me hope and confidence in the future. A way that supports my belief that there are more tolerant people in the world than the extremists of the world would have us believe.
I am, of course, just one woman, in one small town in America. I have no influence or position in the world. But I know what I would do if I had the power.
I would redefine 9/11.
From this day forward I would declare it a day of world tolerance. I would then invite two representatives from every country in the world to come to New York City. They would gather at Ground Zero and offer, in their native language, their simple wish for tolerance. The two representatives would be one adult and one child. The adult would be there simply as an escort for the child who would say, for example, “I come to you from my home in North Korea to stand beside you in tolerance and peace on this day of your national mourning.” Or something to that effect.
            Imagine the power this would have. Imagine the good will it would foster, even if just for one day. No politics, no religion, just small emissaries from across the globe speaking words of hope. Promise, for a world they will one day inherit.
           My plan would be to have the children read these messages aloud each year following the traditional four minutes of silence at Ground Zero. Our country’s television stations and radio stations would air the children’s message for everyone to hear.
            It’s a large dream, I know. And though I dream big, I am not na├»ve. I am well aware that there are countries that would decline our invitation. I also know there are many people in this country who would vehemently oppose such a plan, preferring instead to hold on to their anger and hatred.
            This day would not be for them. It would be for the majority of Americans, like me, who are ready to turn the tragedy of 9/11 into something very different. Something the terrorists never envisioned when they flew those planes into the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and the field in Pennsylvania. Something bigger and more powerful than their message of hate and revenge. Something that is inclusive and enduring.
Something I’d like to believe my father would embrace.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

A Lesson in Humility

"Life is a long lesson in humility," wrote James Barrie, the creator of Peter Pan.

I think what Barrie was really talking about was writing. There is nothing more thrilling than seeing your words in print. Nothing more satisfying than having someone applaud your turn of phrase. Nothing more humbling than putting your inner most thoughts and feelings on paper, showing them to the world, and having them dismissed.

I am speaking from experience.

In October of 2000, an essay I submitted to Newsweek was accepted for publication consideration. After I sent back the contract, Newsweek arranged for a photo shoot. The shoot took place on a beautiful fall afternoon in my backyard.

"You know what this means, don't you?" said the photographer.

I shook my head.

"You're going places."

For the next five years, I waited for his prophesy to unfold. Every few months I checked in with Newsweek only to be told about the backlog of essays on file and that, if I liked, I could have mine back. Naturally, I declined. Thereafter, I  limited my calls to once a year, determined not to jinx my success with amateurish impatience.   

In September 2005, I received an e-mail from the magazine's My Turn editor saying that since a considerable amount of time had passed, Newsweek was no longer considering running my essay. Devastated, I shoved the essay in a filing cabinet. From time to time I tried to re-market it, without success.

Today, it seems fitting to publish it here, as my first blog entry. A reminder that this life I've chosen has the power to bring me equal doses of success and disappointment. But for the life of me, I can't imagine doing anything else.                                                        

   Them Finches

It was early May, late morning, in Appleton, Wisconsin. Along the river, paper factories burped steam into the crisp air. The drive-up line at Dairy Queen was already jammed. Across the street, at a no-name gas station near the 441 entrance ramp, bleary-eyed travelers stood in a slow moving line. 

I was one of them.

Brazenly, she walked to the head of the line. A dingy, nubby woolen cap was pulled tight overher stringy, slate-colored hair. On her pallid face she wore a child's I-got-something-to-tell-you expression. But the fine lines circling her tired brown eyes suggested experience. Time-earned.

She slapped a pack of Camels down on the counter. Reaching into her stained, misshapen sweat pants, she pulled out a crumpled dollar bill and mixture of coins. Smiling, she thrust the money toward the gas station's pressed-shirt manager. The young man recoiled then grabbed the money and shoved it in the cash register's drawer.

"Have a nice day," he said.

She didn't move.
"Is there something else?" he asked.

She nodded. Leaned over the counter. "Me and Michael don't know what to do about them finches," she whispered.


"Them finches," she repeated, louder. "Me and Michael don't know what to do about them finches."

Moans of frustration rose in the station air as those of us in the long line grew more impatient.  Uneasy, the attendant searched the crowd for guidance with a look that said, "What do you want ME to do about it?" We answered him with our indifferent sighs. Do something. Anything. We, the mentally sound, don't have time for this.

No one ever does. Mental disability is embarrassing and inconvenient. Yet odds are many of us will turn to a stranger one day and say something as equally absurd as the finch lady had that day.        

My father did.

A design engineer and photographer, Dad spent his life creating and building things. But a year before his death, my father forgot how to answer the phone or make a cup of coffee. He repeatedly misplaced his keys, hearing aid, dentures, and wallet. He couldn't remember the word, ketchup.

Slowly, in crept the paranoia. 

"You know the police?" he whispered one day.

 I nodded.

"Bunch of goddamn crooks," he shouted.

Opinionated, stubborn, Dad hated authority figures. Assuming this was just another lecture, I tried tuning him out. But there was something different about this rant.

"I know what they're up to. And I'll blow off their goddamn heads if they try," he yelled, raising a weathered fist.

Now I was listening.

Dad insisted the police were after his 50-year-old gun, issued to him by the Navy during WWII. It was the one he kept loaded, in a dishwasher, until my brother found it and removed it.

My father was also suspicious of the neighbors. He claimed they'd stolen his scissors, magnifying glasses, light bulbs, and flashlights. Their motive? To scare Dad out of his house, buy it at a reduced price, resell it, and make a killing.
I laughed. Told him that was ridiculous. In response, he grit his teeth, growled like an animal, and stomped into the house. Although his reaction was a bit odd, I still didn't fully understand what was happening to my father.

Soon afterwards, at a family picnic, I did. Taking his youngest grandson aside, Dad described his new job; government spy for the FBI. Pulling up his shirt, he showed the wide-eyed boy where he'd been wired to record top secret conversations. Bits of tape still remained. . . remnants of a recent EKG test.

Not long after this, Dad's physical health began to decline. Frequent blood transfusions and medication helped manage his geriatric leukemia. His dementia, however, was another story. The result was a game of human ping-pong. When Dad's physical condition deteriorated, he went to the hospital. When it improved, he had to leave and be sent to a behavioral health facility. During his final months, he bounced between two hospitals, two nursing homes, and the behavioral health facility.
One thing remained constant. Whenever I called to check in on Dad, no matter where he was, I heard the same thing, "Your father is very agitated."

Agitated meant my 100 pound, 85-year-old father was slinging coarse insults to everyone in earshot. Convinced people were trying to kill him, he pulled out IVs, hid his medication, and refused to eat. Confused and frightened, he screamed his nights away, slept all day. He tried to escape. Once, he succeeded. Making it to the railroad tracks running behind his building, Dad told a stunned work crew he was being poisoned. After that he had to be sedated and restrained.

Sometimes, I saw sparks of rational thought flash in Dad's beautiful grey eyes. Each time, I grew hopeful. But each time, the sparks faded into a dull stare.

Toward the end, I became skilled at reading the faces of my father’s nurses. Faces that met me with frustrated, plaintive expressions. Like the crowd at the no-name gas station, their expressions conveyed what they couldn't, "Well, what are YOU going to do now?"

I didn't have a clue.

I also had no clue, as I stood in that slow-moving gas station line, that before year's end I would find myself dealing with the embarrassment and frustration of my father's dementia. The only thing on my mind that day was how I wished I'd gassed up somewhere else.

"Let's go! C'mon!" someone in line moaned.

The station manager grew pale. Sweat beaded on his brow. On and on, the finch lady chattered until the young man snapped. Leaning across the counter, he stared into her eyes, clenched his teeth, and said."Shoot 'em."

Confused, she shook her head. "What did you say?"

"The finches," he said, giving me a wink. "I said shoot 'em."