Anonymous said: why am I always the target of bullying
I’ll tell you a story:
When I was in third grade I was in the last year of elementary school. The school was four hallways arranged around a courtyard where three tame sheep and an old nanny goat ate grass. On the first day of May every kid in the school would dance around a maypole, over and around one another until the bands of colored fabric we held above our heads were braided down the whole length of the blonde pole. The teachers would applaud us and bring large, white dairy cans over to the school’s five butterchurns. The strongest man at the school, a math teacher, would heft the cans of cream into the air and pour them into the stoneware buckets of the churns. Kids would take turns jumping on the wooden treadles that, by an oscillating arm, worked the pistons up and down inside the churns. Our enthusiasm was boundless and we soon had fresh butter to put on our lunches of saltines with grape juice. Then the school’s nurse would use an enormous black electric razor to shear the sheep of the wool we would card and dye later that afternoon.
Soon after this I began taking entrance exams for prep schools. These were private boys schools that ran from grades four through twelve. A prep school is, in an obvious sense, meant to prepare students to go to college, but the implicit purpose is to place them on a trajectory that ends in positions of control and authority within white society.
I took four exams for four schools. I worked diligently on the first, but when I took the second, third, and fourth I discovered that each was composed of a set of questions identical to the first. I wrote ‘I took this test last week, call them for my score’ on the top of the Scantron cards. I was accepted by only one of the four schools, and I went there in the fall.
This school was on close to eighty acres of land. Grades were called ‘Forms’ and each was designated a roman numeral. My favorite class was art, where our teacher would play Tangerine Dream as we tried to draw our own faces by looking in special mirrors that turned our heads upside-down. The teacher had a closely cropped ginger beard and could draw perfect freehand circles of any size on the chalkboard. After flipping one of his Tangerine Dream LP’s over, he would frequently retreat to one of the classroom’s bay windows and smoke a cigarette with his body leaning halfway out of it.
There was a library for the younger grades, but I quickly found the upper school’s library. It was a double-height room with wood panels and marble busts of famous authors on top of each riser of books. The decimal system was used on the spines of the library’s books, but if you asked the librarian where something was, he would say something like ‘Voltaire Seven’ which meant that you should look on the seventh shelf down from Voltaire’s bust.
I was not allowed actually to check out books from the upper school’s library, but I found that if you dropped the book you wanted to read out of one of the windows and into the bushes below, you could circumvent the anti-theft panels at its only entrance. After I was finished with a book I simply put it through the night-return slot when nobody was looking.
One of the books I read in fifth grade was ‘To The Finland Station’ by Edmund Wilson. The book is a history of socialist revolutionaries and it was the most exciting history book I had ever read. Wilson’s writing was like discovering that the water you had been drinking all your life was a diluted version of a purer, more concentrated, and exponentially more refreshing liquid. And Wilson was giving you this essence for free, by the gallon, page after page. In his voice, everything about Socialism seemed both fascinating and inevitable. The next book I dropped out of the library’s window was a paperback copy of ‘The Communist Manifesto’ and ‘18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon’ bound as one.
I had been teased about being fatter than most of the other students at the prep school and it did not especially bother me. I was frequently told by teachers that I should play football for reasons that they indicated should be obvious. I preferred to play tennis during the heart of the afternoon carved out for sports. The athletics director was a man named Ernest Winkle who wore a silver whistle and burgundy sweatsuit to every occasion. He was frustrated by my decision to play tennis but eventually lost any ardor he had for my usefulness after he took seriously a group of kids when they said I was a fag. I was happy to be in distant communication with another person across the school’s clay courts.
A student named Crispin sat next to me in history class. He saw me reading the library’s copy of ‘The Communist Manifesto’ one day, before the class started and began teasing me about it. I tried to explain about Wilson’s mastery of the English language, but the joke was in the air and Crispin was soon bouncing lines off four or five other kids. One of them said the phrase ‘Red whale’ just before the teacher stood up at his desk to start the class.
The next day, when I walked into the history classroom, Crispin stood up, clicked his heels together, shot his right arm out in the familiar Nazi salute and said in a loud voice ‘All hail the Red whale!’ Everybody laughed and I was extremely embarrassed. My first impulse was to explain how stupid it was to use the Nazi salute in this situation but I quickly realized that this wouldn’t help. For the next two or three months, everywhere I went at the school there was somebody from my form or from the older forms who would shoot out his right arm and yell ‘All hail the Red whale!’ Eventually I started carrying a portable CD player in the outside coat pocket of my blazer so that I could listen to something other than that taunt while I was walking between classes.
I thought that, like any other joke, this one would become old and lose its edge. I found, however, that once the joke had spread to thirty or forty other kids it stopped being a joke and became something more like a ritual. People stopped in their tracks when they saw me, became solemn, threw out their arm, and with no attempt to be funny shouted the line. They lowered their arm and waited for me to acknowledge that they had greeted me, and once I had, they walked on. It very quickly felt like being snipped out of the school’s social fabric and being repatterned into the school’s professional outsider.
This was the first time that I felt the depression waiting for you in the basement when the upper floors of your self start to collapse. I wasn’t stung by their dislike of me, but by the fact that their dislike was becoming less and less foreign to how I thought of myself. Their dislike did not require me to agree with it for it to become one of my own, domestic feelings.
The shame at being a person who was given a Nazi salute everywhere he went made it very difficult to ask an adult to help me. The later stages of this bullying would be funny if they hadn’t actually happened.
The Jewish students in my form who greeted me with the Nazi salute started calling me an anti-Semite because they had heard that Stalin was planning a purge of every Jew in the Soviet Union at the time of his fatal stroke. This news filtered back to the parents of most of my friends, who then began to discourage their sons from hanging out with me.
In the end, I became desperate and asked the headmaster of the youngest three forms (or lower school) for help. I went into his office one afternoon and—as I looked over his shoulder at a Looney Toons poster commemorating the death of Mel Blanc, in which every cartoon character he had voiced stood speechless before a solitary microphone—I told him my story. He nodded along and asked me questions about when it had started and by whom. I felt a growing sense of confidence that this man and his non-threatening mustache would intercede on my behalf. I was wrong.
When I finished my story he said explicitly that he was going to do nothing. Though he didn’t say it was my fault for reading ‘The Communist Manifesto’ in public, he did say that it was my problem and that if I wanted to fix it he would suggest a way. He told me that I ought to stand up at the end of the next school assembly and deny that I was a Communist. He said that the only way I could extricate myself from the mess I was in was publicly to deny that I held any sympathy for Socialism.
And so, at the end of the next assembly, I stood up in front of a hundred and fifty kids and recanted. I said that I was not a Communist and that I had no connection of any kind with Stalinism. I said that I was sorry I had given people the impression that I was or had. The last thing I said was to ask that nobody applaud my recantation. One or two people clapped ironically, anyway.
I came to think of this experience as the narrow edge on a wedge. One of several, that together separated me from all the other lumber being floated downstream. Lumber moving towards a sawmill that none of those who bullied me have escaped.