Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Permission to Bully in 1961 and Beyond

The school year was 1961-62. A five-old-girl sat on a classroom chair with the rest of the kindergarten class surrounding her. The teacher wore a dark skirt and a plain white blouse. She had medium-length brown hair and a pleasant face. The teacher told the class that because Marva* had been naughty again, the she must be punished. The kindergarten students were told to each take a strand of the Marva’s hair and on the count of three—PULL. 

This scene played out numerous times throughout my first year at Sharon Elementary School. I don’t remember anyone else ever receiving the punishment except for Marva. I’m sure there were others, but it’s her face I remember. Boys were usually the first to surround her—smiling, a bit excited. I always held back, as did others, too far away to grasp a lock of hair. 

I don’t remember what Marva did that was so naughty. And while I’m glad I never participated in the punishment handed down by the teacher, I never reached out to be kind to Marva either. Why would I? She was a naughty girl. Did I somehow suspect that if I played with her, that I would be tainted by her? I don’t blame myself—after all I was only five. I also don’t blame the boys who gleefully surrounded Marva and pulled as hard as they could—after all, they were only five. But I do blame the teacher. 

Over the years, my memory of the events have faded, so much that I almost wondered if they had happened at all, but recently I was talking with another friend who had, had the same teacher in the alternate hours kindergarten the same year and she said, “Mrs. Wendell—the teacher that made us pull hair. My children don’t believe me when I tell them.” Then the memory flooded back. So it was true. It was true that my kindergarten teacher commanded five-year-olds to bully and to physically and emotionally harm another child. It was true that the teacher had set up a policy to create a class system based on fear, to set up children who would automatically become the OTHER, the ones we had permission to abuse and belittle and to cast aside from our friendship. 

I don’t know what happened to Marva. I can pick her face out in the class picture. I hope that somehow, she escaped the stigma stamped upon her by a teacher who must have thought she was doing the right thing to control her class. How often do we do harm to others when we believe that we are doing the right thing because like those five-year-olds someone in authority told them it was the right thing? Sometimes doing the right thing takes a tremendous amount of courage. Sometimes doing the right thing is the exact opposite of what we are told. Sometimes doing the right thing is listening to the little voice in our head, and that instinct that socks us in the gut. *not real name.