Thursday, March 12, 2009

A Life in Four Colors (Part Twenty-Three)

Not all of my fifth grade year was so great, however...

As I've mentioned previously, Dad was the sports editor at the Rome News-Tribune, my hometown's local paper. As part of his role in covering the local sports scene--a demanding job indeed, considering how many high schools are in the area served by the RNT--Dad frequently offered Friday-afternoon prognostications on the weekend's football games or on the outcome of various basketball games. In particular, he would focus on the local scene, predicting the wins in various local high-school rivalries.

And of course, West Rome High School was one of those schools. West Rome was one of Rome's two then-relatively-new high schools, and it was the school that served the rapidly-growing newer area of Rome. It was also the high school that served as a home to my fifth-grade class while work was done on West End Elementary across the street.

I was always proud of Dad's work--the idea of a man earning his living by putting words on paper seemed incredibly skilled, and in my mind that put Dad in an unique position. None of the other kids I knew had a father who wrote for a living; their dads worked in stores or in factories or did deliveries. I didn't brag about it--Dad would have been upset with me if I did--but I was so very proud of what he did, and I just naturally assumed that everyone else had the same respect for Dad and his work.

I soon learned that people whose teams were picked to win were far more appreciative of Dad's work than were those whose teams were picked to lose. I soon learned that there should be an analog to the "don't shoot the messenger" cliché: "don't shoot the messenger's son, either."

Since there weren't many Biggers in Rome at the time (the city's other well-known Biggers had not moved to Rome at that time), some people figured out that I was the son of the sports editor. And because he hadn't chosen West Rome to win every game--and the team had indeed lost some of the games that he had said they would lose--somehow they blamed Dad for that. And while there wasn't much they could do to express their displeasure to Dad, they could make sure that I was acutely aware of it.

I was a relatively introverted ten-year old in the fall of 1964, adjusting to my third new school in five years (three years at Garden Lakes, one at Elm Street, and now one at the south end of West Rome High, where empty classrooms were the home to elementary school overflow). This meant that, in spite of the best efforts of the school administration to treat us as a school within a school, isolated on common ground, we fifth graders would still cross paths with high schoolers.

A couple of those high schoolers who had taken umbrage at Dad's predictions would occasionally pick on me. These guys were football players; I suspect they were part of the same group of football players who, in the fall of 1962, had paid a vandalizing visit to our house after an East Rome-West Rome football game and had torn up most of Dad's sod-sprigged front lawn and had pulled up many of his young shrubs. That was a lawn that Dad had personally planted; we had no money to hire someone for lawn care, nor did we have enough money to pay to fully sod the front lawn. Instead, Dad would carefully cut sod squares into sprigs and spread them out in a checkerboard pattern of small pieces so that the runners in the centipede grass would spread out and fill in the holes. Dad had put in countless hours in preparing the ground, planting those sprigs, and caring for that lawn. I had helped him from time to time, but I lacked Dad's patience and vision; I saw only little squares of grass, not the lawn that they would be, and I couldn't see why we had to work so hard to place and press those little squares.

I remember that night in the fall of 1962, because it was the first time that lights woke me up. The lights came from police cars; I wasn't sure if a neighbor had called the police or if Mom or Dad had done so, but the police had come. Shortly after, West Rome's football coach came to the house as well; there were many people talking in the front yard that night, and while I couldn't understand the words, I knew that something serious was going on.

Dad chose not to press any charges; he instead asked that the football coach have the vandalizing members of the West Rome football team come over and repair the damages they had caused. They did so, albeit not very well; I remember Dad having to put many more hours into repairing those damages as he continues his perpetual struggle to maintain a beautiful lawn in what must have been some of Georgia's worst dirt.

I was puzzled as to why Dad didn't have them all arrested and taken to jail. It wasn't until later that he told me that, had he done so, many of those players would have lost scholarships to college and would have been thrown off the team and might even have been suspended from school; in 1962, society was far less tolerant of vandalism. Dad's love for high school sports also included an abiding concern for high school athletes, and he had put his first reaction aside so as not to cause more hardship to players who had showed what he called "bad judgment."

But I never crossed paths with those athletes in 1962. However, I did in 1963, I suspect; I can think of no other reason that a few of them would have devoted so much effort on so many days to torment me.

The problems were slow to begin; I don't recall any problems until after Thanksgiving in 1963, in fact, three months after my fifth grade year had begun. But from that time on, I could count on at least one or two incidents every week. They were mild, all things considered: being pushed down from behind in the hallway, being tripped on my way to the bus, having things thrown at me from behind, having my books slapped out of my hands, and then (if there were comic books in my notebook) being mocked for reading "funnybooks." Back then, comics weren't as accepted in society as they are today; more people read them, but far fewer people respected them.

My bicycle tires were punctured once. One time, a football player grabbed me by my hooded sweatshirt (we didn't call them "hoodies" back then) and jerked it so hard that the hood tore partly loose and I felt a constrictive pain in my throat so severe that I was unable to eat lunch that day.

But for me, the worst incident came in the early spring, when a football player pushed me down on the rough concrete sidewalk in front of the school as we were walking back from lunch, I think it was; I dropped to the ground in an ungainly, skidding fall, and the next thing I knew, my pants were torn at the knee and the skin on my kneecap was ragged and bleeding. My knee hurt, but what devastated me was the tear in those pants; these were new pants, pants that Mom had bought for me just a week earlier. They were brown pants with a light pattern to them, and the fabric was torn in a jagged, irregular L, and the pattern was ruined, and I knew that Mom would be so disappointed in me for tearing those pants.

I wish at times that I had been one of those aggressive boys who would fight back against his tormenters, but I wasn't. I was an average-to-small fifth grader, not particularly athletic with no skills in fighting and self-defense, and I didn't know how to stand up to football players who were older, larger, and stronger than me. And I hadn't told my parents of the problems at school because I thought that would be stirring up more trouble. All I could think of was the Mom would be sad and disappointed and mad, and I didn't know how to deal with it, and the only thing I could do was just go on to class. As I walked to class, I began to cry; for the first time in my life, I was wishing I didn't have to go to school.

I continued to cry a bit in class--not an attention-getting crying, but a few tears running down my face sort of crying. The teacher noticed after a while; she thought that perhaps I was sick because they were tarring the roof of an adjacent building at the time, so she asked if the tar was making me sick. I never told her what had happened; I kept thinking that if I would ignore it, it would all go away.

I was crying again by the time I got home. I was absolutely certain that Mom would be upset, but she wasn't. She cleaned my knee, washed the pants, and then somehow managed to meticulously mend the pants, taking care to match the pattern as best she could. When she gave them back to me later on, she said, "Good as new" and smiled to reassure me that everything was all right. They weren't as good as new, but Mom's concern and compassion made them seem even better than new to me; I continued to wear those mended pants until I outgrew them, and every time I put them on I remembered how Mom had made such a bad day seem much less bad.

For some reason, the situation became more tolerable after that. Sometimes, I thought that someone must have reported the problem and a teacher must have said something to the high schoolers. Other times, I figured that making me cry must have been their goal; when they got the desired results, they were satisfied. I never knew, though--and in fact, I never even knew who those football players were. Friends who witnessed the incidents would tell me their names, but I never even bothered to remember them. To this day, I could not say who they were.

I think it's best that way. I'm far from the only kid who got picked on in school, and it's far easier to avoid begrudging the bullies if you don't know who they are...


Lanny said...

I feel like a lived that with you. I recall events in my early school years that while not identical to yours, left me as hurt and sad as yours did. Why are people so mean to each other?

Bullying should be considered a serious crime.

Art said...
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