They’re making a dent by tagging bullies and troubled youngsters. It’s a start. But I know the way classrooms were run in the 1950s when I was a kid, and I imagine they’re not much better today, perhaps worse because class sizes are larger, and random acts of unkindness harder to detect and treat.
How to be kind is easily imparted, easily learned. For me it only required one lesson. It was delivered by a fellow fourth grader, Buddy Bridgers, red-headed, smart and aware.
It was recess, we were all hell-bent on four-square, that game with painted quadrants, a large ball, and a line of kids waiting to start in the first quad where you either washed out or worked your way up the chain. At #2, 3 and 4, you held on for dear life.
A big kid – not yet fat but hefty, with a bristle of black hair – entered the start-up square, myself in #4 and holding pat. I was a good athlete. Also smart, like Buddy. But hardly aware. Buddy held #3 when I and #2 began to razz the big kid in a not-nice way. Who knows where viciousness comes from, but suddenly #2 and I blasted #1’s volleys back with cries of rage suggesting that, after we vanquished him, we’d tie him up and roast him on a spit.
When the bell rang to return to class, Buddy followed me to a water fountain. As I drank, he said quietly, “The way you treated [big guy] was very wrong. You really hurt his feelings. I didn’t know you could be so mean. I hope you’ll apologize to him.”
I was stricken with guilt. I sought out the kid whom I’d inexplicably turned into a scapegoat. I told him how sorry I was. (He brushed me off, by the way. People of all ages are awkward with apologies, which may explain why all of us are so reluctant to offer them, but that’s another story.)
When Buddy scolded me, I was not, in fact, a bad person. My fault was that I was nine years old, simply plainly clueless about the concept of kindness itself, about what it entailed, about how it must be cultivated as a deliberate act. It isn’t difficult to be kind once you recognize the need for it when it arises.
A few years later, in the penitentiary of the psyche called junior high school, I myself was the victim of ignorant cruelty. My family touched down briefly in a downtrodden section of Van Nuys in the San Fernando Valley. In science class, a gangster girl who sat behind me (think of an infinitely less adorable Stockard Channing in "Grease") patted a length of masking tape along the back of my sweater.
When I pulled it off, I read, “I need a bra.”
For the record, I needed a bra the way Gloria Steinem’s fish needed a bicycle. At that age my chest size measured 32 quadruple A. But in the insane CC&Rs for cool teen-dom at the time, a savvy chick sported a trainer bra so that something in the nature of a grownup brassiere showed through her clothes.
Embarrassed, indignant, foolish, I marched up to the teacher, and handed him the tape. He called greaser girl up to excoriate her (excoriation, by the way, does not teach kindness, quite the reverse; it teaches hostility, just what a bully requires no further need of).
Later, back in our seats, my new nemesis handed me a note: “After skool [sic], meet me behind the fiz [sic] ed bilding [sic]. Me and my frens [sic] are gonna beat you up till you die!”
For the rest of my thankfully brief time at Van Nuys Junior High School, when the bell rang at three o’clock, I fled home. I told no one. Some mornings I woke up nauseous and my parents permitted me to skip school. My grades deteriorated, I was repeatedly grounded, I did drugs and, although I eventually went off to college, I spent four years engrossed in other activities – theater training, some acting work, marriage, divorce, a year in Europe – none of which I regret.
A close friend whom we’ll call Sheila had it worse. For three years in junior high, also in the Valley. For no fathomable reason other than that her father was a diplomat, they’d lived in Europe, so Sheila was quite simply different, she became the class pariah. Food and trash and names were hurled at her. At home she wept in her room, in the bathroom, over her homework. Her parents sent her to a psychiatrist. Looking back, who was in need of the shrink? How about the bullies, the rest of the student body enablers. the teachers, the principal?
Sheila’s parents, fortunately, had the money to send her to a good private school. Not “good” in the preppy sense, but good in that the classes were small, the teachers were both interesting and interested. For example, one day the kids read "Bartleby the Scrivener," by Herman Melville, about the clerk in a lawyer’s office who performs less and less of his tedious copying work, always declining with the words, “I would prefer not to.”
When the teacher asked the class to discuss the story, the kids replied in cheerful unison, “We would prefer not to!” whereupon everybody, teacher included, laughed long and hard.
Sheila has stayed friends with all her classmates from that private school. She attended college in Colorado, and earned a master’s degree in social work. She has never had difficulty landing well-paying jobs. She’s funny and smart and creative, and she makes friends easily.
A happy ending?
Not particularly. Sheila has never found contentment or any kind of sanctuary with any of these jobs. Her love life is a continuous mess, and she has no idea of how badly she chooses her partners, nor of how each period of post-fling mourning is always masochistic and prolonged.
We all have broken parts. Some of them come from genetics, some from faulty parenting, but perhaps for many of us, the unkindest cut of all stems from cruelties dealt at school.
These wounds make nut cases of us all. For the shooter at Sandy Hook Elementary School, his broken parts kicked in at the worst and highest point on the spectrum; something in him held the germ of a criminally insane killer. He snapped and returned to the symbolic scene of his own abuse.
But what about the rest of us who are all nutcases, some larger, some smaller, all in different ways? How much of our nutcase-ness comes from schoolyard violence, verbal or physical, that no one corrected? And within the chain-linked perimeter of the schoolyard, we were obliged to return day after day for fresh doses of it
All that any single youngster requires to get straightened out is a Buddy Bridgers at the water fountain, speaking words of wisdom soft and low. But, allowing for the scarcity of Buddys in the world, what if all teachers were indoctrinated in kindness to the point that they teach it all the live-long day, in lectures, in judicious interventions between feuding kids, in gentle insights shared with one lone, frightened, hurt child?
By all means, let us take action, sign petitions, and bug our elected officials to reduce gun ownership. But the root problem is far deeper, and yet, once accepted, so much easier to cure.
Perhaps we should keep our children home from school until a plan is put into place to make kindness the top job of education, with instruction in reading, writing and ‘rithmetic a quaint after-thought?
Editor's note: Holly Nadler is a columnist for Martha's Vineyard Patch and for the Vineyard Gazette. Her writing credits include the hit TV shows "Laverne and Shirley," and "Barney Miller." She also has published four books including "Ghosts of Boston Town," "Vineyard Confidential," "Haunted Island" and "Vineyard Supernatural."