THE PIZZA SHOP, A LITTLE BOY, AND A FELLOW PAIN-EATER
Lehigh Valley PA, Early Winter 2016. Brons—Age Fifty-three
This would be the greatest failure of my life, and I don't mean the kind of failure that I look back on as a good learning experience. No, this was a pure failure, the unadulterated type of failure with consequences that I can't justify with a "Well, there will always be the next time. I'll get it right then."
Someone walked straight into my wheelhouse and I missed an opportunity to make a difference. I failed, plain and simple.
My wife was out of town on business and I was on my own for dinner. I stopped at a great little Italian eatery a half-hour from my home. The waitress seated me at a booth and in no time my dinner was ready.
The conversion in a neighboring booth was starting to take on an alarming tone.
"Maybe you need to be smacked across the ass with a belt?" The man said to a little boy.
The boy timidly replied with an inaudible mumble and shook his head with a frightened "no." It seemed this little fellow had been in this position before.
"You defiant little bastard. When we get home you're getting popped right in the f**king mouth!" the man told the boy.
I was now on high alert.
The abusive conversation continued with f-bombs dropping everywhere along with repeated threats as the boy, sitting beside his mom, desperately tried to plead his case to the man on the other side of the table.
I got the impression that this was not the boy’s father, but more the mom's boyfriend playing the role of de facto-dad and disciplinarian. He was in his late thirties, and unkempt.
Mom quietly said to the man, "We can work on this." The boy, not more than nine years old, agreed.
Now quite animated and itching to dole out authority in the form of abuse, the man said, "You don't work on LAZY! You beat it out of him with a f**king club just like my old man did to me! TWO GRADE LEVELS BEHIND IN READING?" The man looked at the mother and said, "I've been telling you he's nothing but a lazy little f**cking PUNK and this proves it!"
It was obvious that they had attended a parent-teacher meeting earlier that evening at the young man's school.
As they put on their coats to leave, I realized I had missed my chance to call 911. My dinner was now over, the camera on my iPhone snapped a few inconspicuous pics and I was about to do my very best to keep this kid from going home to a beating. I wasn't the man I had been ten years earlier, and this guy was a good decade younger than I and didn’t seem like the reasoning type.
The busy restaurant was noisy, but the abuser was now loud enough to be heard over the sound of patronage. A quick glance around the shop for help revealed a guy in his eighties with a cane who was ready to join me, but I wasn't about to put him in harm's way.
Several men in the restaurant exuded body language that made it clear they weren't getting involved while yet others pretended to be oblivious.
I should have called 911 the second I heard the first threat but was hesitant to make more out of it than maybe it seemed to be in the beginning moments. My hesitation now meant I was on my own and probably going to get hurt, but I had to convince this mom that it was a bad idea for her and the boy to get into the car with this guy. I was about to engage in the long-standing family business of Pain Eating.
I told the old man with the cane to let the waitress know I wasn't skipping out on the check; he gave me a wink to wish me luck.
The man, mom, and little boy made it out the front door, and just as they did an elderly lady using a wheelchair, pushed by an equally aged gentleman, blocked the small vestibule and any attempt at intervention.
My screw up of not calling 911, out of concern that I could be overreacting sent that little boy home to an angry beating and probably many subsequent bouts of abuse.
Overreacting, or a misunderstanding on my part? The cops could have sorted that out; I could have apologized, and even paid for their dinner to say I was sorry for the mixup.
Yes, this was the greatest failure of my life to date. I failed, plain and simple, and there were surely serious and ongoing consequences.
It wasn't that I was a good person who did nothing, as Einstein put it, but I was a good person who failed to act soon enough, and that is almost as bad.
I paid my bill and immediately drove to the local police station with my pictures, banking on the chance that the man was a frequent flier with the local cops.
I sat down in a quiet room with a precinct sergeant, told him the story and shared my photos. He was older than I, past the age when most cops retire. Not tall, but broad and muscular with brown eyes, a healthy head of dark hair combed back, a perfectly pressed uniform, and mirror-shined shoes. He bore an uncanny resemblance to my dad. He clenched one side of his teeth and drew a deep breath. A crease ran perpendicular on the left side of his face, starting at his jawline and heading north toward his eye. My dad had a similar line on his face, as do I. It’s an unmistakable brand to others who know why it is there.
The officer looked at the pictures and disappeared into his thoughts as he pondered the little boy's plight.
"Nope, very sorry to say I don't recognize this guy. Maybe he's new to the area."
He swiped back to the little boy's picture on my phone.
The Sergeant started to say something but paused as if he wasn't sure it was appropriate, relevant, or the right time to share.
"I wasn't ..." he said, then paused again.
It was coming. I've had the honor of being here before. I'm not sure why and I try not to question it. I just know that part of being a writer is the unspoken invitation to become another human being’s confessor. It usually starts with a statement such as 'I wasn't a very good student,' or 'I wanted to be an XYZ when I grew up, but I didn't have the grades to get into college, so I became an ABC instead.'
Law Enforcement has a disproportionately high instance of dyslexics/difstypros. They are drawn to the work by their ability to connect dots.
"I wanted to be a ..." again pausing behind watery eyes.
"But instead you grew up to be a damn good cop," I said.
He smiled at the realization I was right and gave a very small nod to himself, reluctant to accept the compliment.
"I guess maybe I did," he said.
"Will you email me these pictures to me?” he asked. “Guys like this often turn up."
"You bet, Sergeant,” I replied.
I checked back several times, but there had been no luck in finding the boy.
If it is true that it is the responsibility of every generation is to educate the next, then it is also true that people like "us" have an even greater responsibility to save the kids who are about to be eaten by an alligator.
LEFT HANDED ALLIGATOR WRESTLERS
The origin of what we know as the number two pencil goes back to sixteenth-century England and coincides with a nearby discovery of graphite.
Four hundred-some-odd-years-later, Miss Marybeth Stoner, my first cousin once removed and our elementary school disciplinarian, was still adamant that pencils held in the left hand were done so under the direction of Satan! Miss Marybeth was the niece of my grandfather and the most devoted member of his flock.
Miss Marybeth's intentions were innocent but misguided in that she felt she was doing kids a favor. She had it on good authority, from the Almighty himself, that it was her duty as a teacher to convert lefties into "normal" God-fearing children. It was all part of her battle to save the human race from the dark angel. Her weapon of choice against lefty-evil was another well-known invention, the eighteen-inch heavy-duty teacher's ruler, AKA The Knuckle Whacker.
Two lefties in our fourth-grade class, as well as their knuckles, were repeatedly traumatized by Miss Marybeth's calm yet fiery anti-lefty dogma.
I thought to myself, "There must be a quota on the number of knuckle-whacks that brings on the lefty-devil sermon."
I could predict, with uncanny certainty, when Miss Stoner's hellfire rain was in the forecast.
She stood in front of the class, her blonde hair braided and rolled in a bun that sat atop her head almost like the apple made famous by William Tell and family. Cloaking that hair apple was her ever-present white mesh prayer-covering.
She was a solid woman with a sturdy center of gravity and manly biceps. Legend had it she built those muscles from swinging her paddle as she introduced her unyielding brand of religion to the backsides of naughty children. I never doubted that she thought she was doing the right thing, but I saw her hating on the lefties as unnecessary. She was clearly a "good guy" doing a "bad thing."
Her face took on a somber, stonelike cast as she started in her quiet voice, then grew louder and louder and louder as she hurled shame and damnation at our resident southpaws.
"The Bible tells us that Jesus sits at the RIGHT HAND of God. The Lord reserves his left as the hand of JUDGMENT! GOD and only GOD reserve the power to dominate with his LEFT HAND!
She went on to use the examples of the six Angels of Death sitting to the left of God and noted that upon death and judgment the good souls among us, (the sheep), go to the right, and the bad souls, (the goats), go to the left corral where they await their deserving descent to fiery pits of HELL!
Man, I sure felt sorry for those kids, and the rest of my class for that matter, but she didn't scare me. At least, not as much as she did at one time.
I had Mom to set the record straight on all things "crazy religious." There were lots of things I didn't tell Mom about school, but when it came to Miss. Marybeth's brimstone tirades, my mouth ran like a scalded dog.
The knuckle abuse finally reached its zenith. Peg Zimmer (not her real name), known for being the poorest girl in the class, developed a finger that resembled a frankfurter. I couldn't wait to spill the beans!
My mother was one of the very few with the guts to stand up and call B.S. when family dogma got out of hand. Oh, Mom was a believer but was having no part of Grandpa's religion. She was more in keeping with the "Jesus loves me this I know" crowd of local Lutherans. Dad was not that fond of his family's inflexible ideology either but was certainly more tolerant than my mother.
Mom's reaction was what I expected when I told her about Peg Zimmer's distended digit. It was one of her favorite sayings about people she didn't agree with, "She's kooky. She's got screwy ideas!"
"Kooky" and "Screwy" were interchangeable within the sentence. Mom's gift for language was flexible, fluid, endlessly fascinating, and simply unparalleled.
Mom was justified in her anger regarding Miss Marybeth's lefty abuse, but admittedly it was a bit of an excuse for why she was really upset. Moreover, it was also about how some in Grandpa's flock condemned my mother for wearing makeup and being a "modern woman." They were a brave bunch as critics of the city girl; you got to give them that!
Dad wasn't saying much; he didn't need to say a word for me to understand how he felt about Peg Zimmer's tumid tactiler. I watched as he clenched the one side of his jaw and took a deep breath. That's all I needed in order to know the outcome.
I have no idea how he handled it. I didn't ask, and he wouldn't have told me, but I'm sure he was very diplomatic. Regardless of our non-participation in Grandpa’s church, Dad held tremendous sway.
Miss Marybeth reaction was again inflexible. She cleaned out her desk and abruptly retired the following week. It was time.
While the ignorance responsible for trying to scrub our class lefties of all thing Lucifer went on longer in our locale than most, the stories of lefty-conversions from around the U.S. are heartbreaking.
In preparation for writing this chapter, I placed a post on social media asking lefties to tell me their stories. Overnight my Facebook blew up with hundreds of personal accounts that ranged from lefty damnation and shaming to knuckle smacks to left arms tied behind backs. Many from the generation above mine (and to a lesser extent from my own) spoke of damage to their self-esteem, problems with nervous tics, and stuttering caused by the trauma of "breaking" lefties. Society tried to forcibly eliminate a natural tendency in the brains of children and in doing so left scars that lasted lifetimes.
Finally, the collective light bulb popped up regarding lefties, as did a new wave of sensible educators, and adaptive instruments and tools such as left-handed scissors and keyboards. Suddenly, this BIG problem, which wasn't a problem at all, was no longer a problem. American society came to its senses.
One could argue that I'm comparing apples to oranges in my analogy that the lefties of yesteryear are the same as the dyslexic/difstypro students of today.
That's an alligator I'll take on as it doesn't matter what caused or causes ignorance; it's still ignorance. Just because it is a different flavor of ignorance doesn't make it any easier to swallow as it inflicts its harm. Just as in lefty conversion, long-lasting trauma seems prevalent in difstypro children-turned-adults who were forced to conform to methods that were not only foreign to their brains but barbaric as well.
Again, many schools are doing great work on behalf of difstypro/dyslexic kids, but sadly others are doing little or nothing at all.
If a difstypro kid is not receiving specialized curriculum tailored to their brain's natural tendencies, we are repeating the same idiotic mistakes of the past; e.g., lefty conversion. I don't think anyone wants that.
One of the coolest things I've ever known is being "different." However, the most dangerous thing I've ever known is being "different."
I was there; I experienced it and can speak to it, not only with the benefit of being a survivor but also having over fifty years to reflect on what happened and why.
I want you to know, and I failed to say this in my first book, that I'm all right now. Sure, I think about it every day. One never goes through such trauma and then just forgets. It took a long time, a lot of work and the assistance of some highly qualified professionals to whom I will forever be grateful.
Even if the evolved human-animal can't see "different," it still recognizes it at a very primal level. I have witnessed this in my life over and over again. I've learned through experience how to identify those who react poorly toward me because at some level of their being they sense that I’m different from them.
I am grateful for my mind's ability, through diversity, to see patterns and connect dots that my neurotypical friends may not recognize. Likewise, it is thrilling to defer to a neurotypical friend whose skill sets and insights differ from mine. In those moments they allow me to experience how their brain process information; I find it all to be so fascinating!
Are we each born with unique abilities hardwired into our noggins or are our brains constantly developing skills based on our environment? Surely, it is not one or the other but both.
One of the most concerning and destructive patterns that I see among difstypro/dyslexic kids is the bullying by other kids and older siblings. I've received many emails over the years asking for my advice. I don't know how to solve this problem short of suggesting professional help in the way of a family therapist. A common retort to that is, "Well, I'm just going to beat the child's backside who is doing the bullying!” That doesn't get us any closer to understanding why it's happening. Does the bully perceive that the neurodiverse kid is getting something he/she is not in the way of attention or technology or understanding? Does the bullying sibling see "different" when he or she looks at his/her sibling? If so, is that perception a call to bullying that is in need of more serious exploration?
My older brother was a terrible, sadistic, non-stop bully. He was three years older than I was. His behavior seemed beyond his own control. My parents punished him severely and regularly, and yet he couldn't stop. His need for power and domination was far stronger than any concerns he may have had regarding punishment. In the seventh grade, I experienced a growth spurt that brought an immediate end to the bullying. That's when I came to understand that my brother's bullying was not only about gaining power, it was his concern for losing power. Nothing robbed him of his power more effectively than the humiliation of his little brother providing a measure of justice. I don't recommend that course of action, even though I found it effective in stopping the abuse. It did nothing to get at the heart of what was causing my brother to be abusive. Craig died several years ago and we never fully sorted out all the complicated feelings that followed us into adulthood.
Home Isn't The Only Place Where We Experience Bullies
The vast majority of people who wake up one morning and say to themselves, "Hey, I like kids and I want to change the world.” So they make an action plan that includes borrowing a whole bunch of money and going to a fine university. After college, they take a teaching job that should pay more, but they don't care because, HEY, they like kids and want to change the world! These are the folks who are excited with the notions of breakthroughs, opening a kid's mind, lighting up a child's eyes as they have that a-ha moment. These are the teachers who hop in their ten-year-old Honda Civic after school and race home because they can't wait to tell their spouse that Charlie GOT a B+ ON HIS MATH TEST!!!!
Born To Teach
Mrs. Jones, a teacher of fifteen years, and her mail-carrier husband jump up and down together and hug and squeal and laugh because Charlie's B+ calls for a celebration! Hubby runs to the market for the cold-water lobster tail and a bottle of chardonnay. He comes back home and pours his wife a glass of wine and has her sit in her favorite chair while he fires up the grill, lights the candles and pours her another glass. He says, "Don't move, I got dinner." It's a monumental moment: CHARLIE GOT a B+! It happens every school night somewhere in the world.
Fridge Door Worthy
Charlie's dad left, and Mom is doing the best she can. Charlie couldn't even make eye contact with Mrs. Jones during the first month of school. He got failing marks, but Mrs. Jones saw something in Charlie. She encouraged him, and little by little she won him over. Tonight there are celebrations in two houses because Charlie took his paper home and showed his mom. It went straight to the refrigerator door!
Seriously, you have to love Mrs. Jones and all the other Mr. and Mrs. Jones' out there who are so incredibly talented at winning over the hearts and minds of kids.
They are the teachers in America who are in the business of encouragement. Teachers are society's most important change agents. They teach! They teach the doctors and nurses who save our lives, the architects who design our building, the farmers who grow our food, and the policemen who keep us safe. If I were king, I would make teacher pay the highest in the land.
I don't want to, but I must. We have to talk about it. Yes, there is that one percent of teachers that can do enough damage in one day that a lifetime won't undo it. Somehow they've been wreaking havoc for ten, twenty, or even thirty years. They do just as much harm to other teachers by the damage they inflict on the teaching profession. Why can't everyone be like Mrs. Jones? How does it go wrong? There are lots of reasons.
Sometimes, well-intentioned teachers meet ruin through poor leadership and bad habits that filter down from the top. Maybe there is a lousy principal who figures he "turned out okay" because his dad was a big, mean, S.O.B. who browbeat the family into submission, and he runs the school with what he learned from his father. Leaders who set this type of tone in a schoolhouse should be invited to exit the profession and find work elsewhere.
Sometimes, people in positions of authority become intoxicated by new found power.
Sometimes, well-meaning people just make honest mistakes or say stupid things, and then feel bad and apologize. We can work with that.
Sometimes there are those among us who react inappropriately to those who they detect as being "different."
And sometimes, there are the monsters who show up dressed like everyday people. They walk like people, talk like people, and smile like everyday people.
I know the delightful Mrs. Jones and cherish her friendship to this day.
I knew the principal who had his self-esteem pounded into the ground as a boy and felt it was punishment worthy of emulation.
I know what it's like to be frightened by those in authority drunk on power.
I long ago forgave the well-meaning teachers who made mistakes, especially the ones who made amends.
It is frightening when the primitive human psyche is driven by fear of what it finds to be different. Well-adjusted adults have experience in defusing such situations, ten-year-olds don't, and need you to calmly come to their rescue with well thought out solutions.
ONLY TRYING TO HELP?
An example of a well-intentioned yet misguided person is a gentleman we'll call "Mr. Cook." He was an "old-school," science teacher in the district where I grew up. Mr. C's desk drawer contained a stack of job applications for a local poultry processing plant in our county. It was honest work but considered to be among the most unpleasant and poorest paying jobs in the area. Because of the high employee turnover, there were always openings. Mr. Cook presented students who weren’t doing well with a blank job application and a pen. One such recipient was a young man who was sitting on the passing/failing fence for science class; a mandatory class for graduating. Cook informed the boy that it didn't look as if he'd be graduating with the rest of his class.
Every teacher has those isolated incidents where they say or do something they wish they could take back. Don't we all? They step up, apologize and teach us all something valuable. Their example may well be some of the finest "teachable moments" ever. We have to give them a pass, and at the same time commend them for doing the right thing.
However, Mr. Cook's "motivation" spanned decades and focused on students who were teetering on academic failure in a school where there was little, if any, meaningful identification or remediation. With his years at the front of the classroom, he should have known better. It wasn't just a self-esteem killer. The young man promptly went home that evening, retrieved his father's handgun, stuck it in his mouth, and ended his life.
The teenager had struggled the whole way through school and his confidence dangled by a thread. The thought of not graduating with his peers sent him over the edge.
In a relatively short period, four separate suicides rocked our rural community. They were all boys with academic problems.
Those senseless deaths launched my work as an advocate, compelling me to step out of the shadow of my dark past and tell my story.