Growing up, my town was a small middle-income town with average sized homes on modest streets with manicured lawns and landscaped blocks. We were neither abundantly rich nor overly poor and in the same way, our town was no more or less dysfunctional than any others. We were like any other town in suburbia. We had our own water tower and firehouses. There was a library on Fronts street and a bowling alley too. There were places to eat and places to meet with friends. We had a town pool on Prospect Avenue and there was Eisenhower Park on Hempstead Turnpike.
I was young here at a time before technology took over. It was a safe place to live and we were content with our ways of doing things. Right or wrong, ignorant or not, we were fine to be as we were. Times, however, were much different then. Although there was more to be offended by, people were either less offended or they just complained less.
I was a small boy. In fact, I was smaller than most with a baby face and painfully thin. I looked younger than the others my age. I was neither athletic or a scholar. Instead, much like my town, I felt as if I was stuck somewhere in the anonymous middle. I was not exceptionally good looking or bad. At best, I was seen as cute because I was smaller and younger looking. However, in a young boy’s need to be noticed, I wanted to be more.
I was far from tough and although I pretended to be unaffected and unafraid, I was bullied. Like anyone else, I dealt with the awkward struggles of insecurity but things like this were never discussed. No one talked about their feelings.
Not at all. Social awareness or outward conversations about feelings were never spoken about.
In fear or judgement or persecution, I never told anyone how I truly felt or what I really thought. Instead, I tried my best to maneuver through the various crowds to find my circle of influence without ever being exposed or picked on.
There was a basic mischief in grade school. I was sent to the principal’s office more than once. My classwork was not up to par, but yet somehow, regardless to my performance in school, I was promoted to the next grade.
I never did much homework and I never did exceptionally well. In truth, I had learning disabilities that were never diagnosed. There were no programs for me or extra help. And, too, even though I was told to “Ask” for help, the idea of asking for extra help was not something I could have considered.
I was afraid of the work.
And, too, if I passed a test this would mean I could do the work —and if I could do the work, that would mean more was expected of me, which triggered my anxiety, so instead I would stay as I was because the idea of doing anything differently was too much for me to consider.
I would react in class. I would act out but not too badly. But yes, there was frustration, however, my frustration had not taken over just as yet. It was not until many years later that the recollections of my smaller, younger years and some of the unfortunate facts became clear to memory. In my response, I behaved in retaliation to to the thoughts I thought, the feelings I felt, and the life I lived.
I recall being asked why I behaved as I did.
My stock answer: “I don’t know.”
I blocked out the harm of an unfortunate instance of abuse, which under no terms, no child should ever have to recall. As well, I blocked out the feeling machine, which seemed to fail me on a frequent basis.
No one ever discussed depression with me. I was talked to by many professionals but no one ever talked with me. I was only spoken to —I was always feeling directed as if I were a special needs case, which I was, but to me this meant that I was a special brand of retarded. (I apologize for using this word; however, in this context, there is no other word to use.)
The first big change in my life is when I noticed the difference between the statuses. The biggest change was when I was introduced to the different levels and the social dynamics of the classroom. I first noticed the change when grade school ended.
The days of us being forced to interact and coexist for the full day in a classroom was over. And next was junior high. Next were the multiplication of the crowd and the pressures of where I might or might not fit in.
With three different elementary schools in my town combined, the population of students in my grade had tripled. Next, the crowds grew. There were different sections of people and different cliques and groups of popularity. Each social group came with its own trickle-down theory of social economics. There was a pecking order for sure and this was clear to me.
It was also clear to me that each transition in life grew into a larger pool of status and pressure that built in stages; and one by one, each stage was bigger than the one before it.
As I recall it best, my first experience in a big junior high cafeteria was as follows:
I walked in the main entryway of the double-doors into a large room with tables that sat about six, or maybe it was eight people to a table. The tables lined back in rows with enough chairs at each. People sat together for a reason. Everyone knew each other and like-minded, flocked with the like-minded.
The ceilings were high, the walls were very plain, flat, and in my mind’s eye, the walls were tall concrete and tall—maybe even cinder-blocked on one of them, and painted over with a light shade of green. The tiled checkerboard floor tiles was (I think) a green and black tone. There were windows towards the back and a door that led out to a blacktop courtyard where students went when the weather was kind enough to allow us.
The crowds in the cafeteria were split. On the right side of the cafeteria was a door where the students came out from the lunch line after purchasing their food, which in fairness (although if I ate it now my stomach would reverse and regurgitate) there was something about school lunches, the hot dogs, the pizza, and the rib sandwich or sloppy Joe’s that wasn’t too bad to me.
This is where the jocks and the pretty people sat. They were on the right side. This is where the cool kids sat. On the left side towards the rear corner, this is where the troublemakers sat. This is where the longhaired sat. These were the behavioral disorders and the troubled ones. In the middle between the two crowds was the other kids that were more or less socially unknown and unmemorable, which to me, the worst thing to be was this —unmemorable.
This became an analogy on how I viewed life for a long, long time.
Of all things, this was my biggest fear; to be unmemorable, to be unremarkable, and to feel unimportant or unwanted. All I wanted to do was find someplace where I could fit it.
It goes this way. We learn about the pecking order when we are young. And this doesn’t end either. No, not matter what age we are there is still a social pecking order. There is still the pretty and the popular. Whomever it was that said, “He who dies with the most toys wins,” was not a child in 7th grade. No, this was something that came from an adult.
“Keeping up with the Jones’s,” is an adult expression. Social, economic, and educational snobbery is as much an adult problem as it is for a kid going to school whose parents can’t afford much. The ridicule is the same. The shame is the same and where does this come from?
I am wondering if this is the natural process of the herd. I am wondering if this is partly Darwinism as well as the lessons our children learn from us as parents.
Bullying does not end at the schoolyard. No, I have met more corporate bullies as a working man than I ever have when I was trying to find my way in the classroom.
As for slander and as for the rumor factories and gossip mills, the bandwagon is not much different. It only improves its methods of destruction.
And why is this? The reasons have not change since childhood. The reasons why people bully as kids are to compensate for their own inabilities and insufficiency, correct? In the adult world of accountability, there are more reasons to feel unable and insufficient; therefore, bullying is perhaps not a physical problem anymore —but I can say first hand that I have seen bullying up close and personal. I have seen character assassinations that were worse than any execution by firing squad.
Everyone has something in them. Everyone had their own feelings and responses. It’s funny though. When I speak to students in schools and when I talk in groups in front of young people, by far, I find them more accepting and well behaved than when I speak or do presentations in front of adults.
No parent ever thinks their child is the powder keg. No parent ever thinks something could happen to their child. “Not my kid,” they say. And, as parents, most assume they know how their child feels at all times. “Oh, I know my child,” they’ll say. And maybe this might be true, but what about the feelings a child does not feel comfortable to admit to. What about the shame they might feel in “Extra help,” classes or being labeled “Developmentally delayed,” or to be labeled a “behavioral disorder” or “Opposition defiance disorder”
When I was a kid, I had a professional tell me I was emotionally disturbed. To this day, I have yet to find out exactly what that means. The best explanation I heard about this was recently from a Board of Ed official that said, “It mean that guy didn’t know what the hell he was talking about!”
I grew up in a regular, ordinary town, and although times were different, I am beginning to wonder if they were as different as circumstances imply. True, we didn’t have the technology then. True, we went outside and played more. True, there was less awareness about depression and yes, the school system has improved with programs and learning interventions. Yes, a lot has changed. But have insecurities changed? Is the need to fit and to find out where one belongs any different? There are still the different cliques and groups of popularity. Bullying is still painfully real. So is depression. So is physical abuse, sexual, and abuse. Teenage suicide is still a real thing. In fact, pre-teen suicide is too.
In a long conversation with a young man about a few of my plans, I explained why I want to build a farm one day. I want to build a place that rids pressures like this but yet, at the same time, I want to build a place that helps prepare people for the transitions in life. I want to build a farm, which would be a school where kids can live, go to school, create their path, get ahead, and be who they want to be. I want to create a place where people can live clean and stay clean.
“I did not come to bring you peace but a sword,” is part of a scripture. In this case, the sword is information. And that’s what the farm will be for, to educate and inform.
The idea of a farm is that it can sustain itself so long as it is run properly. This place would be made by, run by, and sustained by those who work it. And me, one day, I plan to walk outside from a doorway and look at a graduating class that finished their studies and were able to move on to the next phase in their life all because of what they learned on a farm that “We” built