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Friday, November 01, 2002

Arbeit Macht Frei

I should probably do a better job of spacing out my "tragic" stories, but what the heck. I'm in a cathartic mood.

"Arbeit Macht Frei" is the slogan the Nazis put up at the entrance of several concentration camps. It essentially means, "Work Makes You Free."

In the case of a concentration camp, work lets you live another day and simply put off the inevitable: gassing, then incineration.

But this story provides an example in which work DID set someone free, so read on.

When I was in the eight grade, 13 or 14 years old, a new kid moved to town and transferred to our school. He was quite different from the rest of us.

I'll call him "Ron."

Ron had a thick New York accent, and he'd spent the previous seven years in Catholic school, where strict but benevolent nuns kept order. His mother was of Italian ancestry, and Ron had a dark complexion.

Several of the kids in my class took advantage of the opportunity to use some racial slurs I'd never even heard. I had to look them up in the dictionary.

Also, Ron's father was Jewish, which opened up yet further opportunities for abuse in form of amateur anti-semitism, such as this:

From a High School French Book

I have the whole book (which was David's), and believe me, there are plenty of examples of other stuff like that, but I think I made the point with that image.

A kid who sat next to Ron and me in French class--I'll call him "David"--would ocassionally say to Ron in a menacing whisper, "Jew pig! Jew pig!"

David also suggested to Ron that he should "Go to the showers." That wasn't a comment on Ron's personal hygiene. David told me that was a euphemism for sending someone to a gas chamber, which was often disguised to look like a large, open shower.

I told David to knock it off, but that seemd to encourage him. He liked being recognized for his extremism.

One day he even got in trouble, and the teacher made him staff after class and listen to a record on racism. (This was in the days before videotapes were common in the classroom.)

He boasted about how he kicked the record player, but I knew that wasn't true. He probably just slept.

Ron suffered plenty of other kinds of abuse. He was the occasional victim of the "atomic wedgie," in which someone would come up behind him, reach down the back of his pants and pull up his underwear.

It was supposed to hurt like hell and cause the underwear to rip. Of course, the worse part was having it done in front of a large group of people, which your pride and your underwear flapping out there and damaged for all to see.

Unlike David, most of the kids picked on Ron not because his father was Jewish or he was heavy or had a lisp or whatever.

It was because he was different, and generally the last thing you want to be as an adolescent is "different." You already feel like you stand out because of the way you look, which seems to change every few months, and because of your behavior, because you're trying to settle in to whatever is supposed to be "normal," only you haven't figured that out yet because you haven't had enough life experience.

Ron went on to graduate from high school with high honors, got a university scholarship and eventually became a medical doctor. His hard work did set him free.

And what about David? I don't know. Don't care, really.

Some of the other sadists in my school probably went on to normal lives and would actually feel remorse now for the way they treated Ron.

Oh, I should explain why I still have that French book from high school. As I was getting ready to graduate, I went around to several teachers and asked them if I could buy old copies of the school-issued textbooks I'd used. Most said yes. My French teacher said there was one book he'd be glad if I got rid of because it was in such bad condition it could never be issued in school again. He gave that one to me.

I'll offer a thought in closing, and I welcome your input on it. It seems to me that school bullies, work bullies, neighborhood bullies or whatever can be reasoned with to some degree. You can actually activate a dormant conscience--in SOME cases. But for the most part, bullies are abusive simply because they can be. No one stops them. They're operating on the principle that as long as they can get away with it, why should they stop?

I'm not sure of the best approach to address the problem.

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