Comments on life, the universe and everything from an aging Sixties survivor.

Location: Massachusetts, United States

Ummm, isn't "about me" part of the point of the blog?

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Where adults fit in

When we discuss curing bullying, we often avoid talking about the part adults play, especially in school. At this point my narrative gets more speculative. At 12 or 13, I couldn't really get into the adult head. But I can put two and two together now.

Let's start inside the school, with the teacher/guidance counsellor; we'll call him Ed.
 When I got the goods on Ed from other teachers, as an adult, the assessment was that as a teacher he didn't want anything coming from students that challenged him in any way. Any sign of student intelligence threatened him. As a counsellor he had the power to punish any students who annoyed him for the rest of their school career. Let's also not forget that the teachers knew their status as well as the students. Possibly he was not thrilled at being #3. Would such behaviour be tolerated in a middle school today? We wonders, yes we wonders. A lot would depend on adult status games.

Where and how did seventh grade students learn their supposedly confidential status only a few weeks into a new school? Where indeed, if not from teachers? As far as I ever knew, teachers of elite classes didn't benefit financially in a cash-strapped New Hampshire school system. But perhaps their social status benefitted, if they were seen as teachers of the elite. On the other hand, teachers like Ed might have been typed as first of the losers. I don't recall any of my seventh grade teachers who didn't have a chip on their shoulder of some kind. Perhaps that was it.
Point is, if teachers gain an intrinsic benefit from supporting a class-conscious social structure, I suggest that they lose a degree of control over physically or socially aggressive behaviour. Granting Bazelon's hypothesis, the elite and their teachers were more or less immune from bullying by the lower orders. The latter, though, were opened up to becoming a social snake pit.

A principal determined to keep this sort of thing under control would make a great difference: my junior high didn't have one. Mr. R. was either focused on keeping the children of the elite in public school, or was an enabler by inclination, or (he was elderly) he just didn't care. Losses to the private schools were a problem, for sure, although some of the students who went this route were no loss indeed. It was interesting how a dying but determined high school principal, and his annoying but vigourous successor, kept a tight rein on cliquism from the start, making team players of almost everyone.

How I became almost popular

Ed accidentally helped me in junior high. I doubt that he meant well by thrusting me into the industrial arts track, although that was the short-term result. However, bad evaluations have a way of living on in bureaucracies and the minds of students. Assured that I had a bright future in mediocrity, I met Ed's expectation until the middle of my Junior year. Then came the results for PSATs and the Merit Scholarship exams. Everyone in the college prep track had had to take them early in the year, even the mediocre. It was a one-two punch for the faculty when I scored above the 95th percentile on both. Suddenly they realised the good opinions of a couple of my teachers were right, that they were wrong, that Ed's assessments were wrong. When the gates to better academic opportunities opened, it was as much to avoid embarrassment for the faculty as it was for me. By the time my first SATs showed the results were no fluke, I was set for a couple of senior Honours classes (no AP in those days) and the faculty had vigourously exercised damage control in what admittedly were my weakest areas, math and science. My seventh-grade attackers were still among the flounderers. I was recruited for the debate club, and began a series of improvised satires on the new administration that turned into my first major creative effort, part novel and part guerrilla theatre. The main thing was that by being recognised as bright, I started sitting in classes with bright people, which was stimulating.

All during my years of exile, though, I had made some friends to whom the gates were still closed. Remembering my own experience, they stayed my friends. It's perhaps human nature that I did not respond to friendly overtures from the leaders of the seventh grade pack. The unfortunate lessons of a harsh bullying experience are never trusting authority, being slow and careful to befriend anyone (which raises hell with dating*) and never, ever, forgiving those responsible for your experience. Again and again, I read stories of people extending their forgiveness to their quondam bullies. They are better folk than I am. I also read of former bullies expressing their remorse, and I can't believe them.

Adults and teachers outside the school deserve thoughtful consideration. As I've said, it is they who set the social context. It is they who can and should take proactive steps before a bullying culture sets root. Far too late, I regret missing out on the junior high chorus. What if someone in charge of that sixth-grade city-wide chorus had taken a little extra effort to introduce us to the teacher who conducted the chorale, made the connections before we arrived at junior high? That seems more efficient all around, and it's a recognition that at grade 6-8, some of us need a gentle shove in the right direction. Our school had a dismal football team, and an inert group of Boosters. The city's Catholic high school was new, but it inherited a tradition of excellence from its predecessor, and a tradition of scouting potential talent from fifth grade onward. Doing things like that beats hell out of hand-wringing. There's an opportunity to match children with school organisations that need their ability. This isn't perhaps the whole answer, but it can minimise the number of entering students who don't have an obvious connection and may be too shy to advance themselves.

I wonder if those junior high socials in my city still exist. The motivation still does. Because whatever accidental benefits those functions provided to people like  me,
The adult organisers were I think less do-gooders than snobs trying to train up the next generation of snobs. I suppose they have to be equal-opportunity snobs now.

What I can't address is how this worked amongst the girls, and it seems they have long had a corner on the nastiest social aggression. I did have a female cousin, overweight, who had a miserable time at the same time I did. She was saved by two things: she lost weight, partly due to illness, and she switched to parochial school. By the time she was able to bloom, she was in a totally different context. One would like to think girls could thrive with less extreme changes.

The best response to Bazelon is that maybe adults can't overtly act to help the bullied in ways that reinforce victimhood, but they ought to be bright enough to find ways to act pre-emptively.  I don't buy surrender as a strategy.

*It may say something about the effects of social scar tissue that when I began going out with someone regularly, she was from the Catholic high school.


Monday, February 25, 2013

Some reasons why

 Emily Bazelon's Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy  looks at bullying, among other things, from the perspective of someone who was bullied. In a Slate interview with Emily Yoffe, Bazelon discusses recent research suggesting that going after the weak had no benefit to bullies if their objective was ultimately social. But if they picked on someone near them in the social hierarchy who was a possible rival, that often had a social benefit. It's also valuable that she draws a distinction between physical and social aggression. I managed to get both: the Full Monty.

My experience mirrors Bazelon's idea that bullying is a failed social strategy. Concord was a very socially-conscious little city, and here's the first point on which I differ from what I've read of Bazelon. Her hypothesis is that adult intervention may harm more than help, by pinning the victim label on the bullied for life. Sorry, the adults are involved, or were in my school, before any bullying happened. It's adults (parents) who create the wider social context, and adults (teachers and administrators) who re-create that context in the schools. In my junior high, the social ladder some wanted to climb was a warped little mirror of the wider society in the city.

Consider my context. Every classroom in every grade had an academic status, and a social status that followed it. On paper this was confidential; in practise everyone knew their status, and presumably some aspired to move up, or were pressured to move up by ambitious parents. In Concord, there was an upper crust composed of the professional classes and bankers. The next level was occupied by state officers, an important element in a state capital, including my father. The aspiring usually were small businessfolk.  My two principal tormentors (excluding their little band of enforcers) were a) the son of a furniture store owner and b) the son of a junkyard owner. Interestingly, both were Jewish in a town with more than its share of anti-semitism. All of us were in the class ranked #3 on the pecking order. Except that it was adults who created the wider social context, The idea of bullying equals holds up. As the son of a state official (one known to be aggressively opposed to anti-semitism, I later learnt) in the same class, I would have qualified as a suitable target.

I should comment here that my parents were not helpful. They stuck to the conventional bromides and largely were oblivious to my pain. My body was not: toward the end of the year, soon after the beatings were showing signs of getting out of hand, I came down with severe adenoiditis. Being hardly able to speak in class just added to my miseries, but it soon became bad enough that I was taken out of school for several weeks. By the time I came back, the worst of my travails with peers had ended: presumably an absent and sick target was of no use and they had gone for someone else.

Did this bullying succeed? Apparently not.   My attackers were nobodies by high school, where the social puzzle was shaken up. In high school we had honours college prep, college prep, business, "general," and industrial arts. Home rooms were strictly alphabetical order, so twice a day the different classes had to rub elbows. My two little nemeses were far apart alphabetically. They were deprived of their goons, because industrial arts students spent much of the day in a separate building. Finally, their academic skills were not quite there (we'll get to that in a later post).

In After Newtown, an important point was raised. It is usually a media myth that teenage rampage killers are loners. More often, they are people who very much want to belong somewhere in the rigid  adolescent hierarchy.  I find this true. In seventh grade, I missed one important boat and nearly missed another.

In sixth grade, I had discovered a talent for choral music. (Something to do with the gene pool? Well duh!) I was good enough to be picked for a city-wide elementary school chorale. That should have been a cue for me, since the junior high had a very good music department, including a chorale, which like most chorales was frantic for good male voices. In my early adolescent mind, joining the chorale seemed like a slur on my masculinity, so I didn't audition. The irony of this was that the theme of my two little bullies and their muscle was that I was gay. Had I joined the chorale, I would have belonged to something out of the reach of the bullies, or at least had a social group to fend such clowns off.

I also turned down an invitation to what seemed to be nothing more than dancing lessons, for the same reason. Oddly enough its organisers persisted with me, and by eighth grade I yielded to parental pressure. What's germane to the discussion is that by joining this little coterie, I was on neutral--equal--ground with a couple of people who had at least been fellow travellers with my seventh grade gangstas. Back to Bazelon again: they surely perceived themselves as superiors in that group, and I was not inclined to contest it. At any rate, I began breaking the ice with people of both sexes and getting out from under the burden of social pariahdom. I don't recall that either of the main players were part of this group. Hindsight suggests no Jews were. Note, again, that it wasn't kids who organised these dance parties: it was adults. Had I joined the group in seventh grade, it would probably have inoculated me against this particular aggression. I would have been oblivious to the price tag then, but it makes me cringe in retrospect.

Last post, I made a snarky remark about whether we should require an adult level of sophistication of children as one preventive of bullying, at least by teachers.
Looking back, I also recall that nobody ever bullied those who exuded adulthood, i.e., those who could be perceived as social  superiors. Last time, my example was a polymath who already lived for his music and was obviously intellectually miles ahead not only of any potential bully, but also of most peers and most teachers.  He combined offhand brilliance with social competence that most adults could envy. He would hardly have noticed a bully.

By contrast, those like me who tried to take their time and size up this new environment seem to have been vulnerable. If one was also awkward and shy, the situation worsened. All these traits prevent impulsiveness, which grade 6-8 culture seems to value above all other behaviours. To be deliberate is to seem afraid. At any rate, Bazelon is on the right track here. When something signals superiority, the bullies back off.

Enough for the moment. I think next post it will be time to take a look at the role of adults. Bazelon may be right about the limits adults have in fixing the problem, but we sure as hell need to consider what grownups have done to create and enable it.


Saturday, February 23, 2013

More of the Story

Harrumpher's commentary seems to speak to moral solutions that treat the weakness of bullying victims. All very interesting, but I neither asked "why me" or, as far as I can tell, offered up a paean to self-pity. My question was why anyone?

Since it has come up, I'll offer my .02 that a huge part of misunderstanding the victims of bullying isn't understanding what it is (I think I did that elsewhere), it is exactly this idea that this sort of victimhood is self-inflicted. Might be, might not be. The problem I see is that sticking this label on victims of school violence  allows everyone else to preen their feathers of moral perfection without doing anything to share their virtues with others. "My virtues are my sword and buckler: Go thou and do likewise" isn't an answer: it's a cop-out. Worse, it's a direct contribution to the problem.

I have perhaps not made  a couple of things clear in my last post, and probably not to Mr. H. in conversation. My concern arises from the rest of the story. I did not spend my entire childhood in woebegone victimhood. Having created my niche in a new school in a rough town,  I was pretty much in control of my peer life in grade school, using most of the standards and skills Mr. H. associates with resisting bullying. They included standing firm, which in that town often meant throwing punches, and glibness. Conventional wisdom would say that having achieved certain pinnacles of moral perfection, I ought to have been well-placed to handle junior high school.
Alas, it was not so.

Seventh grade was an anomaly. I used the opportunities I had over the next two years to  get even, subtly and without overt violence. In my high school, where nothing like the toxic cliquism,  student bullying and staff enabling of the junior high was tolerated*, things grew even better. Once doors that had been shut to me were opened, I began to bloom. By my senior year I was well-liked, even popular. The gang that had been my seventh grade nemesis had evaporated and its members had faded into deserved insignificance.

I'm not interested in generating my own pity about the seventh grade anomaly,  or anyone else's. I'm asking why a student, until a certain moment coping well with school life, is suddenly called upon to put most of his or her energy into resisting, into standing firm if you will, instead of learning.  Why do the coping mechanisms that the world prizes suddenly fail some students and not others? Still more, is it really enough to moralise at the students who do not have any of the apparently necessary skills? Don't they also deserve a chance?

How is it that some students advance from the experience, while others commit suicide or homicide? The contemplation needs to get past the simplicity of "why me" as a social condemnation, to "why anyone, and why do these things manifest in such complicated ways?"

I'm also asking why some teachers and administrators will advance almost any excuse to relieve themselves of responsibility for allowing such situations to exist.

If we mean to understand the path to violent rampages and student suicide, I think it is desperately important to find these things out. I'm shouting here, not from self-pity, but because I understand, from the inside, how easy it can be for an adolescent to cross the line from suffering into violence. Some of us who endured this went to the line, but stepped back from the temptation to violence. Don't trivialise our experience, but let us help.

* It was in high school that I got the first inkling of the low esteem in which my 7th grade "guidance counsellor" was held. I learnt as an adult that he was despised by his peers almost as much as was the junior high principal, but seniority shielded them both. It was a relief then to find out that I had not imagined the Principal's indifference or the hostility of that counsellor to any student who made him look stupid. Perhaps to the other conventional virtues we should add sophistication: a naive student appears to stand no chance.

Background to bullying

We moved just before my eighth birthday, from a downtown neighbourhood to what was, realistically, a separate, small, rural town.  We were among the first suburban families to move in. It took a while to get accepted, but for the most part, there was harassing but not bullying. Possibly this had to do with a generally violent culture, one in which fist fights between adults weren't uncommon.  Kids may have been careful because it was hard to be sure what the consequences would be.

I made friends among the new suburban people and the farming families. I don't recall any particular skill driving this besides curiosity, at first. I was the fat kid who was usually chosen last for pickup baseball or football. I don't call that bullying, just normal kid behaviour. Similarly, it was normal that my status improved when they and I discovered that I could hold a football line together better than the smaller kids. We also found out that if I couldn't hit many doubles, I could hit any baseball thrown at me and bat a lot of runs in.

Junior high was a new world. Sports, indeed all extracurriculars, were organised and dominated by cliques. I have always sized up my situations slowly and carefully. In hindsight that may not have worked for me. The pit bulls (all of them but one smaller than me, by the way) attacked before I had things worked out. Once they had, by the way, I discovered I really didn't have any friends from my old school to have my back. I didn't then, and don't now, know what made these people so important.

The next year, after my demotion, what seemed to save my bacon was that natural curiosity. Left on its own, my curiosity is strong enough to deflect hostility. So it fell out here. I don't remember pointing out my tormentors to these new guys. Still, I was hanging out with shop rats who could chew steel bars for snacks, and this made  for protection without actual violence. Oh yeah, I could help them with their homework.

The vindictive teacher was both my 7th grade English teacher and my guidance counselor. Years later, I understood that my quickness in class had bruised his ego. His curriculum featured  dull school fiction, and I was doing book reports on Joseph Conrad and Nicholas Montserrat. This growing conflict was playing out in front of my tormentors, in the same class. All very complicated.

All this brings me to wonder if middle schools in particular need to put more energy into matching "different" students with teachers who can tolerate the talented different child. In another class of my 7th grade was a student who was perpetually ahead of his teachers, and completely preoccupied with his music. His teachers evidently had more resilient egos than did my teachers. He has gone on to win a Grammy Award, a Pulitzer Prize, and every other award music can offer. Not to say that I'd have matched his abilities: no chance there. But how much might he have been stifled by more mediocre teachers and small-minded bullies?

Out for now.


Thursday, February 21, 2013

Just a quick thought

We've been watching the PBS series After Newtown,  and something struck me.

Keep in mind I'm speaking as someone who experienced junior high bullying that frequently went over the line into assault and battery. It didn't end until a vindictive teacher/guidance counselor moved me from the college prep track to the industrial arts track, for petty reasons of his own. There, I made friends who were much nastier than the 7th grade bullies I had to contend with, and the latter disappeared.

I digress. We are spending a great deal of time looking into the heads of the bullied who go round the bend, and as much time peering at the grey matter of the bullied who merely suffer. Some pundits also contemplate the minds of the bullies and of the school authorities who enable them.

Is anyone thinking about the kids who are not bullied? The first harassing steps of the process that leads to assaultive bullying seem to be near universal among children. What resources do the not-bullied have that discourage bullies? (Aside from the obvious one of punching the bully's lights out.) Why is it that of two young people who seem to be nearly identical, one is not a satisfying target for a bully, and one is?

If we're looking at brain images, we might include these.


Sunday, February 17, 2013

More tiresome TN shit

O bliss, oh rapture! We have definitely made a trigger transition from cold as primary to eating as primary. That's not to say cold plays no part. I was out with the snowblower a couple of hours ago and have spent most of the time since paying for that necessary indiscretion. That's not much compared with episodes after half or more of my recent attempts at consuming anything.

No cloud without a silver lining, though. I could stand to drop a few pounds and I could stand to reboot some of my less productive eating habits. When one can't eat anything without risk, a reboot is gonna happen.

There's a good deal of me between now and starvation, so there are opportunities to figure out if there are things one can eat successfully. I do have better luck with breakfast than other meals.  Today we went out and I managed a veggy omelette, which is an encouraging sign. Unfortunately, some of us find oatmeal, cream of wheat and like rather tedious as a regular diet. It would be a very good thing if one outcome of this breakthrough is a shift to a larger, healthier and less frantic breakfast and a humble (if varied, puh-leeze!) supper.

Oh and yes, I've probably heard all the Internet woo there is on the subject. One works, says I, and that is treating the trigger areas with strong capsaicin solutions. A neurologist I consulted believes it offers an actual pain centre to a nerve that is running itself ragged looking for a stimulus that isn't there. Eventually, one burns the skin off the face and it's necessary to change tactics.

As for the rest, whether surgery or woo, show me the Carfax: clinically tested evidence that a treatment not only works, but keeps working indefinitely, doesn't create conditions worse than TN, and doesn't drive away the rest of the human race. (I know of one very effective orally-administered treatment that can be smelt 50 metres away, making noses run and eyes water.)

That's all the news from the front lines. Be kind to people with chronic pain: we are all very busy staying sane.

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Thursday, February 07, 2013

The diary, part 2

Well, here we are. The Beast has roared in with a vengeance, after sniffing and growling around for months. There are many pain scales out there. I use the Mankoski scale, which I think is the simplest. This year, all year, I've had brief spasms of level 4-6 pain. By brief I mean most episodes were over before one could medicate them, so no vacation. My PCP had me crank up the Tegretol to see if that helped. It did, a little: since it kept the creature at bay until February.

It did not like being put off. After years of episodes having predictable signs and symptoms, the manifestations had become irregular, but moderate. Then, last evening, Mr. Beast blew in at level 7.5-8. End of evening .

After a careful lunch of yogurt and coffee, and a midday walk around a nearby   department store (drafts are still a problem), I went back to work to find Beastie waiting for me again.  And why yogurt for lunch? As noted in the first summary, eating solids now seems to be Trigger No. 1, so I'm now back on liquids and mushy stuff: except most alcoholic beverages. How long? Until it goes back to bother the shade of Maurice Sendak. How successful? Not very, in the opening stages. If I eat soup, oatmeal and yogurt, I have a 50-50 chance of getting a meal digested without breakthrough pain. If I eat, say, a grilled chicken sandwich with chips, I have 9 chances in 10 of breakthrough pain and, if I'm in public, disturbing the people around me.

Next discovery will be whether the predictable manifestations assert themselves, or whether the next two or three months are full of surprises.


Sunday, February 03, 2013

Them's fightin' words

Comments about the Second Amendment aren't going to persuade anyone contr'ry minded. Until we grow up as a nation let's just take that as a given.

It doesn't mean we shouldn't comment.

Wayne LaPierre, the official bigmouth of the NRA, is fond of the slippery slope argument, saying that any restriction on the Second Amendment is a step down the slippery slope to disarming the populace. In the 1990s,  he also called  ATF agents "jack-booted thugs" in the aftermath of the Waco and Ruby Ridge incidents. Less known is that he signed a letter to NRA members containing similar sentiments around the time of the Oklahoma City bombing. That was, arguably, a case of speech protected by the First Amendment. It was also the occasion of me parting ways with the NRA.

Such sentiments fall under the original tests of  legal principle called the Fighting Words Doctrine. That doctrine has been modified over the years to apply only to speech that explicitly threatens violence. One wonders  whether the doctrine should apply to numerous Second Amendment defenders abroad these days, who in their zeal to defend the Second Amendment, falsely believe that the First Amendment enables them to say anything, no matter how menacing. The aftermath of LaPierre's "thugs" remarks in the 1990s was resignation of NRA members in large numbers, demonstrating one consequence of provocative words, fighting or not.

If I were to be present when LaPierre was speaking,  I might be tempted to offer up another demonstration of provocative words, which hopefully would provoke and open up another test of the doctrine.

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