Native Writes: School bullies grow up


I can still remember the smell of Central School when I walked in for the first time.

Since the folks weren’t able to afford kindergarten, I was plunged into a strange environment that smelled of crayons, hand soap, cologne and people.

When the tree was shaken, I was sent to the classroom of Mrs. Jennie Heilman, who usually got the kids that had been prepped. We were tested and I must have reached the pinnacle required.

We began the day with the Pledge of Allegiance. I knew about that due to my dad.

We may have prayed, but I can’t recall the text.

I prayed anyway. I have never liked meeting people who considered themselves better than me.

Some of the kids were bullies who tormented me because I had no siblings. As an only child, I didn’t know how to respond.

Mrs. Heilman admonished them.

I had bullies in each class at Central and begged my mother to send me to the classes where they sent the kids that didn’t test well.

No luck. I was where I was. My mom said the schools had their reasons for placing children where they did.

The only time I saw her lose it at school was when I was in the second grade and watching some third graders play jacks.

I knew what they were saying, so when they got into an argument in Spanish about who was the best player, I reserved understood.

The teacher who had been watching our section of the playground rushed us into the principal’s office, weeping and complaining that the girls were bad-mouthing her in a “foreign language.”

All of the mothers were called in and questioned about their home life.

When it was my mom’s turn, she asked the questions. Why did the teacher feel threatened?

No one could come up with an answer.

Mom talked about accepting other people’s cultures and beliefs.

The children were sent out of the room and voices rose briefly. Then we were allowed back in and the teacher was told not to do that to any students again.

That was long before I heard about the school desegregation case of 1912-14 and the fact that “Mexican” children were forced to attend a specific school at the corner of Ninth and Ross because it was assumed they couldn’t learn in English.

Today, I wonder if that teacher was a product of that school or that attitude. She probably wasn’t, but I still shake my head.

The girls I had played jacks with moved away and I hoped they could be themselves wherever they went. The cloud lingered over what had happened.

People in Europe are honored if they speak several languages fluently and anyone seeking a doctorate in the United States is expected to know another language, so I still wonder why anyone would feel threatened by a schoolyard conversation.

From 1950 when I was in the second grade, that has puzzled me.

Watching TV and the current attitude at the top, I see it again and again.

Every child in school today benefits from the desegregation case, but not every adult can understand why.

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