In November, I went to the local elementary school to vote. There was a large sign on the school bulletin board stating in capital letters, "THIS SCHOOL HAS ZERO TOLERANCE FOR BULLYING."
I smiled as I read the sign. It brought back memories of a childhood in Brooklyn when school bullies were both revered and feared. I was raised in a lower-
middle-class section of Brooklyn during the early 1960s. I spent the first 14 years of my life living on the top floor of a four-story brownstone, which was three blocks from school.
During that period, bullying was not only tolerated, it was accepted by both parents and school officials as a rite of passage into the real world. I often look back at that time and remember that a good day in school was a day when you were not involved in a fight.
Back then, most teachers taught us the three "R's" while turning their backs on spitballs, graffiti and the occasional punch thrown in class. In an attempt to avoid disciplinary action, many bullies waited until after school hours to start fights just outside the school property.
Discipline was inconsistently applied. Suspensions were rare. In most cases the offending student was forced to sit in the back of the room. "Serious" offenders were taken to the principal's office, given a stern warning, and then thrown back into class where the cycle of bullying would start all over again. Occasionally teachers would take harsher actions, which included striking students with their hands, chalk, rulers or any other teaching materials at their disposal. While the New York Board of Education prohibited teachers from taking such actions, that rule was rarely, if ever, enforced in the 1960s. Both bullies and those who were bullied feared teachers who used violence to keep their class in control.
With all the bullying I had to bear, I often wonder how I made it into adulthood relatively unscathed. I had a few close friends during my childhood; however, we were no match for what seemed to be a virtual army of bullies.
One of the ways I survived was through comic books. The comic books of that era had one similar thread: superheroes. A superhero was someone with special abilities who championed the weak and oppressed. Those heroes would fight against a myriad enemies. Initially, the villains would find a superhero's weakness and exploit it. In the end, however, the superhero would overcome that weakness and defeat the enemy.
My favorite comic-book hero was Superman. There were many ways I identified with him. He was the lone survivor of his kind. In his guise of Clark Kent, he had a tough time maintaining his secret while working at the Daily Planet. Despite his problems, Superman would take the bad moments in stride, knowing that his uniqueness was a gift given to him by his parents, who sacrificed their own lives so he could live in this environment we call Earth.
My days at school were not unlike those days when Clark Kent worked at the Daily Planet. There were challenges every day. I had to do my homework and excel in class. As one of the few Jewish children in a predominantly Christian school, I enjoyed my uniqueness, even if it was at the expense of being bullied daily. While my parents never had to sacrifice their lives or well-being on my behalf, I remember the day when they saved me from an abusive second- grade teacher. She frequently cursed in class, and was ready to hit me with a ruler because I did not remember the answer to a question about local geography.
My parents, like the superheroes I read about, jumped into action. They met with the PTA, and the school principal. They also contacted the Board of Education.
Initially, no one would take any action. Finally, my parents told me they would not allow me to return to school unless I was transferred out of the class or the teacher was fired. I thought about how Superman's parents saved him from a dying planet by sending him to a safe haven.
Eventually, my parents reached a compromise with the school. I was transferred to another second-grade class and the abusive teacher was transferred to the sixth grade. I often wonder why that teacher wasn't fired. I also wondered how many children suffered emotional problems as a result of both the school bullies, and abusive teachers.
Sadly, most abusive teachers went unpunished during that time period. "Spare the rod and spoil the child" was the phrase many authorities used in the 1960s. I am glad my parents ignored another popular saying back then: "Children should be seen and not heard."
My parents, a few close friends and my Superman comics helped keep me emotionally whole during my childhood. I kept reading comics until eighth grade. Then one day, shortly after my 13th birthday, I found a store that sold gently used comic books. They had several Superman comics that I must have missed during my younger days. I eagerly purchased several of them. One of those publications told of "The Last Days of Superman." In that story, Superman came in contact with an unknown substance that would kill him in 30 days. Although he was saved on Day 29, I was heartbroken.
The myth of Superman's invulnerability was shattered in my mind. I couldn't bring myself to purchase another Superman comic, and eventually I gave away my comic-book collection.
As I transitioned to adulthood, I started reading books by Ian Fleming, Ernest Hemingway and Herman Wouk. My family moved from the small brownstone in Brooklyn to a larger apartment in Queens. Bullies were less prevalent at the new school, and I could breathe a sigh of relief.
It has been 40 years since I read my last comic book. I often think about how different life is today. I am sure the abusive second-grade teacher I faced in the 1960s would have found herself out of a job in today's world, long before she struck her first student. Bullying, while no longer openly tolerated in schools, has taken a new direction as a result of the Internet and social media.
Like Superman, who stood for truth, justice and the American way, I can only hope that we all learn to stand for fairness, equality and peace.
Howard K. Young,
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