By Jeremy Nathan Marks
PROMPT—I am grateful for ...
When I was about to turn thirteen I was bullied by a classmate. Since we were the two tallest kids in our seventh-grade class, he decided that he needed to be the one in charge. One morning, in home economics, he came over to me at my desk and stuck a sewing needle into my cheek. He did this repeatedly while several of his friends egged him on.
I sat motionless, not certain what to do. My instinct was to do nothing, to remain stoic. And that is what I did. I did not say anything to the teacher when she arrived and I elected not to show any emotion at all that day in school. I do not know if this was based on a self-preservation instinct or if it was a product of my upbringing.
Growing up, I had a neighbor who taunted me mercilessly for years. We were the same age and she was the kind of person who was inspired by any response to her actions. She also had parents who could not seem to find flaws in her conduct. When her behavior was brought to their attention, they would respond by saying that I must have done something to provoke her. Because the situation seemed hopeless and because she was a girl and I was a boy and I was taller and much larger than she, I was told to “turn the other cheek.”
I admit, I grew accustomed to being harassed. I think that in many ways I did develop a thick skin and that I did adopt a certain stoicism. But I am not writing to express my gratitude for that. I am thankful for something else.
The student who was bullying me was African American and I am white. I grew up in a diverse suburban community but, in spite of that diversity, racism was rampant. Stories of carjackings and drug-related killings filled the nightly news and morning editions of the Washington Post. Often Washington D.C. was described as the “murder capital of the world” and that this was because it was a “black city.” The mayor of Washington, Marion Barry was the butt of late-night talk shows because he had been filmed smoking crack cocaine in a motel room with a woman not his wife. I had family members from the midwest who were afraid to visit because they thought that my family lived in a war zone. Of course, this was not true—it was utterly absurd—but there was a climate of fear at the time, and pretty soon that fear found its way into national legislation, specifically the 1994 Crime Bill.
The 1990s was the decade when stupid and bigoted ideas like the “Super Predator” theory argued that there were criminals among us who were genetically predisposed to be killers. You can imagine who those super predators were and what they looked like. This was the era of “three strikes and you’re out” in law enforcement where three felonies could land you in prison for life. It wasn’t long after I finished school that police were posted to the schools and kids could be arrested for truancy.
Fortunately, none of this was in place when I chose to tell my parents what had happened to me. They contacted the school administration and the student who had hurt me was not arrested. He was not sent to juvenile detention. The entire affair was kept between the vice principal, my parents, and his parents. He received a single day of suspension and then returned to school. And for the record, he never bothered me again. He was allowed to make a mistake and not have his life destroyed as a result.
Looking back, I am deeply thankful for how this situation was handled. And I want to be very clear what it is I am thankful for. I am thankful because two lives were not ruined by a simple, stupid incident that did not need to involve the police. It was simply an incident between two boys. There was no need for it to be blown out of proportion or to be racialized. We were treated like human beings and that is how things should be. And the situation was handled firmly, the violence of his act was not ignored or dismissed. But it also wasn’t turned into evidence that he was somehow a criminal-in-training.
Imagine that the school had involved the police. Would my classmate have been arrested? Would his life have been ruined because he made a foolish, boyish mistake? Would he have seen his future wrecked because of an impulsive act? That would have been tragic. And had that happened, it would have been absolutely, completely wrong.
And what might have happened to me if he had been arrested? Would I have been labeled a snitch? Would I have been targeted by his friends and by others as well? Would I have been at risk because I simply wanted to protect myself? Fortunately, good parents on both sides and a professional school administrator prevented all of that and things worked out. In fact, things worked out so well that I came to like the kid who hurt me. I genuinely grew to like him and I still think of him nearly thirty years later.
I am thankful that my middle school vice principal handled matters the way he did. I am thankful that he cared enough about both of his students, one black and one white, and that he made sure we were both treated fairly, humanely, and with respect. He protected us and for that, I am filled with gratitude.
Jeremy Nathan Marks lives in London, Ontario. Recent writing can be found in places like Anti-Heroin Chic, So It Goes, Dissident Voice, New Verse News, The Last Leaves, Bewildering Stories, and Chiron Review.