Monday, March 28, 2011

Standing Against Bullies

Once upon a time, in Tulsa, OK, 1963, a young man took a chance and a stand against a bully. He survived, and I have been better all my days and all these years since because he did.

Oklahoma peacefully integrated its schools when the courts advised it to do so, thanks, in large measure, to the governor at that time, Raymond Gary. Unlike our country cousins east, where Governor Faubus whipped his Arkansaw-yers into a froth, Governor Gary used his influence to set a high expectation for Okies. His mailbag filled with venom, but the streets did not, and it cost him a second term.

Other kids may have felt the change in student population when their schools integrated. I did not. I lived in Tulsa, one of the larger cities in OK. There, property lines and neighborhoods segregated schools, and busing had not yet been mandated. Busing was for the rare, gifted student, just like the poor, white, very smart kid who joined the Class of 1966 at Edison High School during my sophomore year. His district high school offered only basic survey math and science classes, and someone, somewhere in administration understood that a great mind is a terrible thing to waste.

This guy with glasses and plain clothes was unassuming and reserved, especially during the more social part of the class, also known as Homeroom, a fifteen-minute block at the beginning of every first hour class when students collaborated on school-wide projects such as candy sales for extracurricular activities or yearbook sales. The transfer-boy never participated when we spent Saturday afternoons in someone’s home filling Easter baskets for orphans, and he never ever purchased tickets for school plays and special events. In fact, he was the sole reason that our homeroom never earned the Intercom announcement or cookie incentives for having 100% participation.

This 99% completion rate galled our Honors English teacher. Whenever she spoke of deadlines and expectations, her mouth became a flat line and she peered over her half-moon reading glasses, her eyes boring lasers into the top of that smart boy’s head. He pushed her over the edge at last:

“We need one more person to pay for his yearbook, to bring us to 100% in yearbook sales—the same person who failed to bring a donation for the needy.” She stepped closer to his desk, the one in the exact center of the room, up front, under her watchful eye. She seemed to believe that he would cheat if she ever relaxed her gaze. She stood so close above him that he could not look up without appearing to take too much interest in her anatomy.

At the back of the room, our own Hubbell Gardner, destined to become the quarterback and Student Council president, the boy for whom everything came easily, stood and spoke.

“Stop. Please. What you’re doing is wrong. It doesn’t matter if we win the 100% prize.”

Mrs. English teacher, fashionably dressed, knowledgeable and intellectual, opened her mouth to put Hubbell in his place. The head of the boy seated below her exposed his neck a bit more, waiting for the final blow that never came because right then, someone said, “He’s right. Stop.” Someone else said, “We do what we can.”

Mrs. English teacher, mouth agape, said nothing. She whirled 180°, flaring the hem of her perfectly pressed shirtwaist dress. At her desk, she peered over those reading glasses at us—all of us while feeling for her red ink pen before dismissing us in some show of defiance by lowering her eyes to a set of papers. We breathed again and settled back against our desks, proud of our Hubbell.

We let go of our covetous feelings inspired by his successes. Now we understood that he had the right stuff, that he deserved success. We understood that he had courage, but more important than courage, he also had empathy for the victims of the worst kind of public school bullying—the kind that some teachers dish out, safe behind their lecterns.

Wherever you are, Hubbell, well-done!