NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

October 15, 2013

Save your put-downs for arm-wrestling

As I See It
Bob Gallagher

---- — It is no exaggeration to confess that my elementary school class, both individually and collectively, spent eight years putting down Sam in a very cruel and personal way.

Virtually every morning in the classroom, Sam was greeted with the words: “Hi, pig face!”

And when we saw Sam outside at recess: “Hi, pig face!”

And even at church school, where we were learning to become such good Christians: “Hi, pig face!”

Most of us knew only three things about classmate Sam: that his father owned a taxicab service; that he was the second of nine children; and that his chunky face had a nose that was both large and flat, as if he had walked into a wall.

We chose to focus on the third!

Today, Sam’s parents most likely would find a way to access plastic surgery, but in those days and in my neighborhood, who could afford it?

I don’t recall whether any staff or any classmate ever called Sam aside to assure him that the issue wasn’t so much the shape of his nose as the pigheadedness of his classmates.

And I don’t ever recall staff or classmate calling me or anyone else aside, challenging us to get beyond Sam’s nose to Sam’s heart.

As I look back, Sam had many fine qualities. He had great shoulders for football; he was gifted in art; he was a terrific math student. But we ignored all of that. It was so much easier to focus on the one deformity rather than on the several talents.

If just one kid (especially a popular kid) had said: “Leave him alone,” might it have stopped us all dead in our tracks?

After graduation from grade 8, I lost track of most classmates as I headed for a private school. However, I learned through the grapevine that Sam was receiving, in high school, the same verbal abuse and bullying that had haunted him in elementary.

During early adulthood, I met Sam once. He looked so sad and downtrodden. He was looking for a friend, but I was too caught up with myself to notice. His nose didn’t look as large or as flat as I had recalled. Actually, his nose hadn’t changed. It was my own eyesight that had changed. On that single adult occasion, Sam was very kind to me and I couldn’t imagine why after all the slurs I had dumped on him as a child.

I wish I could share with you that I apologized, but the fact is that I didn’t. It didn’t even occur to me and I missed a golden opportunity to reach out.

The stories about Sam as victim of verbal bullying — now during his adult years — continued. Some employees and customers were apparently as ignorant and as mean as his classmates.

Not that long ago, I conversed with a peer from elementary school:

“Did you know that Sam is dead?” she inquired.

“No, I didn’t know that!” I replied.

“Did you know that he climbed onto a chair and hung himself with a rope?”

“No, I didn’t know that!”

The silence in the room felt thick.

“Sam left a three-word note. His self-image was so low that he didn’t even bother to sign it!”

“Three words?”

“Enough is enough!”

An even longer silence ensued.

“Do you remember when, day in and day out, we called him ‘pig face’ without any let-up?”

“Yes, I remember!”

Eight years of school with Sam and I had known only three things about him that mattered to me: his father’s occupation, his family lineup and the shape of his nose. Now I knew a fourth: He had taken his life.

Whew!

What if one of Sam’s classmates (just one) had rallied the guts to stand by him?

What if just one of his classmates had insisted that “enough is enough”?

What if we had realized that we were abusing Sam not only as individuals but also as a community?

Sam died with three words on a note: “Enough is enough!”

What if his classmates had lived with three words on our minds: ‘Differences are good!”

Differences of looks, height, weight, race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, nationality … the Archie Bunker “whatever”!

The power that each of us has to support one another is phenomenal!

The opposite is also true!

God forgive us!

And kudos to the students of today whose level of consciousness has been raised to the point of proactively confronting any form of bullying on the spot, nipping it in the bud! Or, at least sharing such abuse confidentially with an adult who can do something about it!

The Sams of the world continue to cry out: “Enough is enough!”

What if each and every classroom in America were to post (and enforce): “Save your put-downs for arm-wrestling!”

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The Rev. Dr. Bob Gallagher of Salisbury can be contacted at RevDrBob@aol.com.