Monday, April 14, 2008

Were we really cruel when we were kids?

Were we the cruelest generation?

It's a question I have been asking myself lately, living in one of the great melting pots of civilization. Kids out here to go school with black kids, Latino kids, Asian kids from almost every country over there. We were so homogenous -- basically 98 percent white and Anglo -- that we were left with only each other to hate.

Oh, I don't mean we all hated each other. Far from it. But with all of us basically the same, we gave each other a hard time over things like looks, athletic ability, career choices, stuff like that.

When I attended the 40-year reunion in November, I was reminded of the fact that the big controversy of our time was "collegiates and greasers." In some other towns it might have been called "preppies and rednecks," or some other variation on a theme. What it amounted to was a conflict between those who were going to work with their hands and those who were going to work with their minds.

Those of us who were "collegiates" were our parents' dreams. We were going to have white-collar jobs, own houses in the suburbs and read lots of good books. The "greasers" would live in slums, have a hard time getting clean after work and watch low-brow television shows.

We didn't realize that auto mechanics. electricians, plumbers and a host of other blue-collar trades would wind up making a much better living than a lot of office workers and teachers.

But we sure made those kids feel like shit. We sure let them believe they could never be as cool, as smart or as blessed as we were. We sure let them believe there was nothing they could ever do to make us accept them.

It wasn't just them, either. There were plenty of kids who were a little too clumsy, a little too slow or a little too ugly to be popular, and there was always at least one of us around to make fun of them.

I remember one story that was making the rounds during our senior year. A girl in one of my classes -- no names, please -- really wanted to go out with a guy who was probably out of her league. She supposedly offered him $50 to go on a date with her, and his response was that he would do it if she would wear a bag over her head.

I had a good friend who wasn't overly masculine. He had to suffer through a lot of "queer" and "homo" stuff, and he got pushed around by some of the testosterone cases in gym class.

We had a kid in the band -- once again, no names -- who was a little too fat and a little too strange. He took more abuse from people than anybody I knew.

None of these people ever come back for our reunions. I remember one of them writing in one of the reunion books that there was no way he would even spend one minute more with members of the Class of '67.

Sure, we were just kids. Most of us probably think we would never do anything like that now, and some of us kid ourselves by saying we weren't that big a part of abusing anyone even then.

I don't know if I can say that, but I know to my everlasting shame that I didn't stand up and defend them when they needed it. One of the most abused kids in our class was someone I didn't know at all until I spent senior year preparing for "It's Academic" with him.

It turned out he was a perfectly nice guy, but he won't be coming to the reunions either. He died sometime in the last 40 years.

There's been one thing I worked very hard to teach my son.

Don't be mean to anybody.

In his first year of college, his roommate came to me and paid him a real compliment. "Virgile is the nicest person I have ever met in my life."

It made me wish I'd been nicer myself.


Dale Morgan said...

Well said, Mike. I agree totally that even those of us who did NOT try to hurt other classmates were still somewhat guilty of not stepping forward and stopping it. Possibly even more guilty because we were not mean spirited; therefore, knew better, and still did not step forward.

Gail Schultz MacLeod said...

It's true teenagers can be rude and cruel. Teenagers are self-absorbed and the center of their own universe.

Like you, I was my parents dream/goal-- that is to go to college.

We may have thought less of the VoTech kids (calling them greasers) but that didn't mean they had low opinions of themselves or in any way wanted to be like us "collegiates". They had their own network of friends and social dynamics -- of which we had no part.

Some do come to our reunions. My best friend in 7th & 8th grade went VoTech. We didn't see each other in high school because I was an athlete and college-bound. But she comes to the reunions and we now e-mail each other occasionally.

We were a diverse bunch in so many ways -- perhaps in ways we'll never perceive.

Diversity is far more than skin-color governed. It's culturally and socio-economically based as well -- maybe even more so. My college-educated black friends are more like me than the white folks living here in single-wide trailers in the mountains of Virginia.

I guess that's a long way of saying that your write-up made me think about all this stuff.

Mike Rappaport said...

Gail, you said something extremely insightful in your comment, that your college-educated black friends were more like you than your blue-collar white friends.

That's the great secret of American life -- the real divisions between us aren't about race, they are far more likely to be about class and/or education.