I was forced to do what I did not want to do. I was coerced with no ability to change the course of action that I detested and hated. I was told how I should act and that I had no choice. In the end I was traumatized. Going to school was a time of desperation for me, as ridiculous as that may sound to some, it was for me, the end of innocence. It was 1964. No longer able to stay at home with mom, I was terrified to go to school and cried the whole way. For days on end I cried.
Then, I was hit. Second-grade. My knuckles were thwacked with the metal side of a ruler. I was in shock. I was in pain. I was humiliated and embarrassed. I am not sure what my classmates felt; I couldn’t even look at them.
Then, I was in front of others, peers, and forced to stand and take the physical punishment. Third-grade. I was beaten with a wooden board across my backside, in front of everyone. I was hardened into defense and was not about to cry. I was mad. Internally.
Then, it kept happening. Fourth, fifth, and sixth-grades. By bigger muscular men, by those with authority, nuns, principals and a Detroit Tiger now teacher, by those who didn’t like what I was doing, by those in charge. This set me off on a course toward retribution. I was pissed and I was not going to take it laying down. I was going to get back at all this corporal punishment.
My parents never hit me. They were pacifists. Yet they knew I got hit. They did not believe in physical punishment for behavior modification. They were liberal, progressive parents who did not believe that physical consequences helped a child. On the contrary, they felt that it would do more harm than good. They were not in line with the times in the early 1960’s when I was a child.
No, it wasn’t at home that I was punished. It was in the government regulated schools. First in parochial Catholic school, St. John Vianney, then in public school, Anderson Elementary School. By the time I got to Longfellow Junior High School I was acting out. Soon I was being suspended for my behavior. Finally, in seventh-grade, Hannah Middle School told my parents that if I were to be suspended one more time, I had been suspended six times already in the first semester, I would be expelled from the school district.
My dad cried. He never cried. Then he spoke to me and told me sadly that he didn’t know what he could do for me except send me to a military school if I were to get suspended again and couldn’t return to the school district.
Holy shit! Military school! From my pacifist parents! I must really be bad!
Something shifted. I don’t know what. I don’t remember why. But something changed. I did not, definitely not, want to go to military school. I felt I would get in worse trouble there and maybe even die. Like many other times in my life I think some sort of guardian angel watched over me.
I didn’t get suspended again. I’m not sure how that happened. Often, very often in my life, I knew that only a guardian angel could have gotten me out of a mess I got myself into. However it happened, I stayed the course and made it through the year.
My parents had talked of pulling me out of eighth grade and putting me ahead a year into high school. They thought maybe school wasn’t challenging enough for me. Which was true. It was boring and tedious, and I couldn’t ever see the point. Not since kindergarten when I was forcefully kept in school against my will and had to lay down for nap time when I didn’t want or need a nap. Only later did I learn that Dr. Maria Montessori said that children do best to regulate themselves. When children learn to self-regulate, which they are fully equipped to do, they become responsible people.
In the end my parents decided not to skip a grade for me and to ride out my eighth-grade year. But by the time I got to ninth-grade and high school I was a hellion, a terror, a force of anger and stubbornness. By the end of that year I was involved in a brawl (another story for another time) that resulted in a huge school board meeting with many families including my own and I was put on probation for the three years until I was out of high school.
That didn’t stop me from fighting. I took my fights off school grounds and used weekends to find guys to fight with while downtown and at parties.
Although I got into different troubles, I made it through school and finally graduated. Now I had freedom! I could be my own man! I was already legal and an adult. In 1977 I turned 18 in March of my senior year and I could legally buy alcohol and drink it. Yes, it was a different time in our culture then.
But I was still in prison until that June day when I no longer was forced to return to school. I barely made it out, but I did.
One might think worse things were in store now that this crazy, angry young troubled man was out of school and left to his own devices. Alas, life got better once I was able to make my own decisions and do what I wanted to do for the first time in my life.
I went to work for the summer at Jack Pot Party Store in Lansing, saved my money, and bolted in September for New York City and acting school. From there, I grew up, I had hard knocks, I learned, and I moved to my own drum beat. My salvation was my freedom and my sovereign autonomy.
But let’s go back now. What I experienced as a child with the physical beatings would land those teachers and principals who beat me in jail today. I could claim to be a victim. I could use my victim identity to find some sort of justice, even though it occurred many decades ago. It is popular today to hold onto victim status of decades old abuses such as mine. I could use my traumas as my self-identity and allow them to shape my life today. But what good would that do?
My father told me back in my senior year, after an incident that got me into trouble, that I could blame others and make more trouble, or I could own my behavior and move on to better myself. Man up is what we used to say, as un-PC as it sounds today. That made sense to me. That was logical. That gave me a real choice, and a clear choice.
I did not hold on to old events, no matter how terrible they were. I moved on. And in the end, I turned out okay. Far from perfect but okay. I’m not a victim. I never was. That mentality was not part of my vocabulary or mindset. Victimization always seemed like a limiting and boxed in, narrow way to live. The hurts hurt, the embarrassments were embarrassing, the humiliations were humiliating, and I experienced all of that. And more. Did I say what happened in football practice, the abuses we took? But like the Spartans who jump to the defense of Coach Izzo, I would jump to defend my coaches and let people know of how much I learned from them: discipline, work ethic, respect, knowing my place, inner resolve, how to dig deeper, sportsmanship, and team spirit, among a few.
Or how the hair pulling dance teachers in New York treated us? Or the abusive directors and choreographers I worked with? Or….why go on? That is over and past. I survived. But I am not a “survivor of…”. Like all people, I experienced hardship. It’s inevitable. It’s part of being human. I have deep compassion and heartfelt sympathy for anyone who is abused or treated unfairly. And, I would encourage resilience and a forward-looking perspective to move toward a better place. Forgiveness goes a long way.
Of course, my hardships are nothing compared to so many others. But I lived through it and still succeeded in my life because I moved forward, not backward, and did not tread water in place holding onto a past that is over. Is that radical? No. Most people do that. But today, it seems to me while working with children, that we are teaching our children to stay in victimization, not empowering them to move forward. There is strength in learning how to pull one’s self up by the proverbial bootstraps and work hard and persevere: it will serve you every time. Life is hard. Under the best of circumstances life is still hard. Being soft doesn’t help the situation. I wonder how this will turn out for our children. I don’t have the answers, but I do know from my own experiences that my hardships were most effectively the best life lessons I learned from.