Wednesday, October 19, 2011

How Bad Can It Be


Many times in workshops and training exercises participants are asked to identify and discuss the events or circumstances that have had the greatest negative and positive influences on their lives. I participated in sessions like that many times over the years and have always had trouble defining any one such positive moment because there have been so many of them. The most negative has always been easy.

To be completely honest I have to admit that from my first day in school, when I entered the hundred and some years old Franklin School, I could never have been described as an ideal student. I tried but for some reason I could never accomplish the level of scholarship that most of my classmates displayed. It may have been that I couldn’t concentrate or maybe I didn’t care. For at least the first three years of my public education I had excellent teachers who were dedicated to their profession and their students.

For those first few years I did my homework every night and studied my assignments but learning just did not click. My printing and later my handwriting was terrible. I was average in math. History and science were my favorite subjects but I even failed to score high on tests in those areas. At some point in time I think I got tired of trying so hard and having no success. I knew that my parents were disappointed in me especially since my two older sisters were honor students. I figured out that I would never be able to compete with my sisters and therefore I could never expect our parents to love me the way they did my sisters. All of this, and many other failures in my life, I attribute to one thing. Spelling.

I was never able to learn to spell. While my sisters were competing for a place in the Spelling Bee, I was struggling in my efforts to deal with all but the simplest words. My battle continued, and continues, to haunt me. I could not make sense out of the spelling jumble in which words are not spelled like they sound, spelling rules are not consistent, and the ability to figure out if “el” or “le” or if “tent” or ‘tant” were correct eluded me completely. By the time I was in my twenties I had become smart enough to have a dictionary with me at all times. When I was much older and the personal computer had taken over control of all our lives, God had pity on me and planted the seed for spellchecker software in the brain of someone who then developed that wonderful tool for people like me.

It is quite interesting that I have spent most of my life earning a living through the use of logic and analytical thinking. I have earned two undergraduate degrees and a Masters Degree. I breezed through Analytical Algebra, Calculus, Logic, Every type of business class one could dream of, Micro and Macro Economics, Econometrics, Philosophy, Accounting and classes even I can’t remember. In college and university, the lowest grade I received was a “C.” I got one “C” and was going to leave school because I felt like I had failed. I made the deans list six out of eight semesters as an undergrad and had a perfect 4.0 as a graduate student.

During my working years I served in just about every management position found in business; from front line supervisor to vice president and as an engineer and engineering supervisor. For all of those decades, through all the job functions I performed, through all the success I had in my career, through my success in academia, I could never learn to spell properly.

My late wife Sandra helped me throughout our thirty years together and I am sure she worried less about it than I did. As I said, I always kept a dictionary nearby; however, I always had her proof anything I had written. When I met Elizabeth, my current wife, I confessed to her that I was less than the world’s best speller. She thought it was funny that I was worried about it and especially that I felt it so important that I actually thought our relationship may rise or fall based on my spelling ability. By the time I met Elizabeth my failure to become a great speller had been a constant torment to my self confidence for so many decades that I may have thought the safety of the world may somehow hinge on my spelling ability. I spent most of my sixty plus years ashamed of my spelling ability that it became an obsession to keep it a secret from all but my very closest confidents; Sandra and Elizabeth. My fear of being found out was kin to someone fearing that the neighbors would find out that a family member was in prison.

One evening Elizabeth and I were talking and again my shame about being a poor speller came up. As I said, I had earned my keep for four decades by understanding and developing logical systems. My belief had always been that there is a system to everything and I just was unable to figure out the system to spelling. One time I spent several months trying to develop a mathematical algorithm that would simplify the whole spelling process. I was unsuccessful. Spelling had beaten me again. Elizabeth, like Sandra, was an excellent speller. During the course of our conversation I asked her what the secret was. How is it that she is so good at spelling and I am like a poorly trained chimp? I asked her to try to teach me the system. She gave me a strange look and uttered four words that completely threw the universe out of balance. “There is no system.”

Later after administering smelling salts and having me breath into a brown paper bag she explained that she studies a word the first time she sees it and from then on she just tries to visualize it. That was her system. The one she used to be able to spell but there is no system to spelling itself. For the first time in my adult life I was faced with a chink in what I believed was an undisputable fact; there is a system for everything. I spent my life trying to figure out the system of spelling only to find out that there is none. The only systems are those that individuals develop for themselves in order to deal with the challenge of spelling. Since then I have asked a lot of people for their secret for becoming a good speller. Not one could tell me exactly. I finally figured out there were many systems for learning to spell but no system to spelling itself. Elizabeth is the only person that has been able to explain to me the secret of learning to spell which brings me to the star of this chapter, Mr. Dick.

As I mentioned my earliest teachers were dedicated professionals that worked hard to help develop young minds. I never blamed a teacher for my poor grades. I knew that it was my problem. Even at the very young age of eight, it was easy to see that my teachers tried to help me. When I was in the fifth grade my perception changed. I was subjected to what had to be the worst teacher ever allowed into a public school system anywhere in the United States. In today’s world his actions would not only end his teaching privileges but would likely put him behind bars.

When I was in the forth grade my perfect world began to crumble. The federal government had decided to sell the Walnut Hills Housing Development. Residents had the first right to purchase their homes at a standard price, if they chose not to buy then the homes would be sold to the highest bidder that exceeded the standard price. My father decided not to buy the house we were renting and therefore we soon had to move. This was the only home I could remember. I was less then two years old when we moved into that wonderful red brick mansion. The house was a single unit and was slightly over nine hundred square feet but it was like a mansion to my parents, my two sisters, and me.

We were, at least, able to stay in Walnut Hills. My parents rented one end of a duplex. It was pretty small, just two bedrooms, but we did OK. I missed our single house but made the best of where we were. We were only four blocks from our other house so we were able to keep our friends, the only friends I had ever had. This situation did not last long however. The Forth week into the fifth grade we moved again. This time it was to another part of town. Walnut Hills was in the southeast part of town and we moved to the southwest side, or just, “the west side.”

The apartment we moved to was very large. We had a big living room, formal dining room, kitchen, breakfast nook, three bedrooms, bath room and utility hallway. We were on the third, and top, floor and had a balcony and a rear door that opened unto a massive network of fire escapes. The landing of the fire escape server as a rear balcony and was like a rear fence for the ten families that lived in the building to talk and gossip over. Located on the ground floor of our building was a grocery store, a drug store with a soda fountain, a hardware store, a paint store, and a carpet installation and furniture upholstering company. All in all, it was a pretty cool place. The bus stopped twice right on our corner, once going one way and five minutes later on the return trip. There were two more small grocery stores within a block. Oak Knoll Park, a wonderful city park, was just three blocks away and across the street from there was a small “confectionary” which was really a root beer joint where all the neighborhood kids hung out . Five blocks in the other direction was the steel mill district with all the activity of a city in itself and the blast furnaces spewing color into the air, color that to adults looked like the color of money. Near there, one of the little league parks was located and we were just two blocks from the big field where the circus set up every year. The river was just a couple hundred yards beyond that. I should have been elated but it was not my wonderful Walnut Hills and for some reason I could not quell the feeling of doom that had lodged in my young gut.

We moved in during the last part of a week and I had a few days to wait before starting classes at my new school. Unlike Franklin School, Emerson School just a relatively new and even felt and smelled new. My teacher at Franklin had taught me a little speech to recite when I reported to my new school. I very timidly entered the principles office and explained who I was and recited my little speech. He welcomed me and took me to my new classroom and introduced me to my new teacher, Mr. Dick. I once again recited my little speech and Mr. Dick made some snide comment and told me to sit down somewhere. I started to sit at the first empty desk I had spotted and he yelled “Not there, that desk is in use.” I asked him which desks were available and he took me by the back of my neck and virtually pushed me to a desk and into the seat. “This will do” he sneered. The dread that had been plaguing me for days presented itself and my dread turned to fear. I was “the new kid” and had no friends. The other kids laughed as Mr. Dick pushed me around the classroom to my new desk. It seemed that my former life was a million miles away and just a distant memory. I had only been at my new school for fifteen minutes and was ready to find a rock to hide under. I knew beyond any doubt that Mr. Dick did not like me. I had no idea why that was but I but vowed to do my best. This was, after all, a new school and a new start. I had promised myself that I was going to work harder and get better grades. I wanted my parents to be proud of me.

Before moving to the west side I had always thought of my family as being pretty normal. Within a month after our move my lovely family had become what would later be titled “dysfunctional.” My parents suddenly became alcoholics. My mother had taken a job in a tavern just a block away but at once became an absentee parent. My father, because of working the swing shift all his life, had always seemed absent from our lives. My sisters, who were four and six years older than me, enjoyed their new found freedom and had friends over just about every evening and while they were having fun I was neglecting my school work because I wanted to be part of their life. The problem was that they did not need, or want, a little brother bothering them. I was too young to fit in with their friends and had yet to make any of my own. I just got used to being alone and after a while I found that I really didn’t need anyone else in my life. I felt like I had been moved away from the only world I had ever known and then deserted so I would just have to do the best I could.

It should come as no surprise that my school work suffered. At first I tried but between the obvious distain my teacher held for me and my home life, I just gave up. I decided there was no use. Nothing I could do would ever be good enough for Mr. Dick and other than at report card time, no one at home gave a damn about anything I did or didn’t do.

Mr. Dick was a real piece of work. He had favorite students, mostly girls. The favoritism he showed and his actions toward the girls in class, in retrospect, have always made me wonder if he had ever messed with any of them in an improper way. I would not be surprised to learn that he did. I was his least favorite student and had been from the moment we first laid eyes on each other. I have never been able to figure out why he took such a dislike to me. I was an eleven year old kid, what could I have done or what did he think I might do that would elicit such a response from him? That question has bothered me all my life.

Mr. Dick was an abuser and he enjoyed abusing and humiliating students. I was his favorite target. He moved me to the front row of the classroom where I would be handier to his various forms of abuse. His favorite form of physical abuse was to grab me by the back of my neck and shake so hard that my whole body would shake. He would end by hitting the desktop with my head using various levels of intensity. This punishment was doled out often and was earned for failing to have ones homework complete, getting a bad grade on a test, misspelling words, not being able to answer questions and a variety of other shortcomings. He would humiliate me in class by talking about how dumb I was or accusing me of being retarded in front of the other students. I was scared to death of him. One day in class he was preparing to do his shake and slam exercise and I was trembling at the thought of what was coming. He told the other students that it was OK to laugh at my trembling, and then proceeded to abuse me.

I found every possible reason to miss school. I would make myself sick and once even tried to break my arm so I would not have to go to school. I told my parents how Mr. Dick treated me and they felt that either I was lying, deserved what I got, or that it probably wasn’t as bad as I thought. They never went to a parent – teacher conference after we mover to the west side. Too busy, had to work, any excuse to avoid their responsibilities.

Mr. Dick made me hate school, he made me afraid to go to school, he made me stop trying and most of all he made me feel stupid. I had enough to deal with at home; I should not have had to deal with an abusive school teacher. I detest my parents for not caring enough about their child to find out what was going on. It got to the point that I would lie, when one of them would see some mark where Mr. Dick had hurt me, and say I was hurt on the playground or was in a fight. That year I learned to hate everything and everybody. It would take a while longer for me to realize that I was on my own in this world, but I finally did and I also learned that I owed nothing to anyone. My parents deserted me and the school system deserted me, that’s all I had and they had given up on me. Once I realized that, I never looked back, I did what I wanted, when I wanted and promised myself that I would never again be afraid of anyone.

Mr. Dick had been in the navy, or so he said, and liked to tell stories about going through the Panama Canal. He talked about how hot it was and about the size and volume of insects there. I can still see him strutting around the classroom with his worn out shirts and his Kent cigarette pack showing through the pocket and how he would roll the sleeves of his long sleeve shirts up a fold or two when he was getting ready to mete out his punishment to me. After all these years I feel distain and disgust for this lame excuse for a man and especially for a school teacher. It seems to me that anyone can beat up eleven and twelve year old kids. I wonder how he would have fared had he stopped in one of the bars frequented by the steel workers and bragged about his exploits?

After I left home and had learned many ways to put fear into people and how to hurt people badly without killing them or rendering them unconscious I considered going back and paying Mr. Dick a visit. I thought it might be fun to reminisce about the good old days. I never did because I did not want to lower myself to his level and I did not want to spend the rest of my life in prison. I do continue to hope that at some point in his career, a parent or former student or even a school board official put and end to his freewheeling instances of child abuse. And make no mistake Mr. Dick was a coward and a child abuser who deserved to be behind bars.

I am still not a good speller and I still have nightmares of that goon who called himself a school teacher but I have two undergraduate degrees, a graduate degree and have accomplished more in service to my country and in my career that he could even dream of and accomplished it all without beating up any little kids. Students are trusted to the care of teachers and this half-witted bully sullied the names and reputations of teachers everywhere. That’s a shame because his kind is definitely a minority.

Mr. Dick did damage to me that has lasted my entire life. He destroyed my budding self confidence, he caused me to think of myself as not capable of learning, he caused me to fear those who should be the ones to allay fear and he taught me to hate in ways that no child should ever learn. But I showed him. I win; he loses. I do, however, still hope that anything bad that can happen did happen to Mr. Dick.

No comments: