Thursday, October 16, 2008

Human Nature

I think this is probably true of most animal behavioral biologists - I find human nature to be as fascinating as animal nature, of course. After all, it follows that we are an extension of them so we must be at least as fascinating, yes? Last night I read Garrison Keillor's new book, Pontoon, and laughed so hard my stomach muscles are still aching. I also cried. The book is a brilliant portrayal of human nature. That guy really understands his people - Norwegian, Lutheran, Midwesterners. And I grew up with a bunch of Scandinavians and, of course, much of the way they are wired is the same for all of us. So I may be Irish, Mohawk Indian, Swedish, and Latvian, and from California, but the book hit home just the same.

One of my best friends growing up was Arleta. I wish she would write a book and just spew into the book, do not edit, and just put it out. She's absolutely hilarious in her outlook on life and the way she handles things. Yes, she's a little prone to violence but it's more exaggerated than one would think. Examples? Oh yea I got examples:

First day of first grade:
(Yes, I know I should be writing about wildlife, but if you don't think first grade on the playground is wildlife, think again)>

The first thing I noticed on my very first first grade recess (haha I used the word first way too many times) is that kids were clumped in a circle chanting. I went over to investigate and so did Arleta. We hadn't properly met yet but we were about to forge a bond that lasts to this day. The circle of kids was surrounding a much older mentally retarded girl named Martha, chanting horrible things using her name. Martha was sobbing helplessly in the middle with no way to get out. I was appalled. In my short life I had never witnessed anything so violent, so mean, or so crass in my life (no I was no allowed to watch television unless it was a strictly supervised educational childrens' show. Thank God.).

I ran to the teacher who was supervising the playground and urgently told her what was happening. She looked over my short head like I wasn't even there and said, "Nothin' I can do about it." Arleta ran over and tried to get the teacher to stop these savages and the teacher said the same thing. Arleta and I stared into each others' eyes in horror. Hadn't ANY of these kids been taught how to treat another human being?

That whole day took on a grayish film of horror over everything. A dark, slimy gloom penetrated everything we did from then on. I raced home from school and told my mom, who was horrified and called the principal. "Nothing we can do." he said. Arleta ran home and told her mom who called the principal, "Nothing we can do." he intoned. Arleta was standing there and asked her mom, "Why can't they do anything?" Carol, her mom, asked the principal who said, "Because there's been no violence." When Arleta heard that, she thought, "NOW I can do something about this! They need violence? Oh they'll get their violence!!"

Next day at school our eyes met across the classroom. We were going to stop this thing. I went the diplomatic route and approached every child who I thought looked like they might have half a conscience and had them in tears describing how they would feel if they had some kind of accident and ended up being tortured on the playground for the rest of their lives through no fault of their own. They pledged to reach out and become friends with the "retards" (A TERM THAT WE LEARNED FROM THE ADULTS!!!!!).

Arleta took a more direct route. She waded into the crowd of bullies and took them out one by one. I mean she clocked them. Arleta was far far far bigger than any of the other kids. She grew up early and I was far far smaller than any of the other kids. We made an excellent team between my ability to articulate the pain of others to those who would listen, and her ability to inflict the pain of others onto the noses of those who understood only the language of violence. Between us, the teasing of the "retards" ground to a halt. She had given them their violence! "NOW," Arleta said, "They HAVE to pay attention to the problem. Sheesh! And if the kids are being tormented, why are they putting them out on the playground to be eaten alive by the other kids? Why not stagger the recesses?

Why? The teachers wanted to hang out in the teacher's lounge all at the same time, that's why.

Arleta has been singlehandedly battling stupidity every since. I adore her and her sense of justice and we deeply agree on so many things. We were great friends from then on and still are.

That's the lesson they should have been teaching, but weren't, in the schools when I was a kid. The lesson of standing up to evil when you see it in your corner. We can all do that. It may seem like a little thing but it's not a little thing to the people who benefit from it. I'll never know how she knew, but Martha knew that I had helped stop the kids from teasing her, and whenever she saw me in the community she would grab her parents' arms and say in a whisper, "That's my friend! That's my friend."

I'm not tooting my own horn. I'm saying that even if you're the smallest kid in class, you can make a difference just by talking sense and changing the angle of the peer pressure that's around you. That peer pressure doesn't go away when you leave high school. One has to figure out what's important and fight for it in the way that one can, all throughout life. And others will follow, or take up the fight themselves. It's great!

Well if this seemed preachy, well ok then. So what? It surprised me how little it took to put a stop to a "tradition" that had apparently been accepted at that school for decades. It only took a few days to put an end to it. It CAN be done!

No comments: