There was a moment last Memorial Day when my daughter joined the adults in the backyard, because the rest of the kids were either watching TV or playing Minecraft, and she didn’t feel like doing either. We got talking about bullying, and this led to the Crazy Uke and the Giant Swede, who’ve known each other since they were zygotes, discussing Epic Beat-downs of their high school days. The horrible dread of a meeting after school. The fisticuffs in Smoker’s Alley. What happened to that guy? He’s dead. Grabbed a hot wire while doing some work. What happened to that other guy? He’s dead. Blew his ticker. You can hear the Foghat in the tales, picture the mullets.

I have no stories of manly combat, since I was only involved in two fights. And by “involved” I mean surprised, and by “fights” I mean “knocked down right away.” The first one happened at the corner of 24th and 8th:

Right there. Pow.

I lipped off to a kid and he punched me. Broke my glasses. I ran home crying. The second time was outside school, when the designated bully - a huh-huh-huh brute who would be later renowned for gathering the entire male population of White Earth Lutheran Camp into the barracks bathroom to marvel at the length of the stool he had excreted - cracked me on the leg with his crutch. He was an equal-opportunity bully. He’d take on anyone for the sheer joy of making you miserable. In seventh grade he made pindarts - a straight pin with a piece of Scotch tape as a stabilizing cone, inserted into the empty barrel of a ballpoint pen - and he’d shoot it at your neck. Huh-huh-huh.

I’ll tell you a thing or three, he’d say. It was his catchphrase. Most kids would tell you a thing or two. He had three. But he never told you anything. He just laid down the pain. When I was in elementary school I went to his house for a birthday party, and the only memory I have is something poking my eye.

Anyway: the guys are discussing the fights of yore, and my daughter is fascinated - not because of the violence; wasn’t much. But the boys tell a good story. It may have been the first time she realized: these aren’t just large animate fleshy planets that swing around my father’s sun and can be ignored after the obligatory hellos and social niceties; they’re interesting people. The earlier you realize that, the better.

Wonder what tales the bullies tell when they get together. Wonder if John L. ever remembers cracking my shin with his crutch - or if it’s a blur of auto-gratifying pleasure. You remember the wrongs you were dealt, not the ones you deal. Particularly if you don’t think they were wrongs in the first place.

I thought of this today because my daughter told me about the fallout from a school bus brawl Kid A had “flicked off” Kid B, as part of an ongoing demonstration of mutual dislike. Daughter doesn’t know why they’re adversaries, only that they are. Kid A is a boy. Kid B is a girl, one year older. They’re enemies for the same reason Maggie Simpson hates the kid with the monobrow: that’s just the way it is. Nothing ever came of it besides hard looks and rude gestures, but a few weeks ago Kid B attacked Kid A with punches, accompanied by Very Bad Language. The bus driver stopped the bus, stopped the fight, and bawled out the aggressor. She has now been suspended for the rest of the year.

This means she probably won’t complete her Anti-Bullying book.

Maybe that’s just for 6th graders. It seems to have been the focal point for one of my daughter’s classes for the last month - a constant focus on the evils of bullying, expressed as a poem, a short story, a vocabulary lesson, statistics, and so on, bound up in a special hardcover book the kids made them selves. When I was at the school last week I saw all the posters encouraging respect for every possible subspecies in the academic ecosystem, designed to build sympathy and empathy and remind the kids that everyone is unique and special and also the same. The effort that’s gone into this anti-bullying campaign is remarkable, and probably strikes bullies the same way a cat would view an effort by mice to unionize.

The campaign has drilled into kids a certain concept: The Power of Bystanders. They’re the ones who can stop bullying if they see it happening. They can distract, redirect, get the teacher, but I’m reasonably sure the kids aren’t taught to break up a fight by swarming the bully and getting him off the victim - an example where violence does indeed solve something, and solve it quite quickly. If I was getting wailed upon, I would prefer that people bum-rush the bully, rather than stand three yards away and cite the school’s anti-bully code.

Another kid on the bus got expelled, says my daughter, because the kid filmed the beating with her cellphone.

Why? I asked.

“I don’t know. The Power of Bystanders,” she said in that tone kids use to indicate an adult phrase they don’t dare to mock, but can’t quite say without editorial inflection.

She should have done something about it, instead of filming? Maybe filming it was a way of proving it to show authorities later? Isn’t that the Power of Bystanders? More likely she was shooting it because she was a friend of the bully, and these idiots love to put them up on YouTube or World Star Hip Hop.

Apparently there’s an audiotape circulating, but my daughter doesn’t want to listen to it, lest that lead to a suspension for not using the Power of Bystanders, or participating in a bully-enabling situation, or whatever: there’s just free-floating dread about the entire situation.

Lest you think I am pro-bully, or believe that schools should ignore the subject, I am not pro-bully and do not believe schools should ignore the subject. There. Got it? What’s annoyed me through this entire lesson module is the time and emphasis, where you get a good grade if you can reproduce the necessary level of concern. It’s not enough to say “bullying is bad and hurtful, and we should all do what we can if a friend’s in trouble, or we’re getting picked on.” You have to be concerned THIS MUCH.

My elementary / junior / high school experience was remarkably devoid of CONCERN about Things, In debate we tackled big issues, and in extemporaneous speech I learned to have opinions about all the matters of the day, and speak for five minutes with little prep. But that was extracurricular. Mostly they just tried to teach us things about what had happened before we came along, and what people had figured out so far.

Talking about this with my daughter at supper, I discovered they had a choice for their book projects: bullying, drunk driving, and Voter ID. Isn’t that interesting? So I imagine someone would give both sides of Voter ID, just as someone would give the pro-drunk-driving side.

A wonderful moment last night: started the rewrite of Autumn Solitaire. Fell right back into the voice and characters. I didn’t know who they were when I started the book, of course; I was watching them, figuring out who they would turn into, so I have to go back and rewrite the opening. It’s a prologue - the main characters are sitting outside a drugstore across from the competing newspaper, watching the first attempt at a TV broadcast from a remote location. I’m playing a bit with the facts; KSTP didn’t start broadcasting until six months later, let alone hauling a camera out for a remote, but it’s within a year.


A sad thing seen while googling around for Arizona motels.



But it's close to a motel that still has its original sign, so there's that. Many more surprises await you here. Twenty cards up. Enjoy!







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