Sunday, February 1, 2015

The Battle of Glenridge: Thus Always to Tyrants

My parents moved our family from Maryland to Central Florida in the summer after I completed sixth grade.  That fall, after a few traumatic weeks finding my way around my new school, it was becoming clear to me that none of the friends I had at Old Post Road Elementary in Abingdon, Maryland had been promoted to the seventh grade; or if they had been, clearly none had been assigned to Glenridge Junior High in Orlando.  Every living being in the school was a complete stranger to me; and if there were dead beings there, they were even stranger, although perhaps less complete.  

The campus was sprawling, covering several acres, and just a single story high, as are most Florida schools.  That way, if a building or two is swallowed by a sinkhole, or lost in a hurricane, it’s just a single story loss.  For some reason I had chosen Band as my seventh period elective, although I had two relevant problems; I couldn’t play an instrument, and I couldn’t read music.  Even today the smell of a clarinet reed strikes me with terror.  You would be terrified too if you were expected to play selections from Scheherazade with the aforementioned handicaps.  The Persian bride Scheherazade faced beheading if the king decided he wanted to hear no more from her.  I experienced a similar dread every time the teacher asked me to play.  I grew to hate Rimsky; and truth be told, I wasn’t that fond of Korsakov.

The alternative courses available during seventh period must have been really horrid---“Sinkhole Filling for Newcomers,” or “Sandspur Picking, 101.”  Sandspurs, for the uninitiated, are sharp spiny things, like three-dimensional asterisks, about the size of pencil erasers, and they’re as common in Florida as moss on trees. They stick to your socks, find a way to your skin and can’t be removed without drawing blood from your fingers.  Their primary function, it seems, is to keep Floridians from overdosing on Vitamins C and D by releasing a healthy bit of their blood each day.  Their secondary function is to make Phys. Ed class in the heat and humidity even more unpleasant than it would otherwise be, and make no mistake, it would otherwise be unpleasant enough.  

The worst thing about PE, of course, was showering with a slew of other boys, some of whom had so perfected the art of snapping a towel against an unsuspecting posterior that it would leave a welt.  The other worst thing (yes, there were two worst things about PE) was when, once every eight or ten days, presumably because the coach was in a foul mood, the dreaded words began to filter through the school from the earlier periods, “Happy Hour Today.”  Happy Hour was the name coined by the Marquis de Sade for an entire PE period devoted to jumping jacks, sit-ups, pull-ups, and laps around the track.  I believe he called it "l’heure joyeux."  Some of the kids blamed Happy Hour on the fitness initiative of President Kennedy (whose French wife, it was rumored, was related to the Marquis).  But I have come into possession of an old reel-to-reel tape recording from a closed-door session in Tallahassee.  The following is an exact transcript, with expletives deleted: 
“So what do we do?  The word is out.  Why would people want to keep living in Buffalo or Cleveland once they’ve seen Cypress Gardens or the [deleted] Bok Tower.  We can’t very well seal the borders. But we don’t have the infrastructure to support all these [deleted] northern refugees.

“But the parents are assets, Governor, they pay taxes; it’s their kids who are liabilities.  Every school and playground we’re forced to build costs us millions, and we lose the land that could have held more housing, and more taxpayers.”
“What do you propose, Swift?  We can’t very well turn away from the state all families with children.”

“My proposal is a modest one, Sir.  We can’t turn them away, but we can make the kids’ lives so miserable that their parents will conclude it would be cruel to have any more of them.”

“How the [deleted] do we do that?  We already have snakes, sharks, gators, sandspurs, fire ants and [deleted] Palmetto bugs the size of Volkswagens. [recording muffled.  Presumably the missing words are "How are you"]  going to make the kids more miserable?"

“Two words, Sir:  Happy Hour.
“You want to lower the drinking age?”

“No Sir. I mean Happy Hour as devised by that French sadist, Mark What’s-His-Name.  Hear me out. Suppose kids go to Phys. Ed class expecting some fun playing volleyball or dodge ball in the air-conditioned gym, but instead, they’re forced to go outside and do jumping jacks, push-ups, sit-ups and laps around the track for a whole hour.”
“Are you mad?  You want kids doing sit-ups outside?  What about the [deleted] sandspurs?  Running laps in the middle of the day in Florida?  We don’t require that of our [deleted] prison inmates.  The kids will go home exhausted, moody, sweaty and surly; how will they be expected to practice their [deleted] instruments or do their math homework?” 

“Exactly, Governor; mom and dad will be so stressed out dealing with their miserable kids that the last thing they’ll have the energy or inclination to do is to have any more of them.”
“I see. Swift, this just might work.  It’s subtle, and it may take a few years before we see results, but I like it.”

“Does this mean you won’t be cutting off my head today, Sir?”
“Not today, Swift.  You’ve held my [deleted] interest.”

The plan might have worked if Mr. Disney hadn’t come along a few years later and forever tilted the Florida scales in the children’s favor.
As bad as PE was, I faced something more disturbing in seventh grade.  It was at Glenridge that I got my first taste of being bullied.  At the time I was not the fine physical specimen that, if you haven’t met me, you might imagine me to be today.  In September of that year I was still just eleven, almost a year younger than many of my classmates (see the story, My Kindergarten Teachers for an explanation, or just take my word that I started first grade at age five). One of my fellow students was, by my standards, huge---the kind who puts the high in junior high.  I suspect it wasn’t his first shot at seventh grade.  I’ll call him Goliath for now, not to protect his identity, but because I can’t remember the lunkhead’s name.  (Read on and you’ll forgive my calling him a lunkhead.)  I remember he had a little assistant who hung around him, not unlike Goliath’s armor bearer, commonly known as Toady. 

There was a particular stone bench where I would sometimes sit for a few minutes after I had wolfed down my lunch in the cafeteria of strangers.  Giant and Toady spotted me there and recognized me as an easy mark, since all the alliances I had formed sharing Tastykakes™ in previous grades were now a thousand miles away.  The brute decided to shake me down for some dessert money.  He accomplished this by pushing me off the bench and into the sandspurs when I refused to part with my coins.  This happened more than once.  It was almost as traumatic as having that wolf come to my bedside, as described in my story, Guess Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf.  Those frightful nights when the wolf was visiting, I didn’t want to go to bed.  Those days when I had to face Gargantua, I didn’t want to wake up.  Eventually I developed a survival plan, which was to linger in the cafeteria until the bell rang for the next period, and make sure I brought no extra money to school. 
Unfortunately, the giant troll and I were in the same class after lunch, and he arranged to sit beside me.  Although he couldn’t squeeze any more money out of me, he was determined to squeeze out my test answers.   He made it clear that if I refused to let him cheat off my paper, I’d be in for another swim in the sand.  I didn’t enjoy the muggings, but I had no intention of giving this seventh grade Stalin the satisfaction of acing a test for which he didn’t bother to study.  So as the date for the next test approached, the first under the new autocratic system, I conceived a way to be delivered.  

My solution was exquisitely simple.  I would write the first answer wrong on the multiple-choice test, allow Genghis time to see it, then, as he was copying that answer, I would correct it, surreptitiously turning the C that I had written into a D, or the A into a B, proceeding this way through the test.  (When I say I did it surreptitiously, Pretty Boy, I mean I tried to do it without Lumpy seeing me.)  By this means, assuming I knew the right answers, I would get a good grade and Mussolini would not.  All I had to do then was prevent him from seeing my grade when my test was handed back.  He would of course assume our grades were the same, since he had copied from me, and he would, I hoped, not demand to see my paper.  When he bombed the test, he would conclude I was not as smart as I appeared (it must have been the thick glasses), and he’d find another way to try to make it through seventh grade, maybe one that involved less terrorizing and more studying.  
The day of the test arrived, and all went as planned.  When the papers were handed back a few days later, my tormentor had indeed flunked.  That was the day I knew I was rid of him, and the day I learned the lesson, “the pen is mightier than the sword, providing you are using the pen on a multiple choice test, and you are sneaky enough.”  In hindsight, when he received his grade, I probably should not have jumped on my desk chair shouting, “Sic semper tyrannis,” but I suppose the other kids just chalked that up to another Happy Hour heat stroke.  Where my seventh grade nemesis is now, I cannot say for sure, but I have reason to believe he may be a ball boy for an NFL team from New England. 

If you ever visit what is now called Glenridge Middle School, look for a plaque near a stone bench.  The plaque is engraved with segments of a Veterans Day speech delivered by our principal at a school assembly in November of 1962, in honor of all small kids who’ve ever been oppressed by bigger ones, and in remembrance of the victory won during a test in a seventh grade classroom.  It includes this memorable line about bullies:
“We shall fight them on the benches, we shall fight them in the parking lots, we shall fight them in the classrooms, we shall fight them during Happy Hour; we shall never surrender.”

It ends with these words, in honor of the victory described above:
“…and if the Glenridge Empire, and its sandspurs, last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’”   

At least, that’s the way I remember it.

The Bully of Glenridge received what my dad would call “his comeuppance” (which appears to be, surprisingly, a real word).  He suffered a consequence, albeit a minor one, for attempting to dominate the weak and (temporarily) friendless.  But of course it is not always so for those who oppress others in this life, whether in minor matters like this one, or in major ones.  I read recently of a man who was believed to have been a Nazi Concentration Camp Commandant who oversaw the murder of tens of thousands of Jews and others viewed by the Nazis as unfit to live.  For decades he had evidently enjoyed a quiet, peaceful life in South America.  By the time the Israelis finally tracked him down, after a search that lasted many years, he was a well-respected old man with several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.  Before he could be extradited and tried and sentenced for his crimes, he reportedly died of natural causes.  How frustrating this must be for those who imagine that there is no justice other than that administered by man. 

But the Scripture assures us that the time will come when we will all stand before our Creator and give an account of our lives. 

“…it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment.” (Hebrews 9:27)
“…we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ.”  (Romans 14:10)    

Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini and Mao, every mass murderer, every child abuser, every rapist, every thief, although he may have evaded justice here, will face the righteous judgment of a holy God, and you may be sure that in every single case, the punishment will fit the crime.  That is good news for the oppressed. 
But the news is not all good, because the same holiness that demands that the sins of others be punished, demands that my sins be punished.  My selfishness, pride, envy, anger, lust, hatred, discontentment, covetousness, etc., cannot be ignored by a God who declares that He is:

“…of purer eyes than to behold evil, and cannot look on wickedness.” (Habakkuk 1:13)
We will all be judged, and we will all be found guilty.  For the Scripture is clear that,

“There is none righteous, no not one; there is none who understands; there is none who seeks after God.  They have all turned aside…there is none who does good, no not one. (Romans 3:10-12)  
As a just judge would be honor bound to pronounce a sentence upon an offender, even one he knows and loves, God cannot ignore the sins of those created in His own image.  He declares in His Word, “…the wages of sin is death…” (Romans 6:23)   His love for lost sinners could not induce Him to ignore our sin, but it could, and it did, cause Him to provide a way of redemption for us---a way for our sins to be atoned.  He sent His own dear Son to keep the law I failed to keep, and to pay, in my place, the great debt that I owed.  Jesus endured His Father’s wrath in my place, as my substitute.   

The hour God graciously opened my eyes to that truth and granted me saving faith, nine years after The Battle of Glenridge, was a Happy Hour indeed.  

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