What the Imagination is For: Reflections on Boyhood Cruelty

I make jokes like most people. When I was young I made some cruel jokes as I was bullied for my disability and I looked for children more vulnerable than I was in order to humiliate them and gain a modicum of status. Status is a fragile thing when you’re twelve years old. Having it or not depends on the temporary love of brutish schoolmates and in my case gaining this required art. I remain ashamed of the story I’m about to tell. I make no excuses. If being a blind kid in public school was rough, if I was pushed down stairs, if my glasses were stolen, if I was targeted with nicknames, well so what? I was clever and desperate.

I picked out a kid who sat next to me in math class. His name was Norman and that was bad enough. But he was also gangly, awkward, ill at ease in his skin–just like me. Talk about Carl Jung’s “shadow”–I saw in him everything I hated about myself. He wore maladjusted spectacles and had uncombable hair. There was really nothing wrong with him. It didn’t matter. I could see he was defenseless. He stammered slightly. He was shy. He became my target.

What did I do, you ask? I made him legendary. I drew cartoons depicting him as an ostrich boy with a bird’s body, a periscope neck and a wide grinning face and I named this creature “Normanure.” I even made fun of his stammer with a cartoon bubble that said “Duh!” Though I could scarcely see I could draw serviceably and quickly. I plastered Normanure all over the school. This ugly episode lasted about a week before a school official caught me sticking a cartoon on a bulletin board. But here’s what I recall most vividly. Before being apprehended for assholery Norman himself accosted me and rather than punching me out he asked the most basic and fair question anyone can ask his tormentor: “Why are you doing this?”

I couldn’t answer him. I slunk away. I had no language to describe the starved mice eating my nervous system or my shame at being blind or my terror when thinking about how I might live. I was dehumanizing a perfectly good person.

That was fifty years ago. I remain sorry to this day. And the terrible ugliness of online trolling; the name calling spurred on by the current putative president; the sorrows of people with disabilities who are still largely unemployed and unappreciated–these are never far from my thoughts. And no, I can’t expiate my miniature “Lord of the Flies” moment with a blog post. Nor can I tell you that nowadays I’m an exemplary man. But I do believe in emotional candor and ethics of care. I’m alarmed by all the big bodied twelve year olds I see in the public square. But I’m alarmed also by the knowledge that my insecurities can produce cruelty. It is altogether proper to know what the imagination is really for.

2 thoughts on “What the Imagination is For: Reflections on Boyhood Cruelty

  1. It took me twice to learn to respect other people.
    I am blind like you. 20:200. I have an albinism that produces nystagmus and astigmatism and nearsightedness. I was born that way. I got teased and bumped around and ignored and bypassed a lot when I was in school.
    Once day, I happened to be walking with a kid who was a strategic member of an informal clique. I posed the question, “Do you like so-and-so?” His answer was, “He never did anything to me.” I thought, “Oh, and he never did anything to me either, so why am I even asking!”
    Not too long after that, I was chairing a meeting, and another kid butted into what was going on. I said, “Shut up!” He said, “You can’t talk to me that way.” I froze. And I thought, “He is absolutely right.”
    I am not perfect, and I don’t mind admitting it. But my imperfections have nothing to do with my blindness, and my blindness is not the cause of anything important.
    One thing that I’ve become almost perfect at is respecting other people’s right to be the way they are. After all, every one of us is struggling to find out who we really are, and to be that way. I don’t want to stand in anybody’s way, just as I don’t want anybody to stand in my way

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  2. I more than like this. I embrace it. I was also one little cataract in the cascade of cruelty that was late elementary and middle school in Weston, MA, where the wealthy were slowly taking over the the children of the rich made fodder of the poorer kids and so on. What I know is that I did not stand up for those less fortunate, would not stand up to those more fortunate, tried most of the time to be invisible. But when I had my chance to ridicule or join in it, to be briefly among those I envied, I’d dive right in. I had no Norman to tip me off; it wasn’t until I changed schools and began to hang around with some guys who didn’t go in for ridicule that I began to see the behavior as assholery. I’m glad today to have a practice that asks me daily to take stock!

    Be well.

    Bill

    On Fri, Mar 8, 2019 at 9:16 AM Planet of the Blind wrote:

    > skuusisto posted: “I make jokes like most people. When I was young I made > some cruel jokes as I was bullied for my disability and I looked for > children more vulnerable than I was in order to humiliate them and gain a > modicum of status. Status is a fragile thing when you’re ” >

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