Helga’s Heartlines: A Journal
Sunday, August 5th, 2001
In the beginning, I, too, was defenseless and inarticulate...
One of my earliest childhood memories was a nightmare - a real one:
London, England. 1951. A frightened four-year-old finds herself surrounded by a bunch of bigger kids, mostly boys, who taunt and threaten her. They call her names, laugh, curse, and close in on her, menacingly. She doesn’t understand a word they’re saying – she doesn’t speak their language – or comprehend why they like to pick on her. She's afraid to cry, instinctively senses it's dangerous to be seen to be a sissy. Frozen, trembling, heart pounding, all that remains is to try to stare them down and seek an opportunity to escape...they grab at her, seize her hands, pry from her grip the coin she carries in tightly clenched fist. Thankfully, they let her escape without harm, satisfied with their booty and merely having terrified her. Afterward that little girl is wary of groups, whenever, wherever, people collect, prefers them in small doses, for a long, long time...she frequently relives the same bad dream while she sleeps.
However, I was also either brazen or brash and foolhardy, a trait I inherited from my father; I continued to put myself at risk, as cautiously as I could. With my mother usually watching from the front doorstep I’d make the mad dash back and forth to the corner store for a much-coveted ice cream. Sometimes the storekeeper would keep a watchful eye out for me while I raced back hell-bent for our modest rented flat.
I learned from my parents, at that tender age, “Krauts” were former enemies, to these British schoolboys. How would they know I am not just German? That I have only one German grandparent? That my parents were refugees from the very same enemy? Thanks to my father’s conflicted identity crisis we went back more than once right after the war to Germany where I'd been born – and the place he had escaped, Austria - and stayed on with my grandmother for an extended visit. My tenuous hold on the English language slowly but surely slipped away, ultimately readily replaced. Thus, resettled in England, I could not explain or defend myself at the time I most needed to with the words that might have rescued me from the malice of those neighborhood bullies. Perhaps words wouldn’t have helped me at all, but then again, maybe they would have.... I lost my grandfather to the Bad Guys (Nazis) when they tricked him into thinking he had the chance to run for his life...then shot him in the back while he ran. Those tough but naive street kids might have registered that, if they’d known, and thereupon left me alone....
I was painfully reminded of this scenario, yet again, in Canada, just a few years later - when I was seven, maybe eight years old - only this time I was not the victim. Still I was disturbed when I began to witness the continued verbal harassment of a schoolmate and neighbor of mine on our daily route home. “Hansel” was only a little guy, a runt, undersized, puny - a geek, a nerd, in contemporary jargon - who wore thick coke-bottle lenses and distinctive ethnic attire, the short leather pants with suspenders known as Lederhosen. (His parents may have meant well by this, but believe me, they were doing him no favor with his peers. If they wanted him to ‘make a statement” about who he was, too bad they weren’t around to help the poor thing back it up.)
So, little Hansel looked funny and was too smart for his own good, as far as these bullies were concerned. I feared these guys were building up for physical threats as they ridiculed and jeered and name-called while they walked along too close behind him. Physical, or not – “Sticks and stones may break your bones, but names will never hurt you” - I seethed inside about the situation, until finally, after however many days of this, I exploded. I was taking a risk, all right, and must have known it, but I was compelled to do something about the situation to relieve my own distress.
I unleashed a verbal barrage at those boys, hurled my pent-up frustration and outrage at them for their shameful behavior. What does a child of seven or eight say? Wish I remembered, exactly. “Corny” things. Things along the lines of: “Pick on someone your own size”. “You should be ashamed of yourselves!” “So, what do you think you prove?” “Being a bully makes you a big man?” “Big Heroes? What you really prove is you are cowards.”
Well---It worked! I, myself, was stunned. I still am. Those guys were so sheepish. So ashamed. I wish you could have seen them. Red in the face, humiliated, embarrassed. They said not a word.
(In case you’re wondering, I was no Amazon or Big Bertha, just a normal-sized girl for my age and not especially prepossessing).
And---They never did it again. I continued to maintain a discreet distance and a vigilant eye on that vulnerable boy, but they knew I was watching and let him be. They started whispering among themselves about me, by then, but that didn’t matter. This time, it didn’t bother me. Better me than poor Hansel. I could handle it. They didn’t have the nerve to say whatever it was to my face.
You know what? Speaking out also made me feel better about myself. As I said earlier it wasn’t the only occasion I did so, but it was the first, most memorable and reinforcing – and only one directly involving a group. In one-on-one situations it has consistently had a similar surprising effect.
I think about that incident happening today, in light of the world we live in, though, and it seems even more incredible. That was such a different time, another world. Still, one that had barely begun to recover from a devastating World War and Holocaust. Not a much better one, then, actually, but people didn’t routinely lock their doors and fear for their kids lives when they sent them off to school in the morning. Bullying was verbal and psychological – bad enough – but at least it could be dealt with in the same way. One could be shamed into adopting decent behavior. One could appeal to conscience. One’s consciousness could be raised. Would that work today, I ask you?
“The power of the Press.” “The pen is mightier than the sword.” Are they merely sayings or are they still true? Have brute force and fists, automatic weapons, explosives and missiles replaced the power of words, ideas, and ideals? For all our sakes we must salvage the strength of our words and the power of our intercourse, both verbal and written. Use them constructively and forcefully. Employ them forthrightly. Tell it like it is. Take careful, considered deliberate aim at injustice with communication that strikes the heart, the gut, the conscience, not just the cerebrum.
Politically correct? Offend no one? That’s like entering a boxing match with one hand tied behind your back. What should those who give offense expect? We all need to stop turning a blind eye to abuse, including the political and religious leaders who can do the most about it. After all, it reflects on them. They can lead by example and commit to putting an end to it.
What more can we women do? Well, for instance, here at home, in Canada, right now, a feminist group with nothing better to do, it seems to me, wants to make a cause out of changing some more offending words in our national anthem. They object to the phrase “all thy sons command” which of course can be applied humanistically, as can "mankind" – with which I identify, by the way. (for the most part) Instead, why don’t they start making make a fuss in the press on behalf of their besieged sisters? Provide some practical and moral support?
Feminists - and concerned members of the opposite sex (we know you're out there) – could take up the battle cry on behalf of all the beleaguered women and children of this world! More than that--all oppressed persons, male and female, everywhere! It is a battle for which the only arsenal required involves raising consciousness and highlighting abuse. We still can hope that the capacity to feel shame when confronted with our short-comings has not been lost to the human beings of this planet.
~ Helga Marion Ross ~