There's no graceful way to say it, so I won't even try. In the fifth grade, I was a bully.
Before you start warming up the torches and sharpening the pitchforks, I would like to hastily add a couple more things. First off, this was the only time in my life when I have done such a thing, and it's something that even now, almost thirty years later, I am still
deeply ashamed of. Whenever a storyline rears its ugly head on one of my favorite shows or between the pages of a beloved book on the subject of the school bully, I always cringe a little. Sometimes, I cringe a lot. A person can try to explain it away as much as they want; entire books have been written on the subject, and I know all those points are very well-meaning. In the end, it doesn't really matter because the scoreboard is the only thing that counts. I was an ten-year-old jackass, and there's no use trying to put a nice coat of lipstick on a very ugly pig.
Due to the awesome power of Google, I'm not going to use the real names of the people involved because I don't want any of this nearly three-decade-old muck to be splattered around again. One of the people involved in this story (obviously not me) is a very well-respected city politician. One of them (again and thankfully, not me) has served some time in jail. The victim is currently in parts unknown, which leaves me, the third guilty party, to tell the tale. However, it's impossible to get all the details of the story out without telling you that the victim in this case had the last name of Munch, so we will go with that one detail and leave the rest of the particulars to the past. Okay?
Why did we pick David (not his real first name) Munch? There were reasons. They were terrible reasons, of course--they always are in cases like these--but we had reasons. First of all, he was gawky-looking, and that's always an unintentional invitation to get teased by jerky kids. I always hate using real-life examples in situations like this because I don't like to embarrass people unnecessarily (even if I'll never meet them), but this time, it's needed. Go and Google up the actor DJ Qualls. Yeah. That's what David Munch looked like, only his ears stuck out more. This second factoid about him would have been bad enough and definitely sufficient to carry the day, but there was a third thing that was added in to this reeking stew that truly made it a dish to remember...
...anybody out there recall a toy called The Monchhichis
? No? Well, I do and I know damn well that David Munch does. This was a stuffed Japanese monkey-looking doll that was considered to be thoroughly lame by every boy in our school, and absolutely adorable by every girl. There was an animated show that went along with this atrocity, and the commercials (which seemed to run endlessly) featured a catchy little song that only needed a listen and a half to be able to replicate. Oh, and did I mention that the Monchhichis had ears that stuck out in a manner that would have embarrassed Dumbo? No? Well, I'm sure you already guessed that. And I am positive
you've already guessed that within seventy-two hours of that first commercial jingle hitting the airwaves, the kids at our elementary school associated Monchhichi with Munch, and therefore David Munch got that song delivered to him at every turn. You've also probably already guessed that he was driven nearly crazy with rage and shame by this song, which just made people want to sing it more, particularly myself and my two co-conspirators, in between episodes of shoulder-checks, trips in the hallway and purposefully squashed school lunches. As Kurt Vonnegut said, so it goes.
At this point, I'm going to try to put the brakes on this out-of-control mine cart and attempt to play the "I was just a stupid kid" card, which works up to a point. We went way past that point, but a certain amount of cruel behavior is par for the course when it comes to dealing with children, particularly little boys. If you don't believe me, I invite you to recall that classic childhood standby of burning ants with a magnifying glass. Or making barking noises at a fence when you know there's a big, mean dog standing behind it, yapping its brains out. Or racking out the kid over and over who shat themselves in kindergarten class by five years later continuing to refer to them as "Patty Poop Pants" until they cry. Or any number of other terrible examples that I'm sure you can recall from your own childhood days as victim, perpetrator or spectator that have never quite left your memories.
Bottom line: kids are cruel. We were no exceptions, and worse than most.
Many adults, when confronted with examples of such awful childhood behavior, will retreat to the well-worn cliché of "But he/she is just a child! They don't know any better!" While I can't speak for all
kids in the world, I will state for the record that yes, I knew what I was doing was wrong. I knew that if my parents and/or school authorities found out that I was one of the three principal tormentors of David Munch, my goose would be effectively cooked. Therefore, it was necessary (so we reasoned) that we convince him that squealing on us to the adult world was not a spectacularly smart idea.
You'll be pleased to know that the method we chose ended up being the instrument of our demise. Unlike most bullies who corner their victims in the bathroom and threaten them with a never-ending series of nauseating "swirlies" if they talk, we decided to fold up a carefully-crafted note in his desk that got our point across. Demonstrating the kind of clear critical thinking that had made him a perpetual target--because if he'd ignored us from the beginning, we probably would have given it a week and then moved on to something else, like killing each other in dodgeball--he took out the note, unfolded it, read it and then marched straight to the front of the room to hand it over to our teacher, in full view of the rest of the class.
A muted gasp rose from the assembled students, with a couple barely-audible mutters of "oh, shit" from the other two conspirators. Myself, I was too frozen with horror and shock over what had just taken place to muster anything more than biting the inside of my own cheek until I tasted blood. David Munch had just violated a major rule of engagement in the battlefield of being a kid; under no circumstances were you ever
supposed to let the adult world what was going on. You fought your battles, you stood up for yourself (or slipped away to skulk along another day), and if your mom asked you about the split lip you were currently sporting, you chalked it up to that schoolyard battle for supremacy known as dodgeball. Maybe that mornings' ritual serenade of The Monchhichi theme song, making it about two months in a row, had finally proved to be the straw that snapped his spine in two. Whatever it was, things were about to come to a truly nasty head.
All of us ended up in a dreaded after-school conference, and when I say "all of us," I mean the parents of the principal players were there as well. Oh, and so was the actual principal. And the superintendent of the school district. Yikes
Oh, right. The contents of the letter. It had been written by all three of us (the politician, the jailbird and Yours Truly) with each person taking a paragraph or so to colorfully express themselves, and had been signed with the inspired moniker "The Midnight Rapists." Yes, you read that correctly. In our defense--which really is
looking more and more like a hill of beans by the moment--I'd like to state for the record that none of us knew what a rapist actually was. We knew they were bad guys because we'd heard the word used on the nightly news, but as to what sort of a crime they committed, none of us had any clue. Our nebulous understanding was that it was worse than burglary, but not quite as serious as murder. Since we'd voted and by a tally of 2-1 decided not to go with "The Midnight Killers," (the jailbird thought it was a great idea, whereas the politician and I thought it sounded dumb) the next logical step down the totem pole was "The Midnight Rapists." Still tough-sounding, but not cartoonish. At least, that was the muddled theory we were operating under.
All adults in the case were dismayed at the contents of the signature, particularly my mother. The superintendent, before leaving the meeting early as befitting a man of his important position, impressed upon us the need that something like must never
happen again, and then presumably went off to play golf. This left us alone with our own pissed-off parents, the extremely
pissed-off parents of David Munch, one elementary school principal who was surely wondering how this scenario had never been covered at Teacher Academy, and David Much himself, who by then looked as though he wanted nothing more than the earth to open and swallow us all.
"Well," the principal said after a very pregnant silence, "I think the proper thing to do in this situation is for the boys to apologize, and to promise to never do something like this ever again or there will definitely be suspensions. That should take care of--"
--and to those of you out there screaming in impotent rage at your LCD screens for the perceived lackluster nature of the punishment we were being given versus what we had done, I will hastily agree, but also point something out; this was 1983, not 2012.
It was a completely different world back then. MTV was barely two years old, the National Hockey League had only started requiring helmets to be worn during the last year of the Carter administration, and nobody had ever heard of such phrases as words can hurt
, inner child
. This was simply the way things operated back then. In 2012, major amounts of counseling, suspension and possibly being transferred to another school would have surely followed. In 1983, once they were caught the boys were expected to say that they were sorry, and we would dust off our hands on our pants and move on.
So we did. Sort of. Each of us took our turn at mouthing our meaningless platitudes ("...so sorry... didn't mean for things to go so far... feel terrible about what happened... this isn't the kind of person that I am...") to David and his furiously-pissed parents, adopting the proper hang-dog expression and allowing a small quaver to creep into our apologetic tones. Well, at least, that's what happened when it came to each of us in turn to be on the Soapbox Of Regret.
When it wasn't our time to shine, the other two took turns staring--did I say staring? I meant glaring
--holes in David Munch, occasionally mouthing vile words and grisly threats while the third recited the litany of confession. The fact that we did this while all the adults were still in the room, including the principal, just goes to show what clever master criminals we really were... but it also raises a very interesting question. How did none of the adults not intervene, once they saw what was going on? At the very least, you'd think David Munch's parents would throw out something like:
"Hey, you know, it's all very well and good that your kid feels awful about the living hell he and his two sadistic asshole friends put our son through, but there's one little detail that we can't quite to seem to get past. At the very least, this apology might ring a little truer if everybody didn't take their turns saying 'We're gonna get you, motherfucker' when they weren't pretending that they were the Grinch Who Stole Christmas having a moment of clarity. So, you know, maybe you'd like to have a nice, long physical chat with your malignant offspring out behind the garage when you all get home tonight, because I don't think your kid has really gotten the message."
I can't speak for the parents of the politician or the jailbird, but my own parents never believed in corporal punishment, so at least I didn't get to find out how Dave Krieg felt after Derrick Thomas set the single-game NFL sack record on him. However, I spent the next month or so writing sentences every evening until my hand felt like it was going to fall off, and lost every other privilege that they have a name for. Even my showers were timed. I was also told in no uncertain terms that if my parents ever heard anything ever again involving so much as a stray pencil accidentally knocked off of David Munch's desk, I could count on being enrolled in military school before the day was over. Considering how much my mother hated the armed forces, this was no idle threat and I quickly resolved that no matter what the jailbird and the politician said, I was through with The Monchhichi theme song. I was out.
The thing was, so was David Munch. The next day, he was not at school, which I found to be a colossal bummer as I had spent most of the previous evening composing a lengthy letter of apology to him (at my mother's steel-eyed direction) and now was going to probably have to add a few more chapters in the meantime. The day after that also saw no return, and neither did the next day. That Saturday my parents left the house to go hit some yard sales and I took my bike over to the Munch household to do some reconnaissance.
They were gone. By that point in my life I had been a part of five Grand Olde Moving Days in our household, so I knew what the aftermath looked like. Blinds askew on the windows, grass was long overdue for a mowing, a few busted boxes that hadn't passed muster with scraps of tape still stuck to them in the driveway... the Munch clan had decided to head to greener pastures, which I realized years later to be the reason why the parents hadn't demanded an additional pound of flesh at the Waterloo-themed meeting everyone had been a part of. Or why they'd brushed aside the fact that we had mad-dog-stared at their child during said meeting. The family brain trust had already decided that they were out; why engage in any more unpleasantness along the way?
Two times in the next three years, I got to experience the other side of the equation. The next year, I got my clock cleaned righteously in a neighboring town after an abortive trip into the heart of the Southwestern desert (and the less said about that
fiasco, the better). After returning to the scene of the original crime, I then was knuckled under again by the local bully, although this time I made a moderate success things by successfully standing up for myself after about two and a half months of daily torment. Even at that young age, I knew enough about the ways of the universe to figure that these events were my karmic payback for what I had so thoughtlessly done myself. I took my lumps, survived and moved on.
However, over the years I have carried around enough guilt about what happened with David Munch to outfit several Catholic schools. The main thing that I still shake my head about--and suspect that on some level I will never entirely get over--was just how damned easy
it was to slide down that greased chute of villainy. All that was needed was for somebody to look different, and it was game on. The rest was really just extra ingredients and window-dressing.
makes me slightly queasy when I spend too much time thinking about this dark relic from the past is that while the politician, the jailbird and myself were certainly the primary instigators, there were no heroes in this pageant; David Munch doesn't qualify either, as he was squarely cast as the victim. Look around this awful tale as much as you want, and you won't see a white knight or plucky princess who bravely stood against us. It's not like anybody ever shoved us away from him with a shrill cry of, "Leave him alone!"
Nobody ever took us aside at any point during the daily recess sessions and said in a low voice, "Come on, don't you yahoos think he's had enough
?" Nobody even ever walked away, sadly shaking their head, when our off-key but heartfelt rendition of The Monchhichi theme song made its daily appearance. What did they do when we were sharpening our verbal razors?
Simple. They laughed. Everybody
No heroes in this building. Here are some other tales.