I was, to say the least, not particularly popular in junior high. Fat and weird are a pretty bad combo in what is already a tough age period. I tried being tough and standing up for myself, but I wasn’t particularly convincing because by-and-large I could not fight back due to parental constraints. Trying to avoid them just goaded them on.
Eventually I discovered the secret: Bribe them.
Most of the bullies were not really the sharpest tools in the shed. Most of them struggled just to pass. By ’struggle’ I mean beg, whine, complain, and do anything to cojole the teachers into giving them a grade they didn’t earn — for them, that was struggling. I think it started with Jack Knowles. Jack was pretty cold in our sixth-grade year, but in the seventh he sat next to me in a couple key classes. One day he had completely forgotten about a big assignment and was so desperate that he asked for my help. I doubt I was conniving enough to see the opportunity and I think I was just afraid to say no, so I gave him the answers.
It turns out that you don’t need to bribe all the tough kids. If you get one or two in your corner the rest will find someone else to pick on a la The Gator Theory. Of course, once they’ve found that they can lean on you they won’t stop using you. I’m not sure whether it’s the intelligence to see an opportunity or the stupidity that comes with a short memory, but a certain contingent of the bullies would befriend their enablers. Sometimes it was just a matter of passing along my homework, though sometimes I was doing homework for classes that I wasn’t even taking. Far from feeling abused, I actually felt appreciated. Before long I had placated a handful of former tormentors and even won a few friends. My yearbook is strewn with signatures and notes from Jack, other former tormentors, and friends I made through them.
High school was a vast improvement and I didn’t quite need the protection. I was getting taller and a less bulky and a high school of 4,000 allows for anonymity that a junior high of 900 does not. But saying “no” was less a strong point then than it is now (and it’s not exactly my strong point now) and I managed to work my way out of the cellar of the caste system by placating verbal abusers. In leiu of saying “no” to people I wanted to say “no” to, I started charging money. I never took World History in high school, but I knew m0re about Egyptian history than some of my clients that did. I had even developed methods of communications during tests.
I got caught once or twice and my grades suffered (though no disciplinary action was taken). That just served as justification to drive the price up higher for those that paid (by that point, most of the tormentors had fallen a grade or two behind me or been shipped off to the alternative school).
It’s interesting sometimes the moral blindspots we develop. In some ways the whole thing bolstered my contempt for public education. In a couple of cases I was caught dead-to-rights and nothing happened. The teachers were too worn out and apathetic to care. In that vein I can sort of understand why criminals continue to commit the same crimes and get tossed in to prison repeatedly. It’s not so much that I think prison life would be easy but that they are threatened with the moon and the stars and then given light sentences with moderate supervision afterwards. The criminal justice system just goes through the motions and eventually it just becomes a dance.
I never needed the money the same way that I needed the protection. But it became apparent that few teachers really had the energy to care. It also seemed to me then (more than it does now) that the whole school system was a dance. Jump through this hoop and then the next one. It felt more like just doing sprints rather than actually playing ball. I didn’t realize then as I do now that those sprints pay off in the long run. My ability to jump through those hoops served more purpose than actually doing so.
If I feel guilty about anything, it’s about being an enabler for some of my clients. One of the bigger problems I have with public education as I experienced it was the inability or stubborn refusal to draw the line in the sand and fail kids that deserve to fail. I saw this firsthand in elementary school as I got 70 after 70 — it’s unlikely that I fell just on the right side of the pass/fail line so many times. It wasn’t until I got my first failing grade that I started to straighten up. The same system that coddled me also coddled my bullies. I suppose I could have drawn a line in the sand and told some of these people that they have to get their act together or they will fail because I wouldn’t help them.
But ultimately, what would have been the point?
It’s an easy trap to fall in to, to say to yourself that the world is so screwed up that no one will notice or care when you deviate from the line. Download illegal files, get a radar detector, take some juice so that you can measure up against your competitors that are all taking, and cheat in school and help others do so. When the data table is corrupt, it doesn’t matter what’s on the files, really.
It’s such a seductive argument that it can’t help but pervade my consciousness. It’s such a destructive argument that I really wish it didn’t.