My early civic education began with the transfer from Elementary School to Junior High. Although we were young boys, a darker side of humanity began to flex its muscles. The majority of us were 11-14 and floating in a physical, biological and emotional stew we didn’t understand but were eager to taste.
“I dare you” became a common challenge sorting out the courageous from the “Scaredy-Cats.” I dare you, was often the cause of dented heads, broken arms and unexplainable situations. “You what?” My mother would ask. “What were you thinking?” Nothing, I wasn’t thinking, I was responding to a challenge, fearful I’d be labeled a “Scaredy-Cat.”
Junior High upped the ante.
The dares became increasingly edgy and even the teachers were complicit. A shop teacher once encouraged 10 of us to place our palms flat on a metal bench as he connected a car battery to the bench to teach a healthy respect for electricity. The teacher grinned as he threw the switch. No boy dared refuse, we accepted this was going to be a painful lesson and hoped our suffering would be brief.
A dare was responsible for a cruel cafeteria joke one day. I joined my small circle of friends with our bag lunches and was cued in to keep an eye on the blind kid. (“Sight impaired” or Visually handicapped weren’t in the dictionary yet.)
Earlier, one of the older kids dared a younger kid, “Hey, dare you to put a rag in the blind kid’s sandwich.” When the younger kid resisted, he drove the dare in with a rusty nail, “Are you a Scaredy-Cat?”
The blind boy’s lunch meat was secretly replaced during the morning with a dirty shop rag, and his lunch bag placed back in the locker. Word spread, and we found ourselves seated around the lunch table waiting to see what would happen.
From across the cafeteria we watched the boy empty the contents of his bag and unfold the wax paper from his sandwich. Although no one at our table had directly participated, we now held the secret and unexpectedly found ourselves silently complicit in this cruel trick. I recall more than a few nervous giggles amidst the guilty anticipation circling our table.
The boy lifted the sandwich to his mouth and after a heroic attempt to bite through the rag, set the sandwich down and began to weep. No discreet whimpering, the boy threw his head back and let loose with a full-throated howl, instantly silencing all the cafeteria chatter. It was difficult to tell if his roar was an expression of grief or rage, I imagine a bit of each. My buddies mirrored the guilt and shame I felt.
I knew without question a cruel joke was underway and refused to speak up.
I learned there are worse things than being called a Scaredy-Cat.
The guilty boys were disciplined and endured the well-earned shame of a very public apology, but the whole episode left an enduring mark on me.
I caught my first sobering glimpse of humanity in that cafeteria. Some kids laughed it off in an insincere manner, others kept their heads down insisting, “It’s none of my business.” A small number were outraged and extremely vocal, demanding this type of cruelty be punished severely, but the majority were kids like me, we recognized cruel, mean-spirited behavior and refused to speak out against it.
I was a Scaredy-Cat that day and still regret it.
Honestly? I grow increasingly alarmed by the “civic behavior” exhibited in todays world. I’m not dipping into today’s political miasma, it’s too easy and become far too fashionable to point fingers and feign impotent outrage.
Cruel, mean-spirited behavior wears a thousand faces, yet the price of being a Scaredy-Cat remains much higher than the cost of speaking out.
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