by: Marcia Prichason
Fourth grade was tough for me. We had moved from New York to Illinois two years before, and by that time other kids realized that in September I was absent for several days at a time. After school, they’d see me dressed in my best, not able to play.
The Jewish High Holidays separated me from my classmates. As my brothers and I were the only Jewish kids in the school, we were singled out.
I felt particularly tormented when I was taunted about my religion. My family didn’t fit the stereotype: we weren’t rich, we didn’t keep Kosher and my mother worked.
I was ridiculed relentlessly, and the ridicule intimidated me so I told no one. I thought that something was wrong with me. I grew to despise any association with being Jewish. I hid as best I could. But still, the nuns waiting in the hallway to call their kids to catechism pointed me out. Girls who I thought were my friends stopped playing with me. Little acts of persecution began to occur on a regular basis, and Andy Reegus was my chief tormenter.
It was the 1950′s, and we were seated alphabetically by rows. Andy, two seats behind me, would seize any opportunity to make my life miserable. If I couldn’t answer a question, he would snigger. Finding excuses to get out of his seat, he’d knock the pen out of my hand and send the ink spilling across the pages of my workbook. Worst of all, every time he walked by, he whispered, as if it were a dirty word: “Jew.”
I remember crying a lot and generally feeling isolated and alone. I told my mother that I was being teased about my glasses, my New York accent or my buck teeth. However, I couldn’t bring myself to tell her about the real source of my agony. I was too ashamed. I had been bullied into silence.
My mother’s reaction to the teasing was that I kick Andy in the shins. In order to accomplish this without reprisal, I would have to do it surreptitiously; the teacher could not see the kick. So, one day when Andy was walking by, leaning over to whisper “Jew” in my ear, I kicked him hard — so hard, he doubled over in pain. The teacher, sensing an incident, looked up from her throne behind her desk and asked what was going on. Since I was furiously engaged in solving a math problem that was an anathema to me, all appeared calm…except for Andy, writhing in pain. On that day, I ceased being a victim.
While the fateful kick solved my immediate problem with Andy Reegus, it didn’t remove the stigma of being Jewish in a Christian world. For most of my life, I have been trying to overcome those feelings of humiliation that sprang from those dark days in fourth grade. I have tried to define myself with my own definition of who I am.
Now, I am battling bullying again. But this time, I refuse to be cowed into silence. This time, I will not be made a victim.
Charles Worley, a North Carolina pastor, recently called for gays and lesbians to be fenced in so they eventually die off. His diatribe against the LGBTQ community has little to do with the word of God and a whole lot to do with bigotry and hatred. And the Charles Worleys of the world spread their malevolence by convincing enough people they are right. They bully their way into forcing the world to operate according to their viewpoint.
Worley’s world is only a stone’s throw away from Nazi Germany’s Final Solution. However, the forces of evil can be counteracted, and sometimes, it takes a child to make that happen.
A recent Chicago Tribune article told the story of nine-year-old Brett Blesius who is standing up to bullying. According to the Tribune article, Brett told his father that, “I didn’t think that [bullying] was right to do, and I want to stop it.” So, Brett has created an anti-bullying t-shirt. The shirts, already a big hit in his elementary school, are being promoted by his classmates as a way to get other kids to stop being mean and hurtful.
If there’s something to be learned from Brett, it’s that while you can’t kick every bully in the shins, you can do something positive to transform the very ugly world that Charles Worley represents.
Silence makes us all victims, and I, for one, refuse to shut my mouth until there is equality for all. So, way to go Brett! Guide us to the future with your t-shirts, your positive message and your sense of justice. Show us the way to a tomorrow that lets people define themselves according to their own definition of who they are. And Brett, demonstrate once and for all how to end bullying — because, in this way, a child shall lead us.
Note: This piece was originally featured on The Qu and was reposted with permission. You can find the original here.