As Crass Casualty and Dicing Time would have it, in the week of my wife’s memorial service, I have to box up the contents of my classroom for a move to a brand new Upper School building.
This chore is especially taxing because when I moved into a former colleague’s room a quarter a century ago, he asked if he could keep some of his books in the room, which were housed in three enormous bookcases that belonged personally to him. I said, sure. He eventually died without heirs. His collection includes some of his late mother’s books as well. There are inscriptions. “To Catherine S____________ 1925.”
Of course, I also have books, 31 years worth, not to mention file cabinets gorged with quizzes, study guides, lecture notes, honor contracts, resumes, book order receipts, etc.
So I’m in the process of sifting through the contents, recycling, shredding, and yesterday I discovered this anti-bullying speech I gave to the Upper School during the first Clinton Administration. I don’t know the exact date, maybe 1994. At any rate, I haven’t altered the text, so some of the allusions may seem odd or anachronistic.
At any rate, I think the speech holds up fairly well, so why not expose it to a wider audience than the 300 or so who originally heard it? I doubt if it will alter the behavior of bone fide bullies (like our current president), but it could offer the victims of bullies some solace.
I’ve also included the video clips that accompanied the speech.
[Note the original movie clip went a bit longer and depicted an older nurse who delivers the food the younger nurse was incapable of providing.]
John Merrick, the Elephant Man, is, of course, an extreme example of someone being shunned because of the way he looks, but we all know that every day all types of people are excluded for all types of reasons — it might be their race, their looks, the way they talk, their sexual orientation, the way they dress. I took a poll of my classes and discovered that 100% of my students, every single individual, has been made fun of here at Porter-Gaud, and I mean maliciously. I suspect everybody in this auditorium has been shunned, been put down at one time or another, been made fun of. We all know what it feels like, and it doesn’t feel good.
A couple of weeks ago, I saw Maya Angelou, perhaps America’s most famous living poet. She was being interviewed by David Frost on PBS. Maya Angelou is black and grew up in segregated Arkansas. So like John Merrick, she knows what it’s like to be excluded. Growing up as a little girl in Arkansas, she probably wouldn’t have been able to see the movie The Elephant Man because of the color of her skin.
When Maya Angelou was only 10-years-old, she was raped. After the rape, she refused to talk for over a year. Her pain was so terrible she couldn’t give voice to it. She remained silent, mute. I guess sort of like John Merrick, she couldn’t find the words she needed.
Fortunately, she eventually did find her voice and became a poet. In a poem she read at President Clinton’s inauguration, she linked humankind to extinct species such as dinosaurs and mastodons and voiced her concern that we may follow in their footsteps and become “lost in the gloom of dust and ages.” She sees a real danger in fragmentation. She writes
[. . .] the Asian, the Hispanic, the Jew
The African and Native American, the Sioux,
The Catholic, the Muslim, the French, the Greek
The Irish, the Rabbi, the Priest, the Sheikh,
The Gay, the Straight, the Preacher,
The privileged, the homeless, the Teacher.
They hear. They all hear
The speaking of the Tree.
And what is the tree saying?
Do not be wedded forever
To fear, yoked eternally
In the interview, David Frost asks Maya Angelou what the poem means, and she says, “It means we have to stop minimizing other people’s lives.”
We have to stop minimizing other people’s lives.
Look at John Merrick. The Elephant Man. An extreme case, as I said, but look how others minimized him. In the movie, the doctor Treves at first is more interested in John as a specimen than he is as human, but at least he treats him humanely. The younger nurse is so weak a person she runs like a child when she sees “the elephant man.” Runs screaming out of the room. [The following references don’t appear in the above clip]. Did you notice the second, older nurse? She never makes eye contact with Merrick. That’s what people do when they are uncomfortable; either they avoid eye contact, or they giggle, or both. This older nurse is beyond the giggling stage so instead she stays busy making the bed and talks about Merrick as if he were an idiot or weren’t there.
She is minimizing his life.
The head of the hospital is eager to get rid of Merrick. He is minimizing Merrick’s life. And not only John Merrick’s life, but his very own life. Because as it turns out, John Merrick possessed an extraordinary soul. His indomitable spirit has made him famous — the stuff of biographies, plays, movies. The head of the hospital would have been long forgotten if he had not encountered John Merrick. And how will the head of the hospital be remembered in these biographies, plays, and movies? His legacy lies in how he treated John Merrick. And I suspect that’s how we will be remembered after we leave Porter-Gaud. Others will remember us in light of how we treated them.
Now, this assembly’s not really about John Merrick. it’s about us — about you and me — and how we treat people. Do we minimize other people in the mistaken belief that we “grow” when we “put them down?”
That we grow when we exclude someone from our group?
Let’s face it. Everyone has weak points. We may be great at volleyball but lousy in math. Great in math but hopeless in history. We all have features we’re self-conscious about. Frankly, I’d just as soon not be bald, but like John Merrick, I didn’t have the luxury of choosing my parents. Nobody does.
Genetics deals us our facial features, our body types, our athletic prowess (or lack thereof), our intellectual potential, and even, according to the latest studies, our sexual orientation. We have no control over our parents’ wealth. Whether or not they’re getting divorced. Where we were born.
Of course, it’s really no mystery why people harass and pick on others. It’s obviously to compensate for low self esteem. Inevitably cowardice is also involved. Bullies rarely pick on the golden boy star quarterback who looks as if he’s stepped off the cover of Seventeen Magazine and sports 1550 SAT scores. The victims are going to be someone younger, smaller, less popular.
So when we hear somebody cutting someone else down, we ought to tell him or her to quit. We’ll be doing, not only the victim a favor, but also the bully a favor, because frankly, he’s making an ass out of himself. To those who see through the psychology, it’s embarrassing. Moreover, in doing nothing when we see unkindness occur we are abetting the creation of a climate that allows bullying to flourish.
We should be the heroes, not the villains, in the movies of our lives.
Of course, cutting people down isn’t the only way we can minimize their lives. Sometimes we shut others out because they are different. Ignoring someone is also minimizing his or her life. It’s obviously not as bad as being overtly cruel, but we do actually cheat ourselves when we hide in our little homogenous groups.
Let me give you an example.
I have a friend, Josephine Humphreys, who is a somewhat famous novelist. She wrote Rich in Love, a novel on the 9th grade reading list. You older students and faculty members might remember that her son Willy actually played Merrick in a senior play production of The Elephant Man a couple of years ago. Anyway, Jo grew up South of Broad, grew up in the Episcopal Church, attended Ashley Hall, in other words, lived a fairly typical Porter-Gaud-like life. However, she and her husband Tom are now in the process of producing records — cds that is — for local gospel groups. How did this come about? Through serendipity and the willingness to try new things.
About four years ago, Jo and Tom went to a gospel concert at Spoleto and were knocked out by this local quartet called the Brotherhood. They decided they wanted to see them again. The only thing was that back then the Brotherhood only performed in all black churches.
That didn’t stop Jo.
I asked Jo what it was like being a middle aged white woman going as a complete stranger to an all black church. She said she was nervous and that some of her white friends told her not to go, that blacks wouldn’t want her at their church, that it was intrusive. But she said to me, “You know, Wes, I’m 50 years old and that type of thing I don’t have time for.” So she and Tom went, were welcomed warmly, loved it. Over time, they became very good friends with the Brotherhood and their wives. Jo says that every time she hears them, they restore her faith in the world. She firmly believes that getting to know the Brotherhood is one of the very best things that has happened to her. And it’s been great for them, too. With Jo and Tom’s help, they’ve gained a wider audience and have toured Europe. Their European audiences loved them; they loved their European audiences.
The courage to take a chance and reach out has certainly enriched Jo’s life. The Brotherhood’s lives. And some Europeans’ lives as well.
But the thing is — integration isn’t only about mixing colors — it literally means “to make whole by bringing all parts together.” As long as we cut others off, as longs as we limit our peers by only seeing them as computer nerds, jocks, rednecks, math people, preppies, 7th graders — we too are cut off. We’re a piece of something. The stranger you see everyday at lunch sitting by himself may have an important gift to share — might possess a missing piece of your puzzle.
For example, in the film after Treves discovers that Merrick can speak, Treves leaves the hospital room and encounters Merrick’s sadistic manager, a man who exploited Merrick by exhibiting him in freak shows and who severely beat him. The manager threatens Treves by saying he will go to the authorities unless Treves does not release Merrick. The head of the hospital overhears the conversation and orders the manager out, saying he’s sure the authorities would be glad to hear of how he treated Merrick. The hospital head tells Treves he would like to meet the patient the next afternoon. Treves knows there is no chance keeping Merrick in the hospital if Merrick does not show himself to be mentally competent.
There’s no telling what wonders may exist in that person we have shut out. Merrick had already learned the “23rd Psalm” from the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer. Where, no doubt, he also ran across these words, the wisest words I know of to be found anywhere:
Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
Thank you for your attention. Any announcements . . .
 i.e., fate