Thomas Wictor

A canoe ride is worth a thousand books

A canoe ride is worth a thousand books

Now that I’m more engaged on social media, I see lots of things that annoy me. What it boils down to is I find it distressing that so many people prefer futile gestures to actually making a difference in a real human being’s life.

Most of the links I’m sent are about “teaching” others how to be more sensitive. It’s blather, a giant waste of time. The books, speeches, and protests are preaching to the choir. They won’t make even the tiniest difference in the minds of those who are doing the damage.

The Jesuits say, “Give me the child for his first seven years, and I’ll give you the man.”

This is absolutely true. There’s virtually no way to change a mind after it’s had certain ideas pounded into it during those first seven years. A case in point is where I live in Southern California. I used to know some children who spoke to me about their problems. They went to school in the heartland of progressive ideals, their teachers were progressive, their administrators were progressive, the curriculum was progressive, and the parents of their classmates were progressive.

And what was the insult of choice, the first thing out of everybody’s mouth?

“You’re gay. That’s so gay. What are you, gay?”

The reasons are manifold:

1. Most people only pay lip service to ideals of tolerance.

2. In racially and ethnically diverse communities, someone still has to be the accepted universal target.

3. Forcing tolerance on people not only drives their bigotry underground, it makes them more bigoted.

4. Too many parents are disconnected from the children and can’t be bothered to teach them anything.

5. Too many teachers are more interested in parroting the official party line than actually teaching.

Here’s a typical school fight from the thousands of videos on the Internet.

“Bitch. Bitch. Bitch. Bitch. I want you to suck it. Wanna kiss me, pretty boy? Pussy.”

Sixty-seven blows to the head later, “Am I am bitch? Huh? Huh?”

I was bullied relentlessly, all the way into college. Nobody ever taught me how to deal with bullies. Both of my parents made it clear that they didn’t want to hear about our problems. Together, they had their own issues as a couple, and separately they dealt with unpleasantness in their own idiosyncratic ways.

Mom wanted everything to be wonderful at all times. Unhappy children didn’t fit into the landscape of beauty and trivia. She protected herself from the negative by completely ignoring it.

Dad regarded any expression of discomfiture as a direct criticism of his entire being. If we’d said, “I hate it here,” he would’ve heard this.

“I hate you for being so irresponsible as to drag us into this godforsaken hellhole where sixteen-year-old, swamp-dwelling fifth graders torture me every day.”

Though Tim was initially bullied as much as I was, neither of us said anything to our parents. Tim figured out that if he behaved as strangely as possible, people would leave him alone. One day at his junior high school, as Tim stood with his hands in his pockets, one kid stealthily knelt on all fours behind him as another kid did the taunting.

The kid in front then shoved Tim, who fell back over the kid kneeling like a bench. As he fell, Tim kept his hands in his pockets and made his body as rigid as a board. He ended up with his head in the grass and his feet on the back of the bench-kid.

Tim said nothing. After a few seconds, the kneeling kid got out from under Tim’s feet; Tim’s body fell flat in the grass. He lay there, staring at the sky, his hands in his pockets. Someone went and got the coach, who had no idea how to deal with this…foreigner among them.

Wictor!” he shrieked. “Gittup from there!

Nobody bothered Tim again because they were now afraid of him. They thought he was crazy.

I wasn’t able to come up with ways of deterring bullies. Eventually a kid named Thurman took pity on me and became my bodyguard, but he couldn’t be around all the time. The predators just waited until I was alone. They warned me to not tell Thurman, so I obeyed.

The situation would’ve been marginally bearable if I’d had an adult who’d given me survival skills. Stephen was a boy in the fifth and sixth grade with me. He was extremely effeminate and spent all his lunches at the girls’ table—giggling, gabbling, and sitting with his legs wrapped around each other. His wrists were so floppy they seemed double jointed. Most of the boys in my class called him “queer-bait,” which was what Texans in the early seventies said.

But I noticed that nobody ever called Stephen queer-bait to his face. One day I found out why.

A new guy named Brian transferred into our class in sixth grade. He was dashing and athletic. Though Stephen was very girlish, he could play sports really well, and he was extremely fit. During one of the first football games with Brian, Stephen was the center, the guy who squats and hikes the ball. Brian was the quarterback. He got behind Stephen, put his hands on Stephen’s rear between his legs, and jerked upwards as hard as he could.

Stephen did a somersault. As he lay on the ground, he said, “Honestly, Brian. You don’t have to give me a wiping.”

Everyone screamed with laughter, except for Brian.

“You little homo!” he yelled. When Stephen stood up, Brian shoved him.

Wham! Stephen punched him right in the face. Brian fell down and Stephen wagged his finger at him.

“Play nice, now,” he said, one hand on his canted-out hip. Brian scuttled off. I later learned that anyone who assaulted Stephen was instantly smashed in the face. He was a Texan, after all. His parents not only taught him to defend himself, they also taught him to not be afraid.

Though I hated Texas, it was also the place where I was the beneficiary of what may be the greatest act of mercy ever shown me. We were at the house of people who went to the same church as we did. I was a mess—fat, depressed, terrified of the future, enraged, and stricken with about a thousand nervous tics. Though only thirteen, I felt my life was over.

After dinner the man of the house approached me.

“Get your jacket and come with me, Tom,” he said. He was built like a lumberjack, and he’d shown us that he had only four toes on each foot.

I went with him down to the lake, where there was a canoe tied to a dock.

“You get in front,” he said.

I did. He handed me an oar and pushed off.

“Row once on one side and then once on the other,” he said.

Out on the lake, all I could hear was the sound of our oars dipping into the water. Occasionally a loon would emit a mournful call; it sounded like a coyote howling. The night sky was clear, with more stars than I’d ever seen in my life. As I rowed I felt all the horror of my existence falling away.

“Isn’t this nice?” the man asked. That was all he said. He knew enough about children to not embarrass me.

That night has sustained me for thirty-eight years. It came when I needed it most, a message that not everything was ugly and cruel.

So thank you, Mr. Copeland. You taught me that a canoe ride is worth a thousand books. I hope you’re happy, wherever you are.

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