If society has made no other advancements in the last 30 years we have at least begun to recognize the dangers, and evils of bullying. Recently, the local news has been awash with stories of High School hazing incidents and bullying of LGBT students that have ended in tragedy, and suicide. As a parent, I am glad to see that schools and administrators are taking these issues seriously, even if there is still much room for improvement. During our youth it was pretty much an accepted fact of life that the strong kids survived by feasting on the weak. In fact, I have often wondered if we read Lord of the Flies in English class as a “How To” book instead of as social commentary.
Still, I have to think that I had it better than most kids my age. The worst thing I remember about my freshman year at Notre Dame was the ritual hazing that we went through as JV football players. Growing up, I wanted nothing more in life than run out onto the field at Vandetta Stadium as the ND Fight Song played. I would have suffered any humiliation or pain to live that dream, so I never considered quitting, no matter how much grief the Varsity players and coaching staff gave us. Not that we were stripped naked and beaten with paddles or anything. No, the hazing was more psychological than it was physical. For the most part the coaches just looked the other way, and considered it part of a character building exercise that everybody had to go through.
After football practices the JV’s weren’t allowed to shower when the Varsity was in the shower. Sweaty, exhausted, and muddy, we had to sit and wait until they were almost done. This wasn’t a coaching rule, just one the Varsity players had created. When we were finally allowed into the shower, the freshman all had to share a single shower head in the corner, and take turns getting wet, soaping up, and rinsing off. Huddled in the corner we kept our distance from the Seniors because they’d pee on you if you got too close to them. It was disgusting to be standing there shivering, waiting for your turn under the shower head, and feel an odd warm stream of water hitting you in the legs. Guys really are Neanderthal’s. If boys aren’t ruled over with an iron fist it doesn’t take long before they are painting their bodies, brandishing spears, and dancing around a bonfire.
I’d like to say that I was more enlightened than most and that when I became a Senior we made sure to treat the freshman with dignity and respect. But I would be a liar. I can distinctly remember throwing little Danny Palmer into the hallway wearing nothing but his jockstrap, and locking the door behind him. We also gave Tim Kryman a swirly, because had the temerity to talk back to us, and disrespect our “authority”.
As a freshman, I was in awe of the upper classmen on the team. I was so terrified that they’d single me out for torment that I tried to fade into the wood work at every opportunity. My friend good friend Tim, on the other hand, refused. Tim had tried out for football, but had to quit early in the season because of his bronchitis. He became the “trainer” and spent the weekday afternoons picking up blocking dummies and filling water buckets. He was picked on terribly by the Varsity players, but he had spunk, and he was never too afraid to smart off to them.
One day we were standing next to my locker changing after practice, when the starting Running Back for the Varsity walked by and intentionally brushed into Tim. Tim never hesitated, and told him to “Watch out asshole!”. My heart stopped beating, and my jaw fell open. The Senior spun around and grabbed Tim with both hands and threw him up against the lockers. I began to wonder how I was going to explain to Tim’s weeping Mother that her son had been killed and dismembered, but instead Tim spat in his face, and came flying back off of the wall with both arms swinging. I don’t think the Senior ever expected him to fight back. A knock down, drag out, roll around on the floor of the locker room, fight ensued until the coaches came in and pulled them off of each other. I have always respected Tim for that. The obnoxious little punk had balls. I think it was the Sicilian in him.
But not all the Seniors were that cruel to us. Pat Clark used to look out for me, and Randy Mazur, despite making me remove his cleats for him after the games, was a pretty decent guy too. They never participated in the more sadistic tortures. I did the opposite of Tim and laid low, doing as I was told. I was puny, at about 100 lbs, and had been placed as wide receiver. The first three JV games of the year I didn’t get to play because there was a sophomore ahead of me at the position. But then he got promoted to Varsity and I finally got in a game.
Our JV’s hadn’t won a game in two years at that point. It was near the end of the game and we were losing by several touchdowns when the coaches finally started calling pass plays. By some wonder of fate, the other team had either resorted to putting their cheerleaders into the game, or was too tired from scoring touchdowns, but Jimmy didn’t get sacked, and actually threw the ball my way. I caught something like four passes for 40 yards, and never scored a point, but overnight I had become somebody.
In practice the next day the JV coach had me run pass patterns and catch the ball so our Varsity coach could see that I really could catch a pass, and with four games left in the year I got picked to be one of the four freshman to suit up for Varsity. Suddenly, the Varsity players knew my name, and started saying hi to me in the hallways. I didn’t mind my minor celebrity, it was better than cowering in the corner of the shower.
I’d like to think that my promotion to Varsity was because of my natural athletic ability finally shining through. Unfortunately, it was just because of a NY State HS rule that all schools needed to have at least 22 players to have a Varsity team. We only had 18 upper classmen (Sophomore’s included) so I got to be one of the 4 lucky freshman to wear an oversized Varsity jersey, and stand on the sideline during the games.
I didn’t play a single down on Varsity until about half way through Sophomore year, but I was there! My friends Jimmy and David also got called up to Varsity and we spent so much time standing on the sidelines by the cheerleaders over the course of the next year and a half that we not only memorized the cheers, but we knew the choreography too. (My favorite was “Be Aggressive! B-E Aggressive. B-E A-G-G-R-E-SS-I-V-E…”)
It’s funny. In one of my old yearbooks I have a picture of me standing on the sidelines, watching the cheerleaders. I am just this little kid hidden deep inside of a helmet and jersey. My God but we were children! I was never as strong willed, or as self confident as my friend Tim. If I hadn’t have had the good fortune of catching a couple of passes, I doubt I would have made it through my freshman year. By the time that football season was over, there were only a handful of stoners that I needed to look out for. The jocks pretty much left me alone, and it was understood that I was “protected”.
Such is the fate of being a teenager. It doesn’t take much to go from the most popular, to the least, or back again. A catch, a joke, a date, a text message, or throwing up at a dance can all transform your world overnight for better, or for worse. I am so afraid of what the future holds for my kids. At that age, everything in life seemed like it was life or death. We lived on the edge of a knife every day. It seemed like one small slip up and it could all be over. I lived it. I remember it. How on earth do I convince them that none of it really matters? If you have any ideas, please let me know.