Back when I was in third grade, there was a kid in my class named Charles Hallahan who had it in for me. I don’t know why. But pretty much every day he found something he didn’t like about me and let me know it. He was a big kid, big for his age, which was a year older than the rest of us, since he’d been left behind. But I never felt pushed around by him or particularly threatened, even though he routinely warned me the day was coming when he was going to knock my block off. He was annoying mostly but I felt I was able to fend him off with a deft “I know you are but what am I?” or a well-timed “Takes one to know one.” I may even have gotten him with a good, solid “Sez you!”
The point is I thought of Charles as a bully but I never felt bullied by him. I can’t say I didn’t worry on the days he told me he was going to be waiting for me on my walk home after school. But since he never was, after a while, I probably didn’t worry all that much.
Then one day I found myself with my fists up, squaring off against him on the playground.
It happened like this.
Lots of other kids knew about my problem with Charles and that day Mark DeLisle decided enough was enough and something had to be done about it. Mark was a 5th grader and our playground "minder". Minders were kids from upper grades the nuns trusted to be their eyes and ears at lunchtime and recess because they couldn't be everywhere at once, and we knew we had to listen to the minders or else answer to Sister Mary Carmel in her office. Mark announced that it was time Charles and I settled our differences like men. This didn't make any sense to me since I didn't have anything I needed settling with Charles. I just wanted him to shut up and go away. But the other boys in our class agreed with Mark and I didn't see any hope of talking them around to my point of view. Charles and I took off our ties and our dress shirts and put up our dukes. Mark acted as referee and the rest of the kids circled us and began rooting us on.
I don’t know where the nuns were. I like to think they saw what was going on and were watching with a sporting interest, taking odds and laying bets. More likely they saw the circle of of us boys and assumed we were playing a game, marbles or tiddlywinks or dice. Like I said, I like to imagine the sisters had a sporting nature.
Can’t say how long Charles and I went at it. Couldn't have been more than a few minutes. Charles had reach and strength on his side. I had terror on mine. I figured my only hope was to go at him like a madman and charged in, swinging wildly. Didn't matter. Neither of us knew how to box but both of us knew how to duck so neither of us landed any punches that amounted to more than a glancing blow. After maybe three rounds, Mark stepped in and declared the fight a draw. Then he made us shake hands and promise to be friends.
And that was that. Charles left me alone from there on out. We didn't become friends, but he was a lot friendlier whenever we couldn't avoid each other. The next year his family moved and he went to a different school. I ran into him once a while after and he seemed genuinely glad to see me and wanted me to tell him all about what was going on back at his old school and how everybody was. I felt like reminding him that he hadn't much liked me or the school or anybody there back in the good old days but I let it go.
Now, it may look like the moral of this story is that if you stand up to a bully he'll leave you alone. And to some extent it's probably true here. But here's what I think is more the case. That ring of boys surrounding us that day? Almost all of them were rooting for me.
I don’t think Charles was impressed or scared off by my willingness to fight him. I think it dawned on him that I had more friends than he did and it wasn't just him against me, it was him against me and my gang.
There's more. Probably the reason I never felt bullied by him wasn't that I was such a brave kid or that he was an inept bully. It's more likely that I didn't feel alone.
The nuns and the lay teachers liked me. I was an altar boy and Father Cote, the former college fullback, liked me. (And it’s a shame on the Church that I have to point out that that doesn’t mean anything more than that he thought I was a good kid and could be trusted not to spill the cruets when I brought them to him during the Offertory.) And I was a Cub Scout and my Den Mother, Mrs Lavin, clucked and fussed over us and kept track of how we were doing in school. My parents were very active in the parish. My brothers and sisters were in grades behind me. School was part of my home life. My friends, my teachers, the priests, other kids’ parents were in a way extensions of my family.
I was protected.
You've probably already guessed what reminded me of this story and where I'm headed, but before I get there:
The other night we watched Captain America The First Avenger again. Early on, when Steve Rogers is still little and scrawny and trying one more time to enlist in the Army, the kindly scientist who has invented the super soldier serum and has already identified the future Captain America inside Rogers' heart asks him, “So you want to kill Nazis?” A trick question that Rogers answers correctly.
“I don't want to kill any one,” he says. “I don't like bullies.”
It's easy to jump to the conclusion that he's speaking from the experience of someone who's been bullied all his life. But I think that's wrong. I think that he's never felt bullied himself. He doesn't see himself the way most everybody else sees him. Without knowing it, in his heart, he's already Captain America.
On a visit to his old neighborhood in Brooklyn with Agent Carter, Rogers points out the landmarks of his youth, places where he got beat up---an alley, a vacant lot, behind a diner---but there’s reason to suspect he got beat up in fights he started.
We’ve already seen him in one of those fights. He got into it by standing up to a loudmouth in a movie theater ruining the show for other customers.
Steve Rogers didn’t fight because bullies picked on him. He fought bullies because they were picking on others.
And an important part of the point is that Steve hasn't had to face down bullies all on his own.
"I can do this all day," he tells the bully, and he probably could. But he doesn't have to. At that point his friend Bucky shows up and literally kicks the bully's ass.
There's nothing in the script that tells us Rogers doesn't have any other friends. And because we know he's a born leader there's no reason not to think that within his gang he's one of the leaders along with Bucky.
This is why being part of a team and teamwork matter so much to him. This is what he knows:
None of us can do it all on our own. None of us should be left to do it all alone.
Now, about Mitt.
Would it have been so hard for him to say, as TIME’s Joe Klein suggests he should have, something along the lines of, I'm sorry. When I was a kid I could be mean and stupid and I did some mean and stupid things. These weren't pranks. They weren't hijinks. They were mean and stupid acts. And what I did to John Lauber was the meanest and stupidest. I wish I hadn't done it. I wish I'd made it up to him. I wish he was alive so I could apologize?
Lots of people have drawn the connections between the seventeen year old prep school bully and the senior citizen running for President on his record of vulture capitalism and promises to make the poor suffer even more. I’m not sure how direct and clear and continuous those connections are. If you read the whole of that Washington Post story you’ll find evidence that Mitt was far from the worst bully at that school and that in many other ways he was a good kid and a good student or at least tried to be. I can see how people who know him well could honestly say that that story doesn’t show the real Mitt Romney. It shows him at his worst, but few of us are always at our worst. It may be that at his best Mitt is a good guy. It just seems to me he’s too often at his worst for somebody who wants to be President of the United States and at his worst he has a habit of picking on the weak and defenseless.
But what I’m more interested in here is not the real Mitt Romney but in Mitt and his posse as the quintesence bullies at work.
In his weaselly non-apology apology Romney tried to excuse what he'd done by claiming not to have known Lauber was gay.
Never mind how much of that claim is a lie. All of it was pure political calculation. Mitt knew that last Wednesday was not a good day to be perceived as a homophobe. (By the weekend when he showed up to deliver the commencement address at Liberty University he’d calculated it was safe again.) But here's the thing. It doesn't matter if he knew or not. What he did would have been just as vicious, cruel, and cowardly if Lauber had been straight. And I don't think it would have mattered to Mitt one way or another, because the important fact to a bullies like Mitt and his pals would have been that Lauber was weak and…alone.
Lauber could have been as outre Oscar Wilde but if he'd been as popular as Wilde was in school and as big and as strong as capable of carrying a bully down a flight of stairs and dumping him in a fountain I think Mitt would have left him alone or at least had a harder time rounding up his little mob of apostle bullies.
But Lauber was not big and strong. More importantly, he was not poplar. He was new to the school. He hadn't had time to make any friends or form alliances. From descriptions of his life after prep school he seems to have been inclined to keep to himself, although that's part of the special terror of being a closeted gay kid---get close to anyone and you risk revealing your secret. And he’d already been marked by other bullies at the school as a target. Mitt and his gang were going after a pre-approved victim.
What offended and incensed young Mitt was that Lauber was obviously gay. Mitt and his buddies would have used the f word, maybe the q word or the s word if they were feeling benevolent. But what allowed them to go after was that they knew he had no one to stand up for him.
This is what makes the President's support of marriage equality so very important. In effect he has told all the John Laubers out there they are not alone. I think gay people knew that already. They aren't alone, at least not as alone as John Lauber must have felt back in 1965, because they have each other. I think that one of the great things about the gay rights movement is how over the decades since Stonewall gay men and women have freed themselves to be able to come forward to stand up with each other and for each other. But I think gay people wanted to hear the President tell straight people that. Plainly and forcefully. And that’s what he did, maybe not as forcefully as he could have, but definitely he has made it plain to everybody.
You aren’t alone.
This is why I think the President’s statement is resonating with so many people, straight and gay. It’s a reiteration of what Democrats stand for or are supposed to stand for.
Nobody - nobody - can do it alone. Nobody - nobody - is to be left to do it on their own.
The Republicans, meanwhile, have only one thing to say.
You’re on your own.
Try telling that one to Captain America.
Several of the boys who were part of Mitt's mob that day are now old men who are deeply sorry for what they did. I'm sure they are disgusted with their young selves for their meanness and cruelty and for having been so weak and stupid as to have gone along with it.
But I can't help suspecting that they also regret having missed their moment to be Steve Rogers. They had the chance right there to stand up for a little guy against a bully and they muffed it.
As far as anyone can tell, all Mitt regrets is that he's been outed as that bully.
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