I had a third grade teacher on Long Island who hated boys. This was not a secret; even my mother used to complain that the woman, whose name I long ago blocked out, despised boys. She would make us sit in the corner but never the girls, would never call on us if we apparently knew the answer but always would if we apparently did not.
And I remember once she said that boys who play outside are very susceptible to spider bites and that might be dangerous since it isn’t unusual for a spider to lay eggs inside you. In fact, she said, she knew of someone who had been bitten in the cheek by a spider, and it started to itch not long after the bite. It became uncontrollable until he ripped open the bite scar with his nails and hundreds of baby spiders crawled out and down his cheek and neck, but some had already crawled into his brain and he died not long later.
We were eight years old.
This can’t be true, I remember thinking. We live in New York, not Panama. The following summer my family moved further east on the Island into a new house in a small village surrounded by an arboretum, a state park, and the Great South Bay. There were bound to be spiders. Still, I spent most of my time during those years hiking through woods, climbing trees, walking forbidden trails to mysterious creeks, and building forts in the trees behind our house. In fact, I’ve spent the better part of my life outside in nature, and I don’t think I ever had a single spider bite, let alone a colony inside my face.
But the story stuck. The following year at a new elementary school, I had better teachers who told us we could grow up to be anything we wanted, and nothing at all could stop us; absolutely nothing. Mark was going to be a musician and Norman was going to be a great athlete. I was going to play baseball. Unfortunately, I sucked. But no matter what happened, I always felt lucky. And I wasn’t afraid of spiders anyway; I just didn’t want them building canals through my dental work.
Who does this? Who so instills fear into others as to mark them for years, decades, to come? When I mention to my students that in my youth it was simply expected that we’d at the very least treat each other with respect, they laugh. They tell me in no uncertain terms that they believe they are entitled to treat each other how they see fit, and the funnier the disparaging comment, the more popular the person.
They call me old. Go figure. Students don’t have much hope in their future. Faculty doesn’t have much hope in students. The media doesn’t have much hope for our country. It goes on. And all of them attempt to outdo each other in securing the best sound bite. There are some days I long for a good arachnid attack. Still, I am an acute optimist.
I remember in fifth grade at my new school, Timber Point Elementary, where we had to work things out for ourselves in the schoolyard. One kid, Steve Brady, was constantly making fun of another, Norman Esiason. Yes, him. My teacher, Mr. Kingston, was on playground duty. He asked them to settle the issue in front of everyone. He stood next to them like a ref in a boxing ring waiting for the contenders to touch gloves. They stood there silent a long time. I believe now Mr. Kingston would have been satisfied with a handshake. But Norman suggested that Steve sit with him and his friends at lunch the next day. He said he supposed they might have more in common than Steve thinks.
I never forgot that. And I’m glad, since I really don’t see it so much anymore even among adults, let alone kids. I miss the time when people who didn’t agree were still somewhat respectful of each other. Such mutual acknowledgement of separate ideas should not be found solely on the playing field. To not treat each other with respect would be at the very least un-sportsmanlike conduct.
We make fun of each other too much. We ridicule what we don’t understand or agree with. We insult what we are threatened by. We manipulate what we wish so we can win. We ignore our weaknesses and pay too close attention to those of others without stopping to say what we admire in others. We should change.
I am being overly idealistic and simplistic, I know. Please don’t make fun of me for it or slip some spiders onto my pillow. From what I have witnessed, despite the more immediate successes of questionable character, it is still the only journey that has enduring results.