Saturday, February 13, 2010

To the Citizens of Edgewood, Texas

To the citizens of Edgewood near age 55 or older:

I came to live in your town as a ten-year-old boy around the summer of 1977 and lived there until about the fall of 1981. Not actually in your town; about five miles out in the middle of nowhere, to be more accurate. During that time I attended school in your town, competed on both your athletic and academic teams, shared my youth with your children, learned from—or should I say in spite of—your “teachers”.

Also during that time I and my siblings were regularly terrorized, beaten, sexually and homosexually molested, subjected to bestiality, and prostituted by our mother and her husband. We lived in a squalid little shack that had neither hot water nor heating nor a clothes dryer. We were usually filthy, and frequently went to school during the winter in wet clothing. The clothing itself was usually ragged or markedly undersized. The litany threatens to go on indefinitely. I’ll flatter myself that I have a reader and invite you to use your imagination.

For four long years in your town, we all showed behavioral abnormalities that to any adult with a pulse would have been a dead giveaway that something terrible was happening to us. But one can hardly criticize a school system in a medieval village where the “teachers” are often pulled from the ranks of the “coaches”. Still, the imagination strains a bit when considering that my sisters went directly to you, mother and grandmother of a classmate, and you reported back that “teachers” and “parents” had been notified (and then sent my sisters home? I have to leave this point alone, or this already long epistle will become a tome). What noble, dare I say Christian, outpouring of support and public outrage occurred on our behalf? An anonymous phone call to some child welfare authority, as far as I can tell.

(I dare not linger over my suspicion that our “savior” was a non-believer, or grouse that it seems that my worst tormenters were believers, lest I lose what remains of my believing audience. I also dare not linger over the point that it was my sisters, not myself, who approached you, because as far as I knew, that debased life we were living was perfectly normal. I was genuinely angry with my sisters when I found out what they had done. I was so smart, but so dumb. A strange mantra I’ve carried with me since those days.)

What a delightful scene it was, when the child welfare officer telephoned our home and asked to speak with my sisters. How nice to have both sisters on the phone simultaneously, so as to make sure that they would be able to speak freely to the interviewer. How freely my sisters avowed, while being simultaneously minded by Mutt and Jeff, that nothing at all was amiss. And let’s not miss the important detail that Mutt held the gun on the slightly less abject of my younger sisters.

So, one person. That’s all you, Edgewood, could muster. Strangely, I recall clearly that you had no shortage of “teachers” and “coaches” who enjoyed exploiting and publicly scorning me. Remember my strange mantra? Here it is in its original form: “I don’t understand how Bishop can be so smart and so damned dumb at the same time,” loudly announced to my teammates on the football practice field. I’ll come back to you, sir, the teacher whom I worshiped. Note the lack of quotes. The devil has received his due.

And when I say “exploiting”, I’m not just talking about an isolated incident. How about the time that I was invited into the hallway, by you, “teacher”, who held me tenderly and looked deep into my eyes, utterly violating me, and asked me for information about some inappropriate goings-on in the grade-school boys’ locker room. This sickly ceremony was part of your oft-touted skill at being able to “look into a student’s eyes and clearly see falsity.” Where were my rights? Where was your assumption of my basic decency and desire to please adults? Where was my right to choose to tell the truth, which in case none of you was looking, I was always desperate to do, so as to avoid going to hell! Oh, right, none of you was looking; you were spraining your necks looking away. And if your skill was so great, sir, then why did you have to pick the most pathetic and emotionally vulnerable kid in the class?

Why is it that that was the closest thing to tenderness I’d ever felt at your “school”? That touch of his hands on my face. And who cares that he’s gay? The worst gay person I know is twice the human being any of you is, you people with your deranged god who hates homosexuals but endorses slavery. (And spare me your New Testament disavowals of Yahweh. He practically screeches that he never changes. His now-repealed laws that required rape victims to be tortured to death still represent his eternal character, New Testament be damned.) Why didn’t anyone, gay or otherwise, tenderly cradle that little boy’s head in their hands, look deep into his eyes, and ask him what was going on at home? This shrillness isn’t deliberate; it just comes out when I ponder my life too closely.

To those of you who genuinely could not have even guessed that something untoward was going on in our lives, I’ll come back to you. You’re exempt from the past, not from the future. But I have to deal with the past first.

Obviously, I don’t fault my peers. I have to point out that I have reason for stating this explicitly. Those of you with whom I’ve discussed these horrors feel terrible and tell me how sorry you are. You tell me how you remember me always seeming a little distressed and tightly wound. You are better and more perceptive people than your parents.

My peers, I don’t blame you and I insist that you not blame yourselves. You were children also, being set a bankrupt example by adults who had turned the idea of “respect for elders” into a fetish—somehow, molesting and otherwise mistreating an innocent child is practically a sport, but for a child to ask that criminally incompetent test grading practices be corrected is unacceptable. And for that child to be legitimately annoyed that he has to teach the “teacher” is positively anathema. You, our science “teacher”/”coach”, who couldn’t tell the difference between longitude and latitude, “instructed” us by reading the science book to us in an 8th grade science class, and encouraged the primitive hysteria of my classmates (and myself, to my lasting shame) concerning the Grand Planetary Alignment of November 1980, because you shared the hysteria: you couldn’t understand even sixth grade science. You probably thought Jesus was on his way. I certainly did, but I’ll bet good money that you didn’t fear the possibility like I did. Stay tuned.

I beg your collective pardon for my shrillness. I find it quite difficult to contain of late.

There actually is a central point to this letter. To those of you adults who knew, or suspected, or heard rumors, or should have known about my plight (you “teachers”, and unforgivably, you teacher), and didn’t lift a finger, I have this to say.

A curse. A curse on all of you. You are not good people. I do not forgive you. I curse you with the knowledge that you sat by and allowed a little boy’s life to be destroyed, and in numerous egregious cases, contributed materially to the destruction. And not just any little boy—a boy who showed a lot of promise. A boy who could have become a great contributor to the richness of human understanding, but who instead was so psychologically damaged by the experience that he struggled for the rest of his life with debilitating depression. I have plenty of curses for my mother and her husband, but I have plenty for you people as well. Shame on you all.

You, teacher, obviously didn’t realize that the little boy was on the verge of deriving algebra independently from first principles, or perhaps you wouldn’t have indulged yourself so gleefully in humiliating him in front of your high school math class. Instead of the five minutes you spent despising him about “infinity squared” and demonstrating cheap math tricks, in five seconds you could have told him that infinity is not a number and encouraged his pursuit. You don’t even realize the career potential you lost; you could have found yourself involved in the invention of a new kind of mathematics. You never knew that after that incident I couldn’t face you any more. I was forced to prostitute my ideas to the band “teacher”, who knew something of math, but was a bit of a sopping dishrag and never inspired me to the heights you had shown me. What a terrible loss.

I address myself now to our “savior”: no lasting curse, but fuck you. Really. After four years your compassion finally stirred you to make an anonymous phone call. What a hero. How about a hug for a horribly disfigured child? A kind word? A gentle hand on the shoulder? Some reassurance that there is love somewhere in the world? What is wrong with you people? I really just can’t wrap my mind around it. How could you look that little boy in the eye? How could you “teachers” and teacher publicly lecture and humiliate him on the grounds that he is not showing proper respect for his elders, or for the rules of social propriety? How could he have even begun to understand the meaning of “respect”, given that he had never been shown even the tiniest shred of respect for his most basic humanity? I’m becoming shrill again. Pardon me.

For the rest of you, it’s not your fault, but it is high time your town joined the 20th century (I’m giving a break to you who have trouble counting; I really will settle for 20th). Some of you know, right now, about kids who are being mistreated. I am quite certain that it’s rampant in your medieval little village, where those who would be heroes are at worst villains and at best unconscionably incompetent in their basic duties as adult humans. I remember your names, but I won’t mention them. You’ve all long since justified it to yourselves—you have great skill in justification. You’re the teacher who would use that little boy for your own personal glory on a rainy day in sixth grade, not caring that he worshiped the ground you walked on, having no clue that you could have molded him into anything you liked, turning your acid judgment on him as soon as you were finished with him, helping his parents to complete the job of burning his mind out. Ha! I just realized it: maybe you have forgotten your little glutton! You, sir, and I will be inseparable pals in hell.

You may not believe this, but I swear it’s true. I am having a wonderful epiphany right now, as I write these dark words. What I haven’t told you about my dear “parents” is that they also taught me that I am going to hell, to burn in agony for all eternity. I have been in absolute terror for the last 30 years. Now, my teacher, you have saved me. I actually look forward to going to hell. Thank you. I am literally weeping. Thank you.

One more thing. My sisters curse you all too.

Most sincerely,

Rob Bishop, class of 1985

P.S. A woman I know who cares for me and also cares for Edgewood asked whether it was strictly decent of me to pronounce condemnation with no room for redemption and forgiveness. This thought gives me a bit of pause. I struggle with her suggestions that perhaps some of you really even remember me and really do regret your sins of silence and inaction. I struggle with the fact that I never heard a single word from any of you after our sudden disappearance from your lives (our "parents" fled town with us after the phone call). That sounds like the behavior of a town full of people who forgot me as soon as I was no longer in anyone’s face acting strangely.

Still, I do believe in compassion and forgiveness. If you deserve your townswoman’s regard and feel that you have something to say to me, then I’m listening. I remind you that the word “apology” comes from the Greek “apologia”, meaning “a speech in defense”. You people caused me astounding damage by both your actions and your inactions. I deserve to understand why.

Or, as I’m sure some of you will, if you have the courage to face me at all, explain to me how it was my fault. The fault of a 10-to-14-year-old child whose innocence has been amputated? Yes, please, I’d love to hear that explanation.

Or, again, as I’m sure some of you will, explain to me that there are plenty of kids who have it worse in the world, therefore you cannot be held responsible. Go ahead, tell me that, I dare you.

You know, I spend a lot of time hating myself. But right now, there is one thing that I especially hate: my own capacity for mercy. Very strange that I would even have any such capacity, given the examples I was shown. Maybe the Christian philosophers who reject the notion of basic human goodness need to do some serious thinking. I have thought of a way that you can make this up to me. Not you, teacher, you share my irredeemability.

But the rest of you: if your excellent townswoman’s opinion of you is deserved, you’ll do this: take some time, a couple of hours a night for a week or so, to think about me. First, look around at the 10-14-year-olds in your life for whom you would both kill (and worse) and die (and worse), and allow yourself, just for a few seconds, to imagine them in my shoes. See, my dratted mercy: just a few seconds; I have a beautiful, 11-year-old daughter myself, and I really can’t wish onto you what I have suffered in recent days. You will be able to turn off these ghastly visions, while I cannot make them stop. After you have done this, think back to what you remember of me, and write it down, everything you can think of, irrational, trivial, ugly, no matter. I have a cathartic need for all of it that you can remember.

Tell the truth, no matter what. Tell me what you saw when I fought my classmate because he insulted my mother, and I thought that it was my sacred duty to defend her. Ha! Tell me what you saw when I was forced by the high school boys to wear a dress in public, forbidden to remove it, and later (still wearing it) dragged by the legs down the high school hallway by two of them. (I forgive you two and your prank-mates, by the way. You, like my classmates, were children being shown a dreadful example by your parents. You should know that for some years I vividly fantasized about coming to school with a baseball bat and bashing in all of your heads. Even now I can see your brains and your still-warm bodies on the floor, some of you just listing gruesomely in your seats. Think that’s an atrocious image? How about the image that your god has in his mind of my future? Which one is really the atrocity?) Tell me what you saw when I committed the unpardonable sin of walking on the gym floor in my street shoes and was totally chewed out while no one noticed that my behavior was a cry for help. Tell me about all the times you saw me acting strangely, crying for no apparent reason, yelling at people like a turrets case. I discovered many years ago that I can’t properly see who I was as a child, and I have often racked my brain for a way to do that. Now’s my chance, your chance. If any of you will make a conscientious effort of this, I will forgive you, as much as I want to hate you and wish that you would drop dead of something really painful. For that woman’s sake I’ll honestly forgive you.

You might join in the chorus of, “It was 30 years ago; get over it!” I agree with you completely. Guess how one gets over something like this. I invite you to redeem yourselves by joining me in the endeavor.

Now you begin to see the kind of torment I have to deal with every day, forced by conscience to forgive, and worse, now I find myself looking for a way to redeem you, my teacher. How’s this: you start having some conversations with your co-religionists, and then together all of you start having some conversations with your god, and you get back to me and tell me something of his answer. What I ask you to discuss is this: whether I, who detest your god with absolutely every fiber of my being, and even if I didn’t could only fear but never love him, might be shown just a touch of mercy and be allowed to cease to exist when I die? Is it really that much to ask? You go talk to your god about that and get back to me.

And my torment continues. We all know that I’ve set you an impossible task, because your god doesn’t speak to you any more (and who could blame him?), so I’m forced to find something easier for you: see what you can do about promoting an initiative to eject the incompetent “teachers” from that “school”, including those who are nuts, like those who scare children to tears and attack students who are admittedly being quite annoying but clearly not threatening to a grown man trained in real combat (and I don’t blame him; he was nuts; I blame those of you who hired him, and you who put children’s physical and emotional safety in danger by keeping him in spite of his obvious disability, you who listened to your children’s stories and saw your children’s fear and dismissed them). And then another initiative to start training the few who remain how to have genuine compassion for children—even the strange, repulsive ones—and recognize warning signs. And then another initiative to change the focus of athletic and academic competitions such that even kids who are incompetent at the sport get genuine, affectionate attention from…no, never mind, that’s up there with getting a break from your god. But one more: before anything else, quit your job. You have no place doing what you do for a living. There, the torment seems to have subsided.

Your children, my peers, know how to reach me, if any of you has the courage to face me.

1 comment:

  1. There truely is love in this world. I wish you could have found it sooner.