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Jewish World Review March 20, 2001 / 25 Adar, 5761

Perry Flippin

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Consumer Reports

Bullies and dads -- I have been thinking about Jake, Guts and Worm. They were high school bullies when I was a fifth grader. We rode the bus together twice a day. The experience still haunts me.

Jake, Guts and Worm were three brothers who lived on a dusty cotton farm with few hopes of improving themselves. They looked tough and their words cut. They enjoyed tormenting kids like me who couldn't fight back. I never saw them injure anyone, but they were mean as snakes. Surly.

Insolent. Intimidating. They smoked Chesterfields.

What brought them to mind was the school shooting near San Diego, Calif. A pathetic 15-year-old boy opened fire in a school and killed two classmates. He was enrolled him in a huge school where bullies taunted him. His skateboard was stolen twice. He snapped.

President George W. Bush called his violence "an act of cowardice."

One day in 1955, I brought my Spalding football to school because the school wouldn't buy us one. On the bus that afternoon, Worm came to me and said, "You don't mind if I take your football home with me, do you, Four-Eyes?"

A skinny, bespectacled fifth grader has few options when a towering high school freshman calls for his football. I surrendered my prized football. No one could help me.

That evening, as we finished milking, my dad noticed something was wrong. I was too embarrassed to admit my football had been taken, and too helpless to do anything about it. In tears, I finally told him what happened.

"Let's go see if we can get your football back," he said quietly.

We climbed in the pickup and drove three or four miles to a neighboring farm. As we approached the house, Worm met us in the yard. I was scared.

We didn't get out.

After exchanging greetings, Dad said, "Tommy, Perry would like to get his football back."

"Sure, Mr. Flippin," Worm said, as courteously as you please. "I'll go and get it."

Worm brought Dad the football. Dad thanked him and we departed rejoicing.

I thought I had the bravest old man in the world. He had accomplished the impossible without making any threats or even raising his voice. And Worm never again tried to strong-arm me.

Reading about Andy Williams, the latest "classroom avenger," made me wonder whether others came to his aid. Or was he simply one of those anonymous, faceless students lost in an impersonal, uncaring maze?

Investigators say school authorities did everything right. That will surely comfort the bereaved and the maimed.

Bringing the issue nearer home, I know a seventh grader with a broken arm suffered this month during classes at a San Angelo public school. The two boys who deliberately caused the injury have been identified and reported to authorities. So far, the official attitude seems to be a shrug and a, "Well, these things happen."

It is as if school authorities don't want to find culprits, because they may incriminate themselves. Some parents worry that schools are becoming hazardous to their children's health. Hollywood shocked the nation in the '50s with "The Blackboard Jungle." Most educators deny it, but a lot of kids think school is scarier than any jungle.

Jake eventually straightened out and married, but he died way too young. Guts moved to San Angelo for a time and, I hear, made a good citizen. Worm left no tracks that I can find.

I still ponder that football experience. No teacher could have intervened effectively. No bus driver, preoccupied with traffic and mechanical concerns, could have noticed my plight. Only my old man could intervene, because he and I played with that football. And he was there in a crisis.

Andy Williams wasn't so fortunate. His school system failed him.

More than that, his culture failed him.

Such systemic failures threaten communities throughout this nation.

Our education system would be better served if more officials spent time with bullies like Worm. Or with committed parents like my dad.

We can blame school violence on a single demented mind and dismiss it as "an act of cowardice." Or we can accept some responsibility to be our brother's, sister's and children's keepers - out of harm's way.

Perry Flippin is editor of The Standard-Times. Comment by clicking here.


© 2001, SHNS