Jewish World Review May 14, 2001/ 21 Iyar, 5761
Here was a happy happy land with all social problems eradicated, all human discomforts eliminated. The houses are made of glass and when it rains the raindrops tinkle cozily against the panes but nobody ever gets wet. Who could ask for anything more?
The guest notices, however, that no people are around, no couples walking arm in arm, no children playing hopscotch, no dogs barking, cats prancing, birds flying or squirrels playing tag in the treetops. The city feels deserted, menacing and a sense of dread hovers close.
Well, the architect concedes, there is one problem. There's a killer on the loose.
As Gilda Radner's character Roseanne Rosannadana might have observed on "Saturday Night Live'': "It's always something.''
No architect can design a fear-free environment, as the French playwright Eugene Ionesco shows us in this scene of the architect and his not-quite-perfect city. Critics interpret this as an allegory on the nature of life and death, but the images rushed back to me on reading the latest attempt by certain physical-education teachers to create a perfect childhood, an attempt to ban bullies once and for all.
No one disputes that bullying is bad. Children should be taught not to bully, but the notion that we can spare our children the slightest commonplace unpleasantness is to think we can raise children who never cry, or live in a land where they'll never feel the rain.
Bullying is now even linked to school violence of the dimensions of Columbine, and bullies are described as having the potential to become monsters with guns, shooting the unsuspected in libraries, gyms, cafeterias and study halls.
One phys-ed teacher wants to outlaw dodgeball in Boston. Just about everything else has been banned in Boston, so why not dodgeball?
"Every time you throw an object at somebody, it creates an environment of retaliation and resentment,'' says a physical education teacher at Tobin Elementary School in Cambridge. "There is nothing positive that can happen except a bully gets to beat up on littler kids,'' he tells the Boston Globe. Whatever happened to the idea that dodgeball, like tag and hide-and-seek is a healthy sublimation for aggressive children? (Freud is spinning.) Not only that, as anyone who ever had the delicious pleasure of being hit with the big ball by his/her love object all sublime, it can be a form of innocent schoolyard flirting.
We can laugh at the absurdity of banning dodgeball, Red Rover and even tag as the product of a culture frustrated by sensationalized incidents of school violence, without knowing how to prevent them. But by focusing on the trivial, we're easily diverted from the larger violent images that bombard our children daily on television and in the pop culture.
Standing up to a real-life bully, in fact, is a valuable life lesson in how to stand up against those who try to push us around later, as adults. Those of us of a certain age remember the cartoon ads in the back of comic books: The bully on the beach kicks sand in the face of the 97-pound weakling and steals his girl. The 97-pound weakling sends off for a body-building course by Charles Atlas, finishes the course and looks up the bully on the beach. Sock! Pow! He gets the girl back, too.
A friend of mine who went to a tough high school in Brooklyn never forgot the kid who shook him down for his lunch money nearly every day. Years later, as a young lawyer whose Armani suit, $50 tie and Italian shoes bespoke his prosperity, gave his driver the afternoon off and took the subway home. There sat the bully in the booth, now grown fat and tired, selling subway tokens. The prosperous young lawyer introduced himself. He handed over the fare and told the clerk: "I see you're still shaking me down for my pocket money.''
There's more than one way to one-up a