It’s Me. I’m the Bully.
I have never been a real empathic person. In third grade, I started picking on a tall, skinny, red-headed kid named Karen. To the delight of my more bashful friends, I would charge towards her, gleefully pull up her skirt, and then quickly run away – all the while shouting “Squeaky, Squeaky” in imitation of her very high-pitched voice.
I joined in unabashedly with the other kids when we picked on Judy C – the new kid at school. Without guilt, we took the candy she offered us in exchange for playground friendship and then, behind her back, boasted to each other that she had “cooties.
It was no wonder that I was never a “teacher’s pet” nor a parent’s preferred playmate for their child.
But retribution for my insensitive behavior came in seventh grade when my “best friends” got tired of my thoughtless, inconsiderate ways and formed a club against me. It was called R.A.l.L.’s and it stood for Revolution Against Iris Levine.
For eight straight school days, I was greeted in the morning by taunts and insults. R.A.l.L.’s convinced the boys to join with them and together, between classes, they danced in circles around me, bombarding me with angry words and cold, threatening expressions. After school, my phone rang with prank calls filled with mean slurs and sly innuendoes. I was miserable.
Every day my mother firmly admonished me to keep a stiff upper lip and to remember how special I was. It helped little.
By the end of the second week, the taunts, insults and phone calls had stopped. Now I was just ignored – my presence unacknowledged, my feelings disregarded.
On the 15th day, right before the bell rang to start Math, one of the R.A.l.L.’s members, Marilyn Russak, courageously sat down next to me and quietly said, “Hello, Iris.”
The siege had ended. By lunch time, I was back to sitting with my “friends,” laughing, trading lunch-box goodies and exchanging gossip.
But I was never quite the same again. Having been a victim of ostracism, indifference and ridicule, I was left more vulnerable, more humble and most of all, more empathic.
It’s not surprising that years later, the man I chose to marry possessed so many of the qualities that I, in those early years, had lacked. When he and I traveled to New York City one summer to visit our oldest son, Steven trailed behind me wherever we walked, busy giving out dollar bills to every homeless person he passed – and there were many.
When we returned home to Cincinnati, our more sophisticated friends who traveled to New York City regularly airily told us “Oh, yes, the homeless, you get used to them after a while.” We never “got used to them” and we have been back to New York City many times since.
Shortly thereafter, my husband, kids and I went to a major league baseball game and as we were walking through the parking garage, we passed a beggar. He was scrunched in an almost fetal position with a crudely printed sign propped up against his knees saying “Homeless – will work for food.”
Before I knew it, my husband handed our eight year-old, Louie, a $10.00 bill, with instructions to go over to the man and hand it to him. Louie did and then came quickly back to tell us that the beggar had said, not only “Thank you” but also “G-d bless you, son.”
On the way home, we didn’t discuss the manager taking a star pitcher prematurely out in the third inning. We didn’t discuss the catcher’s batting slump. We discussed instead how it must feel to go to bed every night, alone, in a strange, hostile and unprotected place. We discussed instead how it must feel to wake-up the next day and not even know where you could brush your teeth – if you were even lucky enough to own a tooth brush with which to brush.
Cynics may say we gave out of guilt. Social activists may say that the $10.00 only perpetrates the system of handouts. I prefer to think that we gave out of empathy – and a desire to teach our children never to take for granted even such a seemingly simple pleasure as going to a baseball game with their Mom and Dad on a warm summer evening and being treated to a hot day and chips.
That night, when we returned home, I didn’t hear any complaining from my kids about having to brush their teeth before bed.