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First Person

Outcasts' Impotence, Rage Need an Outlet

April 28, 1999|MIKE BOEHM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The linebacker had a thick, boxy head and a scar above his lip that gave him a perpetual sneer. The basketball forward had slumped shoulders and a stupid, simian face.

They appointed themselves my tormentors when I was 14 years old. I won't ever forget them. One never forgets a special teacher, and they were my tutors in fear, humiliation and helplessness.

Like many people, I felt nothing but sickness compounded by deja vu when I first heard about the high school massacre in Littleton, Colo. Then the media blitz revealed that the killers were particularly gunning for athletes. That brought back memories of Scar Lip and Ape Face. And of the second-string high school quarterback who crammed another kid into a gym locker for sport, and kept him caged for some unconscionable amount of time. And of the collegiate kick returner who came to a party in my dorm and chose to relieve himself in the sink I would have to use the next morning.

The year of taunts at 14 must have left a rotten spot on my soul. Because, God help me, on the day after my initial revulsion over Littleton, this thought came to my mind, and these words, in a rather chipper voice, came out of my mouth: "Payback time for the jocks."

Maybe this would get the pampered brutes' attention, I thought. No more trading touchdowns for impunity in inflicting their arrogance on smaller, less confident kids with no standing in the high school pecking order. The football players at my high school used to brag about having "guns"--a jock-lingo term for powerful arms with bulging biceps. One lesson of Littleton, big fellas, is that if you hammer the wrong runty outcast, an obsessive, sociopathic sort, you might find out how your guns match up against his.

*

My first impulse was to write a column about how it should be apparent now to high school officials that zero tolerance of bullying is at least as important as zero tolerance of drugs and weapons if the student body is to be protected from becoming the student corpse. And maybe my thunderbolt words would give me a sniff of sweetly nonviolent revenge for what I had endured from a linebacker and a forward.

But writing, if it is done right, tempers the blaze of impulse with the coolness of reason. A real writer thinks things through. And on second thought, it's obvious to me that any crackdown directed at bullying jocks would only make things worse. How do you avoid penalizing the unthinking jibe, or the casually offensive comment--that is, normal manifestations of teenage thoughtlessness--along with the systematic, ongoing infliction of humiliation that any decent person would like to see stopped?

You would end up with ridiculous punishments, akin to the kid who gets suspended for possession of cold tablets under a zero-tolerance drug rule. And you would end up with another aggrieved and resentful class of students feeling picked on and singled out: the jocks themselves.

You don't have to look to Littleton and the Trench Coat Mafia to see how acutely poisonous it is for a class of people to feel victimized and alienated and to have its anger fanned into hatred. Think of the Germans electing Hitler, who came to power preaching payback for their national humiliation following World War I.

Or of the Rwandan Hutus who heeded the call to butchery when propagandistically bombarded with reminders of their economic and social grievances against the Tutsi minority. Or of the Serbs, who cherish their historical wounds and need only a manipulative dictator like Slobodan Milosevic to turn national paranoia into ethnic cleansing of peoples not of their kind. Or of the Americans, whose war cry in conquering the West was "The only good Indian is a dead Indian."

I was lucky as a teenager. I wasn't isolated. I had lots of opportunities to be engaged with life, and with different kinds of people. I loved sports and respected athletes' on-the-field accomplishments. I shared a class with a basketball jock who played alongside Ape Face; he was a delightful, high-spirited Labrador puppy of a kid. And the split end who caught passes from the locker-room jailer sat next to me in math; he was an amiable, humorously self-effacing fellow.

Thinking through how old wounds fueled my cynical and callous reaction to Littleton forced me to remember those good jocks along with the bad. It reminded me of my duty as a human being to take people one at a time and not lump them into stereotyped classes that, history teaches us, can easily be demonized and persecuted.

In covering the Orange County pop music scene, I have met a lot of people who were in a demonized and persecuted high school minority--the original punk rockers of 20 years ago, whose school days were filled with abuse and sometimes violence, not least from the jocks.

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