With the launch of my new book, “The Dragon Ticket and Other Stories”, I have been thinking a lot about the subject of alien contact. And because my youngest son has been daily coming out of the school gate in tears due to incessant bullying, I have been giving that a lot of thought too.
What is the reason my son has been getting harassed? We live in Greece, but he is half American. It is the same old story that happens around the world all the time: persecution of the different, the unknown, the alien, we might say.
All my sons got it, of course. It didn’t matter how amiable they were, how good at their subjects, how hard they tried to please. It didn’t matter whether the teachers saw it or not either, as in many cases the teachers supported the bullies. After all, where did the bullies’ attitudes come from? Parents and other authority figures, of course. The teachers regarded my sons with suspicion as well, and sometimes bullied them after their own fashion, such as blaming them for fights they didn’t start. They only managed to break out of the cycle of endless conflict as they grew older and bigger. My oldest son studied three or four or five hours a day, won a scholarship to an elite private high school where they had a more reasonable concept of discipline, and then got accepted to Princeton University and moved to the States. In addition, he worked out and became strong and fit so that anyone would think twice before messing with him. My second son devoted hours and hours to physical training, weights and Ty Kwon Do, until he had the physique of a superhero; he, too, eventually moved to the States, sensing a lack of future for himself here.
But I must interject that the problem they faced, the problem of otherness, of alienness, is universal. It happens in every country; only the victims change.
I received a lot of bullying when I was young too. My crime? I was smaller and younger than everyone else. I had had a somewhat strained relationship with my teacher in third grade, and so the school authorities and my parents thought that the solution was for me to skip the fourth grade (where she would be teaching again) and move on to the fifth. Intellectually that was no problem for me, but the social situation was another thing. I was ripped from my peers and placed with a group of larger, stronger strangers. How long did it take me to adjust? To be honest I never really did. Perhaps it had something to do with my personality; I was quiet, bookish, shy. But entering fifth grade as an alien, as a stranger among strangers, certainly didn’t help me break out of my introversion.
I still occasionally daydream of an alternate universe in which I had been stronger and had beaten the crap out of my tormentors.
In the long run, the bullying didn’t harm my older sons; if anything, it might have taught them empathy for the underdogs of the world. But still, it breaks my heart every day when I see my youngest son’s tears. And his crime? He is half American, a condition over which he has no control. It makes me consider alienness around the world, in other societies and under other conditions, and wish that all those prejudices would go away and we could learn to get along. It seems, however, that even as adults many of us don’t learn our lessons, and international politics is just an extension of the same principle: just one incident of bullying after another. You’d think we would learn. But we don’t.
Such considerations gave rise to many of the ideas in my book on encounters between humans and aliens.
The above I wrote a few weeks ago but haven’t had a chance to post yet, and circumstances necessitate adding a postscript. I was called in to school again today to deal with an incident of anti-American behavior, this time with a twist: my son didn’t put up with it and lashed back. Some idiotic kid (high school level) made a ridiculous comment that the victims of the Twin Towers got what they deserved. As I mentioned in my “Postwar” book review, such attitudes are not uncommon throughout Europe, including here in Greece. My son smoldered until the bell rang, then sprang at the kid and began pummeling him. It took four students and the teacher to get him off him. Of course he was wrong to assault the kid right there in the classroom, but at the same time I can sympathize with why he did. One can only take so much. I might have done the same. Of course I had to go down and work things out with the principal, and in the end there was a stern warning and nothing more.
But damn, I wish so much that there were not such attitudes in this world of ours.
A further postscript, on the brighter side. When the principal of my youngest son’s school found out about the bullying, he called together the teachers and parents and let them know he would not put up with it at his school and there had better be a change. Things indeed did change, and my son is back to his bright cheerful self again when he leaves the school gates.
So if we can conquer our apathy, evil can be overcome. Sometimes, at least.