It's been a while since I wrote - family, work, the usual. But something occurred today that has me contemplative.
My sister wrote to me this morning to tell me that one of my childhood bullies, a kid named Sam, grew up to be a 36-year-old man who stands accused of beating a man to death. While he awaits trial, and as always one should be cautious about referring to someone as a murderer rather than accused murderer until after the trial, it sounds as if the case is open-and-shut. Sam got into an argument with a man in a bar, this escalated into a fight, the man ended up in the hospital, where he died a few days later.
As a kid, I had thought that my various tormentors would one day meet some sort of justice. I remember thinking "one of these days, everyone else will see you the way that I do - and I'll be there to laugh."
Now that this day has come, I don't feel like laughing. I feel like weeping.
Over the years, I have heard occasionally about my childhood bullies. I never asked, but sometimes people would tell me things, or else I would hear a familiar name on the news. Several became meth addicts and then fell into complete obscurity. One was arrested for sneaking into a house, undressing, and climbing into bed with a child. Others have rap sheets that include a range of violent crime and property crimes. I have no doubt that some of them turned out okay, but I have never heard any more of them, so I simply do not know.
And now, murder. Looking up his full name and town of residence reveals a long string of crimes, mostly property crimes, committed by someone with his name (I can't confirm that this was him and not someone else with the same name, a distinct possibility, but he is at least of the correct age to have be the person cited in several of the reports). This before his altercation in the bar.
As a kid, Sam was a shit. I will not claim otherwise. This was not some sweet, caring kid who grew up to be a violent man. This was a violent, bullying child who grew up to be a violent man.
But I can't help but feel that it could have turned out differently.
The community in which I grew up was very much a blue collar neighborhood, and I came to know and respect many of the various mechanics, carpenters, and cannery workers who lived around me. Most of them were decent people, and to this day I remain convinced that we, as a nation, need to have a better respect for blue collar workers as a result.
But there was also a frequent under-current of anti-elitism, anti-intellectualism, and anti-accomplishment that pervaded much of my neighborhood. Calling someone "schoolboy" was a grave insult, academic achievement was frowned upon, and anyone who became "to big for their britches" by having aspirations was to be put down by a combination of ridicule and force. Amongst the kids, and even a small (but active) set of the adults, bullying was the norm, even encouraged. And I don't mean simple name calling - it was common for me to come home from school covered in bruises and cuts as everything from fists to feet to rocks to broken glass were used on me and anyone else considered "weird". Add to this that a few of the fathers of some of the neighborhood boys instructed their sons that it was fine to beat up on anyone, and if they couldn't fight back, that was their problem...well, you begin to see what was going on.
The adults who encouraged bullying and violence were few in number. But that the targets of the bullying were those who didn't quite fit in meant that the other adults, while they might try to stop, were often not trying too hard. "After all," they often seemed to think, "maybe it would do those weird kids (weird kids being the ones who had interests outside of the norm, not necessarily kids with behavioral problems) some good to get some sense smacked into them!" And kids who did have behavioral problems? The general attitude towards "shrinks" was such that these kids would likely never see anyone who could help them.
I don't know whether or not Sam's father encouraged him to beat on the other kids. But I do know that the environment in which we lived offered only a few checks on his behavior, and those generally ineffective and countered by other factors.
In this environment, where aspiration was often punished, where violence was encouraged, and where the ability to remain calm when faced with conflict was seen as a weakness, it's no surprise that someone emerged who would beat a man to death over a bar room argument. What's surprising is that this hasn't happened more often.
I don't know that Sam had any underlying psychological problems. He may have, but he may just as easily not have. If he did, an environment such as this would have exacerbated his problems. But even without underlying problems, this environment tended to feet aggression and anger, and tended to frown on people wanting to get out of the environment*. That most of the kids I grew up with turned out alright (holding down jobs, raising families, and the kid who grew up across the street from me has become a very succesful business owner in a line of work for which he is very talented and skilled) is a testament to how resilient people tend to be.
But there were quite a few who are lost. I do not claim that they are not responsible for their own actions. However, it takes a special kind of ignorant fool to assert that our actions take place in a vacuum, without context, and are not influenced by where we come from and how we learned to live there. Sam has no excuse for his actions, but that does not mean that his actions don't have an explanation.
*For example, when I left for college, a large number of the people with whom I had grown up either stopped talking to me, or else would only talk to me in order to be condescending and insulting towards me. They made it very clear that anyone who was leaving for college was not someone that they wanted to have anything to do with.