Essays

Bullying, 1940s Style

by Laura Haferkorn · 11 comments

There’s been quite a lot in the news lately about bullying, especially in schools. The biggest tragedy is the number of teen suicides that result from bullying. Reading all these horror stories, I began to wonder if people who had never been exposed personally to this torture during their school days would start thinking it was a new phenomenon, and congratulating themselves that such a thing never happened to them when they were ‘that age,’ prompting me to write something of my own experiences during the time of World War Two. Of course, back then, we didn’t have camera phones or Facebook, but how I was treated felt just as painful as some of the ‘nasties’ perpetrated today through social networking devices. My sympathies lie entirely with the victims of bullying as I know how much peer pressure and peer acceptance in the teen and preteen years can mean.

I became aware of bullying at an early age. Up until 1941, I’d been happily living in a small village in Southwestern Ontario, where my father was the minister at the local United Church. I don’t think it would have occurred to anyone there to bully me because of my father’s status. At some point after Canada entered the War, Dad felt the need to volunteer for the military, which meant he had to give up his church posting, leaving us homeless, as living in the parsonage next to the church went along with the minister’s job. We were obliged to move to the City of Toronto to live with my mother’s ageing parents. We remained in their home for ‘the duration’ of the War and beyond.

Laura Haferkorn at 13 years oldCity living was a shock to both me and my younger brother, who was extremely unhappy with the change. Busy streets, people everywhere, but mostly the noise affected us: Jimmie used to let out a piercing scream every time a streetcar went past, while I never gave up longing for the peace and open spaces of the countryside.

In the rural location of our small village, kindergarten was unheard of. At six years of age, children went to school full time, directly into Grade One. My only experience of kindergarten was three days of misery when my mother brought us into the city to visit her parents the year before the move, and I had been packed off to the local school, presumably to get me out of the way. I think Mother must have thought it would be good for me to be with other children. But it wasn’t. The kindergarteners were well established in their routine, with little games about which I knew nothing, little songs which I had never heard before, and a host of rules to do with sandbox play – yes, there were two enormous sandboxes in the large classroom, which did double duty as the school auditorium. I must have gotten in someone’s way as I remember being given a good shove, causing me to lose my balance, fall down, and promptly burst into tears, at which point the grey-haired lady teacher helped me up and, leading me by the elbow back to my chair, added to my utter embarrassment by repeating out loud, ‘Poor little visitor, poor little visitor, poor little visitor.’ If this was what school was all about, I wanted nothing to do with it!

Soon after we had settled in to our new home, I was sent off to summer camp while my father was getting ready to be shipped overseas. An outbreak of chickenpox (which of course I caught!) near the end of August meant that I missed the first two weeks of Grade One. Again, it seemed the other kids were familiar with what they were expected to do and how they were expected to behave. It wasn’t long before Mother got a letter from the teacher complaining that ‘Laura Marie won’t stay in her seat, but insists on wandering around the room, disturbing the other children.’ I remember Mother being more than upset with me for my bad behaviour. So there I was, in trouble again, and it was only the beginning of the school year!

I don’t remember too much about my early school years except that I was bored most of the time and would much rather have been outside enjoying the fresh air than sitting in the stuffy classroom that smelled of unwashed bodies, chalk dust and banana peels, listening to the teacher drone on and on. But I certainly do remember my last year at that school – Grade Eight. That year for me was hell on earth. I was a good student, when my attention could be captured and held long enough. But being ‘good’ was ‘bad’ for me as I soon found out. My greatest joy was reading and I was away ahead of my classmates in that subject, having already discovered the great Russian writers such as Dostoevski. For my reading assignment, I chose John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, a beautifully printed little leatherbound volume that I‘d found in my grandfather’s collection. During reading period in the classroom, my choice of books led to nasty comments from the kids in the vicinity of my desk. As if it were yesterday, I can see their faces – Bob del G. two seats in front, Carol S. across the aisle and worst of all, Billy McP. directly behind me. He was by far the most hateful of my tormentors as all year he kept muttering hurtful comments under his breath where only I could hear him, and giving my long braids a painful tug with each gibe. All three of them pointed at me, they snickered, they whispered, they mocked, until I could barely see the pages of the book, my eyes were so full of tears. I think I must have been stuck in the Slough of Despond for awfully lot longer than the hero of the book. It took me a long time to realize that being clever wasn’t the way to be popular. This treatment continued throughout the entire year. Mr. C., who had been a popular athlete before he went into teaching, spent a lot of time out in the hall, talking to his various admirers who just happened to drop by, and was blissfully unaware of what went on his classroom when he was enjoying himself.

That same year, the so-called ‘New Look’ in women’s fashions came in, meaning that the short skirts of the war years were ‘out’ and long was everything. Doug G. hooted with laughter when I showed up in class one morning in an old skirt which I had long outgrown. Looking back, I guess I did look funny as I was the tallest in the class, with longer legs than most of the boys. As Dad had gone back to university after his return from overseas, we had little money for anything but the basics. Most of my clothes were hand-me-downs from a cousin who was several sizes larger than I and favoured colours that didn’t suit me at all. That day, I cried all the way home and told my mother I wasn’t going back to school until she bought me a longer skirt. Where she found the money, I never knew, but that afternoon we went shopping and came home with a below-the-knees grey flannel skirt which I wore until it fell apart.

The same Doug G. was a continual thorn in my side. On Jewish holidays, he never failed to wonder out loud, before the teacher came into the room of course, why I was there that day. It’s true my nose is a bit larger than I would like, but the comment was entirely uncalled for. His nose wasn’t exactly small, but it never occurred to me to retaliate. More than once he tried to trip me in the aisle, or give me good poke when he got the chance, until I learned to watch out for him. The first time I wore lipstick to school, he went around the room, saying in a loud whisper, ‘Falconbridge is wearing lipstick, spread it, spread it, she’s wearing lipstick!’ setting the kids off to snickering. By then, most of the other girls were using cosmetics and of course I desperately wanted to fit in. But this obviously wasn’t the way to do it. I could never figure out what Doug or any of the others had against me, but I guess I must have been an easy target as I could be made to cry with little effort. You’d think that all this would have made me shy and withdrawn. Not exactly. It simply turned me into a ‘loner,’ never able to make any really close friends. I withdrew, and concentrated on books and classical music. Those were kinder than people and could never hurt me.

The most troubling incident happened one afternoon that same year when I was on my way home from school. Some boys from my class were playing ball in the street and when I started to pass them, one deliberately aimed the ball, a baseball it was, directly at me and suddenly wham! It struck me in the mouth. After that episode, I was careful to walk blocks out of my way to avoid passing groups of boys. All these years later, I’m still suffering from problems with my upper front teeth, as that blow caused two teeth to turn black and led to not one but two batches of surgery to remove bone from the upper jaw. The two crowns that replaced the dead teeth were soon joined by two more, which have never fit just right and consequently I have a widening gap between my two front teeth. No dentist I’ve consulted so far will touch the problem, so I’m left with an unpleasant reminder of my schooldays.

Fortunately, my days in high school were better. Our school was predominantly Jewish, and those kids were smart! I could be as clever as I liked but I couldn’t begin to compete with them. Many of them went into the professions and have done extremely well. What happened to my tormentors from public school I have no idea. They must have gone to one of the other high schools in the area. I never saw any of them again.

The most negative aspect of my experience is that seldom do I ever feel I really ‘belong’ to any group. Most of the time it doesn’t bother me, but sometimes feelings of alienation can overcome me. Looking back, I think an abrupt change in location, with no father for six years; no preschool experience; coming in two weeks late for the first day of Grade One – oh yes, I nearly forgot! I arrived at that summer camp ten days after the other kids. My first morning, I was jerked awake by the giggles of two campers holding a full chamber pot over my head and threatening to dump it on me! These events contributed to my frequent feelings of being ‘on the outside.’

And the positive side? Well I guess you could say I ended up being tougher and bolder than I might have been, especially if we’d stayed in that small village. Over the years, I’ve learned to ignore nasty remarks and ugly looks, and to avoid confrontation unless I think it’s really worth the effort. Oddly enough, I’ve never been afraid to get up and speak to any size of group. I guess when I have the floor, I feel more control over how I’m treated. I’m more self-sufficient than many women I know, not needing anyone to go places with. If I want to go somewhere, I go.

I don’t remember ever considering suicide. I just hoped and prayed things would eventually get better. And they did! So those of you out there who are suffering through daily bullying, don’t give up. If you’re tormented by online bullying, why not go offline for a while. I know it sounds impossible to do but if you don’t respond, your tormentors will eventually give up and look for someone else to get their sick satisfaction from. And above all, don’t forget to stick up for those who are being bullied. Don’t join in just because you want the others to like you. It won’t necessarily stop the bullying, but you’ll feel better about yourself. And self-esteem is what you need the most, isn’t it.

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