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.

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Gerald January 3, 2012 at 5:42 pm

Thanks–good stuff–I hope you really enjoyed being part of the TEAM of Cantata singers.I enjoyed having you.

Diana Augustin January 3, 2012 at 6:08 pm

I feel very sad reading your story knowing that in grade 5, I was the one doing the bullying. We both know that it was because I felt powerless at home to defend myself against the constant abuse, both emotional and physical. I wish I could have had some other way to deal with it than to torment Sonya. I simply chose her because she looked like she had everything that I wanted. A loving family and a caring mother. I am glad that you came to the school and asked me what my problem was and why was I bullying her. It was the beginning of our life-long friendship. At least something good came out of it this time!!!!
Love you Mrs. Aitch.

So very sorry Sonya. Really. I am so sorry.

Sonya Shannon January 3, 2012 at 10:34 pm

Thanks for your courage in sharing about being bullied as a kid. It was heartbreaking — and enraging — to read your story, especially the part concerning your poor teeth. I WISH your bones could be healed and restored, and those bullies should PAY for it! It is so unfair. Your story proves that being bullied or “ganged up on” can be a serious, devastating matter with lifelong physical and emotional consequences.

As Diana mentions, I was bullied for a while, too, in “Middle School,” (though Diana, I honestly didn’t single you out!). Our class was part of an experimental Enrichment programme run by the Government of Ontario in the 1960s – ‘70s. There we were, a whole group of kids who’d been told we were of “superior” intelligence: The Richies. You can imagine how conceited—and cruel—we were! I’m sure I could be as smug and verbally biting as the next one. Yet, being an artistic type, I was also excruciatingly vulnerable to criticism. I wasn’t the only one bullied by the class. There were lots of bullies, and some kids were picked on much worse than I… Still, I was deeply wounded when the whole class ganged up on me. In one incident while the teacher was absent, they locked me out of the classroom and held a meeting of the “Hate Hacker Club.” I was “Hacker.” Oooh, it hurt! I was devastated.

For many years I burned with resentment and vengeful thoughts about those kids and that time. Then, one day out of the blue, I got an invitation to a Richie Reunion! It had been thirty years since those kids bullied me. For three decades, part of me was “stuck” in the resentment. I wanted to decline the invitation —I never wanted to see The Richies again and felt they didn’t deserve to know me.

But another part of me knew that Jesus asked us to forgive each other “seventy times seven.” And in the Prayer of St. Francis Assisi it says, “Where there is hatred, let me sow love, Where there is injury, pardon.” I meditated on these spiritual instructions. I realized we had all just been kids, and kids — especially smart ones or hurting ones — can be dreadfully cruel. I was ready to change. Through prayer, my heart melted. By the grace of God, I managed to forgive them ALL, and went to the reunion. Boy, am I glad I did! Those Richies had all, without exception, become extraordinary adults that I am proud to know and be associated with today — and that begins and ends with you, Diana!

And Diana. Wow. Thank you so much and from the bottom of my heart for your kind words. This is really deeply healing for me. I’m gonna try to keep breathing here, ’cause you know I am crying with gratitude…I feel like the Grinch whose heart grew three sizes – isn’t that what you said to me at the Richie Reunion, “Don’t be a Grinch!”?! Guess I forgot so much from the beginning of knowing you. I really got that you came from a troubled home and my heart went out to you. I used to cry for you at night, with the bruises and cuts from the beatings you got. I remember being horrified when your Mom threw a frying pan or an iron at you or your sisters. I would just cringe to imagine it and didn’t know how you could survive. My Mum says she remembers me coming home in Grade Five, saying I wanted to go through my clothes and find some warm ones for a girl in my class who came from a poor family…it was YOU, Diana! I don’t even remember that. I just knew I was lucky and also I wanted to help you have something better, even though I was just a brat too! I am so glad my Mum and Dad were able to take you in for that year and that you got to share our home for even a short time. I wish I could have helped more. And I am also sorry for being less of a friend than I could have sometimes. I totally forgive you and love you, Diana. You have been one of life’s greatest teachers for me.

Laura, I am so glad you preserved your self-esteem. Your story shows what makes you a good Minister. Some parts of us can never be injured if we find our true Faith. Thanks for being a model of how to survive, thrive, and LIVE. Thank you so much for coming to school that day and standing up for me. I wish someone had stood up for YOU. And thanks for taking into our home Diana, my friend and dear companion on this journey since we were nine years old. Thank you for bringing about this healing with your post, Laura. God Bless this sharing, this spiritual growth, this Light.

Laura Haferkorn January 4, 2012 at 3:55 pm

Thank you, Diana and Sonya, for your frank and open reactions to my piece. I’ve never really thought about forgiving anyone, it was so long ago. I hadn’t given those days any thought at all until I started seeing so much in the media about bullying and its tragic consequences. While I’m reminded of the ball-in-the-face incident each time I look in the mirror and smile, I’ve decided that, in all likelihood, those who were involved are probably senile or even dead by now as they were a year or two older than I and I’m still going strong! I guess ‘acceptance’ would be a better word.

Aileen Sebastian January 5, 2012 at 2:18 am

Laura your daughter Sonya shared your essay with me and I found it to be inspiring and healing yet painful. I have been bullied and been a bystander, and a couple of times even crossed the line and been the bully. Which is why I devote a lot of energy to raising my two children to be above all else, kind. I’m not going to be one of those mothers who think her kids could do no wrong.

I grew up biracial in a multiracial community, which you would think is the best situation to be a biracial child. Not so. I was never Chinese enough, nor ever Indian enough for my classmates. I was called names I didn’t even understand, and was too embarrassed to ask my parents their meanings. While those years in school were a toughening experience, I became supersensitized to tone, and strangely enough a little desensitized to hurt feelings. So while mostly I was the brunt of jokes and taunts, there were a couple of occasions when the need to belong to a group overcame me and I went along with friends taunting other classmates. There was one time my deskmate decided she would pour water into the shoes of the girl sitting behind us. They were sort of moulded plastic shoes and this girl Molly used to take her shoes off in class. I was eager to be on the inside of the joke and not only said nothing to prevent the prank, but egged my deskmate on. I know Molly would still feel the hurt today as painfully as she did that day when she put her socked feet into her shoes, felt the water soak her socks and felt the burn of humiliation when everyone started giggling. Molly I don’t know where you are but I am truly sorry for being part of that meanness. My deskmate grew up to be a kind, thoughtful person, devoted mother and beloved wife, and when she passed away 10 years ago she was the type of woman whom I was proud to call friend.

If you are being bullied, take heart. If you are the bully, please have more heart and spread light, not darkness. If you are a bystander, advocate for the bullied and tell someone, or tell the bully to stop.

Laura Haferkorn January 5, 2012 at 1:30 pm

Thank you so much, Aileen, for sharing your experiences. Whether they realize it or not, children can be cruel little beasts, reminding me of birds which have been known to peck to death any bird of a different species which happens to stray near their flock. This is particularly true in the case of some owls which appear in the daytime when they are normally out only at night. So – any child who seems different from the rest is like the owl, vulnerable to being attacked without any reason. I’m sure your children will benefit from your life story and not be tempted to join the flock when they see someone being bullied.

jo July 18, 2012 at 12:16 pm

I too was bullied in school but it made me angry and stronger, I learned to stand up for myself, stand up for others and what is right and wrong.
My experiences, nasty as they were, shaped me into the person I am today and I wouldn’t have missed them.
That is why perhaps I was and am not ashamed to have been a bully myself in another school, although I must say I don’t think I ever went too far and was too mean.
As someone who became stronger trough what I had been trough I sometimes lost patience with people who didn’t seem to be tough enough to fight back, to open their mouths, to stand up for themselves.
I could be mean but also stood up for others.
To me it was all a basic black and white situation; bullying teaches you to be strong and prepares you more for adult life then most things you learn in school.

Laura Haferkorn July 18, 2012 at 3:00 pm

Thanks, jo, for posting your experiences re bullying. It is always good to hear a different point of view.

Sonya Shannon March 9, 2013 at 6:05 am

Just saw this video from someone who used to be a bully, was bullied himself in many ways, and came to a great realization he shares with the TED audience.
Thought this piece might belong here in your discussion, Laura!

Bella Sinka July 1, 2014 at 5:37 am

Your story reminds me so much of my own. I was bullied my whole life. Physically and mentally. Because of the pain I endured throughout my life, I now suffer with major social anxiety and depression issues. Sometimes I don’t even feel human. I am so glad to know that someone knows how this feels and someone older too! My grandmother grew up in the 40s, and she doesn’t even acknowledge bullying as a problem. Thankyou so much for sharing your story. You are a very strong and intelligent woman.

Laura Haferkorn July 1, 2014 at 2:43 pm

Thank you for your kind comments, Bella. I’m glad my story made you feel less alone. I’ve met many others who had similar experiences as teenagers, but are in denial. They’ve told me it must somehow be their fault to be always on the outside looking in. In middle age, I was seriously depressed so I know what that feels like too. I hope and pray you can get some help to cope with it. I’ve discovered there’s one positive thing about attaining old age – none of this matters so much any more and I can say what I like without fear of ridicule! What is the old saying about ‘sticks and stones’?

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