Thursday, November 7, 2013

A Final Bout of Hatred

In late August of 1960, I returned to Omaha. For the next nine months I taught a delightful class of fifth graders. Just thinking of that year with those eager fifth graders who soaked up learning makes me smile. How different from the seventh graders of the spring before. The only thing that marred those idyllic and carefree days were the recesses and the days I did the convent laundry.
         Throughout the year, several fifth graders would always gather around me during recess. We’d talk and laugh. And daily the members of that seventh—now eighth—grade gang would intrude. “You won’t be smiling when we’re done with ya,” they’d taunt. “We’re goin’ rape ya ‘til your ears ring.”
         Always the threat of rape.
         Because of that, Sister Brendan told me I was never to walk back to the convent alone. Another nun always accompanied me.
         The gang never raped me, but they did toilet-paper the trees and scrubs around the convent numerous times. Moreover one of my obediences was the weekly laundry. I’d pin a load on the line and go back inside the convent, only to return to the backyard and discover all the wet clothes trampled in the dirt, the clothespins littering the yard. 

          After this had happened a few times, another nun stood guard during the laundry days.
         One playground scene imprinted itself on my mind. In mid-winter, I was talking with Eugene, a fifth grader who was all of four and a half feet tall, malnourished, his face thin, a shock of black hair over his forehead, a woeful look in his eyes.
         Eugene was telling me about his dad’s drinking when one of the eighth graders—a member of the gang—strode up. He was tall, at last six feet, and burly. He smirked, put one of his muscled hands around the back of Eugene’s neck, squeezed, and lifted him off the ground. Eugene’s feet dangled; panic widened his eyes.
         “You b___,” the eighth grader snarled. “We’ll get you tonight!”
         “Let Eugene go!”
         “I suppose he’s your pet. Probably likes you. Doesn’t know what a b ___ you are.” As he spoke, he squeezed tightly so that Eugene’s face turned blue; his eyes rolled back.
         “Drop him,” I yelled from my five-foot-four height.
         “Make me!” he shouted.
         I slapped him.

         The bully dropped Eugene, who crumpled to the ground, coughing.          
         Rubbing his left cheek, the eight-grader muttered some choice curses, debating whether to hit me.
         Seeing the white line across his cheek left by my slap, I was appalled at what I’d done. But I had no time to apologize because Eugene was struggling to get up, still gasping for breath. I knelt on the asphalt and gathered him in my arms. Looking up, I saw the eighth grader looming over us, his fists clenched, his curses still bluing the air.
         “I’m going to report you to Sister Brendan,” I said.
         With that, he turned away, sullen, and rejoined his buddies who’d been watching. I don’t know what Sister Brendan said to him and his gang, but that ended their playground forays into fifth-grade territory.
         The year passed. I enjoyed being with those young children whose curiosity made learning exciting. But I continued to feel guilty about the hatred I’d incited in those gang members. When I’d taught them, my intentions had been good, but the results echoed for many years so that it was only thirty years later that I could finally see that I did have a gift for teaching and that those first five months had little to do with me and much to do with those damaged boys.
         And that, my friends, ends the saga of Omaha.

Note: I’m taking a vacation for a while, but will return to this on-line memoir in late November to share with you my next teaching assignment: Seneca, Kansas, in the fall of 1961.

All photographs from Wikipedia.


  1. I did not realize that there was such a difference in a younger class. Wow. These are some experiences. Thanks for sharing. Have a good vacation and stay safe.

  2. Dee, You didn't incite hatred in those kids. It was already there. I'm glad you slapped the bully. Eugene must have been terrified. You saved him from serious injury.


  3. I--& LOTS of others--will miss you!!

  4. Oh Dee. I am glad that you finally not only realised that you are a teacher, but also that those damaged children had a big part to play in your early and frightening experiences.
    I love that when you slapped the bully he let Eugene go - shocked rather than hurt.
    And have a wonderful vacation.

  5. whoa!!! I wonder how many of those kids became productive adults.

    what a story. Thanks so much for sharing it with us.

  6. Those gang members were just a barrel of fun huh? Geez, I'd say that one deserved the slap.

  7. Goodness, how horrifying and traumatizing. I'd give up for good I think if that happened to me. Do you know what happened to these bullies 30 years later? It would an interesting follow up and would surprise me if any of them came to any good in life.

  8. First, I'm so glad you don't feel guilty anymore. Truly, there were some human cancers in that group and you made good things come from what was almost an unwinnable situation. And second, bravo! I think that boy deserved even more than a good slap. Good for you, my friend! Enjoy your vacation, and stay warm!

  9. I continue to be stunned by the evil of those gang boys. I am so grateful no harm came to you and was delighted that you actually got some eager kids to teach. You so deserved some decent kids. I fear those gang kids are probably in some maximum security prison today.
    Will be here when you get back. Have a great vacation.

  10. Oh, that was an incredible incident, that now lives within ME as well as you, Dee. Well written, as always. I look forward to more.

  11. I do not understand why those 12 and 13 year old gangsters were not expelled from the school. When I went to school in NY in the 50's and 60's, any small infraction of the rules meant you were thrown out and were forced to go to public school. Catholic schools were very strict and even cursing could get you removed immediately. Omaha should have been like NY and no teacher should have been threatened like you were. I hope your teaching experiences improved after that.

  12. Oh Dee! What a horror that group was! I have had one or two unruly students over the years, but never to that extent or where I feared for my life! I don't know how you put up with it!
    Aren't fifth graders just the best? I love fifth graders for a bazillion reasons, but mostly just because they are so enthusiastic and fun!
    Take care and enjoy your breather!

  13. "But I continued to feel guilty about the hatred I’d incited in those gang members." Oh, Dee, you did not incite hatred in these boys. The hatred was already there in them. You were just the target for it all, and the woman who saved Eugene. That poor boy could have died or been permanently disabled from such an attack. You were put there that day for a reason, which I'm sure you realize now, but, didn't then.

    Enjoy your vacation time. I look forward to your return and your next chapter. Best to you, Dee.

  14. Dee, I'm not sure anything you did or didn't do would have made any impact on boys who were already damaged like this. Your courage in facing down the bully and in showing him that he couldn't bully with impunity, must have meant a great deal to little Eugene and the other fifth-graders.

    Enjoy your vacation and I look forward to the next instalments of your story.

  15. Glad you had such a great teaching experience with the 5th graders… BUT--those older kids had to have been scary. Gosh---I can't imagine kids behaving like that… And they say that these days it is much much worse… GADS!!!

    Have a great blog break and vacation.

  16. I'm so glad you had that 5th grade class and could see what a gifted teacher you really were -- and that that gang of boys was really damaged. Will look forward to the next teaching installment, Dee. In the meantime, have a nice break!

  17. Now as the story of Omaha comes to a close, I am feeling more and more that you should not have been placed in that classroom to begin with. You were just not experienced enough. Thirty years is way too long to be affected by something like this experience and losing your confidence behind it. I know you are an excellent teacher (and writer too, of course).

  18. Why on earth would you feel guilty about teaching that dreadful class of 8th graders unless you had been indoctrinated yourself. You did the best you could and, in the end, prevailed. The bully slunk off.

    Have a peaceful time, Dee, while you’re away and thank you for your openness in revealing your happy and not so happy days in the past.

  19. I just don't know how you stayed with it, Dee. I am quite certain the fear of the threats would have been my undoing! You are truly remarkable as a woman, and as a teacher. I am so glad you're enjoying some time away. I'm very happy you had the opportunity. ox (breathe lighter)

  20. The hatred was already there. Sometimes there's nothing you can do to eliminate it and can only channel it or stifle it--and you did that. Evil is an exhaustive battle with unsatisfactory outcomes sometimes, but you did well.

    Enjoy your break!! :)

  21. Oh dear! This post made me feel so anxious and sad. I'm inspired by your grace in the face of hostility though, and I'm glad you protected that little boy.

  22. Powerful. I'd like to think that your courage in defense of the weak against the stronger was a life lesson to those boys. Maybe it made a positive contribution to their lives later. Maybe they became better men because of it. Thanks for sharing this story.

  23. I love reading about your teaching experiences. It makes me grateful for the kids I work with and the safety I feel with them. There is so much unspoken in these stories about what being a nun meant in terms of your ability to operate in the world. I wonder (have you wondered?) who you might be if you hadn't had that shaping.

    Enjoy your time off. I hope it's renewing and fun.

  24. What a horror to have to teach while being threatened. I wonder what came of those boys in that class? Probably jail? You were so brave, Dee.