In the fall of 1952, I faced the prospect of attending school for the first time. The whole idea of going to school made me weak in the knees. My older brother had filled my head with bullying stories that gave me second thoughts about ever leaving home, let alone sharing the playground with a bunch of three-and-a-half-foot thugs.
“They better not beat me up,” I muttered under my breath as I started the long, lonely walk toward Larrabee Elementary School. Stupid second graders. They were the ones to watch out for, or so my brother said. Second graders, proud of their recent grade advancement and reeling from the abuse they experienced in the first grade, would be the hard-core bullies. It would be second graders who would steal my Twinkies, tear up my artwork, and give me a wedgie.
“Let’s see, I’ve got my marbles in my pocket,” I reflected. They were for recess, of course, but if I could make it safely to the playground, I could display my maturity by being good at shooting aggies. Then the bullies would leave me alone.
I was wrong. The second graders didn’t take my marbles by force, but they did cheat me out of them. I’d get ready to shoot my second-grade opponent’s aggie, and he would shout, “‘cover-zies’ for me and ‘non-cover-zies’ for you.” What?
Then, he’d cover up his aggie with gravel from the playground and force me to shoot my prize ball bearing at the pile. Next, because I had “non-cover-zies,” I couldn’t cover my ball bearing and he would uncover his shooter, shoot my steel marble, and put it in his pocket. By the end of the afternoon recess I had nothing left.
As much as I worried about the first days of grade school, when I finally graduated from the sixth grade, I worried ten times more about the first days of junior high school. I’d heard eighth graders wantonly stripped you naked during PE and threw you into the girl’s side of the gym. Or they locked you in your locker. Or they burned up your metal-shop project. Plus, there was always their favorite trick—“pantsing” you.
In 1958, wearing pants slung low and loose on your hips was all the rage. For a seventh-grader, it was also dangerous. Particularly if you were riding the city bus home while standing with one hand holding your French and history textbooks and the other hand clinging to an overhead strap. Just when you thought you were safe—wham! An eighth grader would yank your pants down to your ankles. The girls would scream, the boys would laugh, and you would be mortified. Heaven forbid your shorts had a hole in them—you’d have to move to Canada.
Given these hideous possibilities, the prospect of entering junior high school worried me a great deal. I was sure to be bullied the day I stepped onto the grounds of Fairhaven. I could feel it in my bones.
But first came summer. To keep me from fretting myself to a frazzle, my mom signed me up to pick strawberries. The job consisted of riding a berry bus filled with thirty or so twelve- to sixteen-year-olds far out into the country. Then, for eight hours you’d bend over a row of strawberries and pick the ripe ones in the blazing, life-sucking sun. And for all of this effort, if you were lucky, you’d earn five dollars a day.
I didn’t get lucky. I made just under two dollars my first day. At one point during that day, one of the berry bosses said I was suffering from heat exhaustion and forced me sit in the shade for an hour. I made no money during that time. We were being paid by the flat, not by the hour. Today, if you treated a twelve-year-old this way, you’d be charged with callous indifference or the illegal use of fruit. Maybe something worse.
But all wasn’t lost. At the end of the day, and to my total surprise, Hades quickly turned into heaven. The berry boss blew his whistle and we stacked our flats, boarded the bus, and headed home. Within seconds, someone started singing “John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt” and we all joined in. Throughout the entire ride home we joyfully belted out every camp song imaginable. Like warriors returning after an exhausting and perilous battle, we celebrated our victory by singing songs about beer bottles on a wall and a girl walking into the water. It was splendid. I’m not sure I’ll ever eclipse the happiness I experienced those glorious days singing in the berry bus as we rode home after an exhausting day of harvesting strawberries.
As the season continued, and we pickers jointly faced chilling rain, the scorching sun, and shrinking berries, we bonded into a team of genuine field hands. Unlike sissy kids who did heaven-knows-what all day long, we pickers earned our way. And we helped each other. Boys helped carry girls’ heavy flats filled with berries. Girls taught boys how to pick faster. We were one in unity and purpose.
Eventually, the season ended and I had to face the dreaded seventh grade. As I read through the class rosters posted on the wall near the school entrance, I finally found my homeroom. Listed were the kids with whom I’d be sharing three classes a day. I knew only one other person on the list. One. It was going to be a lonely, scary year.
And then came the eighth-graders. A pack of four of them started walking menacingly toward me. “Hey #&% face!” one of them taunted. I grabbed the waist of my low-slung pants as the hoods inched forward. And then, just when I was about to be pantsed or worse, I heard someone shout, “Kerry! Aren’t you all cute and dressed up for school.” It was a ninth grader—not just any ninth grader—it was a berry-picking ninth grader. And she was a cheerleader to boot.
Soon a bunch of us pickers from the seventh, eighth, and ninth grades were gathered in the hall and reminiscing as the older students helped the younger ones find their way to their first classroom. It had never occurred to me that the older kids I had met and bonded with in the fields would show up at junior high school and be the star quarterback, or the head of the chess club, or a member of the cheer squad. Nor did I think they would be my advocates. But that’s exactly who they were and that’s exactly what they did.
I wasn’t bullied that year. I was welcomed. The next year as the eighth grade unfolded for me, I too became an advocate and protector. Like our predecessors, my classmates and I wouldn’t dream of bullying kids who had worked alongside us. We shared their dreams and fears; we had fought the berry wars together.
And so it should be everywhere. Building a sense of community helps us humanize others. We recognize ourselves in them, and treat them with the respect and kindness we all deserve. And that makes the world a better place.
Oh yeah, and one more thing. Thank your lucky stars that you never had to pick strawberries in the searing sun. For eight hours a day. Up hill. Both ways.