As a boy growing up in the 50s and 60s, I faced threats from all sorts of juvenile delinquents, “hoods,” and other shifty teenagers we now call bullies. Modern experts suggest that mid-century hoodlums were unhappy with their lives and consequently determined to bring a balance to the universe. They accomplished this by striking fear into the hearts of everyday students who were simply trying to make it through the school day without having their pants pulled down to their ankles, getting “pounded,” or otherwise being mortified and humiliated.
Given the number of JDs who walked the hallways at my high school, even a task as simple as getting to your next class was daunting. Should you accidentally bump into a fellow who was just aching to smack somebody, it could quickly turn ugly. In order to survive, I learned how to apologize (even when I was guilty of absolutely nothing) and then speedily slip into a group of large, athletic friends who might come to my aid should the situation worsen.
Unfortunately, hallways didn’t present the largest threat. The record for doling out abuse belonged to the athletic department. PE classes required students to bang into each other as part of the curriculum. This meant that not only did sporting venues provide the opportunity for thugs to separate a classmate from the herd and give him an atomic-wedgie or two, but it made a vicious block to the groin or a forearm to the neck not only sanctioned by the establishment, but worthy of praise. “Cool hit, man!”
Alas, this was all small potatoes compared to the grief dispersed in the locker room itself. It was in this “tile prison” that students were required to take a shower after every PE class. Mother of mercy. In my case, this meant that I had to walk through a group of guys that I would have given a wide berth at a church social patrolled by armed guards. Imagine walking—without any form of protection or hope for modesty—in front of guys who were just egging to beat up any twerp who did well in math. Think about it. I was required to walk naked in front of guys who carried, not “Esquire” or “Junior” as part of their full names, but who sported appellations such as “Snake,” “Knuckles,” and, “Butcher”—all words that ran through my head as I scampered to and from the shower in hopes of making it through unharmed.
But that rarely happened. At Bellingham High School you were pretty much guaranteed the minimum of a shower-room welt. The school was famous for its shower-room welts. Local thugs had learned how to roll a towel in a manner that turned an innocent piece of cloth into a whip. They’d roll it tight and at an angle—just so—creating, at one end a hefty handle, and at the other end, a tip that cracked like a whip. When the weapon hit your bare skin, it hurt like the devil and left a golf-ball sized welt.
Once you were smacked by the towel, to avoid further problems, you had to flash a smile that was normally reserved for someone who wasn’t trying to rip a hole in your flesh. In truth, what you really wanted to do was punch the welt-maker in the nose. This, of course, would have made you a lesser person and earned you a genuine thrashing. So, every weekday during the school year, my friends and I were forced to flash a fake smile at locker room aggressors—while apologizing to them for thoughtlessly getting our skin in the way of their snapping towels.
And now for the truly ugly part. All of this bullying and kowtowing took place under the guidance of PE teachers who lived by the philosophy: “Boys Will Be Boys,” meaning, “If an ambulance isn’t required, leave me alone! Can’t you see that I’m busy not teaching a thing and not monitoring the violence that’s taking place right under my nose? We have a football game Friday. I got bigger fish to fry!”
This walk down bad-memory lane comes to mind at a period in history when I feel like I’m spending a lot of time naked, in a locker room filled with bullies. Foreign leaders threaten to rain nuclear-armed missiles upon my subdivision. Snipers lay in wait in nearby bushes. Rage-filled drivers are aching to drive me off the road. It’s never-ending. And yet, despite mind-boggling advances in physics, engineering, and academics in general, as a society, we haven’t improved our negotiation skills or, better still, our ability to actually make peace one iota.
Scholars earn doctorates in negotiation techniques, consultants routinely teach conflict resolution skills, and gurus offer courses in high-stakes communication. And yet, fashioning peace out of conflict simply isn’t part of our national mindset. It’s not our native tongue. We don’t hang posters of Gandhi. It’s not the least bit popular to talk about how to improve our ability to make peace—not as long as we can form clubs that teach our kids nifty debate techniques that involve proving others wrong, attacking logical flaws, and winning points. These are all useful as methods for divining the truth and sharpening one’s logic, but bad when it comes to living with the vanquished afterwards. This is not meant to say that there are times when we should have a direct, clear, and strong response, but simply that, aggressive action shouldn’t be the only tool in our toolkit.
In honor of Yoko Ono and John Lennon, what if we did our best to imagine peace? Better still, what if we did our best to develop the skills for making peace. For instance, imagine what it would be like if we supplemented tools used for winning an argument with tools for coming to a common understanding. Imagine a world where people balance the skills for exposing others’ logical flaws with skills for finding a third way (common ground). Imagine what it would be like if creating a win/win came to mean you winning and me winning and not simply you winning twice. Imagine meeting aggression, not with a hasty retreat, but with tried-and-true techniques for respectfully resolving differences.
Best of all, imagine teaching peacemaking skills—starting in grade school. Schoolyard violence would be spontaneously and skillfully met with displays of mutual respect. Harmony would be taught not only in choir, but in every gathering of students. And most important, imagine what it would be like if your children and grandchildren didn’t have to take private sports lessons (the current welt-avoidance strategy) as a means of getting out of PE courses and avoiding the locker-room abuse that follows.
Turning schools into safe havens as well as centers for peaceful instruction is the least we can do for our progeny. I’m not sure where I read it, but I’m pretty certain that one of the founding fathers proclaimed that every citizen has the right to life, liberty, and the absence of locker room welts. In any case, I’m pretty sure that we won’t find peace in either the war or the board room, until we first find peace in the locker room.