Among the 743 things about me that bug my students is the one that bugs almost all young people - that I tend to romanticize the past and look at it only through my rose-colored Ray Bans.
I freely admit to being a chronic nostalgist. And while that's not a real word, it is a real state of being - and one I know all too well.
But I'm not 100 percent gone: I don't think EVERYTHING was better Way Back When - in fact, lots of things were far worse. But I'll tell you one thing that without doubt WAS better - bullying.
I read about bullying today and I become heartsick. Kids commit suicide due to being bullied? No adult knows it's going on? There's nothing that can be done to prevent it? Are we living in a world gone mad? I often think so.
Apparently, a lot of bullying today takes place like everything else today - through cyberspace. There are rotten emails, rotten texts, rotten Facebook postings, rotten blogs, or other forms of high-tech rottenness I'm not aware of. Plus it seems it's mostly a group activity - that it's a bunch of young swine ganging up on some kid they've declared "it." And sometimes it's not just young swine in the gang - even adults (parents, no less) are known to join in on the fun.
And for reasons that elude me, it appears the bullies can't be punished or held legally responsible for their behavior. Go figure.
Bullying, 1950s style
Well, it sure wasn't like that when I was a kid.
Not to say we didn't' have bullies - we did. But they, and the whole bullying scene, were completely different from today's.
Before I go any further, let me clarify something: The bullies were NOT street fighters. The street fighters were a breed unto themselves. They were genuine hardcores who just liked to fight. To them, duking it out on the killing fields of upper Broadway was as much a sport as baseball or track was to other kids.
But none of them were bullies. I suspect this was due less to noble motive than to professional pride: Picking a fight with a kid they knew they could beat was neither a challenge nor a reputation builder. Instead, it was the sign of a coward - the very thing they gave and took lumps to prove they clearly were NOT.
And that brings us to the essence of bullies - they're cowards and that's all they are. So, as opposed to the street fighters, they ONLY picked on kids they knew they could beat. That was bad news. But there was good news that went along with it, namely their careers in bullydom were always short and ended in scorn and shame.
Bullies in My Home Town inevitably met one of two fates.
This was the first: Because Petrova was a kindergarten-though-12 school, it was like a huge family. OK, a huge dysfunctional family maybe, but a family nonetheless. And in the way of families, to a great extent, the big kids looked out for the little ones. So if some kid was going around picking on other kids, the word got out. And when it did, someone with a strong sense of fair play and an even stronger right hook ended the bully's "hobby" post haste.
If a bully managed to escape notice for a while, then the second fate befell him. This one I like to think of as self-contained karma.
After a couple of impressive victories (impressive to the bully, that is), intoxicated on his overinflated ego and misplaced sense of invulnerability, he'd decide he was ready for The Big Time. Unfortunately, his entry into and exit from The Big Time were simultaneous: He'd take on some tough nut who'd immediately ring his bell and bruise both his ego and his mug.
Then, not wanting to suffer further damage to his psyche and septum, he'd abandon the gladiatorial realms and pursue endeavors more suited to his personality, like stamp collecting, flower arrangement or needlepoint.
Newer, not better
So back then bullying wasn't a serious issue because the bullies never lasted, and they ended up figures of ridicule besides.
Then again, everything was different back then.
We talked to each other a lot - face to face.
We wrote (and received) handwritten letters that were pages long.
We learned how to tell stories and jokes.
When we told our mothers we were bored, they threw us out of the house, so we had to figure out how to amuse ourselves, which we did in ways that didn't worry anyone.
We knew how to wait, whether we wanted to or not.
We learned VERY EARLY to keep our business to ourselves, and to keep our noses out of others'.
Today's cyber-savvy kids often make fun of how simple and unsophisticated my teen world was. And of course they're right - it was simple and unsophisticated, and for the most part so were we.
And simple people that we were, we pretty much had simple problems, which in turn were solved by simple solutions.
That was a great advantage we had, and one I fear this generation will NEVER have.