In spite of my “only child” –like status I was a very social little boy. I loved playing with all the other kids in my neighborhood who were close to my age. By my eighth summer I spent as much of my time as possible playing with other kids. I hated being called home for supper or to come in for the night because these social relationships were of prime importance in my life.
You may remember from my previous blog that my parents made two major decisions during the summer of 1947 that affected me in many ways. The first decision was to take the multi-state vacation trip to the West Coast and back to Eastern Kansas. The second decision was to move from our little bungalow on Crawford Street in town to “the farm” about 3 miles south and east of town. This move is what I’m going to tell you about now.
My two hardest changes with our move were adjusting to “farm life” in general and adjusting to the bullying I experienced in my new school. Because it was a very small school and most of the kids were older, I felt out-of-place most of the time, and was often tormented as “the town kid”.
“The farm” was a 5-acre plot of land with an old farmhouse, a small garage, a little barn with a shed on the side, and a brick chicken house. All of these structures sat at the top of a hill among much larger tracts of 80-160 acres that peppered the rural areas of Eastern Kansas. Many of our neighbors were older farm couples who were still living on and farming these family farms. Few had children living at home so my need to socialize was sharply curtailed by the lack of young children living anywhere within walking or bicycling distance from our new home. In fact, I remember distinctly my mother telling someone that part of the reason for the move was to break me away from some of the kids in the old town neighborhood that she felt were not good influences on me. I was angry and sad when I learned this.
We moved about the middle of August that summer and for the rest of the month, we were kept busy getting settled in the old farmhouse and beginning “improvements” that would allow us to have a degree of “modern living” like we had enjoyed in town. For example, our bathroom was a tiny one-holer situated at the end of the dirt path between the garage and chicken house. It was about a 100-foot walk from our back door to get relief! The garage may have had electric lights, but none of the other buildings did. So going out for the last bit of business before bedtime required carrying a flashlight to see the way. The only water that came into the house was pumped by hand into a wash-basin in the kitchen, mounted on the wall just inside the back door. Without running water in the kitchen getting a drink or water for washing dishes was a difficulty. These inconveniences of living on “the farm” made it hard for all of the family.
But even more difficulties for me were yet to come.
When school started at the beginning of September I didn’t have to walk far because the school was almost right across the road from our house. It was a little one-room schoolhouse and our teacher was a young lady who was fresh out of high school. Miss Brown taught a group of about 12 kids who were distributed in all grades from 1 to 8. For the smaller kids there were smaller desks in the front of the room and larger desks at the back. Miss Brown taught us by spending a little time with each grade on their different subjects. Although there was one boy near my age, most of the other kids were older and in grades 6, 7, and 8. Inside the schoolhouse, these boys behaved pretty well for the young teacher. But at recess time the older boys decided to pick on the new “town boy” who didn’t understand much of anything they were talking about. They teased and tormented me all of my 3rd grade year. Each teasing made me angrier and I was ashamed with the tears and crying. One time a big 8th grader grabbed me and turned me upside-down, and holding me by the ankles he tamped my head in the dirt. When he finally dropped me, I was so angry I picked up a loose board that was lying near the schoolhouse and chased him and others who were teasing, swinging the board at them.
The two kids who lived nearest to our house were both named Bob. The older Bob was a 7th grader and the younger was a 6th grader. Although these Bobs were older, Mom and Dad let me go to their homes to play on occasion although neither of them was consistently kind to me. The older Bob, who also lived the closest, was the friendlier of the two and he sometimes came to my house to ride bikes with me. There was a big hump of dirt between two road ditches with a nice path across it and it was fun to ride down one road as fast as we could, then onto the ditch, over the hump, and onto the other road. Big Bob kept encouraging me to ride over it faster and faster until I had a massive wipe-out, falling on my face and cutting my lip. This time he pushed my bicycle home for me, but Big Bob wasn’t full of kindness. That school year he introduced me to sexual play that was completely new to me and totally inappropriate for a 8 year old boy. Because we did this in secret, I felt full of shame, and I never talked about it with with my parents or any other adult. Almost all of my third grade year was an unhappy one with many other things that upset me emotionally and caused me physical pain. I welcomed the end of the school year in early May knowing that most of those older boys who had tormented me that year would be gone the next year.
I wish I had been able to tell my parents about how I felt about going to that school and about how those older boys bullied me and took advantage of my naivety. I felt so ashamed of my short temper and crying. And I knew the things Bob and I did secretly were wrong. If my parents had known more about what was happening to me that year they might have been able to help. But I was too embarrassed and ashamed to tell either Mom or Dad about it. And if they ever asked about school I learned to say that all was fine.
Parents of young children today are much more aware of the social and emotional damage that bullying does to children at all ages. Dads are learning to find more time to spend with their children one-on-one, encouraging them to talk openly about their experiences with others without judging too harshly. And moms are learning to take time to really listen attentively as their sons and daughters talk about their days. I wish my parents and I had developed a relationship of openness and honesty and that I could have made them aware of my struggles while I was still young. Instead, it has taken me most of my life to shed the shame and pain of my early years on the farm. By forgiving them and others who hurt me, I have been able to enjoy God’s forgiveness as well.
If you are a parent, do you talk with your children daily about the things they find difficult to cope with in their lives? If your child were to be sexually abused, does she or he feel comfortable initiating conversation with you about it? Even what many people considered as just “child play” has left personal, emotional and social scars on children that affect their ability to heal and mature as adults. It’s time for all parents to step up to the challenges of helping each of their children navigate their youth and adolescence in such a way that adults of the next generation will be free of the social and emotional pain most of us have experienced.
Please share your thoughts and feelings on this topic.
Photo Credits: Top: Staring Into The Sun, Japheth Mast (@japhethmast) on Unsplash In Text: (Inside old schoolhouse) by Jeffrey Hamilton on Unsplash