Something from my childhood that I’ve never really discussed with anyone was the subject of conversation at dinner the other night: I was bullied as a child. I mean really bullied, but upon reflection, it might have been a good thing since learning how to handle that situation is part of what made me into who I am as an adult. I always champion the underdog.
Allow me to explain: Back in the day my father owned a beer tavern smack-dab in the center of the roughest neighborhood on the near east side of Cleveland, on Scovill Avenue, right where Jane Adams High School now stands. We lived upstairs over the very lucrative watering hole.
A very clever entrepreneur in spite of having only a sixth-grade education, he had managed to turn his little corner of the world into a very profitable enterprise indeed. The jukebox alone brought in more money in one week than the average steel mill worker earned in two. Quarters were being pumped into it nonstop from morning till midnight. Also, this was before the State of Ohio had a lottery, so he booked numbers too. Additionally, he had a thriving loan sharking business where he charged a quarter on the dollar per week interest and operated an unlicensed pawn shop. In the safe under the bar, he even had a gold tooth with a real diamond embedded in it. Not to mention the profit from his trafficking in “owl heads” — the cheap Saturday night special pistols that he bought, resold and then bought back again over and over, often to the same customers. His customers loved shiny pistols.
All of this placed him among the wealthiest men in the relatively poor neighborhood, along with old man Gibbs, who ran the local funeral parlor. My father did a lot of business with Gibbs because, when one of his customers died and the family was destitute, he would pay for the (deeply discounted) funeral, which was only right since the person probably had died from drinking the cheap Thunderbird and Mountain Moonlight fortified wines he’d sold them for years.
Anyway, while both of my parents were highly respected — and to some degree loved — by many in the community, by the time I was old enough to go out to play with the other kids, some degree of jealousy quickly set it. While most of my playmates had to scrounge for parts to try to make themselves a bicycle (getting a wheel from here, the handlebars from there, and the frame from somewhere else) I got brand new Schwinn bikes to go along with all of the other “stuff” my mother was constantly showering me with. It was almost embarrassing and my father begged her to stop it, but since she had been raised somewhat poor, she wouldn’t — or maybe couldn’t.
So it was no wonder that some of the other kids resented me. If the situation had been reversed I probably would have felt the same way towards them.
Then, in the third grade, we all took these tests that I must have done pretty well on because the principal told my parents that I should be sent to another school that had “enrichment” classes for “gifted” students. So I went from being the smartest kid in a classroom full of kinda dumb kids to being the dumbest kid in a classroom full of very smart kids. I was miserable.
Of course, my playmates, who by then were calling me the “four-eyed fool” behind my back because I wore glasses, began saying that I had to go to a special school — not because I was smart, but because I was crazy. Boy, kids can be really, really mean.
I was ostracized, laughed at, picked on and bullied; the last person to be chosen for any team, no matter the sport. But eventually I had to learn how to draw the line: You could call me names, but no one was going to take my Schwinn bike from me, no matter how big or tough they were. That’s when I learned how to fight back, and I’ve been fighting back against bullies ever since.
From CoolCleveland correspondent Mansfield B. Frazier mansfieldfATgmail.com. Frazier’s From Behind The Wall: Commentary on Crime, Punishment, Race and the Underclass by a Prison Inmate is available in hardback. Snag your copy and have it signed by the author at http://NeighborhoodSolutionsInc.