The Long-Term Consequences of Skipping a Grade in School, Bullying, and How I Survived…Sort Of

August 1, 2012 by  

This is going to be another long and rambling discourse for which I apologize in advance, but hey, I’m spilling out my guts here. If you don’t want to read about it, click the Back button and go somewhere else. That’s the beauty of having your own website — you can publish whatever you want to publish and be as self-indulgent as you want, and hang the consequences. That said, here’s my story…

If I hadn’t been so young, I probably would have understood what was about to happen a lot more. My parents knew I was a handful from the get-go. At two, I discovered how much fun it was to dump my parents’ ashtrays on the floor (both were heavy smokers). My father had to build small shelves all over the house for their ashtrays, forcing them to smoke while standing, at least when I was up and about.

When my sister Nancy was born, I continued to be such a handful that my parents had to hire a full-time nurse to take care of her while my mother devoted her time to my ailing father (who by then was suffering from terminal lung cancer), my older brother Norman, and to me.

My poor, suffering mother couldn’t even get a break from me for a few hours. I was enrolled in a local kindergarten in Indianapolis, Indiana, the city where I was born. After the second or third day, my mother got a phone call from the head of the Kindergarten, who requested an immediate meeting. Apparently, I was too much for them. The head of the school’s office had a two-way mirror looking out into the main classroom. My mother was told to observe. There were five or six round tables in the classroom with several kids and a teacher seated at each table. Each table had a different activity, like finger-painting, playing with blocks, storytelling, etc. What raised the alarm was that I would start at one table, participate for some period of time, get bored, and move to the next table. By the time I did this two or three times, other fellow students began to notice what I was doing, and began moving from table to table themselves. Finally, they all began doing it. It took quite a while for the teachers to bring the class to order again (being that this was 1956 or 1957, order and rigid conformity was very important in those immediate post-McCarthy years). Meanwhile, there I was, standing off to one side of the ensuing chaos, laughing uncontrollably. I didn’t return the next day, or ever.

Of course, I could not have known what an extra burden this was putting on my mother, who was not only taking care of my siblings and me, but also my father, in the final throes of his battle with lung cancer.

Another attempt at easing her burden somewhat also failed miserably. My sister and I went to stay with my grandmother and her new husband at their little place in Medina, OH. My older brother, at 13 or so, was much more self-sufficient, and remained at home in Indianapolis. My grandmother was relatively young, in her late 50s or early 60s, but suffered from the same lousy cardiovascular system that virtually everyone on my mother’s side of the family suffered from. I don’t know how long we were there, but I think my boundless energy and my ability to create mayhem wherever I went took its toll, and she had a small stroke. Mother hopped into the family Oldsmobile and made the drive to Medina to pick us up. Finally, as my father had to be hospitalized at the end stage of his cancer, Mother found a very nice housekeeper, an African-American lady named Fanny Mae. Fanny Mae took care of all of us as Mother spent most of her time at the hospital looking after my Dad.

After my dad passed away in December 1958, Mother decided that she was through with living in the cold northlands. She got Fanny Mae to stay with us while she went down to Florida to look at properties, floorplans, and make the arrangements for our new lives in Oakland Park, FL, where we moved in the summer of 1959. The move to Florida beat her initial plan all to heck. In the 1950s, Australia was offering free one-way passage for immigrants who had job skills needed by the growing country. My mother seriously considered this option until the reality sunk in that that she’d probably never again see her parents or siblings, so she went to Plan B, which was Florida.

We were incredibly lucky when Bill Serle came into our lives not long after we arrived. In fact, he was the first man we met in Fort Lauderdale. We arrived at the new house, expecting the furniture to be there, and of course it wasn’t. We had to find a motel to stay in until our stuff arrived — there were three kids (14, 4, and 3), and a Boxer dog. We hit motel after motel along the strip on Federal Highway, until we happened upon the Fair Winds Motel. Bill Serle was the night manager. In less than a year, he was my step-dad. He was a wonderful man — full of life and fun, and one whom I dearly miss, and with whom my mother had another son, my half-brother Guy. Bill also brought a grown son and daughter into our lives, whom I love as much as my flesh-and-blood siblings. It was then that I assumed my stepfather’s surname. I was thrilled beyond words at having a new dad, and for the next eleven years, I was known as Larry Serle  — at least until I graduated from high school, when I reverted to the surname of my birth, which appeared on my high school diploma, as I someday wanted to explore the family I never really knew, which may be the subject of another story at some future date.

lwaters

Lucille Waters

I started grade school in September 1960 at Oakland Park Elementary, led by a most interesting lady, Lucille Waters, the principal. She ruled with an iron fist, or at least with a bright red paddle (drilled with large holes to reduce wind resistance, or so goes the story), which was wielded without mercy. She was a traditional southern lady who had no truck with racial integration. I believe someone once heard her say that it was impossible for black children to be mixed with the white kids, as the black boys would expose themselves to the white girls, after all! Racial integration did come to South Florida schools in the 1965-1966 school year with far, far fewer problems than northern cities like Boston, where the white parents behaved like everyone expected the southern parents to behave. But I digress.

As always, I was an exuberant child, fun loving, and bored to tears with school. By the time I started first grade, I was already reading at the fourth grade level, and the primitive South Florida school systems didn’t know how to deal with me. After one particular incident, Mrs. Waters had me write a short essay, which I present below (I was still in first grade):

April 21, 1961

Bad bad boy. Go to the office.
I was a bad boy in school.
I was playing in school. My
principal does not love me when I
eiritate (sic) her. I can not call
her lover when I act this way.
Someday I expect her to use
exterminating powders on me.
This wold (sic) copletey (sic) annihilate me.
I think I prefer to call her lover.

In 1961, I was interviewed, along with five or six other classmates, by a local newspaper. Here’s the story.

By second grade, I had been extensively tested by the school system, as well as countless psychiatrists and psychologists. My aptitude and IQ tests were literally off the scale, yet I was failing in school, and I guess was pretty disruptive, too. They simply didn’t know what to do with me. Unfortunately, there were no advanced programs at the time in the Broward County school system, though there were plenty of programs for the learning disabled. Go figure.

I continued to be a regular visitor in Mrs. Waters’ office, usually resulting in additional paddlings. Unfortunately, these did not achieve the desired effects. I was one of those kids who did as I pleased, fully aware of the consequences of my actions. I was fully prepared to accept those consequences, even if those consequences included being smacked repeadedly with her infamous red paddle. How do you deal with a kid like that? Meanwhile, as I said before, I was bored to tears, and was failing my studies.

This continued into third grade. More testing, more psychologists. Same findings, as far as I know. There has got to be more of a back story here, except no one ever shared it with me. I say this because one day in April, 1963, Mrs. Waters came to my third grade classroom, told me to gather my things and to come with her. We marched out of Mrs. Martin’s classroom and silently marched to Mrs. Galbraith’s fourth grade classroom. Suddenly, I was a fourth grader with two months to go until summer vacation. In these two months, I had to pick up the state-mandated requirements for promotion to the fifth grade. I can remember having to learn the times tables up to 12 x 12 (144, in case you didn’t remember). Several students were assigned to tutor me. The only one I can remember specifically was Brenda Haberman, a really nice young girl, and my first Jewish friend.

So, I skipped fourth grade, or at least went through it in record time. I remember coming home the day it happened. I excitedly told my mother, who simply and sadly said, “I know.” She really didn’t want to talk about it. No one really wanted to talk about it. I only found out much later that Mrs. Waters bucked the faculty and the school board. All of them objected to her solution to my problem. However, she held sufficient power to override all of them — or at least no one was able to offer a better solution. That summer, I attended a month of summer school to help catch up on the math I had missed,  and then spent the remainder of that summer with my beloved Uncle Andy at a fishing lodge in International Falls, Minnesota.

Soon after, my mother had to go back to work, probably the first time since the early 1940s. My stepdad’s sales business was going through a rough patch, and his “day job” with the City of Fort Lauderdale didn’t pay enough to support four kids (and a Boxer dog) — one of whom (the kids, not the Boxer) was in college. This meant virtually no supervision from the time school was out until about 5:30 PM when Mother got home from her secretarial job, paying the princely sum of about $100 a week (before taxes). This wasn’t exactly conducive to monitoring homework assignments and the like.

I started fifth grade in Mrs. Hazen’s class in the fall of 1963. It also marked the beginning of a pattern of savage bullying that didn’t end until my junior year of high school. It also continued my pattern of marginal grades. I knew just how much I had to do to keep out of trouble (and mostly keep out of Mrs. Waters’ office).

It was also in Mrs. Hazen’s class that I experienced a little taste of the Old South. Mrs. Hazen, another southern lady, had a tradition that had gone on for years: the reading of the rather offensive book Little Black Sambo. She read it with all the inappropriate vocal inflections she could muster, though by 1964, I think she may have had an inkling that this might be inappropriate, and indeed was just plain wrong. She told the class not to tell their parents that she was reading this book to us, as she might get in trouble. Just a little observation of the crumbling of the segregated south in the mid-1960s.

Jealousy about my having skipped a grade, and the fact that I was a year younger than my new “peers” created tension between those “peers” and me. It started small, but amplified as the year progressed. In sixth grade, it got worse. At the same time, my behavior continued to be somewhat disruptive, again, probably from sheer boredom, not to mention acting out because of the bullying, causing me to take a number of “walks,” the method of punishment meted out by Mr. Brennan. “Taking a walk” meant walking the outer perimeter of the school (while not being caught by Mrs. Waters!) until invited to return. My grades continued to be pretty rotten.

As the boys in my class began entering puberty, the rush of testosterone twisted their little brains, turning many that once were sweet young boys into seething, violent monsters.

Seventh grade at James S. Rickards Jr. High School was when things went into overdrive. The bullying began to become more and more violent, and seemingly better organized. I’d come home from school bruised, clothes torn, along with the usual extreme verbal abuse from my “peers.” My parents went to the school to complain. The Dean of Boys in effect told them that the problems I was experiencing were of my own making, that “…I should try to make friends with them, and try to be more like them.” No help there. There’s that old policy much admired by school administrators of the day: everyone should be the same — crush individuality and creativity. Conformity means order, after all. Color within the lines.

For a time, my parents met me at the school bus stop, but even they were met with taunts, cursing, and threats by these same kids, the majority from good and affluent families. I remember my step-dad almost shaking in impotent rage as my “peers” verbally taunted him, taking extreme delight in the knowledge that there was nothing he could do. When he shouted some expletives at them, one of them even threatened to have their parents call the police for his uttering those awful words to a minor. Yeah, lovely, huh? I had a brief respite for a few months when the son of one of my mother’s co-workers, someone who had the reputation for not being one you cared to mess with, took me under his wing, placing me under his protection. Sadly, his mother passed away, and the company he and my mother worked for went under, forcing him and his son (my protector) to move elsewhere to find work. Don’t imagine for a second that my “peers” didn’t notice, and took great glee in reminding me he wasn’t there to watch out for me anymore.

Years later, just after the shocking events at Columbine High School, my mother asked me whether I might have done something similar, that is, obtain firearms and shoot everything in sight at school. I told her that in all likelihood, I would not have done so, because even though I usually did as I pleased, hang the consequences, I still had (and still have) a very strong sense of right and wrong, and murdering your classmates, even the ones who taunted and beat you day after day, week after week, month after month, and year after year, was way beyond just being wrong, and that the consequences would have stepped up quite a bit over being sent to the office for chewing gum in class (an amusing story for another time). Frankly, I’m not sure I even entertained the thought.

bully1Eighth grade, if anything, was even worse. The taunts, the threats, and physical violence continued unabated. By now, I had developed a severe stutter that made positive social interaction, not to mention classroom participation, very painful. The stutter, mostly under control, is still there to this day, as is uncontrolled nail biting.

By the time I entered high school, my tormentors began discovering it was more fun being with girls than beating me up. They had much less time for rampaging through the halls causing trouble, and things got a little easier for me. They pretty much left alone by the time I entered my junior year of high school, though the damage had been done.

I made it through high school with a grade point average of 1.9 (not quite a “C”), even though my IQ was almost off the scale, and I should have gone on to great and amazing things. The truth be told, I never felt the motivation to do those great things. Maybe my “peers” beat that out of me. I simply didn’t know what to do with the rest of my life. Other than the “I’m disappointed in you” speech (as my mother took another pull of her vodka and tonic and another drag of her True Menthol), with each successive lousy report card there was never any real effort by my parents to help steer me toward a more positive path. Even a beating every once in awhile (not that my mother didn’t have plenty of other reasons, real or imagined, for beating the crap out of my siblings and me) would have clued me in that she was taking an active interest in my education. I never felt that kind of “push.” By the way, that’s a crummy excuse on my part. Lacking parental motivation, it was entirely up to me to come up with my own motivation. That never really happened.

In my senior year of high school, I got a job with a local radio station in a very behind-the-scenes role, and had considered a broadcasting career — something my stutter and somewhat high-pitched voice made virtually impossible, at least as an announcer/deejay. I began looking at the technical side of things, thanks in part to the influence of my high school physics teacher, and the chief engineer of the radio station, a very good friend, where I worked. After graduation from high school, I took some local vocational education courses with Miami-Dade County’s Lindsey-Hopkins adult education operation, while also taking courses at Broward Community College, as I felt I should be doing at least something toward higher education, but there was still no real direction. I knew I had some problems, mostly as a result of the bullying, and finally sought some help and began receiving some counseling at a county clinic, along with receiving some tranquilizers (Vistaril) that about knocked me out — this being long before the availability of today’s excellent antidepressants and anti anxiety medications. After a rather scary drive to work one evening after taking the prescribed amount, I never took another Vistaril.

By late 1972, my radio station job was coming to an end as the station had been sold, and I had no real prospects. I was sponging off my parents rent-free, my only obligations being car payments and insurance (as well as gas, fast food and smokes) and again, no real positive idea what I wanted to do with my life, with grades so lousy that I probably couldn’t have gotten into even a state university, so I joined the U.S. Air Force to become a radio technician.

Joining the Air Force was the best thing I could have ever done. I remained in the military for nine terrific years. I got a chance to see the world, and had the opportunity to excel at a number of things. This time was critical to my development. I learned how to deport myself among peers and superiors — again something that was not learned at home to any great extent. The Air Force taught me a trade that served me well when I decided to make a go of civilian life. While I have never had a great deal of self-confidence, I learned how to mask most of it and put on a good public persona.

An old friend asked me to leave the Air Force (mainly, as I was to learn later, because he had had a bad experience in the Air Force, no one else should serve their country, and certainly not his friends!) and come work for him at Motorola. I wound up staying there for nearly 27 years, though as it turned out, I only worked for my friend for a few months before his career took him down a very different path.

I began my civilian life as an engineering technician. Later, through some interesting twists and turns, I graduated to technical writing, then became an in-house IT person, publishing technology expert, and sometimes consultant, and in my copioous spare time, managed to get an Associate of Arts degree from Palm Beach Community College in 1989, through night classes. I embraced the web when almost no one had heard of it, and did some great things for my department. I literally traveled the world up until my involuntary departure (by that time, the layoffs were so common, everyone expected they were next, and when my time came, it was almost anticlimactic). After five months of unemployment, I was hired by a firm in the Fort Lauderdale area to work as a technical writer once again.

I am a lucky, lucky man. With my lack of formal education, I have gone far beyond where I should have. This is something I can only attribute to the intelligence and adaptability I was blessed with from birth.

Bully2Unfortunately, this success has not manifested itself in my personal life. The steady dose of bullying in my youth lead me to be highly distrustful of my peers, and resulted in the erection of my own personal “Berlin Wall” that no one has yet managed to fully breach — not even my very closest friend in the world has ever gotten anywhere near through my wall. Interaction with the fairer sex has been completely unsuccessful because of the barriers I put in the way. On the few occasions where I began to get close to someone, I subconsciously put up obstacles, frankly behaving like an ass, the end result being a quick demise of the relationship. It’s funny that I can talk about this, but even when I do, it’s a dispassionate discussion, almost analytical in nature — never a whit of emotion.

I hate to play the blame game, but I’m going to take this time to throw a few items out there for examination. Unfortunately, most of the principals are no longer around to defend themselves, and for that I’m really sorry, and hope these comments are not seen as cheap shots. For those of you who know me, I welcome your feedback on the following points.

Before I start blaming others, I’ll take this moment to repeat a theme of this novella: my early failures were mainly my fault; primarily in not doing more to get past what was and look more toward what could be. My lousy grades, my lack of career motivation, and all the rest. My fault — nobody else’s. That said, let’s begin the blame game:

  1. Based upon my own experience, I would not recommend skipping a grade to even my worst enemy. It takes a very special individual with supreme confidence and the ability to mix it up with their older, new peers, and simply not permit bullying to start. Unfortunately, I didn’t have that skill set. I always felt I was above the violence and to respond to it would lower myself to their level. Of course, that was like waving a red flag toward a bull, with all the attendant wreckage. It probably wasn’t a good thing to tell my tormentors why I wouldn’t fight back. Kids with a bent toward violence to others don’t want to hear that one of their “peers” feels they are “above” them.
  2. I felt no motivation and had virtually no concrete career goals to which I could aspire. This is entirely 100% my fault. I have no one to blame but myself for this. I take complete ownership for not being a self-starter. That’s something that can only come from within.
  3. I blame the school system for permitting near-institutionalized bullying and rampant violence to take place, and when parents tried to complain and get help from school administration, these same officials turned their backs on the problem, simply advising the bullied party to make friends with the bullies and to be more like them, like it was the fault of the bullied that they being verbally and physically abused. I can completely understand why incidents such as the Columbine High School tragedy occurred (though later analysis notes that bullying was not really part of the equation). I can’t in a million years condone those twisted actions, but I can understand how and why it happened.
  4. Many (perhaps even members of my own family) may call this a cop-out, but I blame my parents, and my mother in particular. My step-dad, as wonderful a man as he was, did not take a very active role in the rearing of his stepchildren — I don’t blame him one whit, as I believe his passive role was dictated at least in part by my mother. I think he was mostly disappointed in the fact, never shared with me directly, that I squandered my opportunities. He was right. He had to quit school when he was 12 to go to work to help support his mother (something not unusual for a man born in 1910). But I digress. My mother had her own agenda, which she didn’t really share with anyone else, but it didn’t include her children to any great extent. Mind you, she loved her children and could be fiercely protective, but was far from the “touchy-feely” kind of mother many of us grew up watching on 50s and 60s sitcoms (nor was her mother, for that matter). I think she felt trapped in her marriage, and used alcohol to detach herself from reality as much as she could, and as the family bartender from age 8 or 9, I was but one of her enablers. I think there was hope on her part that I’d be as self-motivated as my older brother and younger sister — both of whom had distinguished careers as Air Force officers, and that I would move far past them in science, industry, or whatever career I chose. Instead, I was probably just another of the many disappointments of her life. Sorry about that.

Simply put, some kids just don’t have the emotional “right stuff” to succeed after being skipped a grade or two (or more), at least not without much more nurturing and hands-on counseling and motivation. We can’t all be Doogie Howsers (look it up), and I’ll bet that in the real world, kids with the social skills and scads of self-confidence possessed by the aforementioned Mr. Howser are few and far between. I would caution any parent to think long and hard about permitting their child to be advanced beyond their normal grade level — not unless you and the child are fully confident that this step will be successful, but be prepared for the worst. You need to talk to your child to get their input and their agreement about major life plans such as this. No one said anything to me. I was told by my principal, “come with me,” and was silently walked from a third-grade classroom into a fourth-grade classroom. One can imagine the mindset of Mrs Waters: “Here you are. We’ve advanced you to a new, higher grade. Now, succeed.” There was no discussion, at least not with me, of the process and the expectations before or after this disastrous deed was done. In hindsight, that alone, I feel, doomed the process to failure.

It may be interesting for the readers of this piece to know that in spite of the emotional trauma I suffered in my school years, I am actively involved in my high school reunion process. We get together every five years, and I generally have a pretty good time. For some of the earliest reunions, I may have attended just to make my former tormenters nervous and uncomfortable, and I mostly succeeded. Finally, however, I decided it was just silly to be doing this. It’s been 40 years since graduation, and it was time that I grew up. At every reunion, I walk right up to them, hand extended, and warmly greet them. That probably confuses the Hell out of them. Ironically, at least one of my tormentors went on to be a high school teacher. I saw him at one of the reunions. He was a nervous wreck, preparing to meet people he hadn’t seen in 25 years or so, and was prepared to start smoking again after having quit the previous year. I don’t think he even stayed through the first night’s cocktail party. Me, I just say f*** ’em. Life’s too short. Nervous meeting up with old friends or for that matter, enemies? Have another drink. Heck, while not exactly a dancer, given enough liquid courage, I’ll accept invitations to go out on the dance floor and make a fool out of myself. If you can’t laugh at yourself, …

So, to wrap things up, the question I continually ask myself is, how do some highly-intelligent kids breeze through school, accept that they will be bored, but still make the best they can with whatever is available, and walk away with tremendous scholarships and a ticket to wonderful careers. What was their motivation? Did they get lucky and get the “right” teachers? I remember the smart kids in high school, and given appropriate effort and motivation, I could have been one of them. Hell, I’m convinced that I could have left them in the dust. Where did I do wrong? What could I have done differently? In the end, it was certainly all up to me. There were no role models or motivational forces to help steer me in the right direction. Is this what bullying can do to someone with a fragile psyche? I’d love to see studies of kids who were advanced ahead of their peers in school to see what they are doing today, what is their emotional health, were they victims of bullying, and if so, what did that do to them on a long-term basis?

What’s funny to me about all this is that in spite of my bitching and moaning, I’ve done all right. In fact, I’ve done a whole heck of a lot better than all right. I might not be a scientist or some other lofty professional, but I have found my niche, and am the happiest I’ve been in years. I’ve been flogging myself mercilessly in this tome for over 5000 words, but in the grand scheme of things, there’s little to complain about. In terms of compensation, it’s far more than I ever thought I would be making at this point in my life. In spite of the lack of a formal education (only an Associate of Arts degree), I’m a pretty damned good writer (this tome notwithstanding), and am well respected among my peers.

That said, it’s far too late for me to break down my personal Berlin Wall. At age 58, I’m just hoping I can keep working until I’m 70 in order to have adequate resources for a quiet and solitary retirement. Screw companionship — I can always get another cat.

Postscript

It turns out that it is possible to skip one grade (or many grades, for that matter) and still maintain that oh so necessary balance. Kip and Mona Lisa Harding have ten children, six of them started college by age 12! One of them was a US Navy doctor at age 22! This success came in part from home schooling, letting the kids find their own way, discovering and expanding their own interests, and letting them blossom along the way. This is a very rare combination of circumstances, that depended upon a stay-at-home mother who could do the home schooling bit, a father who supported his children to the n-th degree, a school system that worked with the Hardings, and finally, kids who knew who they were and where they were going (and knew this very early in life). I envy their success. Kudos, kudos, kudos! Read more about them on their website at http://www.collegeby12.com and a recent feature on the Today show.