Issue: 2.03 3/1/2001
by: Joe Klock Sr.
Crassness and Cruelty in Kiddyland

We geezers are wont to claim that, when we were Depression children, the family lived in abject poverty, survived on a diet of fried sawdust, had only insects and/or body parts for toys, and walked eight miles through snow drifts to and from school, uphill and against howling winds in both directions.

Honesty compels me to admit that none of this (except the school experience) was true of my early life, starting in the mid-twenties. I was born into marginally middle-class America, of a father who never missed a single pay check and a mother who almost made each one last until the next. We neither enjoyed luxuries nor endured the pains of hunger or homelessness. Thus, the reasonably stable economic status of my kidhood left me unscarred by poverty and bereft of the background material needed to become a social rabble-rouser or stand-up comedian. I was also unaware of being "different;" and of intergroup tension until we moved from a rustic suburb to the City of Brotherly Love.

It was there I learned that I was a "German kid." Hyphenated Americanism hadn't yet been invented, and you were automatically branded in conformity with your father's surname (never mind that my mother was Irish as Paddy's pig). For reasons I didn't fully understand, I was identified on the street as a squarehead, while other kids in the melting pot of North Philadelphia were called wops, kikes, polacks, chinks, honkies, jigs and queers - not to their faces, of course, but in casual conversation among kids of like stripe. (If this offend thee, gentle reader, remember that we're talking history - and that's how it was in the era before political correctness drove such references into the shadows of disrepute.) Add to this such uncharitable appellations as fatass, four-eyes, hooknose, pimpleface, shorty, nerd, gimpy, and dumby (as in deafness), plus similar labels on those burdened with speech impediments, foreign accents, facial disfigurements or (among teen-age girls) flat chests.

Such pejorative references were not permitted within the hearing of my parents, who were practicing mackerel snappers (this label applied by the local non-Catholic children), but when it was one of "you" alone against several of "them," the ugly brand names were flung with heartless impunity.

Class distinction and hostility were alive and well in those days, making it necessary that one learn at an early age the defensive chant : "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me." (No? That rebuttal was never intoned until after the hurt had been felt!) All this is to establish the fact that kids were then, as now, basically cruel to each other - the major difference being that the nastiness of yore seldom resulted in more than noisy arguments and minor scuffles. For the most part, we took our lumps and lay in wait for an opportunity to strike back with verbal barbs of our own.

Fast forward to now, when birds of an ethnic feather band together in gangs, the gangs engage in armed conflict and, with increasing frequency, the victims of social oppression retaliate with gunfire and/or the "acting out" of the mayhem that pervades movies, television, video games and what is loosely defined as professional wrestling.

This is not, as you may have inferred, a diatribe against "bad people." We'll leave such moral awfulizing for another day. Rather, it's an indictment of the "nice" people who tacitly condone "un-nice" behavior in their young - particularly their elitism, or exclusionary snobbery. The sharpest pain of childhood is the feeling of rejection - not being one of the "crowd," not being a jock, not making the cheerleading squad, being the last one picked in a choose-up game, not being invited to a party, or being snickered at by those of the "in" group. Admittedly, kids will be kids and, as such, will be somewhat inclined toward unkindness, but a lot of the seething anger that has prompted recent acts of violent retaliation by young social outcasts could be alleviated if parents and youth leaders would stop tolerating cliques and personal harassment in our schools and other gathering places.

Punish and banish the outright bullies and criminals, to be sure, but also be aware of the kids who are excluded from "the club" by a few narcissists who consider others unworthy of their society...the prettier girls, the superior athletes, the stronger, those more outgoing, more self-assured, more gifted, better off and/or better adjusted. Add the cliques with similar ethnic backgrounds and foreign language skills who rudely shun those who don't "belong." Let's teach our young people to respect diversity and demand that they behave tolerantly, like the civilized human beings of which we ourselves were not - at least, not always - exemplary role models.

Joe Klock, Sr. (The Goy Wonder) is a freelance writer and career curmudgeon. To read past columns (free), visit
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