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Feb-19-2008 09:53printcomments

Young Henry - A Lesson In Apathy, Regret and Resolve

Painful memories from a childhood in Alabama where bullies and racism ruled the day.

Salem-News.com
The all-white University of Alabama in 1956. Students, adults and even groups from outside of Alabama shouted racial epithets, threw eggs, sticks and rocks, and generally attempted to block her way. Protestors here were University of Alabama Students burning desegregation literature. In 1972, things had changed but only somewhat.

(NEWPORT, Ore.) - In 1972 , I went to live with my father in Birmingham, Alabama. When I started to attend the high school there, I found I had two strikes against me: I was a "Yankee" and I was a "longhair" ..one of about twenty in a school of 1300 kids.

I got the usual harassment, but never really fought back because I always felt so outnumbered. The school was basically divided into three camps - "spades" (blacks) - "freaks "( longhairs, nerds, etc.) and "jocks", the football players, rich kids and the popular kids.

Since the "freaks" were such a minority, I learned to keep a low profile and avoid trouble. In 1972, having long hair in Alabama was like a challenge to those who for whatever reason, wanted to get a fight going. That brings me to the Young Henry part of the story.

I had a Study Hall class fourth period, which was not really a class at all, but a time to do homework, etc. There were several "jocks" in that class, and after the teacher would leave, they would always start to pick on this one black kid, Henry. He was a small, quiet, nerdy kid who never caused any trouble, but for some reason was a constant target of these bullies.

One day in particular, as soon as the teacher did roll call and left, one of the bullies grabbed Henry's folder and took a note out. It was from his mother and this kid proceeded to read it out loud to the class. It began "Dear Young Henry" and was a very sweet letter telling him that she loved him and was proud of him.

Henry was painfully embarrassed and just looked down at the table while about six of the other kids danced around mocking his mother and worse. And I did nothing. Every cell of my being wanted to jump up and defend this kid, but I did not want to be the target of their violence. So I kept my mouth shut and did nothing.

In the years that went by, increasingly I thought of that day and how I saw something very wrong taking place and did nothing. I have always wished that I had... even if I ended up getting beaten up. I would have gotten over that, but what I will never get over is the fact that I did nothing.

That was 36 years ago and I still feel the regret as much as ever. About ten years later I made a vow to never ever again witness injustice and stand by. It seems it is too easy for us to look the other way, do the "I don't want to get involved" thing and absolve ourselves of guilt.

But, if you have a conscience, whether you acknowledge it or not, guilt will follow you. You will, to a certain degree, lose a bit of respect for yourself. I often wish I knew how to contact Henry and apologize and also thank him for the part he played in my growth.

These days especially, there are many issues that require participation and input, and I would hope that we all can be more involved. Apathy has a cost, and it is usually larger that we think.




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Henry Ruark February 19, 2008 12:53 pm (Pacific time)

Vic: Thank you for that very strong lesson from your own life experience. Many of us can add similar circumstance from our own sometimes similarly battered backgrounds. All too frequently, I found myself, as you did, stymied by what seemed insurmountable circumstance. Later, with more working contacts due mostly to reporting, I learned some of the techniques useful when one feels so strongly one MUST act, somehow. That's the great American contribution from the First Amendment, and our constant usage of it as citizens, and sometimes moralists and dissidents, too, is one of the strongest continuing tools we have in our democracy. This open, honest, fully democratic-dialog channel in S-N offers all of us a really effective way to share and set up sometimes those mutually reinforcing actions most effective for what we know we must do. Please feel free, all of you, to contribute from your own lives what you know will be valuable to others here. It is that kind of sharing and additions to mutual strength that make possible some of the great progressions on which we know we must work as this new 21st Century opens many strong possibilities never available previously.

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