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Thursday, November 11, 2021

What happened to Bobby Wilder

For some children, school is not a good experience.  Some kids get bullied.  Some have learning issues. and, of course, some have behavioral problems.  And some are bright and well behaved, but just cannot concentrate.  That inability to concentrate may indicate ADHD issues, but not necessarily.  Over the years, progressive school systems have initiated programs to deal with kids who for these various reasons find school onerous.  Still, some people will look back on their school years as a time they'd prefer to forget.

I have never forgotten a kid named Bobby Wilder.  We were in Garfield elementary school together where I went through the fifth grade.  Somewhere along the way Bobby disappeared. My family moved when I was in the sixth grade and I transferred to Lincoln school.  There was Bobby in the class I was assigned to.

I was never close to Bobby, but I always had a regard for him.  That regard came from the recognition that Bobby was very poor.  His clothes looked used and worn.  After sixth grade, I entered the seventh grade at John Deere Junior High School.  I do not remember Bobby being there.  He must have left the system.  But a memory of him has never left my mind.

My sixth grade teacher, Miss Irwin, was an obese woman who coddled the children of prominent parents, but treated the poor kids with disdain.  She is one of two teachers I had during my education who openly and brazenly conducted themselves that way.  One day in class she had us working on something at our desks while she strolled up and down the aisles, checking over our shoulders.  She stopped at Bobby's desk, yelled at him, and slapped him several times on the head.  We did not know what he did or did not do, and we kept on working so as not to provoke her further.  Bobby put his head down on his desk and covered the back of his head with his hands, guarding against another onslaught.  That was the day I understood what a "broken heart" meant.  I never got over it.  That memory of Bobby Wilder being physically abused still causes deep sadness, pain, and anger.

Bobby was never an assertive or disruptive student.  He was one of those who kept quietly to himself and seemed to retreat into some inner sanctuary, away from a world that held multiple oppressions for him.  

After the incident, many of my classmates talked with dismay about the incident and we told our parents.  We tried to determine just what Bobby did that provoked the teacher into such violence, and decided it was all a matter of a mean streak in the teacher. We tried to be sympathetic and supportive to  Bobby, but he reacted passively, as if we did not understand that discrimination and abuse was a way of life for kids like him.

During my public school years,  abuse of students like that was rare.  I was slapped by teachers, once in the third grade and once in the eighth.  I did things that I admit were confrontational and provocative. Therefore, I did not tell my parents.  However, my parents were told about the occasions by my classmates or their parents.  Their attitude was that if I wanted to be a mouthy brat, I'd better be prepared to receive the consequences.  

I never really liked school.  I enjoyed learning, but found the inherent processes of establishing a social pecking order to be corrosive and depressing.  I had some teachers who worked hard at treating kids as equal and maintaining principles of justice for all, and their efforts enabled me to see education as a liberator and equalizer, and school as a demonstration of America's premise.  But the Bobby Wilder incident of abuse was an example of a failure that counteracts all the good that schools do.   It is also an expression of the human malice that is the source of much of humankind's nefarious deeds. And that malice is coddled by school bureaucracies under the pretext of maintaining discipline.

As I reflect on things I have done in my life, I realize that Bobby Wilder had an influence.  While in basic training in the Army, a unit next to mine had some cadre who were mistreating some draftees who were very poor from families who had no influence to register complaints.  One of my fellow grunts had just graduated from law school and was put on light duty because he was diagnosed with ulcers.  He and I chatted about how we could help the men from the neighboring outfit to get a hearing about the mistreatment.  He decided that they had cause to file a complaint with the inspector general's office.  The big problem was to file a report that would be taken seriously by military lawyers.  We decided that the men needed to make a record of the incidents, so I spent some evenings with some of the men showing them them how to make a record.  It was like a basic journalism report of the exact time and place, who was involved, who witnessed it, precisely what happened, and what harm resulted.  The men made a detailed record of incidents, such as a man ordered to do push ups and being struck in the back with a rifle butt when he wasn't doing them quickly enough for his tormenter.  The men created a file of such  handwritten reports and, with the guidance of the lawyer, submitted an action request to the post inspector general.  I thought I was doing something in support of those men that I couldn't do for Bobby Wilder.  After the men involved had completed basic training and moved on to other duty assignments, an investigation was conducted which resulted in a number of disciplinary actions against some high-ranking officers who weren't paying attention to what was going on in their commands.  

As a journalist and then a professor, I had many subsequent occasions to confront situations of people maliciously mistreating other people.  When Miss Irwin assaulted Bobby Wilder, she did so with an unrestrained malice toward him, apparently because he was poor and struggling.  We fellow students never learned just what he was doing at his desk that day that set her off.  But what she taught us that day is the deteriorating effect that personal malice has on a society that professes to be democratic.

My schoolmates from that class often recalled that day as we progressed through junior high school, high school, and into college.   It was a memory that formed our bond and our identities to each other.  But we did not recall it in terms of what Miss Irwin taught us.  We recalled it in terms of Bobby Wilder and what he had endured in our presence.  He represented to us what happens when decency goes awry.

I do not remember Bobby Wilder being in junior high school with us.  I have often wondered what happened to him.  I suppose his family moved.  Once when I was in the school board office on a story I was working on as a journalist, I asked if they had any records that might indicate where Bobby went.  They did not.

But I remember him, especially when I come across instances of malicious injustice and cruelty.  Bobby Wilder was the real teacher that day in the sixth grade.


Jerry K. Sweeney said...

Every kid entering the First Grade (there was no kindergarten) in 1946 was aware that, if provoked, Mrs. *** administered punishment with a length of garden hose. I don't recall ever seeing it happen, mayhap it was a small town myth. Either way, I never heard of a parent who believe it was excessive.

David Newquist said...

Jerry K. Sweeney, I wonder how many grade schools had such a myth. At Garfield in Moline, Il., it was that the assistant principal kept an old, leather men's bedroom slipper in her desk for the purpose of, as a classmate put it, "whumping yo' ass red." I don't recall anyone claiming to have seen it or experiencing it. But a lot of kids lived in fear of it.

Anonymous said...

I also had a 'Bobby Wilder' in grade school. He wasn't abused by a teacher but by his classmates. He was my age and was affected by polio. He dressed differently to accommodate the braces he wore on his legs. He took the abuse stoically except for a few times when he cried. I was a very shy quiet kid who seldom spoke, even when spoken to. So when I witnessed the abuse I said nothing as I squirmed in my seat. He was only at school a short time before his family moved. The memory has followed me all my life and as a result, I am not so shy and passive anymore. I am still ashamed of myself and especially of the abusers who went on to good lives. I learned later that he had done ok for himself, became a husband, father and grandfather. But he was a life long lesson for me.

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