A bully ending to a bullying incident
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A bully ending to a bullying incident

Long-ago high school episode escalated from anti-Semitism to book reports

Jonathan Lazarus, above right, covers an accident scene in East Paterson, now Elmwood Park, for the Record in 1964.
Jonathan Lazarus, above right, covers an accident scene in East Paterson, now Elmwood Park, for the Record in 1964.

The recent spotlight on bullying incidents — whether internet shaming, in-your-face schoolyard confrontation, or bias, hate, and terror threats — stirred deeply held memories of my own brush with the ugly phenomenon, which began when I was a high school freshman and lasted my entire sophomore year.

The trauma ended abruptly, physically, and with some emotional scar tissue, but it actually had the ironic and happy effects of turning me toward my professional career.

In 1957 I left the safe confines of Maple Avenue School, 99 percent Jewish at the time, for the wider world of the Weequahic High School annex, perhaps “only” 85 percent Jewish. My homeroom seating put me next to Stanley K., of Polish ethnicity, and we became casually friendly. I was happy to see that Stanley also talked a lot to my former playground pal from Peshine Avenue School, Elwood P.

Elwood and I hadn’t seen each other in the five grades since Mom, an educator, had me transferred to Maple Avenue Elementary, where she thought I would make more progress, especially in reading. I was eager to resume our friendship.

Elwood lived only half a mile from me, but it might as well have been a world away. My neighborhood was a grid of neat three-story homes with trees and lawns. He lived in a taller building on a commercial thoroughfare with lots of traffic and tumult. As youngsters, we often would have what are now called play dates. He knew my mom, and I knew his. Through the mist of more than 60 years, I recall she spoke with a southern drawl, more Appalachian than deep Dixie. She used to make us cheese, tomato, and mayonnaise sandwiches on white bread; my mom made him more substantial fare. Elwood’s family was obviously less well off than we were, and I never met his father.

When I reintroduced myself to Elwood, he was noticeably cool. I felt the conversation awkward and uncomfortable, until he said something blatant — that there were a lot of Jews at Maple Avenue School (far more than at Peshine, where my future wife was one year behind us), and he said it with an edge to his voice. I experienced a burning sensation but didn’t know how to react. This was my first exposure to overt anti-Semitism, and I was out of my comfort zone, startled, unprepared. My freshman year of high school had been tough enough without this entering into the equation.

Our “reunion” ended on that sour note, and Elwood and I didn’t talk for the rest of the semester. I also noticed that Stanley drifted away from me but continued hanging and joking with Elwood.

Sophomore year began at the main Weequahic High building on a somewhat incapacitated footing. I was in a cast and on crutches after breaking my leg in a pickup football game in — where else? — Weequahic Park. I had to depend on my grandfather for rides to school in his ancient Buick, quite a harrowing experience, until I received a walking heel. This allowed me to limp about more freely, although still depending on my crutches.

One fine fall afternoon, while I was heading home with my friend Wayne, we were set upon by Elwood, Stanley, and Louie M. Wayne, also Jewish and decidedly overweight, made an inviting target for bullies. After some taunting, Elwood got physical with him as Stanley and Louie watched with seeming glee. Without pausing or thinking, I braced myself on a crutch and slammed the other against Elwood’s head. He looked stunned and bewildered for a moment before recovering and vowing to let me heal before taking revenge. The three of them stalked off with Elwood’s parting shot: he knew where I lived.

Jonathan Lazarus participates in a tutorial program while at Rutgers University.

True to his word, Elwood allowed me to heal before he and his cohorts cornered me a few blocks from Weequahic High. Although we were both tall, Elwood had a considerable heft advantage and lots more practice in the bullying arts. As I tried to fend off his blows, I saw Stanley and Louie out of the corner of my eye, smirking and doing nothing about the situation. Finally, Elwood must have felt I had enough punishment and eased off with a warning to steer clear of him. I slinked home, lucky that I didn’t have cuts or a shiner to show from the confrontation. I couldn’t tell school authorities about the episode, since there were no reporting or counseling mechanisms against bullying in place at the time. Also, I would be branded a snitch. And my parents were never to know. That just signified the code of conduct back then: suffer stoically and silently.

Yet not all was gloom and doom for me during the school year. I had opted for an alternative English course that substituted 25 book reports in place of the standard curriculum. The class was taught by Lou Stamelman, who doubled in brass as Weequahic’s football coach. Maybe the book reports gave Mr. Stamelman a respite from the depressing fortunes of his teams. (Weequahic, however, fielded excellent basketball squads in that era under the legendary Les Fein, hoops being less angst-ridden for Jewish parents to sign permission slips than football.) I knew I wanted to sign up because of the difficulty I had with reading in the early grades. Only Mom’s brutal night lessons got me over the hurdles. Today, I would have been diagnosed with dyslexia.

Mr. Stamelman, as I recall, allowed us latitude in our selections and rarely exercised a veto, even though we were in midst of the buttoned-down Eisenhower-era. We met with him periodically to review our progress and attended regular English classes where we read our selections and worked on our reports. My first choice was “Arrowsmith” by Sinclair Lewis. I picked it simply because we had an edition in our home library. Fascinated with the story of a medical researcher trying to navigate the unethical world of foundation research, I quickly went on a Lewis tear and read “Babbitt,” about small-town boosterism and conformity, and “Kingsblood Royal,” which touched on racial taboos. Today, sadly, Lewis rarely is mentioned, although he has enjoyed a small renaissance with his prescient “It Can’t Happen Here,” notably because of the current occupant of the White House.

Since World War II and Korea still were fresh in everyone’s mind, I plowed through John Hersey’s riveting “Hiroshima” and “A Bell for Adano.” Next, Norman Mailer’s stunning debut novel, “The Naked and the Dead.” I felt obligated to read something by Hemingway (didn’t everyone?), so I chose “The Old Man and the Sea,” not critically acclaimed at the time but a low-key treat. Scott Fitzgerald followed, and the “The Great Gatsby” attracted me as much for its narrative voice and character building as its limning of the Jazz Age. And I still treasure the sad, symbiotic relationship of George and Lenny in John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men.”

I didn’t tackle Faulkner, and when I tried to read him later, I couldn’t appreciate the prose. The triumvirate of Roth, Bellow, and Malamud (known alternately as the Hart, Schaffner, Marx of Jewish literature) were just on the cusp of fame and didn’t register on my radar. And masters like Dashiell Hammett, Edith Wharton, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry James completely eluded me. But, all things considered, it was pretty heady stuff for a high school sophomore.

On the date the book reports were due, I took my neatly bound folder and went off to school, ducking out the back way and up Scheerer Avenue to make sure I avoided Elwood’s entourage, which I had successfully done ever since the fight. Yet as I reached the intersection of Osborne Terrace, there they were, Elwood, Stanley, and Louie. How did they know it was the due date, since they weren’t even in the class?

Elwood lunged at me and knocked the reports to the ground. That flipped the switch. The sum and substance of my long labors, my carefully written book reviews, lay strewn on the sidewalk. Those assignments had unleashed a wellspring of respect for the written word and a love of good writing. In a millisecond of teenage hyperbole, I reasoned that if you attacked me you attacked those authors. I hurled myself forward, knocked Elwood down, and got my hands around his neck. All my anger and adrenaline poured out. After an instant, Stanley and Louie pulled me off my tormentor but did nothing to intervene for their friend. I warned all three to leave me alone, gathered my book reports, and strode off to school. They followed a few yards back but without taunts or threats. They never bothered me again. And as I recall, I received an A-minus for my literary efforts.

Soon my family moved, and during English class on my first day in West Orange High (much more diverse than Weequahic), the guy sitting behind me started rapping the back of my neck and making comments. I didn’t wish to repeat the humiliation and tribulations of the previous semester and suggested that we meet after school to settle the initiation rite. He immediately backed off and I enjoyed productive junior and senior years filled with new friends, activities, and stable academics. Again, English class and the teacher proved pivotal. My instructor, Bill Campbell, worked part-time at the chain of weeklies and arranged an after-school job for me as a sports stringer. I loved the newsroom’s shopworn atmosphere and its slightly seedy characters, especially when they invited me to tag along. The smell of pastepots, foolscap, and molten lead appealed to my olfactory senses, and the payoff came at the end of every month when I would measure my stories and receive 10 cents an inch.

Then it was off to college where I majored in journalism and embarked on a newspaper career (two years at the Record, two years at the Newark News, and 37 years at the Star-Ledger). So, retrospectively, thank you, Elwood, for scaring me into a heightened appreciation of literature and writing. I know that today our situation might have been handled in a completely different manner, with intercession by school authorities and counseling experts and the involvement of parents. Value-based curriculums, unknown in my time, are now taught intensively to combat bullying and bias.

Some final questions, Elwood. Have you changed? How did you feel during Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech? Could you bring yourself to vote for Barack Obama? Did you think there were “good people” on both sides in Charlottesville? Did the spate of recent synagogue attacks disturb you? Did you wince every time “those Jews” fought back against the Mideast bullies in their midst?

And one final observation: I make it a point always to be reading at least one book. And, in part, I have your bullying to thank for it.

Jonathan E. Lazarus of West Orange is a retired editor of the Star-Ledger and a proofreader at the Jewish Standard.

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