One of the great regrets of my life is my treatment of a girl named Rachel in elementary school. I wouldn’t say I was the worst of her tormenters, but I certainly wasn’t among the most ambivalent, although I don’t recall any of my classmates’ crossing the line into active support of her, at least in a visible way.
Two things made Rachel a target of her peers. The first was that she came to our town and our school relatively late — fifth or sixth grade, which were the last two years, there. I should have had sympathy with that circumstance, having always felt bit of a Johnny come lately simply because I’d missed kindergarten.
The second thing was that Rachel arrived in our midst during one of those unfortunate periods in one’s development at which facial structure and voice are, let’s say, in fluctuation. At that age, the two possibilities for new arrivals (if they don’t blend into the walls) are to be sought after for outside-world validation of in-class popularity or sought after as scapegoats for the expiation of slights and insecurities that bit well before they came. Rachel fell into the latter group.
It’s some comfort, in reflection, that our school system soon poured three elementary schools from two towns into a junior high school, so we were all of us new to two-thirds of our classmates. That being the case, Rachel found relief and a group of friends, and from what I continued to know of her, she finished her experience of public schooling with less discomfort than I did.
Rachel comes to mind because I’ve heard from more than one person, recently, that I’m conspicuously “contrarian” and “cranky,” and in review of my past experience, the times when I’ve failed to be such are often the times of which I’m most ashamed. Certain circumstances justify — even require — a constitutional aversion to common wisdom and niceties.
Look at the condition of our state. Look how thoroughly its system of government is designed to thwart public participation and movement for change. Look at the difficulty it causes for many and the sense of placelessness it fosters among many more.
Generally speaking, it seems most often the case that when I learn about a thing, my emotions are leavened with the patience that comes from understanding. The opposite has happened as I’ve dug into the condition of our state, and I can’t conclude otherwise than that the times in Rhode Island (and the United States, truth to tell) obligate us to step back from a cooperative attitude of comity rooted in a sense of the game’s legitimacy and point out that the stadium is burning around us.
Put differently, I’d suggest that it’s nearly scandalous that more people aren’t cranky and contrarian. The General Assembly is poised to take the governor’s budget, which could best be summarized with an onomatopoenic “blah,” and make it a full step in the wrong direction. Each year, we make it more difficult to live and do business in the Ocean State and nod to economic development with name changes, special deals, and more government spending and regulation.
I’m sure that within every objectively monstrous society in history there were shades of difference — the more ambivalent Nazis, if you will — just as there were shades of vehemence among the pre-teens who destroyed a year of Rachel’s childhood. What’s needed are more voices saying plainly, “No, no, this is wrong.”
I would hope that people would think much worse of me if I believed what I believe and didn’t disclaim the whole sordid charade of governance and public debate.