lived in Washington, D.C. for most of my boyhood and teens. Three of those years were spent in a place I thought I’d surely learn to forget.
In it, those around me were petty, mischievous, vindictive and self-interested. They spent loads of time gossiping and trying hard to spread untrue stories about those they disliked, or pretended to like but loathed. Hate was lightening in a bottle that came and went by the year.
Vanity, drama and deceit were also present, with them whining and petulance, the lodestones of immature identity. Cliques and cabals flourished, their members learning to say nothing more or less than what their bosses told them to. Good people were mocked as naïve and unaware of the “real” world, in which the sarcastic self always came first.
Discipline, when imposed, usually needed applying a second time — there were just too many offenders and too many heedless lapses. Order was occasionally organized and displayed, but only for the sake of protocols that few claimed to believed in.
Bullies flourished, harvesting yes-boys (and girls) as acolytes. What they couldn’t impose physically (again, restrained by protocol) they carried out psychologically, by isolating or ostracizing their enemies. Gender was no oasis. Wrath spared no sex. Primal resentment ruled the day.
This rude mix included more than a few kind people. Some tried comforting the bullied and the ostracized, promising improvement over time. Some of the kind ones petitioned for a more just human and political order that would force the rowdies to heel. They circulated well-intentioned petitions that rarely traveled very far.
Those three years suggested to me what life might be like in a parallel adolescent universe in which show-and-tell boasting always came ahead of the more literate if tedious phonetics of reason and common sense.
My memories lay tucked away until today’s post-election landscape began tugging on their shredded cape. Along the corridor that runs between Washington and New York, leadership-level behavior seems increasingly impromptu, impulsive, uncooked, as if the glad property of minstrels and jesters. That which should be politically serious lacks gravity.
For the record, my Washington years weren’t related to executive politics. They were spent instead in junior high school, a house of pre-adult horrors the presidential world now seems intent on mimicking, overwrought -year-old men at times behaving like overconfident 13-year-old boys with no teacher or disciplinarian present to curb them. At the time, Richard Nixon was president and John Mitchell his attorney general. Examine their legacies.
For some, junior high’s emotional carnage took decades to live down. Consoling adults labeled the years as a rite a passage, emphasizing the word “junior,” as if those who endured them had been stuck half-intentionally in a prison of impoverished values whose purpose was to teach them that their fellow humans could and would behave hurtfully, with malice aforethought. It was also a place that helped recommend adulthood as a higher calling of sorts, a place in which civility and mutually understood codes of compassion would mostly rein in casual indecencies. In that sense junior high was social potty training. But to get to that place of civil self-awareness — to know to outgrow kneejerk villainy — you needed first to suffer its absence.
And I did. Frail, I was hung on coat-hooks by my underpants and left there like a slab of beef. My only friend’s chubbiness was vilified. The one girl I liked was awkward and laughed at.
Hormonal rioting has no cure. Young teens are tyrants who unchecked would carry out genocide. The checking process, and punishment, is the first step in social character building that depends on restraint.
But I sense no checking process or restraint when I look to my country. Instead I see the creation of a remarkable new junior high school, this one ripe for lapsed adults. Or for adults who should know better but no longer do, their self-control sacrificed to the unfiltered, pre-adolescent temptations of instant communication — which in a cruder way resembles being able to chew gum in class.
So it is that the flawed but necessary “reasonableness” once represented by the adult collective, including the concept of a well-behaved president, loses meaning, with restraint portrayed as an establishment ploy to tranquilize the masses.
So it is as well that seventh-grade values take root in the school-without-walls known as a nation, its hormonally charged hordes and their man-child leader seemingly eager to chew gum and mock the defeated until school itself freezes over.