My childhood lesson in nonviolence.Posted: February 1, 2017
Picture credit here.
I was nine or ten years old, on the school bus, sitting toward the back. It was early morning—we Catholic kids had to get up earlier than our friends, because we lived in an adjacent school district (Annville-Cleona) that was required by law to provide bussing for us, but it meant we had to be routed through several stops. So it was always just us few scattered Catholic kids, on a sleepy bus, early every morning, waiting in parking lots for the bus driver to come back on board.
Two older boys sat behind me. They were twelve or thirteen, and cruel. I don’t know what they had going on at home, or in their hearts or minds, that they chose to act that way. But I was chubby, and had bad skin, hair, glasses, braces; I was also very smart and outspoken. All of this made me a target of bullying. They’d just started at the high school, which meant they’d just started carrying around big heavy textbooks.
I heard them whispering to each other in the seat behind me. And then a silence, as one of them rose to his feet. And then, out of nowhere, he hit me over the head with his textbook so hard it knocked the wind out of me.
And I heard a clear inner voice say immediately: Make no acknowledgment whatsoever.
So I sat there, continuing to stare out the window, as if nothing had happened.
He hit me on the head with his textbook again, much harder this time. An involuntary tear came out of my eye. My neck ached. I just continued to breathe deep and gaze out the window. I told myself, I am stronger than them. I could hear them swearing and giggling in the seat behind me, incredulous at what they believed to be their own boldness, and at my course of action. But the second blow had just hardened my resolve, somehow. The voice persisted: Make no acknowledgment. You are stronger. Breathe through. Breathe through. I didn’t move, didn’t cry out. I just took deep breaths and gazed out the window.
A third blow with the textbook, so hard I thought my head would cave in. I could hear them gasping in the seat behind me, both at themselves and at me, and I braced for another round.
But it stopped. That was the last blow. They didn’t hit me again.
That’s all I remember of the incident.
I’m still not sure where my reaction came from. I could have moved, yelled at them, hit back, reported them to the bus driver. But for some reason, by animal survival or human instinct, what seemed to me the most powerful course was stillness.
I’m only starting my reading on nonviolent resistance—currently, Conquest of Violence by Joan V. Bondurant, a classic Western study of satyagraha campaigns. And I just keep thinking of this incident from my childhood. I’m not saying what I did was the right thing or the wrong thing or effective or ineffective. I was just a child at the time. But one of the reasons I’ve always avoided in-person protest so far is because I don’t trust myself to not be violent, thinking that that is my default reaction—even the default human reaction.
But then I remember this incident, and think, maybe there’s a deeper truth.
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