In Larry Brown’s brilliant novel Dirty Work, the protagonist, Walter James, shares a dozen anecdotes that reveal the violence from his past. The bloodshed starts early. As a first grader, he gets his nose smacked and his grape Nehi stolen by the class bully. Walter doesn’t fight back. He goes home to his mother seeking sympathy. Instead, she tells him this:
If you don’t take up for yourself in this world, there ain’t nobody else that will. If you let him run over you once, he’s gonna run over you again. The next time he sees you, he’s gonna run over you again. Cause now he knows he can. So you got to teach him right now he can’t. Either now or the next time, it don’t matter. Is he bigger than you?. . .Well, I guess you gonna have to just pick you up a stick, ain’t you?
Mississippi parents still tell their kids things like this all the time. “You better not start a fight at school, but if somebody starts a fight with you, I expect you to finish it.” We tend not to want our children to have to rely on systems we don’t entirely trust to protect themselves. (Whether this is a stronger indictment of education or the law is hard to tell.)
While discussing this passage in class, students expressed varying levels of tolerance for bullying. Some students agreed absolutely with the mother. In light of yesterday’s school shooting in Colorado, it seems easy to wish for playground fights rather than active shooter emergencies. Of course, that’s a false dichotomy borne of nostalgia. The broader issue seems to be this: in a society that’s saturated with violence, how do we encourage children to stand up for themselves?