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Friday, February 22, 2013

Second Grade War

This in no way is meant to be to be a glorification of violence by young people. On the other hand, if anyone thinks that there are no fights among children in schools, including their own children or grandchildren’s schools, they are mistaken.

Second Grade War

In 1960 I was in the second grade at the West Hollywood Elementary School in Hollywood, Florida, which was (and I believe still is), a 1st through 6th grade school. The school faces (to the south) a very busy Hollywood Boulevard that grew to six lanes wide in the years after I left.
To the west was another moderately busy road, 64th Avenue, which separated the elementary school from McArthur High School. The area was always a beehive of activity.
I lived about a mile to the northwest of the schools, which took about thirty minutes to walk if no one was chasing you. If you had bullies chasing you it was fifteen minutes or less. With an interesting girl to talk to it might take an hour or more. This timing thing was often the cause of trouble for me and resulted in subsequent “discussions” with my parents.
My teacher's name was Miss Wright, but she was not related to my family in any way. I am sure that you can imagine the teasing that having the same name as your teacher caused for me. We definitely had a love/hate relationship. She treated us all like we were her own children, both in good and not so good ways.
The entire school year thus far had been good in the classroom and rough outside of it; the why was simple.
Inside of the classroom I had a teacher who believed in letting kids progress beyond what was considered the standard or norm for their grade. A few of us, myself included, were reading at fifth grade level and everyone, except Albert Brogan, was reading above what was expected of second graders. We had advanced similarly in math and science and all of the other subjects that Miss Wright wove into her daily lessons.
Outside belonged to the Brogan’s.
They were always around bullying everyone and taking milk money from those who carried it. It was a whopping nickel a day or a quarter for the week in those days, but money was dear to those who had little to spend.
I always brought my payment for the entire week on Monday. It was in a sealed envelope and I just gave it to the teacher without ever opening it. The Brogan’s hated that, especially Albert who was the leader of the clan.
My reward from the teacher for paying up front was that I had to carry the milk crate all week -- all because she didn’t have to try and locate, and then extract loose change from me.
She said that it was because I was a boy (I was smaller than half of the girls) and responsible, but I didn’t buy it. I was the only one who paid up front and the other kids never seemed to be able to find where they stashed their nickel or pennies, or they brought a dime or quarter and wanted change. It drove the old lady crazy and she would grumble constantly under her breath. Her face would invariably turn red by the time the every morning evolution was over.
There were mornings where one or more kids would lose or forget their nickel and burst into tears. She would comfort the girls, but would tell the boys to shut up and quit acting like babies. She had a well defined double standard and no apologies for it. In her eyes girls were fragile, and boys were butt-heads.
Albert Brogan was born on February 29th and was constantly teased about being two years old because of the leap year thing. He was eight and would be nine in February, making him the senior second grader of the entire school, if there were such a thing.
He had carrot colored hair (they all did) and a pasty complexion with freckles, which brought him plenty of grief from the older kids who called him “Howdy Doody.” Albert couldn’t do much to them as they were either too big, or had big friends, so he looked for victims in the second grade and made their life miserable.
This guy was especially fond of finding me and shoving and threatening me until my temper blew and then he would say, “Y’all saw this. He started it!” really loudly in order to get a teacher’s attention. That way it looked like I was the bully.
Then his family would get in between the teacher and the two of us so that she couldn’t see what was going on and Albert would punch me in the back or stomach, depending upon which way I was looking. Oh, they were good, those Brogan’s.
Also in the same second grade class with me were Fred (who was turning eight) and Johnny (who just turned seven) Brogan. They were Albert’s brothers and partners in crime. In the same row of classrooms were the twins, Robert and Sally Brogan, who were in the first grade. There were also cousins scattered throughout the elementary school; they multiplied like rabbits!
There were a lot of comments between adults at the school about what the parents of these kids hobby was (said out of the hearing of the students, or so they thought.) I get it… I didn’t then, but I do now. So, that’s why they were never at back to school nights. They were too busy, gettin’ busy.
Fred was the meanest of the bunch and didn’t care about leading. He just wanted to hurt someone (or something) every chance he got. He was the enforcer and money holder and didn’t lose a nickel to anyone ever, no matter how big or old they were; he loved to fight.
Johnny was almost human, by himself, but when he got around family, he became one of them and would beat up a tiny little girl if Albert said so, without blinking an eye.
Robert was quiet and always did what he was told by the others. We all thought that he couldn’t talk until he was in the fifth grade and I was in the sixth. Albert and Fred had already been sent to reform school by then. Johnny had mellowed out after two years in second and two years in third, which put him a year behind Robert and Sally.
One day, out of the blue, Robert said, “You want a piece of gum?” and held it out to a little blonde girl standing shyly on the edge of the playground. She looked like she was afraid to go out into the middle with all of those kids. After that Robert spoke regularly, but never many words at one time. Without Albert and Fred around, he didn’t have to fight any more.
Sally always reminded me of a cornered rat with her narrow face, protruding teeth, and a scared look in her eyes all of the time. I shudder to think what her life was like living with that clan of mean and evil people.
I believed then (and learned it was so later) that everything bad that could happen to a little girl, did to her, and it was her own family doing it. She was always sporting a black eye or bruises and was scared of everyone, especially Albert and Fred. If you can imagine a nightmare scenario for a young girl, then make it ten times worse, you would be close. I can’t believe that none of the adults knew what was happening to her.
She also transformed like a butterfly coming out of a cocoon when the two older boys left and Robert started sticking up for her.
Now that you know everyone, this is the way that the big fight happened.

I had been called upon, just before morning recess, to pick up reading where Albert had been stopped. He was having a terrible time of it, stuttering and stumbling over words and I could see the red coming up his neck. That was a definite sign that he was close to losing his temper and a sure bet that someone was going to catch it at recess.
I figured that it would more than likely be me; after all, the way Albert saw things I was making fun of him because I could read the words with no difficulty had taken over what he was reading. The fact that the teacher asked me to meant nothing to him at all.
I had been doing a lot of reading aloud lately because it was part of Miss Wright’s program to get you to read more confidently and thereby improving your skills. It was second grade level material which really wasn’t difficult reading so I just zoomed through the section and sat down.
Miss Wright didn’t help me out a bit when she said, “That was excellent, Kenneth. See Albert, that’s how you should do it.” BAM! The lid just slammed on my coffin. Albert was embarrassed and fuming.
The recess bell rang and the kids lined up at the door in an orderly and quiet fashion, which you had to do or you wouldn’t go anywhere, Miss Wright didn’t play with rules. She gathered up her sun hat and glasses and walking cane, but reconsidered the cane and took a folding camp stool instead. I quickly offered to carry the stool out for her, figuring that I could gain a little safety sticking close to her, because I knew the Brogan’s would be waiting for me.
We marched out our sidewalk, turned left and went down another one which led to the playground. A playground covered with hot gray sand and sandspurs. For the uninformed, sandspurs are a form of sticker or burr that grows on a type of grass. They look like floating mines in the ocean from wars in that they are round and covered with needles that stick out in all directions. They stick to everything they touch: your shoes, socks, pants and worst of all, your skin. The tips have barbs on them and an irritant that makes your skin itch. Pulling them off without getting reinjured is an art form.
Out near the back boundary of the school property was an asphalt basketball court with four backboards, but it seemed to me that the nets were always missing. Going by there in later years I realized that the whole court was only the size of a half court in a gymnasium. We were small; who knew?
Up closer to the classrooms was the usual playground equipment: a very tall six place swing set made of steel pipe and chains that were horribly hot to touch with a slide that would burn through the toughest pants before you reached the bottom, a merry go round that you pushed and jumped onto, a jungle gym set, a set of monkey bars (in the army we called it a horizontal ladder), a teeter-totter, and one lonely patch of concrete with a hopscotch game painted on it.
I felt like I was safe and was even being ignored by the Brogan’s when we first went outside.  Maybe I was just nervous and Albert wasn't going to bother with me. He did have other kids to victimize and perhaps they had money or something else he wanted; it had happened before.
A couple of cute girls came up to me and whispered that one of their friends liked me and wanted to kiss me. “Wow!” I thought, “My day was getting better all the time!”
I followed them to the hopscotch slab and when we got there, who should turn around to meet me but Sally Brogan!
I had been tricked and so had the girls, they really thought that Sally liked me and they were just trying to help like silly girls will do. In her defense she was under orders from Albert and it wasn’t her idea at all.
Robert came up behind Sally right at the same moment that Fred came in on my right and Johnny on my left. The precision of the execution of their pincer movement would make any army commander proud. When it registered in my mind that one was missing and he had to be behind me, it was already too late… Albert always attacked from behind and I knew that.
Remembering too late was punctuated with pain shooting through me when Albert punched me in the back directly over my kidney. At the same time Fred and Johnny grabbed my arms and Robert shoved Sally forward into me, where she slapped me across the eyes.
She had such an apologetic look in her eyes that I could never be mad at her; she didn’t want to do it. Albert gave the orders and the others obeyed them or else he would have Fred beat them.
As soon as she struck me, Robert grabbed Sally’s arm and swung her out of the middle and off to the side somewhere. I think he was trying to get her to safety actually and that was not Albert’s style. Robert did that on his own. He tried to protect his twin sister when he could, which wasn’t often enough.
At that point the beating really began; all four brothers were punching and kicking me and keeping me from using my arms. Meanwhile their cousins had formed a human screen between the action and where the teachers were sitting on their folding stools talking teacher stuff. The ladies couldn’t see anything going on. As my struggling to get loose intensified it caused us all to fall to the ground where we were even harder to see.
I was getting beat up pretty well when Albert’s arm came across my face as he tried to get his arm around my neck to choke me. Only having one option I used the only weapon I had left; I bit hell out of that arm! I chomped down until his blood flowed and wouldn’t have let go if they knocked me unconscious, which they were trying to do at that moment.
What I didn’t know was that Sally had walked away crying about what was going on and the part she had to play in it. Her friends asked her what was wrong and then went running to the teacher.
Seemingly out of nowhere Miss Wright appeared and grabbed me by the ear while shrieking “You animal!” She hauled me up out of that mass of bodies and on up until I was on my tiptoes.
Away we went with Brogan’s laughing and feeling smug that not only had they given me a good beating, but I was the one getting in trouble for it! All the way to the sidewalk Miss Wright twisted that ear and pulled me up on my toes. I was feeling like a ballerina that had fallen down the “Up” escalator or something!
Once on the sidewalk we made each turn with an extra yank on my ear and a verbal reminder, just to be sure that I understood that I was going down the sidewalks to Mr. Sullivan’s Office.
He was the Principal and generally feared by all children, as most male school principals were. There was a certain amount of trepidation just for his being tall and having a deep voice. His was the voice of authority, discipline, etc; even teachers seemed to tremble in his presence. Thinking back I recall that he was handsome and possibly some of what I interpreted as fear by the single female teachers was something altogether different. I hadn’t ever known him to be mean to anybody personally. He was always nice to me and I saw him a lot.
When we burst through the outer doors of the administration building, we were met by Mr. Sullivan himself. He had seen us coming and came out of his office to find out what was going on.
By that point Miss Wright was red faced and livid, barely able to speak. She did finally manage to get a raspy, somewhat high-pitched screech out saying, “This little ANIMAL, bit another child! I want him tested for rabies and expelled!”
When Mr. Sullivan asked whom I had bitten, she said emphatically, “Albert Brogan!”
Suppressing a chuckle he quickly turned away from the teacher and towards the receptionist so that Miss Wright couldn’t see the grin on his face. He said, “Maybe we should have him checked if he bit one of the Brogan’s. At least get him a tetanus shot.”
He turned back to Miss Wright with a stern look on his face and gently made her release my ear. The big man then looked back at me with a grin, leaned over and said quietly to me in my ear, “Better go wait in my office. It’s safer in there.” Facing Miss Wright he said, “Yes, Thank you Miss Wright, I’ll handle it from here… You can return to your duties. “
Making grumbling noises and comments about animals running around and boys becoming cannibals biting each other, my teacher started out the door to return to the playground. With a backwards glare at me that could nearly turn warm blood into solid ice, she went back to take up her position on the camp stool.
Miss Wright sat back down on her temporary perch just in time for recess to be over and for her to have to get up and haul her stuff back to the classroom. She was without her previous helper (me) and had to deal with a rowdy bunch of kids who were all excited about Albert leaving the school without permission. But, nothing was ever said about that because the kids were too afraid to say anything and the teacher didn’t bother to take roll.
I spent the rest of that day hanging out with Mr. Sullivan and the ladies in the office, reading magazines and talking with them… It was great! We talked about what had happened on the playground and I was surprised that he knew what they did without even being there. He knew that Albert was behind it all and said that he was the most worried about Fred, because he really liked to hurt people.
I wish that I would have had the sense to speak up about Sally and what I was afraid was happening to her, but I confess that I was mostly glad that I wasn’t getting kicked out of school like Miss Wright wanted. I suppose that I was still in self-preservation mode.
Mr. Sullivan knew that he couldn’t send me back to class right away or Miss Wright would make life hard for me. He also warned me about watching out for the Brogan kids on my way home from school, just in case they weren’t done yet.
I was surprised at how much he knew about me, my school work, test scores, and where I was in my reading progress, etc. He was smart! If he knew that much about every child in his school he was pretty amazing. I learned a lot about respect that day, both giving and receiving.
You may, or may not know that being a Wright; I would never let it go like that. It is not in our DNA to just let it go. The Brogan boys had tormented me in one way or another every day since the beginning of first grade. I had taken an undeserved beating from multiple guys and then been humiliated on top of it. I would get even!
I was as mean and experienced at fighting as anyone in that school. One on one, I would take on any kid there. I spent most of my youth running the streets and there were fights nearly every day in my neighborhood. If you wanted to survive, you learned how to fight. One by one, and one at a time, I found the Brogan boys and fought with them.
I located Robert first (that very afternoon in fact.) He was walking home with Sally and they didn’t see me waiting for them behind the telephone pole at the corner of the school grounds.
Robert’s expression didn’t change at all when he did catch sight of me. Sally, on the other hand, went white as a ghost. Being a good brother, he grabbed her by her pale, fragile arm and pulled her around behind himself. I said, “Sally, run along home. I won’t hurt you.” Relief showed on both of their faces as Robert pushed his sister in the direction of home. The poor, frightened girl stumbled, caught herself, and then picked up her pace, knowing that a fight was about to take place.
I didn’t really dislike Robert, in fact I kind of admired him a little. He did what he could to look after his twin sister in the face of constant threats from Albert. He also didn’t have that same mean streak that his brothers did. But, I couldn’t let him get away with what he had done to me either. We both knew that.
Robert was the same size as me although he was a year younger. The kid was also the veteran of many fights with his brothers and cousins. To consider him as a “pushover,” would have been a mistake. I hit him in the nose with my left hand and then stepped sideways, away from his right hand. I answered his punch by hitting him hard in the eye with my right hand which knocked him to the ground and made him dizzy.
He didn’t want to fight any more after being knocked goofy. That made me happy, because I didn’t really want to hurt him. I asked him if he agreed that I whipped him and he had given up and he nodded. After that, we went our separate ways, but with me keeping an eye out behind me all the way home.
I actually went out looking for Johnny. After having the fight with Robert directly after school I went home, expecting to be ambushed all the way. Once I had done the mandatory check in with my mother and changed clothes, I went out again.
The adrenalin was still flowing from the earlier fight and a certain amount of anger was present. Johnny and I were almost friends. We sat next to each other in class and talked, like you did with the people near you. I felt like he betrayed a trust, even though I knew that he had to obey his brother. He also did a lot of the kicking when I was down on the ground in that playground attack. I would never forget, or forgive, that.
Johnny was hanging out along the west wall of the convenience store (connected to the drugstore and barbershop) on Johnson Street. This was located immediately west of his parents’ store. He (nor were any of his family) wasn’t allowed inside of any of those businesses due to shoplifting and vandalism charges, but he hung out next to them.
 This was a popular spot for kids who smoked and/or drank to score cigarettes and half-pint bottles of alcohol when one of the Brogan kids could steal them. We all suspected that his parents supplied the contraband most of the time because the illegal resale brought much more money than the regular price in their store. If the kids got caught they (the parents), just claimed that the “brats” pilfered the items.
The young hustler was right where I expected him to be and I circled the building looking for the rest of the clan before moving in closer. Johnny was my age, but decidedly larger than I was. I was a little scrawny runt of a nerd for all of my school years. I couldn’t give up any advantage like having even Robert available to join in, or I would be in trouble.
Johnny was there without any other family members, involved in selling cigarettes to an older boy that I knew would get beaten to within an inch of his life if his father found out what he was doing. His family was as prudish and straight-laced as they came.
I used the older boy as a screen for me to get to the building and then went around the back. Coming up on Johnny from the alley behind the store worked as I had hoped, he never knew that I was there.
Johnny was doing the James Dean or Marlboro man pose against the wall of the building, standing with one leg on the ground and the other bent and resting on the wall. I moved in quickly and kicked his leg out from under him causing him to crash to the ground. The look of surprise on his face was priceless! When he tried to scramble to his feet, I kneed him in the side of the head, dropping him again.
The other boy yelled something at me, but I didn’t care about him. I don’t know when he ran off, but he did.
As Johnny tried to roll onto his hands and knees to get up I kicked him in the side, causing him to go down again. My anger was at the boiling point and I was seeing red as I remembered being held down and kicked on the playground. If one of the other Brogan brothers had shown up then, I think that I would have sailed into them like a hurricane at that point.
I had the advantage and I knew it. Every time that Johnny tried to get up, I hit or kicked him again. He was beaten from the time my knee impacted the side of his head, but he didn’t know how to give up.
I am not sure if I just got tired, or perhaps my anger calmed down, but eventually I stopped attacking him. He just stayed on the ground, no longer even trying to get up, for several minutes.
When I took a couple of steps back to give him some room, he got to his feet and stared at me. I said to him, “Don’t ever hit, or kick, me again.” He backed away from me for several feet, and then turned and trotted home. I guess in case I decided to chase him.
As my mind cleared, the realization of how close I was to the Brogan “army headquarters” dawned on me. I took off for home on the run myself. I would be late getting home, again. It was an interesting one mile run home, with trying to look behind me and on all sides for surprise attacks, while also trying not to trip over obstacles left on the sidewalk and road edge. 
Simply by a stroke of good luck, I found Albert as I was riding my bicycle home down 63rd Avenue just one day later. I rode my bicycle right at him as hard as I could peddle and jumped off of it onto him, crashing us both to the ground with me on top.
I kept hitting him in the face with alternating fists, saying to him, “I’m right here in front of you this time Albert. What are you going to do about it?” And, I would punch him in the face every time he didn’t answer me. He wasn’t so tough without his brothers around to do his dirty work for him. After he started crying like a baby, I quit hitting him and got off of his chest.
He got up off the ground with a bloody nose and wet pants, called me crazy and ran away. I yelled after him that his house was the other direction and he just stopped and stood there looking at me. I got my bike off the ground and straightened my handlebars from where I had crashed it and rode home without looking back at him.
That left Fred, and he knew I was coming for him. He bragged around the school that he was going to cripple me for life when he got his hands on me. The weekend was here and Fred hadn’t been in school since I beat up Albert. I knew the boy too well to think that he was afraid of me. I don’t believe that he was capable of that emotion.
It is quite often hard to remember that we were in the second grade when all this happened.
I found Fred that Sunday under the overpass where the Sunshine State Parkway crossed Hollywood Boulevard, just a short way east of our school property. The Brogan kids hung out there pretty regularly, smoking cigarettes, throwing rocks at cars from the overpass and then hiding. It was also nearly a mile away from the store their parents operated. They all lived in one room in the back. The kids did their best to stay away from there as much as possible.
When I spotted him, Fred was all alone. Of all of them, I disliked him the most, even more than Albert. Fred was mean and hurt people and animals all the time, just to hear them cry. He was the sick, twisted kid you hear about torturing cats and burning little kids (like his sister) with his cigarette. Yeah, I really didn’t like Fred.
But, I wasn’t stupid either, Fred could fight and liked to! He seemed not to notice pain and after seeing him once with his shirt off and seeing the scars on his back, I could understand how he developed his tolerance.
I knew that I had to hit him harder than he thought that I could and daze him somehow. So, I took an equalizer with me, a tree limb. I had located a likely one, stripped it down to size and it swung easily. I felt like I needed it. After all, Fred was a psycho and I gave away several inches and a lot of pounds in size to him.
He saw me riding in his direction and strutted out to meet me, chest all puffed out like a bandy rooster and starting to run his mouth about what he was going to do to me.
I went directly at him without any hesitation or discussion, because I figured that he wouldn’t expect that with his reputation and I wanted the first swing; and I got it! I nailed him right across the face with that stick and then dropped it and jumped on him, punching for all I was worth.
He never saw the stick coming nor did he realize that I had used one. For the rest of his days, Fred thought that I had hit him that hard with my fist. I split his lips, made his nose bleed and blackened his left eye with one stroke.
There wasn’t much fight after that. Fred was still goofy from that first smack and never really got going. But, I did. I couldn’t help but remember the beating he and his brothers gave me, as well as numerous other punches that I had endured. There was also the other that kids he bullied. They needed some revenge as well. So, I hit him until my arms were tired and then sat on him for a while longer to see if he would start things up again; he did not.
He never bothered me again, and neither did any of the rest of his family. Fighting may not have been the best solution in a perfect world, but it worked for me.
Albert still bullied other kids and the Brogan gang still extorted milk money from those who would give it up, mainly preying on first graders for the rest of that year. They would eventually get what was coming to them. Karma is like that.

Albert and Fred both went to reform school after being caught breaking into the school one night during my third grade year by a very alert janitor. Within a month of their release they were sent back for attempting to steal a car. They never returned to our school. By the time I was in the sixth grade, something had happened that caused the Brogan’s to lose their store and the kids to be placed in the care of relatives. I never saw any of them again. I hoped that Sally was OK.
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