Excerpt from Whiskey Breakfast: My Swedish Family My American Life, Winner of the Chicago Writers Association 2012 Book of the Year Award for Traditionally Published Non-fiction
By Richard C. Lindberg
Chapter 13 excerpt – “Slam Books and Second Chances”
In the lunchroom at Onahan School, teachers exchanged “useful” information with one another about certain problem children passing from one grade to the next. The intelligence they conveyed during these gab sessions was seen as crucial to maintaining “proper discipline and order.”
“I have heard about you, Richard, indeed I have,” said Mrs. Layah Golden, my seventh grade teacher, warning me in a low, threatening tone. I didn’t think I was the kind to disrupt the classroom or flaunt rules, so I had to wonder what terrible information had been communicated to her over her egg salad sandwich and Hires Root Beer.
One of the worst moments of a childhood filled with pain, embarrassment and humiliation occurred one autumn afternoon during the 1965-1966 school year. I had solicited Mrs. Golden’s permission to go to my locker to retrieve a plastic protractor required for the math lesson. A simple request, but it touched off a volcanic eruption of anger in Mrs. Golden, a spindly-legged, no-nonsense disciplinarian in her early forties. She crossed her arms and advanced ever so slowly towards me. Earlier, she had told us to make sure to have our materials ready, but I had either ignored or forgotten the directive. For the next 40 minutes—the entire mathematics period—Mrs. Golden lectured me on my lack of responsibility and repeated to the entire class all of the choice gossip she had overheard from the P.T.A. moms and a collection of matronly former teachers—Mrs. Bailey, Mrs. Green, Miss Grosshauser, and Mrs. Wendt. I was trying to grow up, she said, but in her opinion I was not succeeding.
A teacher’s use of humiliation to achieve discipline, that’s how it was explained to me years later by a friend and colleague who spent her entire career teaching in the Chicago Public School system. Nowadays, lawsuits would be filed by outraged parents after hearing of this treatment of their child. Back then things were different. Whatever insulting remark uttered by a teacher inside the confines of a Chicago classroom was okay with the parents.
Mrs. Golden’s reproach did one thing for me—it inspired me to put pen to paper, and keep at it. My writing life began after I had submitted a book report summarizing The Diary of Anne Frank and recounting how that inspirational story full of hope and courage affected me. Two days later the paper came back to me with a big red “U” (unsatisfactory) scrawled on the page and underscored for emphasis. When I protested the injustice, she flashed a withering stare. “Young man, the next time you decide to copy off of the dust jacket of a book, find an edition that is out of print! You are not capable of writing like this.”
“I didn’t copy any of it,” I stammered, and it was the truth. “I can show you the book if you like.”
“Don’t you think I know that there are perhaps fifteen or more editions of that book out there in print? The grade stands! Now go back to your desk!” My gaze lowered, I retreated, but it was my earliest inkling that through the printed word, I might have at last found a creative means to validate my existence.
In this vast and terrible place, I held my ground as best I could. Boys aren’t supposed to cry, but I shed fresh tears with every new outrage, only egging the bullies on. More than the sting of their fists, the hit on the head from a thick textbook, the angry red welts on my back and shoulders from the jabs of razor sharp pins inflicted by the two sniggering bulletin board girls, it is knowing that you are completely alone and friendless in the middle of a group of boys and girls who have formed a close circle around you in the playground, spewing savage epitaphs of unprovoked hatred as they close in, that causes such anguish.
Then, with a look of rage on his face, an older boy who was reputed to be the meanest of the bunch steps forward and with his two hands, he jolts me backwards with a furious shove. I stumble and fall on my ass. The hard gravel cuts into the palms of my hands as I attempt to crawl away, and a furious kick to the derriere drives me face down into the ground. My glasses fall off of my face and crack. More laughter rings out.
I turn to gaze up at the mocking faces of the boys and girls from all the grades in the school who have formed a tight ring around me, offering encouragement to the bully. “C’mon you dork! Stand up you pud!” says one. The world is suddenly a frighteningly confused and dangerous place. There were moments, late at night, when I was lying in my bed in the dark, thoughts of suicide floating in my mind. Terrible thoughts of ending my life filtered into my subconscious in sixth grade.
I always chased away the morbid thought, shut my eyes tight, and tried to envision a more agreeable outcome to the proceeding than simply running home to the safety and solitude of my back porch. I dreamed that my brother and the three Heinz brothers—Richard, Jay, and Gary—real-life 1950s Skokie greasers ripped from the pages of S.E. Hinton’s novel, The Outsiders, were coming to my rescue.
In their engineer boots and black leather jackets with sunken eyes that bespoke of alienation and fearless disregard, these young lions would saunter across the playground armed with chains and tire irons. I imagined them in a cold fury, advancing ever so slowly upon my enemies, striking the same sickening feeling in the pit of their stomachs as I had felt, while peering into their miserable pre-adolescent souls. But, of course, it was only a wishful fantasy spun by my overheated imagination. No one ran away except me.
I never dared whisper any of this accumulated shame to Chuck or my father, lest they think even worse of me. The risk of being branded a sissy who couldn’t fight his own battles was just too great a shame to bear when measured against my father’s immigrant hardships and Chuck’s private war of rebellion against the old man, the Skokie cops, and the struggles he had known throughout his life. I knew that the war was mine to fight alone, and I must face up to it.
Class hatreds were manifest in “slam books,” composed on loose-leaf notebook paper and circulated around the class for everyone to sign, then neatly deposited on the victim’s desk or secreted inside a textbook that was certain to be opened. The “slam” took the form of crudely drawn caricatures and a list of fifty reasons why the creators of the book hated you. The best I could do after receiving a “slam book” was to dismiss it or laugh right along with the perpetrators, if tears did not get in the way. But at night, alone in my room as I listened to the distant rumble of the commuter trains chugging toward downtown Chicago, I prayed to God for peace and acceptance. Until eighth grade graduation, it went on like this, year after year. To this day, I ponder the whys and wherefores of this treatment.
My champion was Marcy Weiss, and she too endured a similar ordeal, going home one day from school to tell her mother that a little boy on the playground coldly informed her that “no one in the school likes you!” Marcy had also received a slam book, and her mother tried to explain the prejudices of the world as gently as she could. I do not know what thoughts churned through her mind that day, but I shall never forget Marcy’s grace and fortitude one April afternoon in 1965, when the sixth-grade teacher Mrs. Wendt absented herself from the room and five of my worst tormentors encircled me. Dave, the class instigator, placed me in a headlock while his buddy Otto and four others punched and kicked and shamed me in degrading ways that I shall not forget for the rest of my life. Only Marcy Weiss spoke to the torment she witnessed.
“All of you—you are just plain mean!” she said, her eyes flashing and her voice quivering. For the next few moments, the boys eased up on me, stunned, I’m sure, by Marcy’s outburst. Quaking, I began to cry, not from the beating, but because of my astonishment that this brave girl was the only one in a class of forty to stand against the juvenile mob. Marcy and her family moved away right after grammar school graduation in 1967, but her spirit always remained with me. I hold her memory sacred, for she had taught me life’s most valuable lessons—tolerance, acceptance and courage.
Richard C. Lindberg is an award-winning author and journalist. In 2012, his memoir Whiskey Breakfast: My Swedish Family My American Life won CWA’s Traditionally Published Non-Fiction Book of the Year.
Mr. Lindberg’s The Gambler King of Clark Street: Michael C. McDonald and the Rise of Chicago’s Democratic Machine won a 2010 Illinois State Historical Society Certificate of Excellence. Recently Southern Illinois University Press republished his books: Shattered Sense of Innocence: the Chicago Child Murders of 1955 and To Serve and Collect: Chicago Politics and Police Corruption from the Lager Beer Riot to the Summerdale Scandal. In October 2015, Rowman & Littlefield published his book, Gangland Chicago: Criminality and Lawlessness in the Windy City.
Mr. Lindberg has appeared on A&E, The History Channel, Investigation Discovery, the Travel Channel, and NPR. A past president of the Society of Midland Authors and the Illinois Academy of Criminology, he lives in Chicago and is Alderman Ed Burke’s speech writer.