I do not usually use this column to review films. But now and then something I have seen has stirred my imagination and my memory. Recently the film, “Wonder” did just that. The central character is a young boy who was born with a seriously deformed face. After a series of surgeries, he was able to start attending school. But it was a desperately hard introduction to the public world. He was the subject of ridicule, bullying and the sort of cruelty one occasionally finds among children. If someone touched him, that person was called “unclean,” and the taunting escalated.
The film, sent me back 78 years to the sixth grade at Brookline Grade School in suburban Philadelphia. In my class was a very shy girl whose name was Asid, who for some reason became the target of all the cruelty kids of that age could dream up. For several weeks if anyone touched her, the cry went out, “You’ve got Asid.” It was a terrible game played particularly by the class leaders. The viciousness never let up. Day after day Asid, who was desperately shy to begin with, withdrew even more deeply into her solitary shell.
I never played this cruel game, not because I was above such nastiness, but, believe it or not, I too was lonely, shy and withdrawn beyond belief. My wife still stays in contact with her earliest years’ classmates; I do not. In fact, I have never had a high school friend with whom I have remained in contact. In that grade school, I was the least likely person to act out for good or for ill. And yet I knew that what the "real" cool kids were doing to Asid was wrong. Perhaps it was not simply what my parents have tried to teach me, and not just what my church was all about. While I never took part in the bullying, neither did I come to her defense.
Asid was the one person in the class who was different. Her father was the town’s shoe repairman. Asid’s brother, Henry, who was a year ahead of his sister, was the friendly outgoing class clown everybody liked. Asid’s problem was not his problem so he managed to ignore what was happening to her.
The family was from one of the southern European areas. The family’s name ending in “-ian” should have been a clue, but I was not paying attention. Henry and Asid both had a delicate skin several shades darker than anyone in the class, and that distinction was no doubt the basis of the racist game that went on beyond the sight of our teachers.
At the end of the school year, the time came for the traditional class dance. I had endured three weeks of ballroom dance lessons, but I did not recall a moment of enjoyment. Each boy in the class was expected to ask one of the girls to be his partner, which meant that his name would be number one on the dance card she had attached to her wrist. I was far too shy to ask any of the girls to be my partner, and by the afternoon of the dance I was still unattached. You might guess who was the only girl also in that situation. So Asid became my dance partner. My name was written on her card, not only for the first dance, but also for several others.
I wish I knew what happened to her after my family moved out of the area. I still can see her in my imagination. My guess is that as she entered her teen years some other boy saw the marvelous, brilliant beauty that emerged in this olive-skinned young woman. I hope so. She probably became one of the region’s most attractive and competent women.
Asid has left one other impression on me. For most of my adult life I have been aware of the tragic effects of juvenile bullying and have sought in my work and curriculum writing for high school students to help young people face their own cruelty.
All this came back to me when many years ago, as a pastor, I got a call from a devastated parent whose 8th-grade son had hung himself in the family’s basement. It seems that Justin was the object of juvenile cruelty, for the day before he had been stuffed in a trashcan by a gang of boys looking for a bit of “childish fun.” That incident reignited in the ears of my imagination the taunt, “You’ve got Asid.” You cannot escape from some memories.