RAMBLINGS • Growing Up With A Snitch

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One man’s snitch is a hero to another; it’s always a matter of perspective.

Anyone with a younger sister or brother most likely remembers when the sibling delighted in tattle-tale duties. My sister Janet was two years younger than I, just close enough age-wise to be rivals rather than allies during our going-to-school years. I was not a constant troublemaker in school or on the school bus, but she was the original goody-two-shoes. That gave her a distinct advantage in the ways we could compete. Try as I might, I couldn’t catch her doing anything wrong.

If I erred on the bus (swearing was an offense sure to bring a loud reprimand from the bus driver, who saw his job as a chance to parent his charges as well as to control the movements of the bus), my words would be reported at home. If Janet wanted me to be in a bit of trouble, she’d tell mom about the incident, but if she were feeling vindictive, she’d spread the news at the dinner table in hopes of drawing a reaction from our father.

Had she been a brother rather than a sister, I’m sure I’d have punched her for her telling ways. However, as a female she was protected; the male code in the area in which I was raised said one never hit a female, not even a mouthy younger sister, without a bigger male in the family coming for retribution. In our case that would have been my father. To my knowledge, he never raised his hand in anger to my mom or my sister, and he wouldn’t have tolerated that from me either.

If I were punished for an indiscretion at school and my parents found out about it (with a sister like Janet–and I think all sisters told on their brothers–they always found out), I would be punished at home for the same offense. One of dad’s favorite lines was, “We’re raising you to know better than that; if you bring shame to this family, I’ll bring pain to your rear end.” I tried to talk Janet into not telling the first time she knew I’d received a spanking at school; she gleefully told dad about the attempt to silence her too.

Teachers then (at least the ones I had) didn’t send notes home about bad behavior; they preferred to handle it themselves. If I did find trouble at Rayne Elementary School, it was usually for fighting. In second grade, though, Mrs. Ray paddled me for calling her a name I’d heard on the playground. I don’t remember what it was; I do remember I didn’t know what it meant at the time I uttered it, and I never called a teacher that name again. I didn’t receive any punishment at home,though; Janet hadn’t started school yet.

In fifth grade I bloodied my best friend’s nose when we fought over Delores; neither one of us wanted to fight, but our classmates wanted to see a scrap, so we obliged. Charlie might have stumbled just before my right cross found the tip of his nose; the blood ended the fight. Delores told Miss Koontz, whose swats with the paddle were a fit ending to the episode. Professional wrestling was a popular television offering in the mid-1950s, and she blamed its influence on us for the skirmish. She didn’t paddle the television though. Dad’s little messenger couldn’t wait to tell him about that battle, which reached gigantic proportions as she reproduced it.

I had more than a few skirmishes in grade school, and I lost as many as I won, but Mrs. Raebuck, my sixth grade teacher, slapped me as hard as I’ve ever been hit. She took it upon herself to teach neatness (and other character traits I considered better left alone) as well as academic matters, which were her rightful concerns. Then as now I struggled with neatness.

Our desks had a rectangular drawer underneath the seat in which we were to store our books, writing paper, completed assignments, and any personal items we had at school. Coats, bats, gloves, and lunch boxes were left in the cloak room at the back of each classroom (many of the fights occurred in the cloak room before or after school when the teacher wasn’t in the room). Mrs. Raebuck expected our storage areas to be orderly. I personally didn’t care; at recess time I’d stuff papers in the drawer as quickly as I could in order to escape to the playground (sixth grade boys had first dibs on the baseball field; games could last for weeks).

One spring after our return to the classroom she asked us to produce our latest math paper. She was standing by my desk, waiting until I pulled my offering out from what she often called–“that rat nest you keep.” The paper sought was on top, but I grabbed it and pulled, it caught between the top of the pile and the metal edge of the desk frame–and tore in half.

I don’t remember saying anything as I offered it to her, but I may have–selective memory is one of my strengths (or faults)–because she grabbed my hair, pulled me towards a standing position, and slapped my face as hard as she could. It was a blow all the neat freaks in the world want to administer to the likes of me.

Did she receive discipline for her actions? Of course not. She was the well-respected principal of the school as well as the sixth grade teacher. She thought the slap was an example of what I could expect from the rest of the world if I didn’t mend my sloppy ways.

Were my parents upset with her? I was hoping they wouldn’t find out, but once we were at the table that evening, Janet offered, “Ronnie got in trouble again today.”

Dad’s response? “Someday you’ll learn to do what you’re told when you’re told.” Even mom said it’d be nice if I picked up after myself around the house more often than I did.

I did change my ways a bit. I asked for flat-top haircuts after that (no more readily available handles), and I kept it short with the exception of the few years when longer hair was stylish. I also began wearing glasses when I was a freshman in high school; no one slaps a man with glasses. I was also struggling to see the blackboards then; once I could see what the algebra teacher was writing on the board, my grade in that class improved exponentially.

My sister was a snitch back then, but I’ve grown to appreciate her more since. I can also see that side of the coin in myself. One of my early heroes was Karen Silkwood, a labor union activist and chemical technician in a nuclear facility owned by Kerr-McGee in Oklahoma.

Ms. Silkwood became a whistle-blower when she testified to the Atomic Energy Commission about the dangerous-to-the-public mishandling of plutonium pellets in the facility in which she worked. Traveling to an interview appointment with a New York Times reporter, Silkwood died in a car accident in mysterious circumstances–her body was found, but documentations of the mishandling of the pellets which she reported had with her were not found.

Whistle-blowers can be in a precarious position if their identities are known. Google defines a whistle-blower as “a person who exposes secretive information or activity that is deemed illegal, unethical, or not correct within a private or public organization.”

One doesn’t have to go three decades back to hear of whistle-blowers either. The term has been in the news since last summer when someone “in the know” raised alarms about the now infamous phone call between President Trump and the Ukraine. To me the informant is a whistle-blower to be protected, to those in the current administration he or she is a narc or a snitch who should be outed.

I wish the person would have come forward; I’d like to think I would if I were in his situation. If the person remains anonymous, the accused is denied the right to face his accuser. That happens often in our society; Crimestoppers “We want your information, not your name” is based on that premise, and I support that organization.

On the other hand, though, I’m not so naive to think that one can speak against power unless he’s prepared for consequences. Back in the day, “Let’s move Deabenderfer to Panama” was reportedly uttered more than once in the unit office. I like Panama, so that was a rather empty threat; but I was grateful for tenure–or the words would have been, “Fire his woeful behind.”

I wish our society didn’t need whistle-blowers as badly as we do. I wish leaders would welcome diverse opinions that lead to open discourse that leads to solutions that would be equitable to everyone. I want leaders who are so confident in themselves that they don’t demand absolute loyalty to them rather than to policies good for the majority rather than the wealthy.

I wish it were as easy to believe that what ought to be will be.

Until that day comes, we will need whistle-blowers, and I will be on their side.

Janet may have had it right after all.

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