Friday, May 11, 2012

Tales Of A Ninth Grade Nothing

By now you’ve heard this story:

Mitt Romney returned from a three-week spring break in 1965 to resume his studies as a high school senior at the prestigious Cranbrook School. Back on the handsome campus, studded with Tudor brick buildings and manicured fields, he spotted something he thought did not belong at a school where the boys wore ties and carried briefcases. John Lauber, a soft-spoken new student one year behind Romney, was perpetually teased for his nonconformity and presumed homosexuality. Now he was walking around the all-boys school with bleached-blond hair that draped over one eye, and Romney wasn’t having it.

“He can’t look like that. That’s wrong. Just look at him!” an incensed Romney told Matthew Friedemann, his close friend in the Stevens Hall dorm, according to Friedemann’s recollection. Mitt, the teenage son of Michigan Gov. George Romney, kept complaining about Lauber’s look, Friedemann recalled.

A few days later, Friedemann entered Stevens Hall off the school’s collegiate quad to find Romney marching out of his own room ahead of a prep school posse shouting about their plan to cut Lauber’s hair. Friedemann followed them to a nearby room where they came upon Lauber, tackled him and pinned him to the ground. As Lauber, his eyes filling with tears, screamed for help, Romney repeatedly clipped his hair with a pair of scissors.

The article by Jason Horowitz in the Washington Post goes on to tell how Mr. Romney made his way through Cranbrook and how all the rituals and expectations at the school shaped him as a young man. I know the story well because I went through it, too. Except I, like a lot of other kids, was on the receiving end of the ritualistic bullying.

I don’t need to go into all the details about what I went through during my freshman — and only — year at the hands of my tormentors at about the same time — 1967 — at St. George’s. It’s not that it’s too painful to recall; I’m saving that for my novel. And it’s not that nearly fifty years later we need to bring it out to hold Mr. Romney responsible for what he did when he was eighteen. Frankly, I think we all did really terrible things when we were that age whether we went to an elite prep school or a public high school. It’s part of growing up. It’s horrible but it’s life.

So why am I even bringing it up? Here’s why:

“Back in high school, I did some dumb things, and if anybody was hurt by that or offended, obviously I apologize for that,” Romney said in a live radio interview with Fox News Channel personality Brian Kilmeade. Romney added: “I participated in a lot of hijinks and pranks during high school, and some might have gone too far, and for that I apologize.”

Romney’s campaign hastily scheduled the radio interview for the candidate to call in from Omaha, where he is holding a campaign event later Wednesday, to respond to The Post’s report.

Romney said the incident involving cutting the hair of John Lauber, whom some students suspected was gay, occurred “a long time ago.”

“I don’t remember that incident,” Romney said, laughing. “I certainly don’t believe that I thought the fellow was homosexual. That was the furthest thing from our minds back in the 1960s, so that was not the case.” [Emphasis added.]

It’s the “I don’t remember” that resonates. That’s the part that we should look out for. As my brother noted in an e-mail, “either he’s A) lying and hoping we’ll buy it or B) he did this kind of shit so often it got lost in the pile.”

I’ll go with Option B. John Lauber was just one of many in a long line of boys that went through the mill, so perhaps it isn’t any wonder that Mr. Romney does not recall the specific incident. But he certainly recalls the mindset. It was expected of him that he, the scion of upper-class privilege and the heir to the fortune of his family, would be a leader of the ruthless and intolerant in holding up the strict unspoken patriarchy that is endemic in the courts of high school peerage. And that peerage and sense of entitlement is what still speaks from the campaign stump. His statements about enjoying firing people and counting Cadillacs may shock the folks who never went to places like Cranbrook, but those of us who did know it as a matter of course. We’ve heard it all before. It comes with the territory, along with the account at Brook Brothers and the Ford Country Squire.

Here’s the difference, though. About a year ago I was contacted through Facebook by two men whom I knew in high school. Both of them reached out to me to make heartfelt apologies — with no qualifiers — for bullying me and asked forgiveness. One said that what he had done to me all those years ago had stayed with him and he felt he had to make amends. I forgave them; not because of what happened in 1967, but because of what they were doing now by reaching out to me. As opposed to “‘I don’t remember that incident,’ Romney said, laughing.” Nearly fifty years later, Mitt Romney is still the eighteen year old kid laughing about an incident he doesn’t recall, and his non-apology apology is couched in the disqualifying qualifiers of “If I offended, then I apologize.” That tells you a lot about his character. He’s never grown up. He’s still the son of privilege; he’s still the entitled one, and he still thinks the presidency is to be handed over to him as a matter of right. And that’s the most important part of this story.

HT to Judy Blume for a title to paraphrase.