Reg Doty (A Little Injustice) 5/21/2021
Recalling events that occurred well over a half-century ago, I remembered an autumn in 1955 when two identical twins, Terry and Jerry, lived near me in Great Kills, on Staten Island, in New York City. The only way to tell them apart was how the respective thickness of their coke bottle eye-glasses, made Jerry’s eyes appear twice as large as his brother’s. They were good guys though, but never destined to help anyone land on the moon, or for that matter, figure out why people on the other side of the TV screen couldn’t see them.
We attended 3rd grade together at PS-8 and shared the same classroom where we suffered tutelage under the aged, cranky, and wretched Mrs. Ryan, whose fingers and lips were stained brown from her persistent nicotine habit; she also smelled like the Staten Island Ferry smoke stack. When you incurred Mrs. Ryan’s wrath, it meant that you had to endure her because she got right in your face and let her breath violate your territorial imperative. Your first thought was that a puppy pooped up your nose as you wilted from her gaseous smog.
I crossed the Rubicon for Mrs. Ryan that year after she became my first true test in life. Up until then, being a bright and curious fellow, I had always been ‘teacher’s pet’ and was typically accorded privileged status among the masses, which naturally flowed from that acknowledgment. Unfortunately, however, a few of my peers didn’t hold my honored status in as high a regard and made unsavory remarks disparaging my prominence and putting me in the reciprocal shadow cast from the shining light of my ‘pet’ standing. Sadly, however, I found that Mrs. Ryan shared a similar view and said so in the most unqualified terms.
I, however, being tougher than a popcorn kernel, made reference to her being less than a stellar teacher – due to her abrasive personality and smoker’s hygiene – and requested to be moved to another classroom. She just cackled saying that when jack-asses became wishes then I could ride one over to the other classroom. Further, she replied that since I gave her life real meaning and purpose, that my tenure would remain within her domain until pigs flew past hell’s frozen gate.
Undaunted, I argued that since I was allergic to cigarettes and nicotine that I should be granted relief. She told me that my remarks, vis-à-vis her hygiene deficiency were low and inconsistent with a proper, “normal,” 7-year-old and that I should be seen and not heard. She also told me that she was going to see to it that I got back on the straight and narrow and since she was married to a NYPD detective that she was extra keen on the straight and narrow.
At that point in our conversation, since my tongue hadn’t yet recognized the distinction between propriety and bad manners, I continued to offer additional unflattering comments regarding smokers’ hygiene. In that vein I observed that her husband, if he too was a smoker, then it must follow that he must also be a dirty cop. Well, that was the spark that blew-up the magazine and I was dispatched to the principal where I regrettably spent the next hour trying to explain how my insensitive play on words might have been misunderstood.
Subsequently, Mrs. Ryan kept a special eye on me, always on the lookout for any transgressions warranting her undivided attention. As a result, I spent the better part of my school year behind a standup piano in the corner of the classroom and rarely had recess, unless she had playground duty and could keep an eye on me, as she liked to say. The piano quarantine didn’t affect me much since I was already a voracious reader and pop already had me drilling on fractions and common denominators, leaping me past the third-grade curriculum. As for missing recess I had the classroom pretty much to myself because Mrs. Ryan took the time to satisfy her habit in the teacher’s lounge. Usually, I had to write out some sentence a hundred times in my notebook, which my folks had to sign off on, or I read lessons.
Back in those days’ parents respected the old English Common Law principle of “in loco parentis,” where when you were at school, teachers’ could mess with you just like they were your parents, especially when you screwed up. Parents, back then, rarely challenged a teacher’s prerogative – But at least she wasn’t thrashing me with a switch.
I did get some recess, however, when Mrs. Ryan had playground duty. Of course, she was cranky as hell because she couldn’t smoke and terrorized us instead.
I tried my best to stay under her radar and on this particular day played dodgeball tag, with half the other kids at recess, including the twins. Mrs. Ryan is very attentive to the game, and ostensibly keeping an eye out for fair sportsmanship, but mainly me. All of a sudden, a collision occurs and a mêlée explodes involving the twins. I’m sort of away from the action, but soon one of the twins extricates himself from the throng crying about how his brother broke his glasses.
Trouble was that at that very moment Mrs. Ryan was side-tracked by a dust-up concerning some serious name calling and missed the incident. None-the-less she threw herself into the maelstrom and when push came to shove, concluded that I was the culprit responsible for the breakage and marched me, along with the wounded twin, to seek a ruling from the principle.
Between the playground and the principal’s office, however, my buddy had a sudden change of heart as Mrs. Ryan recalled seeing me as the culprit in the scrimmage who had separated him from his glasses. Actually, he had an epiphany when Mrs. Ryan found a perfect scapegoat for placing blame and thereby immunizing both he and his brother from their father’s wrath.
So, smirking, Mrs. Ryan offered testimony, saying she saw the whole thing and that it appeared to her that my actions not only resulted in a broken lens, but I had also acted with malice because I was dangerously competitive. Of course, I protested by saying she had identified the wrong culprit, but the principal proclaimed my guilt saying that Mrs. Ryan was a playground expert and therefore unimpeachable.
I was sent home with a note describing the incident that included the principal’s findings. The twin also received a note and it was left to our parents to hammer out a settlement, which proved to be $7 for a replacement lens. I told pop that they set me up and had nothing to do with it, but all he said was that since I always told the truth that was all he cared about and the matter was closed. Then pop, quoted Plato, saying “He who commits injustice is ever made more wretched than he who suffers it.” Then we hiked over to the sweet shop on Amboy Avenue where pop bought me a scoop of chocolate ice cream in a sugar cone.
Later Terry and Jerry apologized telling me that I saved them from a beating and that the next time Mrs. Ryan sent me home with hundred sentences they would write them for me. I was happy with the result.
Ever since that day when moral injustice eclipsed truth Mrs. Ryan was even more smug; she thought she had won her victory. In fact, she pulled me aside shortly after the incident and told me that she could have even fingered me for Emmitt Till, if she wanted, whoever he was, but since I had come to realize that I was less than the doodoo on the sole of her shoe was therefore inconsequential and she would overlook my petty sarcasms and personal effronteries.
I learned that people in power could be capricious and arbitrary, but more importantly, they could mess with you if they wanted to. Aristotle wrote that “At his best, man is the noblest animal; separated from law and justice he is the worst.” Well, I learned that lesson too. But one still wonders how power aligns with those who demand it rather than those who are asked to assume its mantle?
Something else I learned was that cruelty and authoritarianism are part of our world because people are easily frightened and lack the moral discipline to resist: And history is chockfull of examples, too many worth mentioning. Not me though, but that was a price I was willing to pay.
Another thing is that racists are cut from the same fabric – Mrs. Ryan was indeed a Reggie Doty racist. They are belligerent authoritarians believing their own superiority while leveraging their beliefs through hollow rationalizations that fit their agendas – or they outright lie. Racists are weak-minded individuals who hate themselves for their intrinsic weaknesses and apparent loss of autonomy in an ever-changing world: It makes them twice as mean.
Finally, living a just life is all about living up to your moral code, regardless its cost. Aside from pop, and a very few others, no one else is watching my back, except my principles. When I learned about who Emmitt Till was, my only thought was I’m sorry Emmitt, wherever you are!