By Francine Marie Tolf
I found out what happened to Eugene Vukelich one bright December day in 1969 when my sister Gwen told Mom and me about it over lunch. Gwen was in eighth grade and I in sixth. It was the week before Christmas vacation started. Nothing of substance ever got done at St. Patrick’s Grammar School during this pre-vacation week. Classes held parties and rehearsed for the Christmas play (in which I was an angel and got to wear a white gown and halo). Instead of grammar lessons, we had spelling bees.
I wish I could remember that lunch hour more clearly. Its heft sank into my consciousness and never left, but particulars are vague. I am sure only of what I learned: Gwen’s class had presented Eugene, a slight boy with a shy smile, with a festively wrapped present. Inside were giant containers of mouthwash and deodorant. Accompanying these gifts was a card signed by nearly every one of his classmates as well as the lay teacher, Mr. Gleason.
Eugene burst into tears after opening the present. He fled the classroom. This joke was only the most recent act of cruelty towards him – more elaborate, but entirely in keeping with the way kids tortured Eugene Vukelich daily. Basketball stars blocked him in the hall and dared him to pass. Girls in the popular clique performed a song about him on the playground. They sang about his “BO,” how he picked his nose and was scared of being beat up by their boyfriends.
Gwen decided during that lunch hour that when she returned to school, she would address her class about what happened. Our mother had nothing to do with this. As I knelt under the Christmas tree trying to guess what was inside various presents, my sister must have discussed her milestone decision with Mom, adult to adult. The braveness of it still stuns me. Gwen was herself the target of teasing. My sister was the tallest, smartest girl in her class – and she stammered.
I loved Gwen but I was grateful I wasn’t tall like her, didn’t wear horn-rimmed glasses. I wasn’t popular but I was pretty and knew how to fit in. Now I look at a photograph of my sister when she was in eighth grade and think, Wow. She is all legs, the face behind those glasses is lovely and fresh, and her thick blond hair hangs half-way down her back. Strangers would linger over that snapshot in a way they would never linger over a picture of me at thirteen.
Those long legs of hers must have trembled when she walked to the front of her classroom later that day and met a sea of indifferent or defiant faces. Gwen’s class was brutal. It had chewed up and spit out three teachers in the past two years. It had cowed its current one into behaving deplorably in the hopes of gaining acceptance.
My sister was one of the few students who had not signed Eugene’s Christmas card. Yet when she spoke to her classmates, she did something rhetorically brilliant: she included herself in the blame. We should all be ashamed of ourselves, she began, looking straight into the eyes of cheerleaders and athletes. (How do I know what my sister said when I wasn’t there? How do I know that her class actually listened? Gossip, the grapevine, perhaps asking Gwen myself. I don’t remember how I know, but I know.)
I can imagine Mr. Gleason’s crimson-splotched face as he watched a girl half his age school him in courage. Decades after the incident, I cannot bring myself to feel sorry for this man – dismissed by our principal, Sister Leo Margaret, that afternoon – yet I understand why in a moment of weakness he did what he did. He must have entered his classroom every day sick over what awaited him: boys with shoulders broader than his purposefully ignoring his pleas for quiet, girls applying eye shadow as they imitated his warnings.
And then one morning unexpected camaraderie as the ringleaders of his class approached him. “Hey, Mr. Gleason, you’re a cool guy. We’re planning a little joke on Eugene Vukelich, just a Christmas thing, and we want you in on it.”
Mr. Gleason might first have objected after hearing the details. “I don’t know, guys,” (guys, he heard himself saying, just like a popular teacher would). “I’m not sure this is such a good idea.”
“Mr. Gleason, everyone’s signed the card except you. C’mon, it’s just a joke.”
“Pleeeaaase, Mr. Gleason.” This from the prettiest of the girls who tormented Eugene on the playground with her clique’s song. “Pleeeaase?”
So he signed the card and broke a boy’s heart. It’s entirely possible that Ronald Gleason taught grammar school to avoid being drafted, for in 1969 America wasn’t yet sending teachers of children to Viet Nam. His immunity ended that day.
If Gwen and I were closer, I would ask her what she remembered about those moments she stood in front of her class. Was she terrified, did students talk to her about it afterwards, did kids in the popular clique treat her differently? But I think my older sister – now happily married, by the way, with three spectacular kids and a lifestyle several tax brackets above mine – would dismiss the incident and appear puzzled at my immense admiration for what she did. Gwen once claimed she had no interest in recalling her years at St. Patrick’s. They were dead to her, she had moved on.
How many victims of bullying can do this? How difficult it must be to lift yourself from a childhood of hurt and humiliation and walk into the future with an open heart. The irony is that bullies might be even less likely to experience such a future. Children capable of inflicting cruelty on a daily basis can’t imagine how it feels to be the other. And without this leap of faith, how can compassion, or wonder, or joy, take root in their hearts? When I consider this, I almost feel sorry for the students who tortured Eugene. If you have no imagination by the age of thirteen or fourteen, it’s difficult to develop one. You’re trapped under the dome of your own limited perspective with no window, not even a chink, revealing blue air beyond.
I hope Eugene breathed that blue air. His parents removed him from St. Patrick’s that day, but more than forty years later, my memory of this boy I barely knew survives. He was small, with freckles and a shy smile. His red hair was always neatly combed. His brown eyes were meant to be merry.
Francine Marie Tolf has published two poetry collections, Rain, Lilies, Luck (North Star Press of St. Cloud) and Prodigal (Pinyon Publishing), as well as a memoir and a number of poetry chapbooks including Eighteen Poems to God and a Poem to Satan by Redbird Chapbooks of Minnesota. She has received grants from the Minnesota State Arts Board; Barbara Deming/Money for Women; and the Elizabeth George Foundation. Francine recently won First Place in the 2013 Outrider Press/TallGrass Poetry Contest. She lives and works in Minneapolis.