Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Wedgie Defense




At some random time in the middle of each semester, we have a day called ‘Veli Toplantıs Day, or the meeting with the wali (the original Arabic version of the world—Turkish has no W).

Wali is an interesting word, being the Arabic for ‘enlightened one’—or ‘friend of God who is without fear or sadness’. So, of course, we use it for Parent’s Day—parents, those mystical beings who without fear descend upon the school to demand to know why I have destroyed everything their divine prodigy has struggled to build. Of course, Veli also means ‘guardian’ in Turkish—‘one with authority over the child’--and I guess it is vague enough to cover grandmothers, uncles, lesbian lovers, godfathers, robot maids and whoever else might take care of the wee ones. (Incidentally, in conservative Turkey, no Mehmet has two mommies. It’s far more likely that a non-robotic maid will come in to speak for the parents, though I have confused the two. One girl’s mommy brought in her maid to the meeting, and I was convinced for a while that she cleaned more than the house. But she apparently served more of a Mrs. Garrett role than an Ellen DeGeneres one.)

In any case, the parents of one of my sixth graders came to me toward the end of the day very miffed looking. ‘Our son says he is being harassed at school,’ the father says with controlled rage as the mother nods indignantly behind him. ‘He’s a good boy! He behaves! The others are very naughty, but he follows the rules and does his work.’ More backseat nodding. Their son Efe often echoes the same sentiments in class. ‘But I didn’t do anything! They did it! But that’s not fair!’ Just the other day, I watched Efe slowly rip apart a page in a notebook and then sprinkle it around his desk like sugar on a giant cookie. When I held him after class to clean it up, he said ‘But I didn’t do it!’ ‘I watched you do it,’ I countered, and the debate culminated in a screeching fit, a kicked wall, and a trip to the principal.

‘Look,’ I told the father, ‘Efe’s a good kid. I’m not saying that he’s not. I just want him to learn to take responsibility for his actions:’

‘Well,’ said the father. ‘Taking responsibility is not part of Turkish culture!’ The mother nodded enthusiastically and smirked.

Now this is a sweeping generalization of course, which offended several very responsible Turkish friends that I told it to, but I do see a certain tendency at times, on a general cultural level, to never face up to the havoc one has wreaked and is often standing in the wreckage of—with bloody hands. Let’s take another incident.

Despite having learned that a middle schooler can take any good deed or virtue and twist it into evil, I encouraged one of my seventh grade boys to read. This was—let’s call him Mark. His name is close enough to it and the slant rhyme joke that his class mates torment him with ( Fart Mark, Mart Fart) still works. Mark eagerly takes up literary pursuits and updates me daily on how much fun he is having reading. He has started with the Captain Underpants series, a volume of books I also found amusing when I was reading them with my 5 year old godsons. About one week into Mark’s bibliophilia, I walk into class to find three boys clutching the backs of their trousers and groaning as two more hold another down in the corner of the room. There are screams, shrieks of rage and defiance. ‘Mr. Gibbs make him stop!’

Mark has discovered ‘wedgies’ and shared the knowledge, Prometheus like, with his unlearned friends.

I pull the two boys in the corner off their prey and lift the victim to his feet. He starts to pick his boxers out of his ass.

‘There will be no wedgies in this class!’ I tell them.

‘But we weren’t doing anything!’

‘I suppose his underwear crawled up his butt on their own?’

They stifle giggles.

‘Well he was making fun of us.’

‘I don’t care. That doesn’t mean its okay to torture him like that.’

They point to all the other boys prying out their undies.

‘But look, everyone else was doing it!’

I resist the classic every-one-off a cliff response and say instead, ‘So that means you, by law, have to do it too? That you’ll go to prison or perhaps burn in hell for not giving a wedgie?’

‘Yes. And anyway it’s all Mark’s fault for bringing in that book. He gave us the idea!’

There’s a murderer on trial now using the same defense—I’ll call it the Wedgie Defense. Four years ago he shot Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink. His first explanation was ‘I shot the infidel!’ (In other words--he deserved it!) These days, his argument has moved to phase three of the Wedgie Defense. He didn’t really kill Dink. The media did, because the media published articles and broadcast shows that implied Dink was a traitor. ‘I am not guilty,’ he said. ‘The guilty ones are the headlines that made me think Dink was a traitor.’ Arrest those headlines! (This indeed is true enough—one of the things that made Dink a traitor in the eyes of the Turkish media was his suggestion that Atatürk’s adopted daughter, Sabiha Gökçen, was an Armenian herself, orphaned in 1915—by what, no one is saying. Apparently, heroes can only be full blooded Turks.) So you see, Ogün Samast pulled the trigger and then later posed with police in front of a Turkish flag to celebrate the killing—but he didn’t do it. The newspaper headlines did it, because they gave him the idea. This would probably be just something to roll the eyes at if the Dink family wasn’t having so much trouble getting the case prosecuted and if it didn’t look like several state officials were involved in the assassination as well. And that’s where things get sticky.

Dink never publically mentioned the Armenian Genocide—which I am assuming is still a crime of sorts in Turkey (Look at me! I’m a felon!) But his very existence begged the question. The odd thing is the deniers of the Armenian Genocide (felon again!) also use the Wedgie Defense—or at least the first two arguments of it. It never happened, they say. And if it did, they deserved it for fighting with Russians.

Taking responsibility—as an American, who am I to talk? I mean, how much does it mean that President Clinton went to Africa and apologized publically for the slave trade, or that Obama gave a tacit apology for Bush Era exploitation, or that again, Clinton, wrote a letter of apology to the Japanese held in internment camps and sent it accompanied by 20,000 dollar reparations checks? And the letters were pretty explicit as to why it happened—we were racists and failed you as leaders. (Read it here-- These apologies were too little too late in many cases, more political than sincere, and met with disapproval in a lot of segments of society and we do new things to apologize for every day. kind of sets a standard at least. It implies we SHOULD apologize. That these things were wrong. That we should feel bad afterward. Maybe Clinton didn’t feel bad for these things, maybe we should feel bad BEFORE we do things and not do them rather than AFTER, but when the apologies go in the papers and the history books—it says--this is the ideal. Yeah, maybe we are not living up to it, but this is what is right. And it becomes a guide we can refer to when judging our future behavior—not by hiding it or justifying it or denying it or dismissing it as unimportant or crying foul or pointing fingers—but by saying we’re sorry, we were wrong.

In Turkish, as one commentator for the Radikal pointed out, the word used for apologies is much different than the English ‘I am sorry.’ ‘Sorry’ is an adjective—and the only person involved in the sentence is you. The ‘being sorry’ is a quality you benevolently take on. In Turkish the word is özür dilerim. And dilerim can mean ‘I wish’ or ‘I beg of you’, and ‘I beg’ implies a loss of face and honor, a lowering of oneself—as if you are surrending your army to the conqueror. The whole phrase means something like ‘I beg to be excused.’ In other words, you are kneeling and waiting for their ‘özür’ to be lowered onto your penitent head. And so that’s why so many Turks were enraged at the Özür Dilerim campaign that began in 2009 to amass the signatures of people on a petition officially apologizing to Armenians for the ‘Great Disaster’ of 1915. Conservative and ‘Liberal’ alike screamed that it was an affront to Turkish honor (and thousands of people simply signed). And if you are wondering why liberals would be so fascist—well, me, too. The secularists here call themselves ‘liberal’ but they only mean in terms of drinking alot and hating religion, I think—they are the same ones that made me read the Prayer to Ataturk from two entries back and the same ones who were upset that the prayer was not crazy enough. A history teacher said huffily that it was wrong to call him ‘Mustafa Kemal’ because, using a run of the mill name implies he was an ordinary man. He must be called Atatürk!

Anyway, as Turkey confronts its Armenian issue with the Wedgie defense, I tried a new tack on my wedgie givers.

‘Boys,’ I say. ‘Now you know how touchie feelie the counselors are here. I have seen you guys use it to your advantage, exaggerating some silly little incident so that you can sit in the her office and talk about your feelings instead of going to class.’

No one denies this. Smirks all around.

‘So I wonder what would happen if I went into the counselor’s office and put on my best worried face, asked to go to the private room, and then explained that say, Mark, had started touching other boys’ underwear. I would shake my head, say how it had come on suddenly. I would ask if there was perhaps a problem at home, if maybe they were having feelings they weren’t sure how to handle. There would be meetings. People would draw up behavior charts. We would set up times for you to regularly meet with the counselor and talk about your progress. ’

And Mark interrupts, ‘Come on Mr. Gibbs, we’re not closet queens!’

I had asked him to bring in a slang book. I told him it would help him understand The Outsiders (our novel for the term). I thought it would help him improve his colloquial vocabulary. Like I said, middle schoolers can twist everything into something wicked and evil.

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