Wisdom from Wibaux: The Education of a Bully – Guilt, Shame and Mercy

The Education of a Bully: Rev. Jeff Gannon on the Wisdom from Wibaux

Meet the Beggers, a Modest Family

We moved to town when I was in entering the eighth grade. My mother bought a house at auction which sold for $17,000. It was a two bedroom home with a large yard and a big, disconnected garage. It was a perfect home for my mother and me. There was one man in our town who collected garbage. He had an old pickup truck and would simply dump the trash, by hand, into the bed of the truck. Needless to say, Mr. Begger was never clean and his pickup truck was even worse.

The home where Mr. Begger lived with his son and family was nothing more than a shack. It was incredibly dirty on the outside and the front door (actually on the side) had an old fashioned screen door hanging on by one hinge. Mr. Begger, I never knew his first name, had one eye, never smiled, had very little teeth, and almost always had a scraggly beard.

A Summer Bully Prank

One summer, the week before the fourth of July, two friends and I, fourth graders at the time, were riding our bikes. We decided to do something we thought would be funny. We bought a bunch of fireworks and then rode our bikes to the Begger home. As usual, the rickety screen door was the only thing separating the outside hot air from the hot room where the TV blared loudly. I will never forget what we did next.

All three of us went to the screen door and peered in. The Beggers were sitting there watching TV and didn’t realize we were looking in. We stood by the pickup truck, which served as the garbage truck for the whole town, taking in the putrid smell from the truck bed as we lit a firecracker. One of my friends handed me the firecracker and I opened the screen door and threw it in.

We thought we were so clever because we bullied the poorest family in our town. Running off to our bikes, we took offpedaling as fast as we could. We laughed as we rode thinking we were so cool and so powerful.

A Young Bully Humbled

It wasn’t very long and we see Mr. Begger riding around in his pickup truck. He sees us near one of our friend’s homes and stops his pickup so he can get out and ask us some questions. He said, “Who threw that firecracker into our home?” At that point, both of my friends became my enemies when they said, “Jeff did.”

Mr. Begger called the sheriff, Bunny Meek, and the next thing I know I am being called to the Sheriff’s Office. I felt scared to death. The Deputy Sheriff, Donald Witkowski, asked me what happened and I told him. He said, “Mr. Begger doesn’t want to press charges but I’ve talked with your mother and she will take it from here.”

Because I burned a hole in the carpet of the Begger home with the lighted firecracker, my mother made me go to Stubberud Furniture so she could have me order the new carpet.  I had to be the one to order the carpet and pay for it with my own money and then I had to go to the Begger home and apologize to the whole family and let them know I would be purchasing new carpet. I can still see the look on Mr. Begger’s face as I apologized. To have his son, Ronny, and his wife and their young children look on, was quite humbling, to say the least.

The Wisdom from Wibaux: Bullying, Guilt, Shame and Mercy

The wisdom from Wibaux?  The day I went to the Begger home to apologize and to tell them I had purchased new carpet from Stubberud Furniture, was the day I realized my own human capacity for great harm. Without possessing the language to express my thoughts or feelings, that was a monumental day for me as a person. It was the first time, to my knowledge, I became aware of guilt, shame, and the reality of evil actions, within myself.

The wisdom from Wibaux….Somehow, some way, I learned how devastating bullying is. Having power over the powerless made us (the three boys) feel  superior to others, as if we had the right to create pain and trouble for someone we perceived as weak and worthless. That day, when I looked into the faces of the poor, from the youngest to the oldest, I could see pain on their faces. I remember the faces so clearly. To this day, every time I hear about bullying, I always think of that summer day when I was the bully and the pain it created.

The wisdom from Wibaux. . . The Beggers were not religious people. They never attended church and lived a simple, isolated life. In fact, the only time I ever saw Ronny Begger in public was at the softball games in the summer. He was one of the umpires. But that summer day, when the Deputy Sheriff said the Beggers didn’t want to press charges, I experienced genuine mercy.  The day they met with me so I could apologize was a gift of mercy. They may not have realized that what were offering was mercy. But it was. Mercy was not in their vocabulary but it was in their actions.

Many years later, in seminary, when I was studying what the Bible calls the aniwim, I thought about the Beggers.  The poor ones. People like Mary and Joseph. People who are poor in the eyes of the world and rich in the Kingdom of God.

–Rev. Jeff Gannon

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