Before Facebook bullying, there was the dreaded slam book

By Sam Oglesby
Saturday, December 11, 2010

When I was a gay adolescent in the 1950s, I lived in fear of a ragged little notebook that circulated our high school halls. It was called the slam book. It was a seemingly ordinary item, mostly used for homework, drawing triangles for geometry or conjugating dreary verbs in Latin or French. It appeared mysteriously one day in 1954. On the cover was written "RETURN TO: ___________." I have forgotten the girl whose name was written there, but I recall that she had come from a school in California and that California was where all the cool trends seemed to originate, such as rolling socks down over your ankles instead of folding them over.

The format of the slam book was simple enough. At the top of each page, the name of a student was written in large letters. The blank page below invited brief but biting comments, something on the order of what today might be a Tweet or a Facebook comment, except that these were scrawls in pencil or ballpoint. Sometimes the "i's" were dotted with the saucy little circles even then favored by teenage girls.

Each slam book - and there were several moving about my school seemingly as soon as the fad caught on - would contain 50 or 60 names. The names and comments were not limited to one grade but spanned that momentous four-year arc from 14 to 17. The most heart-stopping remarks, of course, were those written by a senior about a freshman.

As I entered my teens, my parents grappled awkwardly with what they saw as my emerging gayness. My mother used to tell me not to be so "demonstrative" and "dramatic" when I spoke, and not to use my hands so much. I once overheard a muffled conversation from my parents' bedroom in which I think it was my father's voice saying, "The boy's effeminate; what can we do?"

Their misgivings about my sexual orientation were soon reflected in the dreaded slam books. Below my name appeared words such as "pansy" and "fruitcake." More clever attempts soon came: "he's light in his loafers" or "he's a she."

Up to that point in my life I had no opinion about the pros or cons of being gay, but with the aid of the slam books, I quickly learned to hate myself.

That was in my freshman year.

By the beginning of my sophomore year, I had transformed myself outwardly. Months of pumping weights in the gym gave me the biggest biceps in my class and, after spending considerable time in front of a mirror, I had taught myself to walk like a Marine drill sergeant. No longer was I the sissy of the slam books. The litany of admiring comments in the new generation of books proved to me that I had succeeded in driving myself deep into a closet from which I was not to emerge for 30 years.

I was lucky, I guess. I was not driven to suicide or other dire acts, although the meanness of the slam books made me deeply unhappy. Looking back at my picture in the yearbook, I see a sad young face hidden behind a forced smile.

Cruelty will always be around, whether it is generated by a pen on the page of a dog-eared notebook or written electronically on a social network like Facebook.

My advice to young people suffering as I did 60 years ago is this: Be proud of who you are. This message can be reinforced by advances in our social culture with the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" and the legalization of gay marriage at the federal level. Such measures would go far in removing unhappiness from young lives and possibly even make bullying a dead letter.

Sam Oglesby is a writer in New York. His book, "Encounters - A Memoir: Relationship Journeys from Around the World," was published this year.


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