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The Story of Fish Lips

Bruce Gerencser, Ninth Grade 1971-72
Bruce Gerencser, Ninth Grade 1971-72

The year is 1972.

I am a ninth-grader at Central Jr High School in Findlay, Ohio.

I am a typical boy.

The need to prove I am one of the guys is important to me.

I want to fit in.

I want to be part of the club.

The retards have a classroom in our building.

You know who they are.

The freaks.

The morons.

The half-wits.

A wonderful opportunity to prove that I belong.

Fish Lips.

That’s what we called him.

He had big lips like Mr. Limpet.

Every day he wore a tin sheriff’s badge and carried a toy gun.

No post-nine-eleven worries in 1972.

Why do the retard’s parents send him to school like that?

Don’t they know boys like me lurk in the hallways looking for opportunities to mock and harass their son?

And so I did.

I mocked him and made life miserable for Fish Lips.

So did other boys, but I am the boy I remember.

I was part of the group now.

I hope Fish Lips didn’t mind being the price of admission.

It is 1989.

I am 32 years old now.

I have three children.

I am the pastor of a thriving Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church.

My wife is pregnant with our fourth child.

Our beautiful red-headed daughter was born on September 1st.

Our first girl.

We are so excited to finally have a girl.

It was not long before we realized something wasn’t quite right with our daughter.

The doctor sent us to University Hospital in Columbus.

A genetic test . . .

We didn’t need the results.

We already knew . . .

Our daughter had Down Syndrome.

Her features were mild and the doctor missed all the signs.

We found out she had Down’s the same day our second daughter was born.

I had a mentally handicapped child.

All of a sudden I had a flashback to 1972.

Visions of a hateful boy persecuting the mentally handicapped, all because he wanted to belong.

I thought of what I would do to that boy today if he did what he did then to my daughter.

I wept.

I couldn’t undo what I did.

But I could make sure I am never that boy again.

The least of these deserve my protection and care.

They deserve to be who they are without worrying about a boy with something to prove.

I am glad that boy died in 1989.

Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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  1. Avatar
    Doug B

    Very powerful post, Bruce. Honestly, sometimes I feel like Fish Lips. Other times I feel like his persecutor. Constructive criticism is a good thing. Hateful bullying is not. Ever. How easy to mistake the latter for the former. I try to think hard about every post I write and comment I answer.

  2. Avatar

    I hesitate to critique your bullying but if he had lips like Mr Limpet he had Don Knott’s lips (since in the movie the fish has some of Don Knott’s features in particular his lips and eyes), of course that isn’t exactly a compliment either.
    After I saw a picture of your daughter it seemed she may have the mosaic variant of Down’s syndrome. Her physical symptoms are much less pronounced than usual.

  3. Avatar

    You were a child, Bruce. You’ve since grown up. You’ve learned. That’s what we do as we grow. I’m proud of you that you’ve grown enough to accept that your actions in the past were wrong. Your daughter will always have you as a father to be her advocate, and You’ll do a great job of that.

  4. Avatar

    Darn it you made me cry. Again. Your raw honesty shines through so much. It’s poetic and oh so real. I’m ashamed of my judgmental past. Why did it take giving up (ok rejecting) my fundie life to get to this point? Why did I have to shut off my feelings while I was in that cult?

    That’s all rhetorical of course. Just needed to vent. Thank you so much for being here.

  5. Avatar

    I have regrets. For grades 1-4 I attended public school. We were part of the metropolitan government so that city and county were under the same jurisdiction, though where we lived had a lot of farms and people living in our town commutes into Nashville or were farmers. Most people were poor to lower middle class, all white, mostly evangelical Christians. Down the hill and a few miles away was a mostly black community. Our school had 2 wings – the new wing of regular classes where all the students were white; the special education wing where most of the students were black, and the white kids were impoverished. Occasionally the school would try to mainstream a white kid, but never any if the black kids.

    In 2nd grade they tried to mainstream a boy Jerry who was a year older than us, had trouble walking, wore a colostomy bag, and only had about 3 outfits. The teacher would have to change the colostomy bag at least once a day which she did at a table at the back of the classroom telling us not to look (yeah right). Nobody was friends with Jerry, and Jerry cried a lot at school. One day the kids noticed Jerry had a severe case of lice. Jerry didn’t make it through the whole year in our class.

    In 3rd grade (we were 8 and 9 years old) they put a 13 year old girl in our class Connie. Connie was nearly as big as the teacher. Connie was nice, but we were all wary of her because she was so much older. She didn’t make it through the year either.

    This was the 70s and education had a long way to go. As kids growing up in a monoculture we feared anyone different.

  6. Avatar
    MJ Lisbeth

    Some of us bullied other kids because it was the only way we knew how to keep ourselves from being bullied.

    Fortunately, some of us grow out of it—as you did, Bruce. But those who don’t become homophobes (who are almost invariably in the closet), misogynists, xenophobes, racists and other kinds of haters.

  7. Avatar
    Brian Vanderlip

    I have stories of bullying as well and my older brother is a terrible bully who has never fully recovered. I am sure that he became such a creep bully because he was the first-born male child in a fundamentalist family in the fifties. The full weight of the great commission was on him from young parents both from Christian families, dad a Baptist preacher and mom the daughter of a Baptist preacher.
    He never had a chance as I see it. My own bullying originated in fear, fear stoked by religion. I wanted to disappear in the crowd to be safe and my idea of acceptance was that disappearance. I can’t even remember the name of the boy another kid and myself forced under the bridge by the river and then hit with sticks and forced him to pull his pants down so we could embarrass him about his nakedness. It was so mean, just plain harm done because I was life-afraid inside. The world was so evil and Satan was everywhere. Jesus had saved me years before as a little tyke. I went to Sunday School every week for years and years and it made hurt myself and others. What a scourge.
    Thank-you for sharing your memory, Bruce. I’m sorry about the burden it carries in you.

  8. Avatar

    I didn’t pick on other kids much. I had enough friends, but I did get picked on for some of the things I said. In retrospect, it would’ve been nice if I’d known back then I was autistic, but I don’t even think the idea of high-functioning autism had broken through then, or at least not for long. Honestly, I forgive people who picked on me then. We were all young and apparently, most of us were fumbling our way through. My class valedictorian turned out to be bipolar and it caused him a great deal of anguish. You just never know what burden someone else has.

  9. Avatar

    Also, I’m sorry that you had to go through that kind of pain over your memories. Because we can’t undo the past. I guess we can all just work to forgive each other for being human.

  10. Avatar
    Alisha Roach

    I never remember mocking or harassing any of the special needs kids at our school, but I remember not being comfortable around them and being patronizing toward them. I am now the mother of a severely mentally disabled adult who also has autism and an autoimmune disorder. I have been amazed at the kindness a lot of the “normal” kids my daughter’s age showed her while she was in school. Her middle and high school classes had student volunteers who helped out a couple of hours each day — interacting with the kids, helping them do school work, etc. That kind of thing wasn’t allowed when I was in school. I believe Gen Z is more compassionate in a lot of ways than the generations past. I hope that continues.

  11. Avatar

    My now-40-year-old son made me so proud when he was in middle school. One day he told me about the special needs kids who had to line up outside a building to go somewhere each day, and each day there were students who tormented them. He yelled at the harassers and told them to stop. He is now a teacher whose compassion shows through every day, and kindness is one of his strongest traits – one that he is nurturing in his own children today.
    The fact that there are special needs children is one of the main reasons I am an atheist. Nobody will ever be able to convince me that a loving god would allow children to suffer.

  12. Avatar

    My sister began working at a school for the blind when I was twelve. She was often able to bring some of her students home for the weekend (It was the 70’s not as much oversight, fear of lawsuits as there are today). I had never met someone disabled, and her students had multiple challenges. Many were both deaf and blind, and others were blind with cognitive impairments. My sister spent forty years of her life working there, and I learned so much about accepting people as they are. One of our neighbors and playmates was a boy with Down Syndrome. I don’t remember anyone making fun of him. We probably would have given anyone who did a very hard time. There were no disabled students in my elementary school except for one guy who would be labeled with ADHD for sure. The poor guy was always in trouble because he couldn’t sit still. Today is the successful owner of an automotive business. I’ve been a teacher for almost four decades. I’ve seen real improvements in how children treat other children. Bruce, iff you didn’t have the opportunity to interact with people different from you, it would have been hard to not succumb to peer pressure and not realize how painful your mistreatment of a special needs kid really was. The best part of having an open mind as we grow older is that we become better humans. I loved how you wrote about this particular part of your childhood.

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