I wrote here the other day about being bullied. As a growing youth I was tall for my age. My parents had a chart that said ‘if you are X at ten you will be Y at 18’ Another of life’s disappointments as I rapidly reached five eleven and stopped. Not an inch more. The elusive glamour of six-foot was not for me.
But being big made me a target for a certain type to challenge. Sort of the crash test dummy of the playground. I didn’t notice so much at primary school but transferring at eleven to a school where none of my peers went meant I stood out. It had an upside – I was picked for the rugby team in the second row – up to then I had had no sporting accomplishments and, frankly I hardly excelled as a puffy unfit lump. Our first game in the September gloom of 1968 was not an experience in the Summer of Love, more the Summer of Mud. We lost, from memory 43-0 and we did well to achieve that zero, given how far backwards we, in the forwards, went.
If being part of such a shambles gave me a protective sheen I didn’t notice it as a couple of boys picked on me. To be fair it was episodic bullying as they had other targets too but I well recall a day – sun out, probably after Easter – when they challenged me near the long jump pit – well away from the prying eyes of teachers, not that they would have cared – school policy was to put any boys who fought outside together in the boxing ring and let them slug it out under Queensberry’s Rules – and there I was buried.
I was delighted to move schools at 12 to the pastoral setting of Brockenhurst in the New Forest – our school motto Inter Silvas Quaere Verum or some such which means Amongst the trees, seek the truth – apt at 16 with a burgeoning sexual desire and the proximity of the Forest’s plentiful supplies of its own-brand magic mushrooms, but bugger all use to a 12 year old beyond evidence of a hazy attitude towards people. I slotted in and for a year all was well.
But then we moved to an Annex while the main school was prepared for its big change to convert from All-years Grammar School to Comprehensive Six Form college. My third year was isolated. We had two classes of about 25 pupils each and the only times we interacted was playtime. In the other form there was a bruiser whose name escapes me now but he picked on me and others as we were part of the geeky class (back then we were Swots, not Geeks). This charmer pushed and shoved and abused several, me included. Then one day he stole our football.
We were an organised group and we all chipped in a few pence to buy a class football to use in the breaks. The other form didn’t. After much provocation that moment he picked up and made off with our ball was it for me. Placid me. I saw red – actually a rather deep and satisfying vermillion – and I swung a punch at said yobbo. I had never swung a punch before. Nor since, outside of my rather ineffective boxercise classes that I now undertake in a no doubt forlorn effort to prevent my stomach becoming a curtain for my knees. I missed. I tried again. I missed again but he was ready. He swayed in the approved fashion, and picked me off, just below the eye.
Note to self: don’t get hit when you have a tendency to swell at the slightest knock. I think we were both surprised how quickly my eye ballooned. He backed off and threw our ball back. I touched the new archipelago that had settled, Surtsey-like on my cheek, and wondered why it didn’t hurt. I felt nauseous but no pain.
He left me alone thereafter. Shame, the fear that one of my random haymakers might connect? I don’t know. The indifferent girls whose own torture was to pull an unsuspecting boy into the girls’ toilets where, no doubt, they carried out evil, egregious and oddly fascinating experiments on their victims, took notice of me for the first time wanting to hear about my war stories. A side bonus.
I had stood up, not in any considered way but in an emotional, f*** the consequence sort of way and it worked. But it worked more on him than me. It was like he realised there might be a consequence and not always as graphically in his favour as in our fight. He stopped picking on us as a form, as the weaker, effete bunch we were. It wasn’t a smooth transition to Peace in Our Time but there was a transition and no one invaded our Sudetenland.
Am I advocating violence? No, especially violence as bloody useless as mine but finding a way to stop a bully, to make pause is what is needed. It could have been anyone not just me. It took the first step. Can we help people take that first step? I think so. I hope so. It is our duty to try.