Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Bully For Me

Let me tell you about a thing that happened to me once. It’s not a story; it’s a real thing that really happened. Consequently it doesn’t exactly have a neat ending or a moral. Maybe there’s a lesson in there, but I don’t think it’s a very nice one. I don’t know. You read and decide.

This is what happened to me in the first year of secondary school. I suppose these days you would call it year 7 of high school or some such, but back in the early 1980s it was most definitely secondary school, or what we kids sometimes called Big School.

Big School was different to the junior school which I had just left. There was a uniform for a start; where before I had run around all day in jeans or cords and t-shirts or my mum’s hand-knitted jumpers, now I was expected to wear a shirt and tie and a blazer and a cap. And trousers of course, you mucky thing. I don’t think the whole uniform thing agreed with me, especially the shirts and ties, but that’s a longer story for another time.

The other thing about Big School was that it was big. Obviously. Big in size (there were, I don’t know, almost a thousand children, compared to maybe 250 at junior school), big in buildings, big in teachers (there were like twenty or more of them and some of them were old men who reeked of cigarettes and pipes – I’d been used to a handful of nice mumsy teachers) and big in terms of the other pupils. Some of them were seven years older than us little kids, for goodness’ sake – they still looked vaguely like children but were impossibly huge and stretched out with deep voices and weird hair and an almost palpable aura about them that warned Little Kids Keep Away. You could just sense it. There was a lot for a little first year to be intimidated by.

The playground game of 1978.
I blame Dave Gibbons.
But what I wasn’t intimidated by were the other first years. Not to begin with anyway. Despite being one of the bright ones and somewhat on the skinny side, I had never had a rough time at junior school. Far from it, I am ashamed to admit I had been a bit of a violent horror when playing football at break times. Actually it had briefly transformed into Aeroball, as one of the others had got ahold of an early 2000AD issue and decided that running around with the ball in one hand whilst pretending to fly an invisible jetpack up to a floating ‘aero-goal’ (I suppose) was definitely the playground sport of the future. It was the Quidditch of 1978.

As I say, I had had my moments of being a little hooligan, lashing out at the other kids in my team when we were doing badly. And for that I should like to apologise to Andrew, Nigel, Duncan and anyone else that I think I might have punched in a 10-year old rage. Sorry. I was horrible.

So I had made it through junior school with nary a whit of bullying, save for that which I had inflicted myself. All of which made what happened during my first few months at Big School a massive shock.

The school was streamed, so that children of a similar educational ability were grouped together into classes of around 30 each. The idea being that they could all then receive something like a similar schooling without leaving some kids behind and boring others to death. Essentially what streaming meant was that it became screamingly obvious who were the clever kids and who were the slow kids. The way they determined this for we first years was to just put us all in randomly sorted classes (chunked up alphabetically, as I recall) for the first month or so, set a few basic tests in English, Maths etc, and then allocate each child to one of 6 streamed classes, ranging from 1Alpha at the top, to 1A, 1Beta, 1B, 1Gamma and 1C at the bottom.

Is it just me or is this bloody sinister?
Yeah, not exactly the Sorting Hat. But actually there is a bit of a Potter parallel here – I can’t imagine what the kids who got sent to Slytherin thought when they were ’sorted’, but unless they were already outright cackly junior Death Eaters I suspect they might just have been a little peeved to have been shoved in The Evil House and practically expected by all the others children – and the teachers - to be duplicitous, cruel, malevolent little shits – talk about your cultural programming. And as for the Hufflepuff kids, you might as well just tell them not to bother with anything, as they are basically The Fat House (apart from Cedric and look what happened to him).

No, the parallel with the Sorting Hat is that streaming in schools, for good or ill, marks out everyone in the school year as being either bright, brightish, above average, so-so, a little slow, or a complete thicky. And that sort of sets expectations – expectations in the children’s work and in how they behave to each other. Where in junior school you had much smaller school years, maybe just two classes, where children of all abilities were mixed in together, now they were separated. Marked out. Ghettoised even. A whole class of average kids. A whole class of clever clever little swots. A whole class of children with learning difficulties, some of whom might not be well disposed to the clever clever little swots.

Anyway, back to the story. Incident. Thing. I ended up in class 1Alpha. Hooray for me. I made one or two new friends. We started proper classes. I learnt how to write the symbol for Alpha on all my exercise books. So far so good. Except there had been a bit of a glitch in the streaming process. You might say that the Sorting Hat had had a bad hat day. What had happened was that one of the boys who should have been placed in 1C or 1Gamma had somehow ended up in 1Alpha.

It wasn’t all that obvious at first, at least not to us kids. It wasn’t like we were looking at each other’s homework marks, or at least I wasn’t. Maybe the teachers knew or guessed that not everyone in the class was coping with the level of the lessons, but if so, they took their time about dealing with the problem.

Not Peter Kay's finest hour.
The problem, as far as 11-year old me was concerned, was a boy called Mark. Mark was chunky but not big, pale and a little freckly, with messy dark hair and fat wet red lips, the lower of which always seemed to hang open in a fashion that perfectly captured his attitude of slack-jawed, open-mouthed adolescent male hostility. Looking back on him now, he looked a lot like a truculent 11-year old Peter Kay, if you can imagine such a thing. A sort of bizarro Kay-child that might fail to spend his teenage years storing away childhood observations for later regurgitation in a nan-friendly stand-up routine but move straight on to becoming a real live Abzorbaloff.

For all I know Mark had done really well in his early tests and completely deserved his place in the top class. Maybe something had gone wrong subsequently and he wasn’t able to cope with the schoolwork. Maybe a parent had just died or he’d recently been hit on the head by a frying pan repeatedly; I don’t know. What I do know though is that Mark, from the moment he was put in a class full of clever little boys and girls, started bullying the rest of us.

Don’t ask me how he bullied us; I can’t remember. I’m pretty sure it was physical, of the pushing / kicking / tripping / spitting variety. And I think there was an awful lot of verbal intimidation as well. Quite possibly he called someone a Joey. The details elude me after thirty years, but I remember how it made me feel. See, I’d never really been bullied before and now here was this piggy-eyed, dough-faced chubber shoving me and the rest of the skinny swots around. I didn’t know how to react.

Sadly the only picture of the Softies I could find,
so you'll have to imagine the detail on Spotty's face.
Actually, the ‘skinny’ bit’s an interesting point – all the boys in the clever class were, with the exception of Mark, physically unimpressive. As I recall, we had more than our share of skinny kids (hello), several minor handicaps (a missing finger here, a blind eye there) and a fair few who were just a bit, well, spacky. If you had to put together real-life models for Walter the Softy’s softies, we were it. Maybe one tall or big – but smart - lad in our class would have made all the difference, would maybe have given Mark someone who he couldn’t naturally overwhelm with his weight and pudgy fists, but as it was, the vagaries of the genetic lottery had conspired to make 1Alpha a class full of weedy boys. And girls of course, but I think they had largely managed to escape Mark’s bullying. They probably had their own girl-bullying thing going on with some sort of nasty name-calling cowbag, but the girls were effectively In A Different Comic to the boys at the time. DC rather than Marvel, if you will.

So I had no idea what to do. Here was this kid pushing us all around, apparently because we were all gay joey boffs or something, day in day out, and there seemed no end in sight. Of course, nobody said anything to the teachers. You just didn’t. I think it was called the sin of Telling or Splitting or Grassing. Whatever it was called, we didn’t do it.

You're a bum, Rock. You're a bum.
Parents were different though – you could tell them and they’d tell you what to do. I’d seen it on Happy Days, so I knew it was the right thing to do. And so it came to pass that the parental advice Chez Ocelot was as follows: Hit him. Just hit him. Whack him one on the nose. That’ll sort him out. You just have to stand up to bullies. They only get away with this sort of thing because people let them.

Hey, it all sounded good to me. It was true that nobody was standing up to him, and if that was all it took, I was happy to step up the stumps and take a swing. I had my parenty Mickeys in my corner, giving me all the encouragement to sort out my own problems without splitting. The code of the playground would be honoured and the bully would bully no more.

I guess it was the very next day after the parental conflab that my moment came. Since Mark was pretty much giving us all a hard time whenever there were no teachers around, it didn’t take long for him start throwing his weight around. And when it came to my turn, instead of feebly trying to avoid his spitting or elbowing or Chinese burns (I forget) I hit him. Hard. Right on the nose.

Now, if this really was a story with a decent ending and a moral ending, it would then play out like this: the bully stands dazed for a few seconds, then collapses, or runs off, or starts crying. That’s what happens in stories. That’s what happened when George McFly hauled one off at Biff Tannen, and as you know, George’s life was instantly and forever changed for the better by that one single punch, that one act of bravery against a big old bully (this works better if none of us brings up George’s murder in Back To The Future 2, OK? OK).

A questionable role model for bullied youngsters.

This is what actually happened: Mark stood there dazed for about a second. And then hit me back. And hit me again and again. By the time our chemistry teacher came into the room to start the lesson, my head was being repeatedly smashed into the top of a table. I know that because I remember seeing the entire classroom at a strange 90 degree angle as my head bounced up and down. Everyone else looked like they were standing on the wall, which would have been cool in any other circumstances.

Like an idiot, or like a stupid 11-year old kid who’d never been in a real fight before, I’d missed an important vital step in the How To Beat A Bully plan. You have to hit him more than once. People don’t go down after a single punch. Not generally. Not unless you’re Lloyd Honeyghan or Bruce Willis in The Last Boy Scout. It literally had not occurred to me that I might have to do anything more than psych myself up for one single punch. I should’ve sacked my trainers.

What people did to get in shape before
the invention of the WiiFit.
Ultimately, the upshot of my abortive standing-up to the bully had the desired effect, but not exactly in the Hero Of The Beach style that I had imagined. When the chemistry teacher, one Mr Rattigan (known to us variously as Ratty or Zoom, on account of him being fat, like Fat Larry of Fat Larry’s Band. Hey, I didn’t make the nickname up. Blame Martin Baudrey) burst into the classroom to see Mark bouncing my head up and down like a basketball pro, all hell broke loose and the bully was rapidly detained (detention, more like) and subsequently relocated to another class where he might find fewer easy targets for his ill-defined hostility. So the bully was gone. Hooray. Bully for me.

As I said, this was a real incident, not a story. The bully didn’t go down after one punch, I wasn’t hailed as the hero of the class, and my life didn’t change for the better thereafter. Ironically, the lesson I actually learnt was that standing up to bullying fat kids is a good way to get hurt badly. Only in later years did it even dawn on me that the problem was just that I didn’t hit him enough. But that revelation would come years later, long after I’d left school, and far too late to spare me a teenagerhood of dodging bullies when I could have simply given them a taste of their own medicine. Instead of overcoming my swotty cowardice as George had, my own showdown with Biff had actually broke what little nerve I had for standing up to a bully. That’s real life for you.

So is there a moral to this tale? That real life sucks? That everybody had a crap time at school and I should just bloody well get over it? That you shouldn’t believe anything Robert Zemeckis tells you? I wouldn’t like to say. It was a thing that happened and I thought you might find it interesting. Probably nobody else in 1Alpha that day even remembers what happened, apart from myself and maybe Mark, wherever he is. But it had an effect on me and taught me two important lessons: If you don’t stand up to a bully you’ll get your arse kicked. If you stand up to a bully a bit you’ll get your arse kicked a lot.

So just keep hitting the bully until he goes down.

Next week: jokes and japery.


Fractalgeek said...

When I changed schools and was the only new boy that term (apart from a master's son), I got it all, and like you, I was unprepared. The bottom was when I was held down against a wall, and repeatedly kicked in the head. After calls to parents/doctors, I was given the option to tough it out, or request more formal handling. I chose the former, learned to fight, and eventually found my place - the person concerned eventually even became someone I got on with OK.

The Chocolate Ocelot said...

Glad it all worked out.

I like to think your 'learned to fight' period involved an old Japanese fellow and some sort of snappy 80's training montage.