When I was a child I was bullied.
Even writing this sentence I am filled with shame. How childish. Get over it. Move on.
It’s a squirming sense of embarrassment that crawls over my body. Bullying – how juvenile. The word gets stuck in my throat and I want to swallow it down. Everyone gets picked on in school and everyone gets over it. We all do things we regret at children but we grow out of it.
Yet here I sit, marked by the scars of things said and done a decade ago. Disconnected, disassociating. Emotionally numb. Anxious and afraid. How does one begin to unpack these things? How do I begin to reclaim that part of my story I’ve ignored for so many years?
How do I make sense of pain I had no control over and had no way of comprehending at the time?
Let me tell you about gym class. As I’m sure you can guess I loathed P.E. at school. I wasn’t very good at it and I didn’t enjoy competitive displays of ability. I think there is something in this about not really valuing the people around me enough to want to play them in sport. Or perhaps I felt so distanced from them that there was no way I could ever feel included in a competition. I didn’t enjoy P.E. (exert for swimming. Everyone loves swimming).
I especially loathed being commanded to wear shorts and t-shirt and go outside in the cold to play Rugby. Everyone was bigger, faster and more skilled so I would stand there flushed with shame for the two hours it would take for the game to end. Imagine a short blond chubby child with his shoulders hunched, looking at the ground. This experience, twice a week, only ever made me feel different to the other kids. It was like standing behind a soundproofed perspex screen: I could see the movement but I had no idea what it all meant. How alone I felt then. I’m no good at catching balls, playing in teams or memorising rules which I suppose says a lot about me, much of which I am grateful for today. Then, there? No. The mark of success in this is the extent to which you can conform. I couldn’t, so I was unacceptable.
So I’m enduring a couple of hours of Rugby and avoiding ever having to so much as look at the ball. If my acceptance, participation and success determines my inclusion in the group (as determined by the teacher) then it follows that my failure to do these things would exclude me. I didn’t like Rugby so I was on the outside.
How do teenagers treat outsiders?
Do they extend sympathetic embraces to those who occupy the ambiguous places in the collective conscience?
Do they accommodate the comfort and preferences of those around them, without harassment?
Do they allow for others to be free in their own consciences?
I was taking off my soaking wet rugby kit, ashamed of my nakedness as I still am to this day. Fiddling with socks when someone came over to me. He looked my small, if somewhat fat, frame and sneered. As I tried to stick up for myself he pushed me. And someone else pushed me. And someone put a leg out and I was hitting the floor.
Have you ever seen pigeons carpeting a London square? They squabble over a few crumbs or a discarded half-sandwich, pecking at it and taking it apart piece by piece.
So I was naked and on the cold floor of the changing room.
I think a piece of me still is.