This is a true story, at least, as true as memory allows. I decided to write it in the third person.
The New School
The Boy had passed his 11+ exam and started in the very large County High School on the outskirts of London. The 11+ was the standardized testing used to separate out those who would go on to grammar schools – the university track – from those who would go to secondary-modern or trade schools. These latter children would likely finish their education by the time they were fifteen or sixteen. They were being groomed for trades, clerical positions and factories. Working life expectations set at 11 years of age.
The Boy moved from a small school with classes of 10-12 to a school that had three classes for each year and each of these had at least thirty students. The Boy was on the small size for his year and somewhat shy. These were exiting times. It was a rite of passage for boys. The new school uniform had long trousers. All through primary school the uniform for boys included short pants and long socks. Winter, summer, fair weather or frigid our intrepid young boys braved the elements in shorts! It may sound strange to North Americans, but tramping through the odd snow fall in Wellington boots (wellies) over long socks with shorts and an overcoat was normal. The Boy had never thought about how this made his legs cold. But it was exiting to own his first pair of grown-up long trousers. Now the Boy in retirement likes nothing better than to wear shorts and sandals again.
There was a boy in his class, the Bully, who was larger and stronger than average. The Bully seemed to delight in making life difficult for other boys. I don’t know his story, but there were rumours of a hard home-life. There was another boy, who was very large, tall and strongly built, the Outsider He suffered from a medical condition that resulted in him having body odours and other physical symptoms that made him different from the other boys. He was rather ungainly and was quickly classified as ‘odd’ and treated differently. He was always on the outside of any group play or activities.
One day, the Bully discovered it was fun to chase the Outsider and call him names. Soon other boys were joining in and it became fun for them to abuse the Outsider in this way. They would laugh even more when he got angry and chased them back.
The Boy had never experienced this kind of group bullying and teasing. It upset him. It actually made him feel physically sick to watch it. Clearly the Bully was the instigator and kept the game going, enjoying the others following his leadership. Finally the Boy couldn’t stand it any more and intervened. He confronted the Bully and told him to stop being so unkind to the outsider. He tried to get the Bully to see that the Outsider was just another boy with a physical condition. The Bully of course just laughed. When they started the game again the Boy got in the way and told the Bully to stop! The Boy wasn’t brave, just naive. He hadn’t thought about how the Bully might react, he was used to people being kind to one another. So imagine his surprise when the Bully reacted by punching him in the mouth. The punch sent the Boy sprawling on his back in his nice new school uniform. He had never been struck before and was devastated and shocked. The Boy cried, apparently you can cry even though you own long trousers. The Bully laughed. A few of the Boy’s friends came over to make sure he was alright. Just then the bell rang for the end of the play period. A kind teacher asked why the Boy was crying and one of his friends said he had been punched.
Interestingly the game of abusing the Outsider ended forever that day. The Boy however had learned a life-lesson. Intervening has a cost. He would think twice before confronting a bully again. He would need to consider if he was prepared for the cost.
I’m not sure how much time elapsed between this event and the next part of this saga. It could have been later the same day, but I think it was two or three days later.
Menace in the Fog
In those times in London (ca 1957) Londoners suffered from regular winter fogs or smogs as they were called. Fog was a natural outcome of the climate and landscape – smog was caused by the mingling of fog with smoke from all the coal fires used to heat the homes and water in the winter. The worst of the smog were called ‘pea-soupers’. These were extremely dense, were quite yellowish and left a filthy film on everything. These added sulphur dioxide to the fog and smoke mixture. People with breathing problems really suffered. In the worst of these visibility was reduced to a few feet.
Shortly after the bullying incident the school was advised that a pea-souper was anticipated that afternoon. School was closed and the children sent home. By the time the Boy left the school the fog had arrived and was very dense indeed. The Boy could see only about a nine foot circle around him. It was like being in an ocean with a nine foot horizon. The Boy thought it was exiting and could find his way home by following the brick walls of the gardens that lined each side of the roads in that area. It was like being a comedian on the stage with the only light coming from a spot-light – and the spot-light followed you wherever you went. All sorts of day-dreams accompanied the Boy on his walk into the unknown.
After a while the Boy was passing the secondary-modern/trade school. This school did not have a good reputation. There were some great kids attending, some of the Boy’s friends went there, but there were also some pretty tough, angry kids too. Suddenly on the edge of the gloomy circle of visibility, he could see the silhouettes of three figures. He slowed down, the figures came slowly towards him. As their image clarified he could see they were three older boys from the trade-school. They were all dressed in leather jackets and jeans (trade-schools didn’t require uniforms). They were carrying bicycle chains. There was rivalry between the trade-school and grammar school kids. The Boy became nervous, this didn’t look good. The three youths started to laugh and adjust the bicycle chains. It was clear they meant to use them on the Boy. They came closer, he was frozen to the spot.
Suddenly, from behind him came a terrible howling and a huge figure with arms raised high came bounding though the wall of fog. The three youths screamed and bolted in the opposite direction. The Boy, still frozen in place, looked hard and saw to his surprise that the wailing banshee was none other than the Outsider. He had been following the Boy home, presumably wanting to make a new friend. The Boy continued on home, the Outsider followed him till he reached his house and then left. They never spoke again.
Many decades later the Boy has often wondered what became of the Outsider and the Bully. He wonders why he never reached out in friendship to the one who saved him in the fog. He wonders about what would have happened if he hadn’t intervened in the school playground. He wonders about good and evil. He wonders about the apparent randomness or coincidences of life.
What meaning can the Boy take from these two events?
How do we teach our children to stand up to today’s bullies? How do we learn to stand up to all forms of bullying even though we know it could be costly. Perhaps knowing that there may be a far greater benefit/reward will help us to act. Caring is about acting.