At my worst moment, I leaned over a bus seat and punched the boy sitting behind me. It was somewhere on top of his head, but I have no memory of the feeling. Unlike a lot of boys who ended up in fights at school, I didn’t break any bones.
Someone later told me this meant I did it right.
My family hadn’t been in the country long before we moved to the school at the beginning of ’89. It was a boarding school modelled on the British traditions, and was high on my father’s list. At the time, I think he hoped to work in a place that offered everything he wanted for us: it had a history, a community with their own impenetrable idiosyncrasies, and the sense that the school would envelop all of us. We first lived in one of the houses at the back of the school, a dusty street lined with at least a dozen other teachers and their families. After a year we moved again: my father was a housemaster and we lived attached to the boarding house. A few years later we moved again to the house in the centre of the school, adjoining the main quadrangle – the deputy principal’s residence. A high yew hedge squared off our back garden, but from my bedroom window the murmurings of school life were constant.
My father would stand up in front of the entire school and mete out moral guidance in the form of discipline. He wanted us all to be adults. He wanted us all to be better.
I would see my father at these assemblies. He was a voice at a distance, heard with uncertainty as to whether these messages applied just to me, or everyone present. Occasionally I’d see him at home, but generally he was gone in the morning before I woke and back late after I’d gone to bed.
My height kicked in over the summer between the ages of thirteen and fourteen. About five inches in as many months; it was hard not to stand out. I kept growing after that, but my experience was only repeating: there was no going back. I was put on Roaccutane around this time, which removed all moisture from my face. The acne, which was the target, disappeared in flakes of skin that peeled off constantly. My lips all but disappeared, and the sebaceous cysts that played havoc around the lymph nodes of my jawline hardened into scar tissue. The medication made me featureless, but I couldn’t have stood out more.
Looking back at photos from this time, I have difficulty recognising myself.
Mostly I was called names. Insults came often. I made myself as small a target as possible, sitting on the edges of rooms, not participating and not involving myself. It took years to change this habit, and even then it’s not gone entirely. It became instinct for me to adjust how I spoke, the clothes I wore, the way I acted, to avoid detection. Groups of men are still terrifying. Years later, I would read about the acknowledged side effects of Roaccutane treatment on one’s mental health. I’m not sure if I was always quiet and the bullying just made it a natural transition, but I eventually stopped talking in classes. Stopped talking in conversations. A single word would start the panicking, and the easiest – the safest – option was to just shut down. When your voice, your appearance, and your presence is constantly criticised, any simple interaction can feel like a test. Is this sincere, or a joke? Are they testing me, or hoping to catch me out? Living becomes performative, and eventually I just took on their role, bullying myself in my own head.
What happened to me was insignificant compared to others. A boy was tied in a laundry bag and dumped under a cold shower. Another had matches flicked on him. One was told to lie on the ground while others would take turns jumping on him from a bunk. Punches were thrown. Bones broken.
‘Why did you let him do that?’ a girl was asking me.
We were kicking a football, or something. It was a game, to pass the time during lunch. Normally doing something wrong would be enough of an invitation to direct abuse to me, but in this case, someone else had kicked the ball out. And because there were girls about, another boy had punched me three times in the kidneys.
If I retaliate, I started a fight. If I cry, or run away, or show any pain, then I’m weak, a coward, and not a tough bloke. If I laugh it off, then others see it as an invitation, as clearly I don’t mind when I’m punched. There is no correct response.
‘Why did you just stand there?’ she was saying.
Sometimes it was dressed up as initiation rites. Other times it was to settle imaginary scores. Students would stop coming to classes, then just disappear off the rolls altogether. Parents would arrive at some point to retrieve belongings, or else they’d be boxed up and sent away. Or just forgotten about.
I don’t know what became of these other students after school. There aren’t many I’ve tried to talk to.
The rules were clear:
Don’t take insults seriously.
Don’t care about what anyone says.
Don’t show enthusiasm for anything unless others have already done so.
Don’t be sincere.
Once, my nose was broken. It was an accident, inasmuch as that wasn’t the intended consequence, but it fuelled the narrative.
I was tall. He was uncoordinated.
I played first XI cricket. His dad got him picked.
I didn’t laugh when they made fun of me. He can’t take a joke.
I didn’t react when the boy punched me. He’s fucking weird.
I took Roaccutane to combat the acne. He looks disgusting. He’s a freak. He deserves it. He’s not human.
The physical or verbal acts that constitute bullying are manageable in their own right; it’s the inability to control your own story that takes its toll.
My parents knew nothing of what went on. In hindsight, I would have told them (and eventually did). But silence was rudeness, and saying you had a problem was an inconvenience. What are you going to do about it? What did you do to cause this?
Having moved to this secluded community as immigrants and outsiders, I think we tried to be compliant, to not cause a fuss. I tried so hard to not draw attention to myself, but it didn’t matter.
On occasions when my dad would be home and I was there, I would listen to him talk about other students.
‘He’s a good lad.’
‘He’s a bright boy.’
‘More talented than he realises.’
Sometimes the school and the home would blend, and I’d see him talking to students in a way he would never at home. Humour, mature sarcasm and shared jokes – often about sport – and I couldn’t reconcile my father with this person. How could they have this relationship with him that didn’t exist in my house? And was this him, or was this part of his job, relating to the students in this way? Did he not feel he could be himself without the work?
Home would only be home in the holidays, when all the students had gone.
Once I complained about a student who was bullying someone I knew. This seemed an easy proxy for broaching the subject. I went into detail with all the incidents I could recall of the horrible treatment this one boy would dish out.
My father took his time before responding.
‘His parents both have cancer.’
I knew what he was doing; it’s what he always did. I knew he wanted me to see beyond my own perspective and understand that maybe there was a reason this boy was miserable and took it out on others. But I wasn’t interested in pathologising then. That kind of perspective, that kind of empathy that he preached, that enabled them. That paved the way for boys to be boys. To be a certain kind of boy.
There were no easy answers, he was saying, which is the same as saying there are no answers at all. And even though I wasn’t asking him, the answer I got was to empathise with the bullies. Forgive them all, they know not what they do.
Years after I had finished school, I would see students in passing at university or elsewhere, and they’d ask after my father. Ask me to pass on their hellos and remembrances. They valued his guidance, his leadership, his care. They could see the impact he had on how they grew up.
Boys are built around insults and criticisms. No boy would ever share a compliment, or say something nice. Any attempt at genuineness would need to be knocked back into the comfortable area of sarcasm. Even with sport, which was always the common denominator at any boarding school, a compliment could only be about someone’s skills.
‘He’s a great kick.’
‘See his shot?’
‘He’s got amazing reach.’
And, where possible, lessen the pure praise by lacing everything with obscenities.
‘Fuck he’s a good player.’
We would insult. We would deride. We would abuse. It was fun. It was for a laugh. And if everybody laughs at your abuse, you would have to laugh along. And this laughter would all be in place of an actual emotion. Boys aren’t happy, we just laugh at things.
Teenage boys, bound together in friendships of common loathing.
But, there is no solidarity among the bullied.
Another boy would sometimes be around who would get it worse than I did. But if he left the room then it would turn back to me. So the others, the bullied, we could recognise each other, but only as respite. As potential distractions from our own situations.
It didn’t occur to me at the time to seek others, to create our own island of misfit boys, because when the only currency is abuse, you need someone to spend it on. The regret never leaves, those moments of mimicked ridicule where all I was hoping for was a warming glow of acknowledgement from those above, at the cost of those below. Five minutes of acceptance, and years of atonement.
When I punched the boy on the bus, I was bored. Bored of the bullied routine and bored of the rage. Was I allowed to sit on a bus? Was it okay to not have food thrown at me? To be reminded every minute that my presence on a bus or in a classroom was so offensive to everyone?
‘Tell me when it all started,’ the teacher said, once the bus ride was over and we were back at school. I spoke to him for an hour. He wrote everything down.
At home, my mother was angry. Angry that I hadn’t told her and my father, and that they had to hear it from another teacher. Angry about what it would mean for my father that I was in this position. About the punch, but not the bullying that had been going on for nearly two years. I don’t remember a conversation with my father about it at all.
I received two Friday detentions for throwing a punch. Physical contact was a bad thing, in school.
‘Look at this dickhead. Making up lies, trying to get him expelled.’ Boys followed me from class to class, in the dining hall, around school. ‘Getting your dad to get him kicked out, aren’t you?’
My dad, who never spoke to me about it.
A boy who was once my friend made up a song about me. I was likened to Frankenstein’s monster. The Boris Karloff impression: tall, lumbering, scarred, voiceless. I found a picture he’d drawn of me in the back of a school bible, complete with the lyrics to his song.
One day, my English teacher detoured in class to a brief summary of the ending of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: the monster, saying goodbye to his tormentor, his creator, his father, and then sailing off into icy darkness. This familial tragedy was enough to get me to read it. Reading the novel was nothing short of revelatory. The dumb mannequin from the old black and white films was revealed as this archaic, eloquent creature. Alone, feared, and murderous.
‘I was dependent on none and related to none. The path of my departure was free, and there was none to lament my annihilation. My person was hideous and my stature gigantic. What did this mean? Who was I? What was I? When did I come? What was my destination?’
We weren’t sure why the assembly was called. Some thought it would be a reminder about upcoming exams.
My father was at the microphone. A student, he was saying, or more than one student, were responsible for finding a bird’s nest filled with eggs and smashing them on the ground.
That night he was home.
‘Why did you hold an assembly for that?’
‘The eggs. It was ridiculous. You wasted all our time for a pointless assembly.’
Some part of me was aggrieved on behalf of the other students. Some part of me still wanted to belong.
The school – like any – built itself on principles of student growth and welfare. Its ivy-covered brick buildings housed a philosophy of welcoming and nurturing the whole student. Not just their academics or sporting prowess, but themselves, their identities, their souls. But what is a school but a summation of its students? What is a parent but the delivery of their child?
Mary Shelley’s creature stood in front of its father, admonishing: ‘Why did you form a monster so hideous that even you turned from me in disgust?’
Solitary and abhorred, the teenage monster is caught in a constant state of fleeing and returning.
I finished school in ’99, and went overseas for twelve months. I never really returned to the school as my home, never really kept in touch properly with anyone from then. Two years later my father left the school as well, forced out by a board and a culture that valued traditions ahead of progress, that wanted sports prizes and philosophical jargon to wash the school clean with unearned well-being and accomplishment. The same intolerance for different boys that coloured my school life was reflected in the school hierarchy’s intolerance for different men. We had both foolishly yearned for the same acceptance.
I can reject what was learned from those years, but I still find interactions with other men to be built on a foundation of uncertainty. As adults, we’re not sure how to do certain things. We’re uncertain how to connect, how to listen. How to like each other and share that liking. How to love. I look at other men I know and wonder who had it like me, or who had it worse. And who are those that look back on their childhood and pass off their abuse as jokes. Their ridicule and bullying and ostracising as banter. As how boys should be. Does it show?
I escape to stories: to books and films and TV shows, where exceptions to masculine rule are allowed to emote, giving me absolution to share my emotions.
I don’t know how my father felt about what happened during my time at school, we’ve still never really spoken about it. If we do, it’s coded. We talk about what happened to others, or what things were like back then. There’s a kind of peace that comes with that, I guess.
Most of me has forgotten it all, and the act of remembering feels indulgent. Wallowing in pity at something so commonplace. I don’t want to be angry at him, at his refusal to give me the lessons I needed as a boy. Empty-handed, I threw my fist, randomly, at another boy. I don’t want to be angry, but all I had, in the end, was that.