I used to think that my experience of middle school and high school was pretty banal. As I wrote the following memory fragments, however, I realized that perhaps it was far from normal.
I was 11 years old and it was my first day in secondary education. I stood at the front row of the hall where we assembled each morning to listen to one of the academic staff talk to us. There was a line of prefects, older children who had been entrusted with some kind of authority, who stood facing us with their backs to the stage.
One of those prefects walked up to me, grabbed my school tie where it was knotted in front of my throat, and lifted me off the ground. He held my face in front of his face and looked at me as I quietly choked. Then he placed me back on the ground and went back to stand at his post. To this day, I have no idea what the purpose of that was. As I think about it now, I wonder if that was some form of bullying or an attempt to instill fear in the new students.
You Can Do Anything
After I took my 11-plus exams at middle school, before I went off to secondary education, the teacher I saw every day and who took attendance in the mornings called me up at the end of class to have a private conversation with her. She said, “You can do anything you want.” It was clear that she thought that I was capable of doing anything, and I have carried that message with me all my life. There are times when perhaps it has given me the extra confidence to keep going when I would otherwise have given up.
I think she said that because of my results on the exams, but I’ll never know. I wish I could have asker her clarifying questions to understand what she saw, what motivated her to say that to me. Perhaps she said that to everyone, which I think would have been a great idea.
Early on in my secondary school, I was in an English class when the teacher asked us all if we knew what Glenfiddich was. Nobody answered, probably because we were little kids with no interest in single malt scotch whiskey. He said, “Ah, that’s because your parents are all too poor to buy Glenfiddich.” I remember feeling offended but not knowing why; we were not particularly poor. Now I understand that he must have been feeling some kind of financial shame and he was attempting to pass it on to us.
In my second year of learning chemistry, I noticed that when I heated my magnesium alloy pencil sharpener in the flame of the Bunsen burner for a while it started to spark. I wondered what would happen if I kept it in the flame for even longer. Eventually, the amount of sparks increased until the entire block of metal was rapidly consumed by an ultra-bright, white light, too bright to even look at. I just checked this: the flame of burning magnesium can reach 3,100 °C (5,610 °F). I had been holding the pencil sharpener with tongs and, luckily, as the block rapidly ignited, I placed it down on the heat-proof mat. There, under a rising plume of smoke, it burned down into a small pile of magnesium oxide. When the teacher returned from the adjacent classroom and saw what was happening, he stood with the rest of the class and watched. We all witnessed this the best we could without staring directly at the bright light, which can cause temporary blindness.
The following year, during a break in chemistry class, the door between the two adjacent classrooms was open and I spoke with a kid in the year below. I wanted his class to have the same enjoyable experience, so I told him what I had done. A while later, I heard shouting from the other room. Apparently, the kid has set light to the pencil sharpener, but our teacher had responded very differently. I heard later that, in an attempt to stop the burning, he had thrown a damp cloth onto it. I just learned that when water comes into contact with burning magnesium it creates hydrogen, which is very explosive. The explosion sent shards of white-hot burning magnesium in all directions, one of which burned a hole through the teachers signature jacket. Apparently, he took his jacket off before it burned his skin.
Later on, I saw the deep hole in the wooden desk caused by the burning block of magnesium. Until I wrote this, I never understood why the teacher reacted so differently the second time. Now I suspect that this other kid lit the sharpener and then placed it down on the wooden desk, rather than on a heat-proof mat. Our teacher must have been worried about the desk catching fire.
First thing in the morning, we would all assemble in the main hall of the school. I often felt very sleepy as I stood there in that small space. Hundreds of us children were packed like sardines in tidy rows, pretending to listen to a talk by one of the teachers. Every so often, a kid would go unconscious and a loud thud could be heard as they collapsed onto the floor where perhaps there was a little more oxygen. I assume that the thud was the sound of their head hitting the floor. I don’t think anyone went to assist them.
I would stare up past the stuffy heat of all those bodies to the skylight above, and to the blue sky beyond, wondering if there was enough oxygen in the room, wondering why they didn’t bring in fans like you see in tunnels.
One day, I heard one of the kids behind me rush out of the assembly room, into the lobby of the school. I assumed that this student had been on the verge of collapse and had made a break for air in the parking lot. But I can’t imagine that someone on the verge of passing out from suffocation would have the strength to save themselves. Perhaps, instead, this kid was rushing to the bathroom to vomit.
Nevertheless, I took cue from that other kid. On another day, when I felt particularly sleepy and I found myself rocking back and forth, I proactively broke rank and walked out of the room. Mostly, I was scared of the embarrassment I would feel if I went floppy and collapsed, probably banging into the kids around me as I tumbled into a heap on the floor. I don’t remember if I was reprimanded for my insubordination, but it opened my mind to the idea that I could take self-preserving action in spite of dysfunctional systems.
I have a vague memory of a few older and much bigger kids picking me up and putting me in a dumpster. I had no idea why they did it, and I simply waited until they left before climbing back out. I didn’t feel scared or angry, just confused. Strangely, when I heard about Brock Turner drugging and then raping that woman behind a dumpster, in my mind it was that same dumpster.
Hole in the Head
In middle school, when I was about eight, the teacher told us all to go and use the bathroom before the next activity. When I returned, two girls had stood on either side of the classroom door and joined hands to create a barrier to prevent me getting back in. I pushed really hard against the barrier until they suddenly let go. This led to me rushing head-first across the classroom and slamming my forehead into the corner of a desk.
When I realized that my head was bleeding, I went to the teacher to ask for help. She looked at me and, unable to see the source of the blood under my hair, said, “It’s just a nose bleed. Go and get a tissue.” I wiped up as much of the blood as I could and went back to my desk for the rest of the class.
At lunchtime, my forehead was still bleeding. So while sitting to eat lunch, I held the hair covering my forehead out of the way with my hand, hoping that an adult might notice the bleeding hole.
Finally, the school secretary walked past the table where I was sitting and noticed. She looked shocked and asked me what happened. My mum came to collect me and take me to hospital. They put something like 14 stitches in it, and I still have a visible scar there.
Just Hanging Around
I remember being picked up by older kids and hung on a coat hook by the back of my blazer. I just hung there until someone noticed and took me back down. I don’t remember feeling upset or angry. Like a lot of these incidents, I was just confused because I didn’t understand the purpose of these behaviors. I never thought of myself as being bullied in those early years of secondary school, but as I write these stories I’m realizing that there were quite a lot of instances of what would be considered bullying. I wonder if it was the same older kids who were doing that.
In the UK when I was growing up, kids made fun of other kids who had ginger hair. I guess they got picked on simply because they were different. There was one kid who had ginger hair that we all called Odie because he vaguely reminded us of Garfield’s buddy. I also called him Odie because that’s what we all called him, but I don’t think I was one of the main people who picked on him or bullied him. One day, he and I were in the changing room, and I said something to him. I don’t remember what I said, but it was something that seemed normal, natural, and habitual in our little micro-culture. He responded by beating the crap out of me. I remember thinking, You’ve got a good point. That was an unkind thing to say to you. I could understand that he had been feeling hurt and I felt sorry for him. It wasn’t really fair that I got beaten up, but it was apparently necessary. After that, I made sure to treat him with the respect that all humans deserve.