Why you should care
Because everybody’s somebody’s jerk.
In the summer between primary and secondary school, at the age of 11, I discovered rock music. Nirvana, to be exact.
It sounded like rockets going off in my brain, and it was perfect and changed me almost instantly. I decided to dye my hair red with henna and become a vegetarian. At the time, 1993, everyone liked rave music (or pretended to), wore Reebok Classics and had French crops. Come September, I was a tiny, half-heeb rock kid in Doc Martens, a new transplant to a tough all-boys state school in South London, and I did not do well.
The rules were different from primary school. Insults now came with spit, and fights weren’t really fights, more like childish gang beatings. I can’t say I learned to stand up for myself, but I suppose I can take a punch pretty well. I wish this was a story of being tempered and coming out strong, but in reality it was the start of very severe depression and suicidal ideation.
During this time, my parents’ relationship was really rocky. My mum would often talk to me about getting a flat and moving away from my dad, which seemed like it could be just as bad. I’m an only child, and when my folks weren’t ignoring me, they were shouting over me, fighting about me or using me as a conduit for their hatred for each other any time I would open my mouth, so I learned not to. I became quiet and withdrawn.
My best friend and neighbor, JJ, was in the year above in school. It was about this time he stopped hanging out with me as much. Can’t hang with younger kids. Standard. We picked it up years later, so it was cool, but it was rough at the time. So my only real friend at school was a guy in my class called Tim. He was tall and gangly. Awkward, but funny. We didn’t like the same music, but we both liked comic books and bonded over that.
His parents were divorced, but his mum had remarried and had a new kid. They were Jesus-y types, but really nice. I had never known Christians before, and they weren’t anything like I had been led to believe from my dad’s Saturday-morning Trotskyist arguments with door-stopping Jehovah’s Witnesses. I used to go over to Tim’s after school or on a weekend and play video games. Once, we tried making our own comic. Tim was great at drawing, and I loved to write. Tim’s parents were quiet and nice and attentive. They taught me how to play snooker on their mini table; the sequence of colors green, brown and yellow was “‘God. Bless. You.’ You see? Easy!”
One evening, my parents had a particularly bad row. I was lying on the floor of the front room doing my homework, and my mum found a treasured ceramic cat my dad had broken by using it to prop up something heavy. I can’t really remember the details, except it ended with my mum almost punching my dad round the face with a hot iron. They did this all in front of me, of course. As always.
The next day I was really scared that my parents were going to break up. Maybe I was hoping that they would, and that scared me. I told Tim at lunch, and he told me what it was like for him. He said that it gets better, and I thanked him as best I could as an 11-year-old, overwhelmed by an array of conflicting emotions: my parents’ cruelty toward each other in sharp relief to an act of kindness and empathy. I felt better, and I didn’t really know what to say or how to thank him.
Insults now came with spit, and fights weren’t really fights, more like childish gang beatings. I can’t say I learned to stand up for myself, but I suppose I can take a punch pretty well.
When we went outside the enclosed, pigeon-infested grot of the main lunch hall, into the open-air barbarism of the playground, I challenged him to a race. To a far wall and back. Although not sporty, I was a good sprinter and could easily make up for the height difference in a short run.
As we started to run, I deliberately tripped Tim. I sent him flying, and he fell to the floor and was met with a chorus of jeers and mocking laughter from what felt like hundreds of kids. He picked himself up, his hands and eyes red, and shouted at me. He pushed me to the ground and walked away. I didn’t go round to his house again.
I’m sorry, Tim.