There’s only one thing worse than being old: being young.
I’ll take wrinkles, hemorrhoids and accidental wee-spurts over the terrifying sinkhole of childhood.
Clarification: when I say I’ll ‘take’ these age-related afflictions, it implies that I have accepted them as gifts; the least-wanted gifts one would want to open on Christmas Day. Nobody explicitly offers us these physical pleasures of middle age. To ‘take’ them over the experience of childhood is to say that were there a marketplace where torturous life experiences must be selected, I would not offer my patronage to the Stall of Childhood whose fayre includes insecurity, persecution and powerlessness, but would head straight to the Stall of Middle-Age and happily fill my basket with a smorgasboard of bodily humiliations, unfulfilled dreams and deepest regrets.
Powerlessness is perhaps the most torturous aspect of childhood. If your parents are crap you cannot un-crap them. If your teachers are evil you cannot turn them to goodness, or legally stab them with a compass.
And if you are repeatedly informed by other kids that you are too fat or too skinny, too thick or too swotty, too poor or too rich, too ugly or too pretty, too gay or too black; not only are you powerless to stop them, you begin to believe them.
They might deliver their cruel assessment of you with a punch. Or they might make up lies about you that spread faster than the STD you’re rumoured to have. They might call you names. And ‘they’ might even be your supposed friends.
Ben Smith knows all this. Last night he won the Helen Rollason BBC Sports Personality of the Year award for Outstanding Achievement in the Face of Adversity.
At school he was beaten up almost daily for having the wrong hair, the wrong clothes and in later years, the wrong sexuality. They crushed him. They frightened him. And they almost took his life from him. After two suicide attempts, numerous breakdowns, severe depression and twenty years suppressing his sexuality, one night he went to a running club. He ran three miles that night. Three miles down a new road which would lead to him quitting his city job, quitting the closet and becoming the man who would run 401 marathons in 401 days to raise awareness and money for anti-bullying charities.
In the picture I’m around eight years old. Chubby little thing aren’t I? Not fat exactly, but definitely rotund of the belly which my mother has so thoughtfully accentuated in that tight shirt tucked into tight jeans, bursting at the seams.
This is when I became ‘fatty’. For the next four years, my days would be peppered by hearing that word hurled at me as I walked by, as I got changed for PE, as I ran on sports day. Walking down the corridor, boys would stamp their feet in thunderous recognition that a herd of elephants was approaching, in the shape of a young ten-year-old girl.
Even the boys I fancied, the boys I actually went out with, called me fatty. Especially after I chucked them. By the end of primary school, I was mostly truant, entirely with my mum’s permission. My world at home could be frightening, but outside held greater terrors: constant scrutiny, exclusion from friendship groups, teachers who openly mocked me. Plus, home had the advantage of allowing hours of unsupervised snacking…
To say this experience damaged me would be to overstate it. But it certainly helped to create a sizeable insecurity about myself which I have still yet to entirely shake off.
To my great shame, for a while I became a bully myself. I spent my first year of high school identifying targets. One girl had her lunch routinely drowned in my strawberry milkshake. Another was regularly tripped over by my black Dolcis slip-on shoes.
It only stopped when I found myself one day at lunchtime, cornering a boy in my form. He was smaller than me, poorer than me, smellier than me. He’d looked at me funny, so I pushed him up against the window, the whole form goading me on, and repeatedly hit him hard with my knuckles on the top of his head, until he fell to the floor crying.
Burning hot with rage, I walked away from him and towards my mates. Everyone was clapping and cheering, apart from my closest friend, who looked horrified. As I sat down, shaking, the knuckles of my right hand throbbing, she said to me: feel better now?
Which is what bullying is really about. Doing something, anything to feel better about ourselves. To feel powerful.
That’s what Ben Smith is tackling. He understands that both the bullied AND the bullies need to feel powerful and in control of their own lives. This is the message he’s taking into schools. All kids need help to identify the strength they each have within themselves; a strength which might protect them from becoming the persecuted or the persecutors.
I’m still working on finding my inner-strength. Please don’t tell me it can only be found by running what would be a marathon of accidental wee-spurts…
Ps. Nathan Smith, I will forever be sorry.