Reflections on school days, bullying and the bad bus

seatbeltsIt’s going to be a while before either of my children (one a toddler, the other yet to be born) go to school, but given how quickly time has whizzed by since little Jack first emerged gunky and cone-headed into the world, I wouldn’t be surprised to look up to discover him bedecked in a blazer and sporting an incredibly ill-advised side-parting the second I’m finished writing this article.

The thought of sending my children to school terrifies me. For all that school is a place of forced captivity where lessons are learned and friendships forged, so is fucking prison. School’s a place where we’re bundled off to be indoctrinated into a work-a-day routine that’ll help keep the wheels of capitalism spinning, whether we’re destined to become the spinners or the spun. They’re living-flesh factories, sorting children by aptitude and ability and then spitting them along the conveyer belt – or down the garbage chute – of life. Teachers seem to be so over-worked and under-resourced that even the most inspirational of them are too busy being crushed under a ton-weight of bureaucracy to break out any Dead Poets Society-style shit. While it’s true that school has the power to teach you a lot about yourself and the wider world, that doesn’t prove that the experience is ultimately a worthwhile one. After all, even in war people still find time to play a quick game of five-asides against the foreign exchange students.

In some ways, things are even more war-like than they were in my day. Schools now have their own cops, for Christ’s sake! How did that happen? This development in community policing indicates either that schools are now fundamentally unsafe places to send our children, or else the government is conducting a grand experiment to save time and money by identifying and labelling future offenders early: a choice between The Hunger Games and Minority Report, if you like. Bullying, which has always been a constant of school-life, has now entered The Matrix thanks to the oppressive, omnipresent connectivity of social media. 2016’s bullies have the access and power of the fucking Lawnmower Man, meaning that my kids can now be bullied in the comfort of their own bedrooms, 24/7. In my day (there’s that fuddy duddy refrain again), a bedroom was a sanctuary that only homework and mothers had to power to penetrate.

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I’m perhaps over-accentuating the doom and gloom element of school life in general and my own school days in particular. My schools were hardly the stuff of The Wire, or Dangerous Minds; they were rather pleasant places, actually, and I do have a lot of fond memories to look back upon. As I still live in the same general area I’ve no reason to expect that my sons will experience a radically different school-life from mine. Even still, whichever school they attend is going to have a ‘Lord of the Flies’ flavour that I dearly wish they didn’t have to taste: regardless of any culturally-shared notions of school ‘preparing them for the real world’ or ‘building their characters’. Simply put, my partner and I can’t afford to send them to private school.

The good news is, though, that because we can’t send them to private school, my paper-thin socialist sensibilities get to remain untested and intact. Thank God for that. (clears throat and raises fist aloft) Education for all! Down with the two-tier system! Private school kids are all snobby bastards… (checks bank balance again, just in case)

Of course, Private school wouldn’t eliminate psychopathic bullies from my children’s school life, but it would probably buy them a better breed of psychopathic bully. Instead of being stuck in a class alongside kids who listed among their hobbies eating stringy bogies, setting fire to bins and taking steaming shits in the teacher’s supply cupboard, they could be rubbing shoulders with the crème de la creme of cold-hearted monsters, the sort of rich boys who will inevitably grow up to destroy the world’s economy with one solitary sniff of Bolivian and a single thump of an ENTER key (We’ve considered home-schooling, but my partner’s worried we’d make them weird. They share fifty per cent of my DNA, love. That ship’s already sailed).

Thinking about my kids’ future school days has got me thinking about my own behaviour at high school. While – broadly speaking – I was a good, unobjectionable and unremarkable young lad: never quite top of the class; never quite on the teachers’ shit lists; liked – or at least tolerated – by a wide-ish spectrum of the school continuum – I could still be an absolute cuntbag. As all teenage boys, I’m certain, have the potential to be, a potential that most of them fulfil at one point or another.

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My cuntbaggery always shone brightest when I was sitting up the back seats of the Wallacestone bus on the journey home from school, alongside a merry band of chanting dick-bags who – when we weren’t cruelly impersonating teachers or singing bawdy football songs (which even I joined in with, despite my hatred of football) – took great delight in providing really quite horrible intro music for the bus’s regular cast of characters. We revelled in the supreme power our size, seniority and prime seating afforded us, believing ourselves to be banter-maestros extraordinaire, when in reality we were a bunch of boorish, bullying bastards in the iron grip of mob rule.

The memories are a catalogue of shame. There was a little boy of wholly Caucasian extraction whom we decided had a curiously Mexican flavour to his heritage, and so, without fail, every time this poor unfortunate boy stepped onto the bus, we stamped our feet in unison and mimicked the vigorous strumming of guitars, belting out a Speedy Gonzales-esque Mexican ditty. You know the one: de de de-de de de-de de de-de, de de-de de de-de de de-de. We may even have shouted Ariba. We really were cunts.

There was another boy called Michael, still not sure of his surname, whose only crime was to have an ear-ring. He also bore a striking resemblance to a young Jimmy Sommerville. When he got on the bus we always chanted, “Micheal Thingmy is a poofter!”, which we repeated and repeated until he’d sat down, each line of the chant punctuated by four loud hand-claps. I don’t know what hit Michael Thingmy the hardest: the taunts about his ear-ring, or the fact that we never considered his surname all that important to the bullying process. Michael’s probably a bank manager with a wife and three kids by now, and it’s my fond hope that the Thingmy family is doing well.

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Another poor boy was welcomed daily with a chant of ‘You smell, and you know you do’, again and again until he disappeared up the top deck of the bus. It’s never been confirmed that he actually smelled, and it’s certainly never been confirmed that he knew that he did. He never stuck around to debate the matter with us, quite correctly ascertaining that a gang of idiots with a mixed-back of monosyllabic chants probably wasn’t the best group to engage in rational discussion.

The worst song was reserved for one of our own, a pleasant chap by the name of Craig Muir (*not his real name), and to my eternal shame I must confess to having written it. Craig was a nice, normal lad, peaceful by nature, and never went looking for trouble. He had a close friendship with his brother, and at primary school used to win fights by chewing on his own hand with a terrifying look in his eyes (the tactic being: “If I can do this to myself, think what I’ll do to you!”). From that scant biography grew a song that went a little like this:

The Muiry Song

Verse 1

He lives in a house of tar and bricks,

He’s had the same jacket since primary six,

And when in a fight one must demand,

He opens his mouth and bites his hand.

Chorus

Muiry boy,

Muiry boy,

Went to the shop for a new sex toy,

Stuck it up his bum,

Covered it in cum,

Oh Muiry boy, oh what’s your ploy?

There were a lot of other verses, possibly as many as there are to be found in our own national anthem, which have thankfully been lost to the mists of time: one of which I’m sure was about the Muir brothers fucking each other. It was a very subtle piece of work. The song became so popular that another wee guy in our circle, Karl, typed up the lyrics and handed out song sheets. Song sheets on the bus, for fuck sake. Some of these guys never did their homework, but committed themselves with great zeal to this extra-curricular musical extravaganza. Years later, in my mid-twenties, I was at a function at a hotel, and was served by Craig Muir. One of the first things he said to me, with a scowl on his face, was: ‘That fucking Muiry Boy song.’

The bad news: I was an arsehole. The good news? I’d written a hit song.

NEXT TIME: The scales are re-balanced slightly when I recount my own experiences of being bullied, and of saving someone from bullying. Plus, an introduction to the phenomenon of ‘the shaggy pole’.

(PLEASE NOTE: NEXT TIME could be a long time away. Child number 2 is imminent, and I have to be in the mood to write it. I’m sure you’re on the edges of your seats waiting, right?)

999: The Devil’s Real Sign

hos1It was a normal Sunday night, which I was spending staving off the reality of Monday morning by immersing myself in as much mindless entertainment as possible. As my partner and little boy slept in the room next door, I was busy jacking cars and killing cops (it would’ve been a different Sunday night entirely had those two verb-noun combos swapped partners) through the hyper-violent medium of Grand Theft Auto.

I heard a woman-shaped holler from the bedroom, and tutted. No doubt I’d forgotten to do something, or was being commanded to undertake some meaningless, non-urgent task just as my ever-precious man-hours were dwindling down to zero. I chose not to react straight-away. Sometimes being half-deaf has its advantages. A second passed, maybe two, and the holler came again, more insistent this time. This was a bad sign, like when you see the lightning flash at the same time as you hear the thunder. But I didn’t think the situation was serious serious; just serious in a ‘Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned’ kind of way. I bounced the Xbox remote across the table and bounded up from my seat like an ape, growling out a surly and exasperated ‘WHAT!?’

The hollers kept coming. I loped across the room, grabbed for living-room door handle and yanked it open; in the hallway outside, a pack of words like sharp-toothed dogs were lying in wait. “SOMETHING’S WRONG WITH THE BABY! JAMIE, WHAT IF HE DIES?!” At that precise moment, my world collapsed. A hurricane of adrenalin ripped through my body. Thoughts sloshed in my head like oil; the world spun simultaneously into fast-forward and rewind. I had no language, no reason – there were no decipherable sentences imprinting themselves across my subconscious like lines of ticker-tape – but even without the power of coherence my brain knew that this moment could be an ending; and one in which I could be trapped, ever-looping, for the rest of my natural life.

I burst into the bedroom to see my little boy’s eyes rolled back and lifeless, a deathly pallor painted across his skin, his lips turning a bruised blue. “HE’S NOT BREATHING! HE’S NOT BREATHING!” Panic propelled me through the house as I thumped and flailed for the phone, my brain buzzing with blood and static. Seconds stretched like hours. I couldn’t find it, I couldn’t think. “Darling, come on, darling, mummy’s here, you’re okay, darling, open your eyes.” My partner’s pleas haunted every room of the house.

It’s too late, I thought… It’s too late.

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I stood in the close outside my front door hollering ‘HELP!’, and hammering on my neighbour’s door. Milliseconds later I was dialling numbers into my phone, not even aware of when it had made its way into my hand, or how. A voice – a dying echo of my own – pleaded with the emergency services: “Please help me, I think my son is going to die.” My neighbour and her friends opened their door on a wild-eyed, spluttering apparition. Wordlessly, they followed me into my house, rushing, running, racing to the bedroom, where they stood prostrate and helpless, not knowing what to do, or what was expected of them. I didn’t know either. I’d summoned their help in a blind panic, a mad-eyed monster of instinct and fear. I didn’t know what to do. My little boy was dying, and I didn’t know what to do.

The ambulance seemed to take both seconds and hours to arrive. Paramedics checked my son over; by then he’d snapped out of his fugue and was breathing close-to-normally again. He vomited, and cried. As we wiped his face and set about changing his vest, he started calling for the cat. We laughed, amused that amid all the chaos and panic his sudden illness had caused, and all the unusualness that now surrounded him, all he cared about was the company of his four-legged friend, a friend who was unable to reciprocate his love on account of being quite, quite terrified of him. Mostly, though, it was a laugh borne of the relief that he was able to ask for anything at all. Five minutes ago, to our absolute certainty, we had lost him, and had resigned ourselves to enduring the rest of our short, miserable lives as ghosts in search of a death.

The paramedics, those Vulcan-like stoics, were satisfied that he was stable, and not in any imminent danger, although he still seemed weak, hot and feverish. Mother and son rode to the hospital in the back of the ambulance, and I took the car, a decision for which I berated myself mercilessly as I sped out of the street. How could I be thinking pragmatically about our return journey from the hospital? What if he dies in the ambulance? Aren’t his last moments worth the cost of a taxi ride? He’s okay, I kept telling myself, he’s sick but he’s okay, he’s with his mum, he’s surrounded by life-saving medical equipment and he’s in a vehicle that’s speeding him to a building that’s filled with highly-trained medical professionals. Try as I might I couldn’t stem the flow of panic. Each time my brain almost managed to quell my heart with reassuring thoughts, a feedback loop sent fresh waves of adrenalin bouncing back between them both. I’m not a superstitious man, but I couldn’t extinguish the irrational notion that my very complacency could be the thing to sign my son’s death warrant; that keeping calm was an act of hubris for which I would be punished by the universe through my son. Adrenalin jolted through my body, forcing my foot down upon the accelerator. I thought about my son being in the ambulance. I thought he was okay. I was almost certain he was okay. But I didn’t know. Maybe he wasn’t.

Schrödinger’s child.

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I got to the hospital before the ambulance did, a fact that should’ve been reassuring. If it was serious, I tried to tell myself, they’d have overtaken me on the motorway. My brain, however, reliably pessimistic, managed to conjure a thousand harrowing counterpoints to this theory, from a spent battery to a six-car pile-up. Over the next five minutes or so, a clutch of ambulances arrived in the A&E bay, and I rushed to meet each one. My partner and little boy weren’t on board: only a cavalcade of beleaguered old ladies and grim-faced men. I knew that I should’ve felt some measure of sympathy towards them, cast them as principal characters in their own stories instead of resenting them for being unwelcome extras in mine, but their pain and autonomy meant nothing to me. I only cared about one ambulance.

Eventually, it trundled into the bay. Slowly, silently. Both good signs. But still…

The ambulance rolled to a stop, one of the paramedics opened his door and slipped out of his seat on to the tarmac. As he opened the rear doors, a soft and plaintive ‘Daddy’ sailed out of the gap. I don’t think I’ve ever felt more relief.

We spent the next few hours cradling our swaddled son in our arms in a succession of waiting rooms and consultation rooms, watching him doze, relieved but never quite relaxed. By the early hours of the morning, he’d regained something of his old Jack-ness. He wanted to explore the corridors, and we let him waddle penguin-like past gurneys and trolleys, palm-slapping walls and pushing wheel-mounted stools around like they were comfortable leather Daleks. The nurses we saw were pleased with how he was behaving and responding, but said they’d feel happier keeping him in overnight. We were happy too, on both counts. I couldn’t stay, so drove home to sleep for a couple of hours – not an easy proposition – and bring back fresh clothes, toys and food.

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He had another seizure first thing in the morning, which was almost as terrifying as the first one for his mum, who had sat next to him all night in a hospital chair, worried, watching, and unable to sleep. I arrived a short while later expecting to find my son shrivelled and withered like a turtle with its shell ripped off. On the contrary. He was watching Peppa Pig and eating Quavers. He was hot, tired and clammy, but otherwise fighting fit. Thankfully, all of the tests they ran on him came back negative. No sepsis, no heart murmurs, no epilepsy. He’d simply had a fever, probably brought on by nothing more sinister than the common cold or a tummy bug, and the only remedies we were advised to dispense were TLC and Calpol.

We now know that it’s reasonably common for babies and infants to experience a seizure as a result of a high fever. It’s not the high temperature itself that causes the seizure, but rather the speed with which the temperature spikes. Any sudden and severe upsurge in temperature can send their little bodies into overload, and into a seizure that can last for six minutes or more. I don’t think forewarned is necessarily forearmed, though. One of the doctors told us that when it happened to her kid, despite having a vast encyclopaedic knowledge of infant medicine at her disposal, her heart leapt against her rib-cage like a zoo tiger rebelling against its bars. I’m paraphrasing her ever so slightly. If it ever happens to our child again – and it goes without saying that I hope it never, ever, ever does – I doubt I’ll be able to whip out the stopwatch and look calmly into his little blue face, wondering when it’ll be finished so I can get back to Grand Theft Auto. ‘One minute twenty nine, one minute thirt… come on, son, hurry up, I’ve got prostitutes to murder!’

Later that next day, my sister told me that as a child I used to suffer from high temperature spikes rather frequently, which tended to inspire hallucinations rather than full-on seizures. I once hallucinated that a swarm of bees was crawling out of my mouth. Wailing and terrified, my mum sought to assuage my panic by lifting me up to a mirror to show me that it was all in my head: a move that only served to highlight just how much she still had to learn about the nature of hallucinations. Having been brought face to face with incontrovertible proof of my own terrifying bee-ness, I proceeded to scream the house down. I don’t remember any of that. I do remember being a little older and running through to my sister’s room, and barricading myself beneath her covers, because all of the toys in my room had come to life and were trying to get me. Was that seizure-related? I always assumed I was a mental-case, or else possessed an over-active imagination.

I've managed to find 62 per cent of my childhood nightmare on-line.

I’ve managed to find 62 per cent of my childhood nightmare on-line.

Case in point. I used to have a recurring nightmare about a jester who lived in a palace that was tiled top-to-bottom in squares of black and white marble. The jester’s hat and shoes and tunic all carried the same black and white pattern. His wide, mad eyes were black-and-white swirls that pulsed and morphed and spun in his head, round and round like some hideous kaleidoscope. He’d laugh maniacally, a horrid, high-pitched laugh that was almost a shriek. Anyone unlucky enough to catch a glimpse of those terrible eyes would fall under their hypnotic spell, and find themselves frozen to the spot, laughing and laughing and laughing without end, doomed to become living statues standing in tribute to their own eternal insanity. My family would be his usual victims – my mum, my grandparents, my uncles, my cousins. They’d all be standing in the Jester’s palace laughing that same crazy laugh, their eyes swirling, and I’d be rooted to the spot along with them, free from the jester’s spell, but crying, frightened, unable to escape. I remember standing fully awake in the hallway of my childhood home around the time of the nightmare’s reign, thinking that the jester was in the living room waiting for me, and I fell to the floor and froze, unable to move for a very long time, despite my terror.

Was that a seizure, too? Did I pass on this tendency to short-circuit to my son? Or was it just a coincidence? Whatever the truth, after an event like this the over-riding instinct is to blame, if only to give a face to the culprit, a face you can plainly see and identify, and recognise for the next time. As we sat in the waiting room, I blamed the Chinese we’d had the night before, my mother-in-law’s new cat, the damp in one of the rooms in our house, assorted sneezers we’d come into contact with, myself for not realising how ill he’d been.

How the jester made me feel on that long-ago afternoon is exactly how I felt during those frantic five minutes on that terrible Sunday night. Helpless, powerless, afraid. As a Dad, I know I can protect my son from choking on a grape, I can push him out of the way of a car, I can even leap in front of a bullet for him, but there’s very little I can do to save him from the random and unseeable dangers that lurk around every corner: microscopic assailants, planes falling from the sky, bin lorries hurtling over pavements, asteroid strikes. I guess the unquenchable fear of the unknown comes with the stewardship. It’s something all of us face, whether we’re parents or not, this fear of life, and fear of death, but somehow it’s worse to bear by proxy, when that fear is distilled into the shape of your child.

There are parents out there who have to cope on a daily basis with children suffering from lingering, even life-long, illnesses; there are parents out there living through the unimaginable grief of having lost a child. I’m more grateful than I could ever express that we don’t count among their number, and I have boundless admiration and sympathy for those parents who must endure such enormous burdens. Our boy was fine. We were scared shitless, but no great or lasting harm was done. We were lucky. I know this.

However, what-ifs of relief can be almost as unpleasant as what-ifs of regret. I still get random flashes of my little boy’s face as he was seizing that send shivers down my spine. Last week I took him to the park, and as we were driving home he became drowsy and started to nod off in his car seat, fighting it all the way so his head kept dipping and lurching. I knew it was normal, cute even, but still a little voice in the back of my head was screaming: ‘STAY AWAY FROM THE LIGHT!’

When the little guy is older, he’ll never remember that this happened to him. Hell, he’d forgotten it while he was still in the hospital – coincidentally around about the same time as we discovered the play-room and its explosion of toys. When he was discharged in the late afternoon, as we were readying ourselves to leave the hospital, we asked him, ‘Do you want to go home and see the cat?’

‘No,’ he said, shaking his head, before bounding off in search of a toy train.

‘Fuck the cat,’ his demeanour seemed to say. ‘This place is awesome.’

I envy him.

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More articles connected with parenting available on this site:

A Celebration of Public Breastfeeding

Existential Nightmare at the Soft-Play Warehouse

On Being a Dad