CALLING other kids names when you are young, rightly or wrongly — well, wrongly obviously — is part of growing up.
My parents, most parents, I would imagine, trotted out the “sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me” line, but it was wrong, they did.
It’s something most of us have gone through, but I suspect Michael Preston had it worse than most.
“Oi (and I’ll go with this, even though it’s politically incorrect, because the story wouldn’t work without it) Puff Man, you ***,” someone (not me) would shout. To be fair to Michael, who was actually one of the very few in my class to have a girlfriend, he would retort with a volley of swear words in an attempt to look tougher than his nickname intended him to.
On the surface, Michael never seemed to let the name calling bother him, but it must have done, so why did we do it? Because it let us off the hook.
With kids there’s a bit of a ranking mentality among the pack. There’s a leader, a group around that person (all usually the toughest or the best at football), then quite a few who are mid-table and a number battling it out not to be the ones picked on and bullied.
So, when someone else cops it for months of relentless bullying, be it physical or verbal, you are hardly going to stick up for them if it means putting yourself in danger of joining the victim in camp vulnerable.
I was usually okay. I could kick a ball (not brilliant) and play cricket (not bad) and, while being small at school compared to my brother, who was younger and taller, was way off the smallest.
Michael wasn’t small either, and he was a friendly lad, but something about him annoyed people and as such he was treated appallingly.
He disappeared one week and didn’t return to school for a while. When he did he informed us he had been to stay at an uncle’s and got himself arrested having stolen a load of his host’s cash.
I can’t remember the punishment he received, but he seemed quite blasé about it and said his uncle had forgiven him.
The best part about it from his point of view was that he had suddenly gained a whole load of cred in the eyes of certain types at school.
This wasn’t good news for those who relied on a couple remaining below them in the pecking order, but there’s an innate survival mechanism in place that tells youngsters when they are at risk and somehow I would find myself laughing at some other unfortunate who was being picked on by one of the “cocks” of the school. It’s a word I would probably use about them now but not for the same reason.
I hope the people who were bullied at school — I wasn’t one but I didn’t help those who were either — didn’t suffer for the rest of their lives. I suspect the majority didn’t, but there are always some who slip through the net, including one who disappeared from our lives for good. But that’s another story.