Picking Teams

A recent phone call jogged a number of memories about school life and its aftermath and it got me thinking about the structures of our lives and which people are close to us and which people aren’t, and why. I think of school fondly as a time when I was happy, challenged, keen, committed, ready, and willing to laugh off failure (well, some failures) with the knowledge that it: a) doesn’t matter and at least you had a go; or b) it does matter, but there’s time to make another attempt and the second attempt will always be a smarter effort than the first, as experience will go into planning it. Of course I was learning about a third option: c) it matters, you had a go, you performed poorly, there are many better than you at the task, and that will always be the case. The last option could be said to represent a crucial realisation in mature thinking and seeing the world as an adult. I don’t know. It sounds just half-smart enough to be true.

But it would be enough, at this point, to say that I was popular. Not popular in the US teen film way from the 1980s – no panty raids from the girls’ dorm or showers, no keg parties, and no jocks enjoying themselves at nerds’ expense. (The concept of nerd has changed quite radically in fifteen years – please believe me, those of you under 30 when I say that to be a nerd was almost like having a serious illness, frequently thought to be contagious, and it didn’t just mean “he like to play his PS3”). Popular in this case meant having friends from a number of the school’s subcultures. It was an environment which didn’t admit – or tried very hard not to admit – absolute dickheads, so the moron ratio was exceedingly low. However there were still sporty types, smart but popular types, may of whom were sporty too, the just plain popular, and others: thinkers, triers, strugglers, misfits, artists/musicians who didn’t emerge into the light very often, rebels, and a very few other sub-subcultures. These categories often overlapped and I knew and was friendly with individuals from the cross-section available. Others, perhaps those who felt popularity was a game they chose not to play (often because they moved in small circles and wondered at the privileges they may have been missing, which they actually weren’t) may have thought negative things about me. (It was a shock when I learned that people genuinely disliked me; sure, I never expected to be everyone’s best mate, but that’s a long way from a species of hatred.) I was never purely a “popular” school kid. Never. It was more that I drew contacts from a variety of sources. I knew some teachers well as I was quite bright and I had been pretty decent at playing footy and running fast and had played cricket in a not disgracefully bad manner and I liked to read or at least was interested in lessons which had nothing to do with maths or science. Yes, I enjoyed the school – the blackboard/whiteboard part of school. Sorry, but I did.

The group I mostly mixed with had all sort of grown up together from the Junior (primary) School and it had been a violent, relentlessly aggressive humidicrib to find oneself in. Not so much like Lord of the Flies in it’s edgy outdoorsy aspect – although let loose in gyms and playing fields, I saw some mistreatment that was out of proportion to circumstance on a number of occasions. But no, it was almost like growing up at the court of Versailles, with the virulent bitchiness (“wit” as it might have been called then – making a “good call” as we called it) being the highest marker of rank distinction. It was important to be able to cut someone down to size, to be wantonly cruel verbally, as well as physically, and of course emotionally. This process seemed to start behind the back of an individual who thought himself a member of the gang. And it was a thing to enjoy. To take pleasure in an individual being pilloried with no hope of defending himself (it was a boys’ school) and to laugh, and perhaps to wonder whether or when it might be you. Yes, it was the mob – albeit a select mob – enjoying itself at the expense of weak individuals. Sometimes it didn’t follow the pattern of a few nasty things said when the chap wasn’t there, followed by nasty things said and done when he was; sometimes that phase would be dispensed with and the group would just simply drop someone who thought himself a member, explicitly telling him that his membership acceptance was not in the mail, and his papers would never be stamped. And it is also true that people outside the ambit of this organisation’s reach were occasionally targeted, just for fun, because it would be a laugh. It wasn’t funny, looking back, but I did laugh. I was there.

I came to realise in the few months after school ended, at about the same time as seeing these guys was becoming less fun for other reasons, that perhaps I was on the outer. It was just a feeling. Then came the comments and negativity and general cruelty, like poking a bear with a stick, just wherever you can reach, and laughing and clapping when it appears to “fight back” inside its steel cage. And it seemed that the process I had dimly identified as happening to others was happening to me. So I walked.

And it seems, from this remove, many years later, that what I did was simply to walk out of training in the team I was playing for, the team with the huge egos who didn’t really care about each other when backs were against the wall, and I walked down the street and knocked on the door of the next team I found, a team whose players I knew and who played for fun and were interested in each other and were more than happy for me to join them if I promised not to be a dickhead. I promised. I knew these men. They were some of the many individuals I’d known from school. They were friends already, but I was on their team now.

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Published in: on July 29, 2010 at 8:23 pm  Leave a Comment  

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