Despite the strange things that happened at the Martin Bormann Academy, bullying by other children was not one of them. When you have a head teacher called Mrs Whiplash, not to mention a sports teacher called Mr Lockjaw, there isn’t much room for bad behaviour. Not even from the kids who have social workers. With one hand, Mr Lockjaw can lift any of the top juniors and slam dunk them into the basket ball net at the far end of the gym. He rarely misses and gives himself three points each time he scores, but anyone who plays basketball knows that it is only worth two points. And just in case the other teachers miss anything, there is always our class teacher, Miss Battleaxe, who is blessed with a special gift of seeing through walls.
She once gave us a talk on bullying. It was very short. She slapped a metal ruler against the palm of her hand and said ‘If anyone here is getting up to that nonsense, I’m the one who’ll be doing it.’ Well, it was either bullying or health education.
The trouble is the bullying came from outside school; it came from the boys at St. Beckhams. A small group crossed the park each morning just as some of us were heading to school in the same direction. We dreaded that bit of our journey and tried to avoid them, but the same boys were always there. They would throw stones from the trees, trip us up from behind, and throw our books over the high walls which surround the Victorian pet cemetery. In winter, our scarves would be hurled out of reach over the branches of trees. In summer, when the weather was hot, they would get there early and splash around in the old swimming hole just off the main path. Then, having dried and dressed, they would hide in the bushes, and if one of us passed by, push us into the pool.
The Victorian pet cemetery was overgrown with weeds and was quite scary. There were dozens of little headstones with names like ‘Wee Bobbit, 1878’ or ‘Our Little Smudge, died under a horse’. Some pets had names that would get you into big trouble, if you used them today. Last year, Thomas Tarbrush and I climbed over the wall to explore the cemetery. While we were there, Greta Grunge, and her tongue poking friends, pushed a real live cat through a small hole in the wall. We were bending over to read a headstone that said ‘I am only sleeping master’ when it jumped out at us spitting furiously and we had to go home and change our pants.
Eventually, we reported the bullying to Miss Lovelace who is very young and pretty. We also told Miss Battleaxe who is not. Miss Lovelace was very interested because she had been on an anti-bullying course run by lots of experts. She got out a big file of notes and told us that most children who bully are themselves bullied by other pupils, and fewer than one in a hundred children are ‘true bullies’. Bullies also suffer from lots of family problems and deserve our sympathy. This did not go down well with Fred Frisbee, who had just spent ages looking for his shoes in the park, or with Jasmine Juxtapose who had to ask Mr Brush, the caretaker, to dry out her art project on the school boilers. Miss Lovelace was very young and pretty, but not much use when it came to dealing with the big issues in life.
Miss Battleaxe was not pleased with what she heard. If you have read ‘A Day Trip to the Zoo’, you will know that she had been arrested by a small woman policeman and had spent the rest of the day muttering ‘Never met one I didn’t want to kick’. We thought she was talking about the police, but later discovered from Dot and Carry, the school cleaners, that she meant bullies. Basil Burlap, whose dad is behind bars, said he couldn’t see the difference. Neither could Danny Dingbat, but he’s the class dunce. Anyway, Miss Battleaxe told us that she would speak to Mrs Whiplash, the head teacher. In the meantime, she advised us to walk together as a group when crossing the park, and make a note of the boys who were tormenting us. Winnie Wickers had just started to say that Lily Lasagne knew lots of boys from St. Beckhams and might recognise them, when she gave a painful yell and hopped around rubbing one of her ankles.
According to Dot and Carry, the cleaners who know everything, Mrs Whiplash had a meeting with Doctor Pratt, the head teacher at St. Beckhams . He’s not a proper doctor like Petal Patel’s dad, who wears a white coat, and can cure anything at his pharmacy. You also get to be called a doctor if you spend most of your grown up life as a student. According to Mr Lockjaw, you learn more and more about less and less and, if you are really clever, you might end up knowing everything about nothing. Doctor Pratt suggested an anti-bullying week which would involve all the schools in the area. Surveys would be carried out to see how big the problem was. He also offered to write an anti-bullying pamphlet called ‘Towards a Better World’. There would be special school assemblies, anti-bullying poetry, and each school would have its own fluffy anti-bullying mascot which could be carried in procession around the school, like the Olympic torch or a holy statue. When Mrs Whiplash told us about this at school assembly, Miss Lovelace clapped her hands with enthusiasm, and Mr Flowerdew beamed with pleasure. Mr Lockjaw just placed two fingers in his mouth and made strange noises with his throat.
After assembly, Mr Flowerdew was inspired to write a school anti-bullying song and the chorus went something like this:
Will we ever be successful?
Will we find fortune and fame?
Will we carry away all the prizes?
Will everyone know our name?
What does it really matter?
We hope that you will agree
As long as we show everyone respect
In a world that’s safe and free
It was quite a nice tune and when we sang it at parents’ evenings, the final two lines were sung by the smallest boy and girl standing with their arms reaching out to the audience. Some of the mothers could be seen dabbing tears from their eyes, but Mr Lockjaw just stood at the back of the hall making those strange noises.
Well, as you can imagine, nothing really changed. The stone throwing continued, as did the tripping up, the book snatching, the scarf hurling, and the early bath in the old swimming hole. The pamphlets ended up in the recycling bins and, Bully Beast, our anti-bullying mascot was found hanging by its neck from the town hall flagpole. We even tried singing Mr Flowerdew’s song to give us courage, but running away from the park bullies left us out of breath.
Then last summer, the hottest on record, something happened which was to bring an end to our misery. The local council ran a ‘Tidy Up Our Town’ campaign. It was launched on the steps of the town hall by a celebrity, but his speech wasn’t long enough for anyone to work out who he was. Then, flicking a toffee wrapper out of his sports car, he zoomed off with his agent to open a supermarket. As part of the town tidying campaign, Mrs Whiplash suggested that the top juniors helped clear litter from the paths in the park. After a group photo of us appeared in the local paper, some parents complained that we were being used by the council to save money. That didn’t worry Mrs Whiplash. She just turned it into a science project in which we had to list everything we found, discover what it was made of, and work out whether or not it could be recycled. She invited a little scientist with a big bushy beard to talk about the saving the planet, and got MacDonalds to pay his fee since most of the stuff we would collect was probably theirs.
Mr Lockjaw, the sports teacher, volunteered to be in charge of the park tidying team. We were to meet at the park gates just after 9.00 am which meant we could leave home late and avoid the bullies. He would be waiting there for us with a pile of green bin bags. When they were full, Mr Flowerdew would collect them in the school minibus and take them to the playground for sorting out. We were each to be issued with a pair of gloves and given a warning to watch out for anything sharp, like glass, knives or needles.
Several of us arrived at the gates just before 9.00 am. Mr Lockjaw was on his bicycle and had started much earlier because he had already filled one large bag. Across his handlebars, was a smaller bin bag which seemed to contain books or notepads. Despite the morning sun, he was wearing a hooded jacket which made us all laugh and we called him ‘Mr Hoodie’ but not loud enough for him to hear. Then we got to work and made our way along the paths and flower beds picking up litter. The local paper even sent a photographer to capture our efforts. Twenty minutes later, Petal Patel and Omar O’Shea came up the path from the old swimming hole and were having a fit of giggles.
‘What’s so funny?’ asked Basil Burlap.
‘We’ll tell you later,’ they said.
Then Mr Lockjaw appeared on his bike. He called us all together and told us ‘to fan out across the high ground for one final push through enemy lines’. According to Dot & Carry, he joined the Army as a sniper but got bored, and left to become a teacher.
After filling our bags, we brought them to the park gates and Mr Flowerdew took them to school in the minibus. Mr Lockjaw asked him to put his one large sack in the clothes bank for poor people. The rest of us continued walking to school which was just the other side of the park. Suddenly, through the trees, I caught a glimpse of Mr Lockjaw with his hood up and cycling towards the Victorian pet cemetery. He stopped long enough to sling the small sack of books and things over the wall and pedalled away. I thought we were meant to collect litter not chuck it back again, but I didn’t say anything. I know my place.
Back at school, we started sifting through the litter, but Mrs Whiplash told us just to gather a sample of what we found and put the rest in the recycling bins. ‘It’s a scientific study,’ she explained, ‘And that means we only need a sample.’ Mr Brush, the school caretaker, breathed a sigh of relief.
Sitting in the sun, we began to check out the litter we had collected. Petal Patel and Omar O’Shea joined our group and were still giggling. Eventually, they calmed down and explained the reason for their silliness.
‘When we went down the path to the old swimming hole,’ said Petal, ‘We heard boys whispering on the far side of the bushes.’
‘We thought they might be the ones who bully kids walking to school through the park,’ added Omar, ‘But it was too late in the morning for them to still be there.’
‘So we hid in the bushes and sneaked down to the swimming hole,’ said Petal, ‘And you’ll never guess what we saw. There were about six boys sitting at the edge of the pool, wrapped in large ferns, and shivering.’
‘Yes,’ agreed Omar, ‘They were talking about making a dash for it, but someone said that the park was full of kids and there was a photographer hanging about.’
‘In fact,’ added Petal, ‘We saw the photographer later, and told him he’d get some really good shots of our underwater team down at the swimming hole.’
At that moment, Mr Lockjaw cycled into the school grounds, jumped off his bike, saluted and said ‘Mission Accomplished’. We all clapped. Then he rubbed his hands together and said, ‘Now, who’s for a game of basketball?’, but he was only joking.
‘Mr Lockjaw,’ called Lily Lasagne, ‘I think I’ve left some keys by the park gates. If we hurry, can some of us go back to look for them?’
Tony Crowley (c) 2011