If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality. Desmond Tutu said that, and he’s right. There are too many times that I’ve seen an elephant with its menacing foot on the tail of a beleaguered mouse and I haven’t said or done anything about it. Particularly when it came to Joe.
I can remember back in secondary school when they put itching powder in his trousers. We must have been about fourteen or fifteen. It was during a P.E. lesson and we were all crowded into the changing rooms, getting back into our school uniforms after a muddy game of football. For some reason Joe went out of the room for a minute, and when he did someone got out a small bag of itching powder, opened it and put it in his trousers. Every single boy in the changing room knew that it had been done and not one of us stopped it. We all knew deep down that it was wrong, but that thought was easily buried and drowned out in the excitement and the suspense at what was going to happen, all of us more concerned with suppressing our laughter and looking as normal as possible as he came back into the room.
His sixth sense let him down badly when he walked in, he was completely unaware of what had happened while he was gone. He put his trousers on. He looked uncomfortable. He scratched his leg but it just made it worse. There was a look of confusion on his face. Some boys had started sniggering by then. He scratched some more and there were more poorly concealed snorts of laughter. He scratched harder but nothing would stop the itching. Finally he took his trousers off. Pretty much everyone was laughing by then. Including me. I’ll never forget the look of hurt on his face, he must have felt so alone at that moment. No-one helped him, they just laughed. No-one said sorry.
There was another time when someone ripped his bag off his back. It was one of the worst bullies in school who did it. Darren Smith. A big kid, he had a difficult upbringing and came from a rough neighbourhood, and he knew he was stronger than everyone else. Who knows why he did it. Joe had never done anything to him. Everything got ripped out of the bag and flung all over the concrete. It was at break time and a lot of kids were stood around and saw it happen. We watched as he tried to pick it all up. But as he did Darren and his friends kicked it about just out of his reach. No-one laughed this time. It wasn’t funny. But no-one did anything either. Most of us were probably too scared to intervene.
It looked like it was going to go on until the bullies got bored. Then all of a sudden one of the girls stepped in. She was probably one of the smallest girls in our year. Tina. She started helping Joe pick up the stuff that had fallen out of the bag, shouting at Darren as she did. She was angry. I’d never seen her so angry, her finger wagging in his face and fire in her eyes. Scolding his friends one after the other. It was so out of character, she was normally pretty chilled and didn’t get involved in any drama. But that day was different. Seeing Joe get treated like that triggered something deep inside her and she absolutely exploded at Darren. To say that he was taken aback is an understatement. She gave him both barrels. She told him exactly what he was and she told him in no uncertain terms that what he was doing was wrong. And that he should be ashamed. He backed off with an uneasy smile on his face. He had no response to her righteous rage. She was a hero that day. She was Androdameia the Man Fighter who defeated a towering Greek commander in single combat. She grew in stature before all of us. She did what no-one else had the courage to do. She put us to shame.
Joe went through most of school being bullied. He wasn’t different to other kids in the way he dressed or looked. He wasn’t a misfit. It wasn’t because of that that he was picked on. He was just an easy target. He wasn’t even particularly small, he could probably handle himself in a fight if he wasn’t so passive and never fought back. He just came across as a bit simple. Lacking in intellect, and awareness. He had a sweet disposition and an agreeable personality, almost an innocence, but he wasn’t judged by that. He was seen as simple, simple and passive. So he got bullied.
It even happened at the store that we worked at on the weekends. Kids from all over the city worked in the store and he was a target there too. It was during a Saturday shift there that I did one of the most shameful things of my life. For reasons I can’t remember I was fed-up and irritable. He didn’t realise he was doing it and he wasn’t doing it on purpose but he was annoying me. I snapped. I told him he was going to work in a store his whole life because he wasn’t clever enough to do anything else. He fell silent. He looked hurt. I could see it in his face and immediately I felt terrible. I wanted to say sorry but the words just wouldn’t come out.
We all went our separate ways when we graduated from school. Some went to off to university or the local college. A few joined the army or moved away. Some got jobs and settled down. We lost touch. As time went on I stopped thinking about people from school, they slipped off my radar as I moved on in life. Occasionally I bumped into someone and said hi, but that was pretty much it.
When I was about twenty-eight I was asked if I wanted to play for a local football team. I turned up for my first game keen as mustard and there was Joe. Ten years on. Warming up on the sidelines as our team waited for the game to kick off. He was pretty much unchanged. Older obviously, with a beard now and a few grey hairs. But still amiable and still happy. Never a bad word to say about anyone. Wise old Joe. It was good to see him.
We started our game and I reckon that five minutes into it he made a mistake and he got shouted at. And it happened again. And again. He took the blame for almost everything. No-one else got anywhere near the same amount of grief. He tried hard but got no praise. He was the butt of the jokes when he wasn’t around. It wasn’t playground bullying anymore, no-one was going to rip his bag off his back. It was adult, more subtle but just as cruel. More fine-tuned. I never took part, but I did occasionally laugh at a joke. I got annoyed at him once when he made a bad pass and shouted at him. I felt the all too familiar feeling of shame and disgust. I had vowed that I would be kind to him and that I would stick up for him, that I would treat him as I would want to be treated if I was in his shoes. But I couldn’t live up to my ideals.
After one game I was walking back to the car park a few steps behind some of the opposition team and I overheard them talking about him. Joking about him being a retard. They fell silent when they realised I was behind. They knew I’d heard. I should have said something but I pretended that I didn’t hear. I should have stuck up for him, like Tina the Giant, and berated those men for the fools that they were. The simple ones. But I never did.
Author Notes: ▪Androdameia was an Amazon Queen
▪Desmond Tutu was Archbishop of Cape Town and an anti-apartheid activist
▪The story is fiction