“Eating, and that feel of food in the mouth, is all part of comfort and affection and warmth, and I think that a lot of the reason that I turned to food was because I was actually quite a lonely child.”Nigel Slater
It might not come as a surprise to learn that my earliest memory of school involves food. Stuffed eggs, in fact. [The link goes to a recipe for devilled eggs as I can only find one that is actually called ‘stuffed eggs’ – see below.] The memory is blurry, but there was definitely hard boiled egg and salad cream involved; the egg being chopped into little bits and mixed with the salad cream and then…what? Stuffed back into the egg? I guess so. As the cooks were five years old, I don’t imagine there was any mustard or paprika involved, as is the case with actual devilled eggs. There may have been chives, but I could have imagined that.
[Aside: while researching recipes for stuffed eggs I found an interesting site about medieval cookery. Worth a look – and contains the only reference to stuffed eggs I could find. My favourite version of the medieval recipe for stuffed eggs is this: Source [Liber de Couina (Medieval Kitchen #118)]: Eggs: to prepare for stuffing. To make stuffed eggs, cut each one in half when it has been well cooked and [is] thus hard. Then remove the yolk and take marjoram, saffron, and cloves and mix with the yolks of those eggs; and mash it thoroughly, adding a little cheese. For each eight eggs, add one raw egg. This done, fill the egg whites with this mixture. And fry in good pork fat, and eat with verjuice. Mainly because I like the sound (literally and metaphorically) of verjuice.]
After this, my next memory of school is being knocked over by a bigger child running in the playground (I mean they were running, not me). I was just knocked over and fell down the steps, ending up with, ironically, given my previous anecdote, a lump the size of an egg on my forehead. Fun times. As you may have gathered, I wasn’t a massive fan of school. But the problem wasn’t the schooling (apart from PE, which I saw as pointless and just something made to showcase my failings and the other children to bully me/laugh at me as appropriate. The problem was the other children.
I spent my school days avoiding all the children I was scared of, and having my learning interrupted by teachers having to deal with kids who didn’t want to learn. Things got better in the Upper Sixth (I am old – this means Year 13), when the kids who didn’t want to learn had finally escaped, but the bullying didn’t stop. Human beings are, after all, animals, and animals attack and/or reject any one of their kind who is different, it’s just animal logic/instinct. I remember, at my second primary school (we’d moved house) looking at the other children in my class and wondering what it was like to be them, to be normal. I think I was about seven years old at the time.
Not being seen as ‘normal’ makes you feel something other than normal – it’s a bit of a viscous circle, as many things seem to be. As adults, most people learn that there is no such thing as normal, and that maybe normal isn’t something we need to strive for, and even that it might be a good thing to be a bit different to the rest of the pack. But children, and, I suspect, some (most?) adults, don’t have this insight. To them, there is a normal and a not-normal – the dreaded word ABNORMAL. At least we don’t use ‘subnormal’ anymore, at least not in polite conversation. The normal children look a certain way, have the same(ish) physical abilities as everyone else and something else. The not-normal ones are the ones standing on the edge of the circle, in cliche of on the outside, looking in – often literally and always metaphorically.
“…her memory is of an intense humiliation about being different, a shame she took upon herself” Kate Bull, Open Hearts
When I read this, I thought yes, it is a shame and humiliation. You feel this yourself and then other people make you feel it even more. Once, when I think I was about seven, a teacher asked me if I wanted any help using a pair of scissors. I was quite taken aback, as I was perfectly capable of using scissors on my own. In my young mind I thought she was asking me if I needed help with the scissors because of my heart condition, and I felt embarrassed about this, like it was an insult to my intelligence. Thinking this made so sense at all, really, but I think I associated my heart condition with not being able to do things, and I felt that the teachers did, too. Being intelligent was (and, I suppose still is) important to me, because I felt it was my one strength (and I still do, to a certain extent although now of course I don’t think myself as clever as I did when I was six).
I was…unusual…in ways that weren’t obviously anything to do with my heart condition, ways that I now think were early signs of being autistic. I was very slow and changing for PE – even into high school, I could never learn to swim, I was massively anxious about many things, particularly people pushing me or being too near me, being hit by flying objects (balls), couldn’t skip,couldn’t climb, couldn’t skate, couldn’t jump off or on to things, had no balance and little coordination. I often felt that I was the only one who couldn’t do things – it happened a lot – forward rolls, plaiting hair, skipping.
I preferred to talk to the teachers and dinner ladies rather than other children, although I did have some friends. I had trouble with ‘frenemies’, though – although the word hadn’t been invented yet. One particular ‘friend’ at primary school apparently used to bully me – although I can’t remember any of it, my mum noticed and ‘had a word’ with this friend’s mum (I don’t remember that either). I was a bit ‘forward’ with adults – people said I was cheeky, but I just talked to them like they were my peers. A lot of my social life, such as it was, was with adults – I sang in a church choir and later in a choral society that was mainly made up of people my parents’ age or older. I went to Brownies but I didn’t like the other girls and they didn’t really like me either as far as I could tell, so I didn’t move on to Guides.
I accepted my lot – in a way it seemed logical to me that I would be bullied and left out and feel different. I was different, there was no point me making a fuss about it – everyone else was doing enough of that. I accepted that this was the way of the world, that I was going to get bullied because I was me, I suppose. That was my childish logic – my adult logic is that it’s human nature to ‘other’ people – people fear difference and are afraid of being different themselves, so in turn they try to ostracise the other, I suppose ultimately they want us to go away and stop messing up their normality. Is that really it?
Anyway, it’s Anti-Bullying Week this week, so go and learn about it and give your support to the Anti-Bullying Alliance. I live in hope that one day people will be more tolerant of those who are different – and I think in some ways, things are better than they used to be, but there is a long way to go yet.