All names in this post changed to protect the innocent – or in some cases, the not so innocent
Let me tell you a story. All this happened when I was in high school and had yet to learn how shitty the world can be. It’s a story about friendship at its worst and yet there’s a happy ending there too. I hope you enjoy.
When I was about 12, naive and at school I had a group of friends – there were three main ones and a few hangers-on. They were (although I didn’t realise it at the time), a gang of bullies who enjoyed picking on other kids – and one kid in particular. Let’s call him Billy.
Billy was an outcast. He was from a poor family and wore hand-me-down clothes and was generally abused by the other kids who called him ‘smelly’ and other unkind names. My friends delighted in tormenting him.
I ended up sitting with Billy in maths and we started getting on quite well. We had a fair bit in common – we liked similar films and similar TV shows. I wasn’t a music fan at this stage – that would come a few years later, but suffice it to say we had enough in common to be friends.
Predictably, my friends didn’t like the fact that Billy was my friend and said I should ditch him. I refused to do this. I don’t remember the exact details of the argument we had but I do remember my younger self indignantly proclaiming ‘He needs a friend!’ I was an idealist at that age even if a rather sheltered and naive one.
I don’t remember whether I was excommunicated from the group or whether I simply left of my own accord – or a combination of both. But this happened some time early in the new year and for the next few months, Billy was my only friend since by joining him, I too, had become an outcast. My popularity rate had hardly been sky-high beforehand but now it was even lower. And of course, we were both bullied by my former ‘friends’ who took a great delight in tormenting us both. They would constantly grin at us in corridors, snicker behind our backs, send younger kids over to plague us on the yard, steal our bags – all the usual childish rubbish you’d expect from a gaggle of little persecutors like them.
To make matters more complicated, my friendship with Billy was not a plain-sailing one. Pre-teen boys are not known for their sensitivity or maturity and we were no exception. We had numerous petty fall-outs where one or the other (usually him) would announce we were not speaking to the other.
Crunch-time came a few months before the end of the school year when I was suddenly struck down with gastroenteritis and was off school for a fortnight. I had never been off for such a long time before – and in fact, I never was again.
When I returned to school I found Billy had now ditched me and was now friends with another kid who I’ll call David. Nobody else liked David – he was another outcast. He’d been trying to muscle in our my friendship with Billy for a month or two and I’ll admit I hadn’t been too keen on hanging around with him since I didn’t really have much in common with him and I found him annoying.
Now he had got what he wanted since he’d taken advantage of my two-week absence and he and Billy were now as thick as thieves – and remained so until the end of the school three years later. In my case, I returned to my original gang of ‘friends’ who spent the next year bullying me before I finally cut them loose and made some new friends.
To add insult to injury, Billy and David spent the rest of the year mocking me, laughing at me and general being irritating. I had backed the wrong horse it seemed and was now fair game. There was no leaving me be for old time’s sake here. Sentimentality was an alien concept.
What is the moral of this story? That people can be bastards? That kids are really quite selfish and ruthless when they want to be? That school is a jungle and you’d best get used to shitty behaviour if you want to make it through in one piece?
All the above are justifiable points of view, but there’s another. When I told my therapist this story some years ago she remarked, with her usual perception, that ‘Two weeks is a long time in the life of a kid.’ Billy clearly wasn’t strong enough to get through a fortnight without a mate to back him up against the bullies and since he had no idea when or if I was coming back (this was pre-Internet and astonishingly we never rang each other – in fact, I don’t think he even had a phone). He was offered a lifeline and he took it. The fact I’d left my friends to be friends with him when I could have easily let them get on with bullying him and done nothing? Incidental. If you wanted to be crueler you’d say so what? Collateral damage.
Most of the important stuff you learn at school you learn outside the classroom. And while I hate to admit it, the lesson I learned from this rather sad episode was a valuable one. Sometimes you have to go through a lot of shitty ‘friends’ before you find true ones – which I have enjoyed now for many years. I’m not going to start trotting out the platitudes at this point – ‘we learn from pain’ and so on, although there is some truth to this. At the time, the feeling of betrayal and abandonment was horrible but I got through it and I came out stronger on the other side.
Incidentally, I have seen Billy and David a few times since we left school. The latter now runs his own business and is doing well .Good luck to him I guess. The former I’ve spoken with a couple of times. Nervy, jittery conversations when we bumped into each other. We had nothing in common – even less than we did aged 12.
If you want friends who will last the distance, make sure you back the right horse. How do you know which horse to back? Prepare to get hurt. And when you do – learn and move on. Above all, don’t berate yourself for extending the hand of friendship to someone you believe may need it, even if it does turn out to bite you in the ass. If my son or daughter ever told me they’d done what I did, I’d give them a big hug and take them out for pizza. Mine’s double meat feast with everything on by the way, in case you feel like splurging.