I was prepared, if apprehensive, for school and the complex battering process of growing up my son would be entering in to. His socialisation, so to speak. I say prepared, I mean aware, aware and slightly worried about it. My lad, my lovely, naive, curious, beautiful lad with all his silliness and ghosts of toddler boyishness hanging around. With his unworldliness and charm and his deep deep well ready to be filled with anxiety, self-doubt, questions. I knew he would be hewn and remoulded, his edges smoothed out and homogenised and then roughed up again. I’m guessing his brother will find it easier to be a top dog, so much less first child angst to cope with.
Spider-boy plays at being a big wig. Amongst our family friends Spider-boy is one of the oldest, and tallest. These make him an alpha lad. Running around, ruling the show, having new games and info to pass down through the colony of amazing boys my friends have created. And height and a few months of experience are great traits for a boy to experience in some social circles, probably more socially useful than the sporadic braininess, chronic self-doubt, corny sense of humour and button nose I’ve passed down to him in his/my/our genes. But at school he’s a bit of a runt. He’s the youngest, small, not cool. He needs help from us to catch up with transformers and Ben 10 and to get good enough at football or riding a bike to even be acknowledged by those towering and robust five year olds that range around like bosses in a video game, kings of the climbing frame, Gods of the sandpit and giants amongst minibeasts.
Knowing all this, and remembering that school would be a kind of social experiment didn’t make the first term or so easy. Or help stop me feeling heartbroken by the daily rounds of ‘You are not my friend’ and ‘You are not coming to my party’ and ‘I don’t like you today‘ he reported, but having guessed they were coming I had my replies ready. Counselling on the difference between defending yourself and fighting back, saying silly things, playing with children who are nicer to you, remembering to be kind, and really trying to learn not to hold grudges or take the silly things people sometimes say too seriously.
And as I have friends who are primary school teachers too, I could help him pre-empt the insults where part of the insult is even knowing what you are being dissed for. In our patch of North London (and perhaps elsewhere, who knows?) a gladiatorial trend is upon us: the ultimate diss is one of ‘thumbs down’ to someone else. It is like ‘you’re not my friend, and you’re not cool enough to even know me’.
It is a current trend, and one I don’t especially remember from my school days (though I can only really think of the ‘not my friend-ing’ that went on and the terrible stress of never knowing whether you would be welcome at the same table each morning). However, I like to fancy, secretly, that this isn’t a revival but a truly perennial way of expressing contempt and disrespect.
It cheers me somehow that the emperor’s deadly judgement may have been appropriated from the games of the Roman empire and merely passed down, schoolboy to schoolboy, through the ages, seamlessly, as one of those tropes of childhood – like building dens under tables, hitting pans with spoons, throwing balls, collecting sticks, grabbing at anything shiny your Mum is wearing – that unites us all. I’m a simple soul and things which unite like this, like everyone saying similar (ish) wedding vows on the same day, like prayers which follow a pattern and repeat and are being said elsewhere in the world at the same time, please me. They make me feel if not at the cool girl’s table than at least at a gathering where she may pick me to share her Square crisps at breaktime.
And being sentimental about the everyday was a comfort. Until my son came home looking perplexed and revealed the most amazing of insults that is doing the rounds. I asked him what was wrong and got the usual list of who was who’s friend today. As ever it pained my heart that the lad he’s most thrilled to describe as his ‘best friend’ was the one who told him they could only be friends at lunchtime, but these are life lessons I can’t learn for him about popularity and valuing yourself. Then he told me something else. The biggest insult of all: ‘x says my baby’s rubbish’ he declared, lightly, trying to gauge my reaction and forgetting himself by giving his brother a quick kiss even though we were still in the playground. For several days he did check ‘it isn’t true, is it? My baby isn’t rubbish, is he?’
By Spider-boy’s baby, they mean Newborn. And this is common parlance, my role as mother doesn’t exist in this playground chatter, his brother is his. This reminds me of wolves and packs and I don’t mind being removed from the equation – after all one day they will have to roam without me. But the affront? The crushingly casual thumbs down, to Spider-boy AND his brilliant brother? I had to stop myself from immediately shouting out ‘Well X’s brother is hardly anything to fucking look at, and he can’t even walk’.
I didn’t, because for all my sweary Mary tendencies I know I shouldn’t go too blue when hovering at the glass doors catching glimpses of my son, book bag ready, sitting on the carpet. Although it took me longer than I’m happy to admit to cool down the wodge of ice around my chest when I think of the insulter, himself, of course, only five. Maybe I can learn something from Spider-boy’s sanguine responses too…