A few weeks ago I was listening to a conversation on LBC radio about children starting school a year early, or a year late, and the effects that this might have on their academic performance. LBC is one of my favorite channels when I’m driving. I do quite a lot of mileage each year as I drive to class, and this is one of the ways that I reduce wasted time while I travel. The conversations often, as was the case with this one, provide an opportunity for reflection for me, and an insight into how other people think – and quite often the opportunity to see a situation from an entirely different perspective to my own.
I was one of the ones who was a year ahead of myself at school. When most of my classmates were eight, I was seven, and so on right up to the end of my A-levels, which I took when I was seventeen.
What I found interesting in this instance was that it wasn’t the academic side of my performance which was affected by this, but as they spoke on the radio I was struck that I had been very unhappy as a child at school. For most of my life I had thought that this was just because I’m the way I am, as many children are unhappy at school, but suddenly I was presented with another possibility. Perhaps my unhappiness was because I just wasn’t as emotionally mature as my classmates, and partly this made me an easier target for them, and partly I just couldn’t cope with that in the same way that they could.
Or, maybe, it was just because I am the way I am.
My school was a boarding school, situated in the village where my parents lived, and so I didn’t board. I wouldn’t have wanted to, and I don’t think my parents could have afforded anyway, but this also contributed to my sense of being an outsider, I think.
I was seven when I first started there, and was immediately miserable. In my previous school I had been centre of attention – everyone knew me, and in all honesty I think I was a bit of a nightmare pupil. I often spent my playtime indoors on my own because of my bad behavior, and I remember my poor mother being called in to talk to the teachers every now and again. Part of the decision to move me into my new school was, I think, to challenge me more so that my behaviour improved. And in this respect I believe that it worked.
I think I must have cried for much of the first day (or days), without having any idea of the far-reaching consequences of this show of personal weakness, nor how it was one of those events that can shape a life for the next ten years. Nevertheless, as friendships were formed and the social pecking order started to establish itself, I found myself fitting into the role of outsider and underdog, and as I would spend the next ten years of my life at that school, it became how people would see me for the rest of that time.
I remember being very conscious of only having a few friends, and not feeling like I fitted in, particularly with the popular kids. I remember a strong sense of feeling bullied, frequently and often. Not in violent ways, but more in the small, cruel ways that seem to come so naturally to children. And of course I took it personally, and of course that just spurred it on more.
This story is about an event that changed my life. This particular event I think happened when I was in the fifth form, so round about the age of fifteen. The fifth form had its own square, red brick study block, in which I shared a study room with a handful of other students from the same house as me. This was where we did our homework, as this is done in in the evening within school if you attend a boarding school.
One afternoon, as I was walking towards my study I found the corridor blocked by a small group of boys talking to each other. I tried to get past, but they weren’t prepared to move for me. Well, underdog or not, I wasn’t going to turn around and go back, or beg with them to move aside for me, so I pushed past them. And they took offence to this.
Three of them followed me into the study, where a very one-sided fight quickly got underway. I was knocked unconscious, for at least a moment, so the details of what happened have never been that clear to me. But I do remember being held from behind by one person, my arms pinned to my sides, whilst being punched in the face by another, while the third was making sounds along the lines of “this has got out of hand, you can’t behave like this, and someone is probably going to get into serious trouble over this”.
Until that point violence had always been make-believe, or at least something far removed from real life on television. It wasn’t the childish pushing and wrestling of the play fights I had always had with my brother at home. The rawness of being punched in the face by another teenager was a moment of growing up that I had been totally unprepared for. It was grown up violence, and I received it in total innocence.
If you’ve ever been punched (or kicked) hard in the face I am sure you will remember the explosion of pain, noise and shock, and then the brief moment of your brain resetting itself before you regain complete control of yourself (hopefully before you get hit again!)
When I was released by them I had a very painful, bleeding nose. I ran from the study block to the relative safety of the dormitory washrooms where, crying and bleeding into the sink, the mirror showed me that my nose had been broken. Subsequently I was taken to hospital by my parents who, of course, created an almighty fuss.
The next day I was summoned to a teacher’s study where my attackers were already present. Once I had confirmed that it was them that had assaulted me, I was given the choice of whether to have them expelled or not. It was an odd position to be put in, but I was old enough then to appreciate that being expelled from school could probably have far reaching consequences for them, and being in the position of judge, jury and executioner, I decided that their crime wasn’t that severe so I settled for an apology. I can’t remember what punishment they received instead, but they never caused me any problems after that.
The whole event was, of course, an awful shock to me. It became a pivotal moment in my life. But here’s the thing. This was the event which triggered my decision to start working out and soon after to start learning martial arts. And of course, that decision is right up there with the few most important decisions of my whole life. I began learning Freestyle Karate with my first Instructor, Don Came, and a little while later began to learn the style that I now teach, Tiger Crane Kung Fu with Master Dennis Ngo.
A few short years later, whilst studying Mechanical Engineering at Imperial College, London, I became (twice) AMA British Heavyweight National Kung Fu Champion, and after briefly pursuing a successful career as a Chartered Mechanical Engineer I am now living my dream as a Kung Fu Instructor, teaching an amazingly diverse and talented group of people in the City of London.
The moral of the story?
Bad stuff happens to all of us, but it doesn’t define who you are.
The worst thing you can do is wallow in it or carry a chip on your shoulder. Thinking of yourself as a victim isn’t going to help you, even though you might be emotionally wrecked at the time.
What defines who you are is what you do about the bad stuff so that it never happens again. It’s picking yourself back up again, finding your inner core of strength, dealing with it, and taking steps.
Every cloud has a silver lining – you just have to get out there and find it!