Do you remember the phrase: Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me?
Why do grown ups tell children such blatant lies?
I was a school yard scrapper – you picked on me and I fought back. When I was 6, playing ‘catch and kiss’ I changed the rules of the game: if you caught me, it was best if you let me go because if you kissed me, I punched you. When I was 7, I pushed a kid off a foot bridge (about a metre off the ground) when he said my family were peasants – my parents worked for his parents.
When I was 9, a boy twice my size called my brother (two years older than me) a “slant-eyed chink”. I was spoiling to fight, my arms flailing about as my more sensible brother held me back. The school principal stumbled across the fight – everyone had gathered around the three of us: Craig the hulking racist boar, my brother ram-rod still, his back to Craig and his arms around me – who was screaming and yelling “take that back – take that back” and trying with all my might to get closer to Craig – to punch or kick him or do something to make him feel the hurt I felt when he called my brother (and hence, me) a slant-eyed chink. We weren’t Chinese for god’s sake!
The principal said in that awful patronising sing-song voice I hope never to use on a child: sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me. I turned on the principal and cried: But he’s been the mean one! Not me! Don’t tell me off – tell him off!
My brother said to me, quietly but with the force of his good heart: He’s right, Oanh. No words of white round-eyed idiots can hurt us. My brother’s words made me pause; I grinned. He grinned back. Craig and the principal looked shocked. My brother and I were sent home – Craig was taken back to the principal’s office and his parents called.
When we got home, my brother did not tell my father what happened and I followed his lead. But I was still so angry and hurt I burst into tears at home, seemingly for no reason. My brother took the blame, saying he had been picking on me.
I can’t remember all the school scraps I’ve had but I’ve never forgotten that day at school – the way two stupid, inaccurate phrases alienated and hurt my brother and I.