Story Number Two
Joel was struggling. His head kept slipping beneath the surface and the water streamed into his mouth with a subtle yet eager pressure. His legs were beginning to slow, defying his efforts to keep up with the others. His arms had long since given up any pretence at proper strokes and were clawing at the water in small, desperate movements. At this angle the pool seemed to run for miles; the others, all finished now, bobbing up and down at the end of the wet desert that stretched before him.
Sixty-three eyes, all silently trained on him, witnessing his agonisingly slow one-man procession. Linford Christie, standing feet spread, arms crossed, lips pressed tight in silent disapproval. Joel hated him. Linford doubtless returned the sentiment. He hated everyone, apart from the alpha males and the cocky little brats. No doubt he had been both once, and look where it had got him - into a faintly ridiculous matching shell suit teaching 14-year-olds to swim. Well, pretending to teach them really.
What was that Oscar Wilde had said? "Those who can - do, those who can't - teach." Enlightening a fellow pupil of that within earshot of Linford had got me a detention last year. Joel pushed the thought away labouredly. He was reaching that stage of physical exhaustion where thinking became offensive. Every idea that flitted into his mind seemed to repulse him. And there were still miles to go.
The rest of the class were by this stage getting restless. Some of the less popular ones called out half-hearted encouragement in the hope that it might make this public ordeal finish a little earlier. The cool ones bantered amongst themselves - Joel was beneath their contempt.
About three years later it was all over. Well, about 30 seconds later actually, but it felt that long to Joel. And now he had to get out of the pool. Its lip towered about a foot above the water. He wasn't sure he had the strength left to surmount it. Nevertheless he clawed away and somehow managed to get a leg hooked over, and from there he could roll up onto the poolside like a beached whale, panting.
There were six distinct groups of people in his class. First came the jocks, the sporty ones, and without a doubt the stupidest. Then there were ones who desperately wanted to be elected a part of the first group, but weren't quite popular enough. After that came the physically stunted yet cocksure ones, followed by the boys devoid of confidence and the geeks. Those two were quite often interchangeable - the jocks certainly couldn't tell the difference. Finally there were the quietly self-assured ones, the group apart, the ones that seemed to subtly cooler than everyone else.
Joel belonged with the geeks. He was the second cleverest in is class, and probably the second-most unpopular. Not that those factors were necessarily related. It was more his obesity, lack of personal hygiene and any kind of fashion sense that did the trick. Linked to these was a self-confidence level verging on non-existent; whether this was cause or effect was hard to tell, but it didn't exactly endear him towards his classmates, although it seemed to spare him the taunting that others received. To his face, anyway.
What did Joel think of himself? He knew he was intelligent, but it was clear that this was not always a highly prized trait, especially to those less well-endowed than him in that department. Still, he clung to it like a cat to the mast of a largely-submerged ship. As for his looks - well, that was a sensitive subject for Joel, as it probably is with all 14 year-olds. He would spend ages staring at the Joel in the mirror, trying to decide if he was attractive. He honestly had no idea, which in itself betrayed his ignorance of these matters. In truth, his ignorance manifested itself in a thick fop of wavy light-brown hair, combed across his forehead in a side parting, together with prescription glasses which seemed to swallow up half his face. This unique lack of style was coupled with saggy pink jowls and eyebrows that closely resembled medium-sized fluffy toys and met in the middle. Yes, to any impartial observer, Joel was a pretty ugly little duckling.
Perhaps Joel did realise this, somewhere in the depths of his psyche, but to consciously acknowledge it would probably have been too much to bear for an already waif-thin ego. Of course, suppressing it meant that he didn't do anything about it either, so he was left in a catch-22 situation. The one consolation (not that Joel thought in terms of consolations) was that none of his undesirable features were more than cosmetic - maybe there was another Joel lurking beneath the surface, waiting to emerge.
Such an emphasis on Joel's physical shortcomings would seem cruel in any normal context, but secondary school is the antithesis of normal. Social standing rests upon the judgement of one's peers and, most children's social barometers being the underdeveloped foetuses that they are, it rested squarely in the physical domain, leaning slightly on Bravado for support. Thus someone who had 'fallen from the ugly tree and hit every branch on the way down', to coin a schoolboy phrase, was at an immediate disadvantage, rather like a footballer dragging an anvil behind him. Such were the ugly rungs of the adolescent social ladder.
Joel's friend was called Allen. Admittedly, he had more than one, but he didn't require extra fingers to count them all, and Allen was his closest. Providence had pushed them together on account of their comparable bulk, but the similarities ended there. Allen was a chatty, personable type, with a tendency to open his mouth at the wrong times to let inappropriate comments could dribble out. Unfortunately this made him a legitimate target for all sorts of psychological bullying from the others, which occasionally penetrated his remarkably thick skin. Still, he was a loyal friend to Joel, which was more than Joel was to him.
The one glorious hope
that one has at school is that one is not the finished article. One can still
change, evolve, adapt, and cradle the hope that things will get better. The
danger is that they may not, and consequently, one may be hiding behind a
wall of desperate optimism rather than confronting a problem head-on. Still,
it is a cosy luxury not afforded to one with puberty's gates behind him.