Clenching my textbooks bounded by a kaleidoscopic strap, I braved a stinging look at the group of offenders. They fashioned an 'L' with their thumbs and forefingers, shirts untucked and trousers stained and laughed maniacally as if they had told the world's greatest joke.
"Babies," I muttered under a cumbrous sigh and walked in the opposite direction. My departure was greeted by high-pitched whistles and raucous laughter, enough for unaware spectators to think the circus was in town; the main attraction? Me.
When starting high school, I certainly did not fit the mould of a cool kid. With an uncommon boy's name like 'Julian' in Malaysia, I was often called gay for being letters away from 'Julie'. I was overweight and pale. I arranged my hair in a centre parting for neatness and I wore my trousers at the waist, not buttocks as one should. Science was to me what a ball of yarn was to a kitten - ethereal. The only thing I lacked were a pair of full-frame spectacles which I swiftly rectified a little over a year later.
Kids were quick to point out my indifference towards what was considered "cool"; they were even quicker to punish me for it. What I struggled to understand was why I suddenly faced such opposition to the way I looked and to the things I liked when just under a year ago, in primary school, it all did not seem to matter?
School assemblies were the worst, not least when I was being acknowledged for scholarly accomplishments. The irony was cruel and there were times I hated the Mondays after I had so valiantly fought for my school and for myself in district, state and national competitions...
"Our school last week nabbed the top prize in the state-level science quiz. Please welcome Julian Tan Lip Yi to the stage to receive his prize!" said the headmistress of my school, mic in one hand and trophy in the other.
Presentation of accolades were supposed to be proud moments, but I could see in the headmistress' face that she too knew how it was going to unfold, this not being the first time she had presented an award to me on that very same stage. I steadied myself and walked up confidently, unfazed. One corner of the assembly, the same group of people who would often taunt me, erupted into a frenzy amidst the uninspired applause. The rest of the kids obviously found it hilarious to laugh at a fat nerd on stage and so many joined in the barrage of whistles, shrills, hisses and snickers directed at demolishing my self-esteem.
"Pay no attention to them," whispered my headmistress as if my consciousness was like a table lamp that I could switch on and off at my own convenience. Still, I mustered a nod and a half-smile and dejectedly hurried off the stage. After these episodes, I would often be greeted with short pats on the back and sympathetic looks as friends pressed their lips together whilst diverting their line of vision away from mine. I often earnestly wondered to myself if my pursuit for academic excellence was really worth all the irrational abuse.
My elder brother had warned me about the bullying he too had to endure in that school. His offence? Being too quiet.
That woke me up. I realised that bullies will prey on anybody for any reason and it was up to me to refuse to be victimised. It was at age thirteen that I also learned about society's obsession with mediocrity - bullying people for their differences was merely a mechanism to force them to conform into the average individual. I did not want to be average and I knew this at a very early age. I was intent on working hard and getting into Harvard and if this meant that my commodious backpack and 'Best Student' certificates were to be objects of derision, so be it.
I was forced to grow up or risk being hauled down during those formative years. It certainly wasn't easy. Penning down these difficult memories admittedly stirs very heavy emotions. As I write this I am reminded of the torn overweight boy who only wanted to be the best that he could be. But I am not the only person to have been bullied in school. Children and teenagers get bullied every day, for reasons as stupid as not conforming to normalcy, not resolving to mediocrity. Many choose to dim their shine so that they do not stand out from the crowd, going about their day unnoticed and un-bullied. This is sad. There are few things more disappointing than unfulfilled potential; mediocrity is worse than failure.
To these kids and indeed to some struggling adults, I want to say this:
•No one can make you feel inferior unless you allow them to.
•Do not care what others think of you.
•Surround yourself with positive people. The people you surround yourself with are a reflection of you, if not now, then eventually.
•Dream big, work hard.
•It gets better, it honestly does.
To bullies, I just have one thing to say - nerds and misfits WILL rule the world, so be nice to them or you'll have a very difficult time in the future.
12 years have gone by since my first year of high school and during this time I have had the great fortune (or misfortune) of meeting the odd bully from high school again. They chat to me as if we were buddies in school; they add me on Facebook as if I do not remember the childish persecution. They do not realise that it is because of them that I would not repeat high school if I had the choice, but at the same time, if I had to, I would not do it any differently.
Whilst I forgive them, I will never forget. The universe has an uncanny habit of restoring balance and so I rest in the comfort that one day they might have to answer to me as their boss. Until then, I wear the same armour I developed in high school - it has proven very effective thus far.