Innocent as charged

I recalled last week a moment when I was about 7 years old when I rescued a schoolmate from bullies. It got me thinking. I don’t know if that episode had a huge influence on my development. It confirmed something I already was, but the subsequent attention made it real. I doubt I would have thought anything of it back then otherwise, and would not be remembering it today except for the kudos it earned me. It was just something that happened. I’d have forgotten about it but for the attention it brought me.

Different was another moment a few years after. I was about 10 I guess, in grade 5 I think, at Lower Plenty Primary School. We had swimming classes every week, mostly at Doncaster, but occasionally in an open air pool in Eltham. On this occasion we had gone to the Eltham pool. It was sunny day, I remember that, and we had just come into the change rooms after our lesson.

It was the usual schoolboy changing room, lots of skylarking, lots of comment, a few impromptu towel fights, and so on. I walked into the adjoining toilet and found (in the trough of the urinal I think) a boys woollen jumper sodden with water.

I returned to the change room and announced it, smiling as I did as if it was something funny. As I expected it created a stir, and my schoolmates crowded into the toilet to see for themselves. As it turned out the jumper belonged to one of them – Mark Corry. Not surprisingly he was upset to find his jumper somewhere it shouldn’t be.

That was that, except it wasn’t. In the hullaballoo that followed all of this I was accused by the authorities of dumping the jumper there. General amusement turned to outrage, and as I was the person who had discovered the crime, I became the boy accused of it. For me it was a totally unexpected, barely believable turn of events.

I knew I hadn’t done it. There had been a class from another school sharing the change rooms with us. They had an earlier lesson and left not long after we had begun our lesson. I was certain that they had done it. If I hadn’t, then logic suggested they had. Logical as it was, it didn’t wash with the powers to be.

I was formally brought before the teachers then, and back at school, where it was assumed as a fait accompli that I was the culprit – all because it was I who had found it (though logic, once more, would suggest I would’ve kept silent had I really been guilty). Perhaps I was guilty because I had joked about it?

I was aggrieved. Something fell away in me. My mind went in circles contemplating the surreal injustice of it. When you’re a kid you feel these injustices cruelly. There’s a sense of helpless rage. You know you’re innocent, but no matter what you say no-one will believe you. You’re branded, guilty of a pretty low act totally out of character for you – and you feel it. I wouldn’t do that! That’s not who I am!

I was banned from swimming lessons for the next two weeks. I was quietly allowed to return after that. I always had the feeling that the teachers had perhaps re-assessed and found their judgement hasty, or ill-founded. No-one ever apologised to me formally, but there was a sense of sympathetic understanding – not that it made it better.

I’ve never forgotten that. In some ways it feels like a seminal moment of my childhood. I learned a lot in that episode. That’s what happens when you’re a kid, you’re learning all the time, and often it’s the hard way. This was harder than it should have been though. It was wrong. Did it change me? I don’t know. I’m sure it shaped my perception of the world about me.

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