heroes, villains and outcasts

Tonight I am going to a party wearing a pair of polystyrene antlers and a comic relief red nose.

Why, you might ask? Well, a few months ago a couple of my friends created a Facebook event for their annual fancy dress Christmas party, which is held in the village hall and consists of a Christmas quiz, silly games, dancing and lots of booze. The theme this year is “heroes and villains”. So I thought to myself, that sounds like a great theme, I might actually make an effort this year! I imagined I might actually go all out and create some kind of superhero costume involving a leotard, a mask and a cape. But now the day is actually here, and despite all the running I’ve been doing lately, frankly I have eaten far too many mince pies to even contemplate wearing anything made of lycra. Plus it can get very cold in that village hall. So then I thought briefly about Cruella de Vil. You can’t get much more villainous than her, and she wears a very warm coat. But then I realised that a convincing Cruella costume requires more time, creativity and effort than I can really muster right now.

So yesterday I was racking my brains to think of something easy, but less pathetic than last year’s effort, which involved me wearing a coat, hat and scarf and claiming to be dressed as a carol singer. Then in a flash of inspiration, I thought of Rudolph the red nosed reindeer. On that foggy Christmas Eve, when the met office got it wrong again and Santa had forgotten to check the fog lamps on his sleigh, Rudolph saved Christmas. Without him, none of the children would have got any presents that year. I think he counts as a hero, don’t you? That’s what I’ll tell the confused heroes and villains when I show up at the party tonight, anyway.

In all honesty, the lyrics to “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” have always made me feel rather uncomfortable. I’ve always felt that they skate rather blithely over a very important issue, which was that Rudolph was the reindeer equivalent of the child in school who gets bullied for being a little bit different. Prior to that foggy Christmas Eve, when Rudolph saved all their arses, the other reindeer were consistently horrible to him. They laughed at him, called him names, and wouldn’t let him join in any of their stupid reindeer games.

They probably weren’t all as bad as each other. There’s usually a ringleader, who everyone else follows. It was probably Vixen… that sounds like something the bitchy captain of the cheerleaders in an American teen movie would be called (if she happened to be a reindeer). Prancer was probably struggling with his sexual identity and hoping no one would notice him and make him the next target.

In any playground situation, we’d call this bullying. But because Rudolph is a fictional reindeer, we tend to gloss over the fact that when his red nose (i.e. the reason they were bullying him) turned out to be the very thing that saved the day, they conveniently forgot how much they loved teasing him and all started competing to be his BFF. Am I the only one who thinks there’s something deeply wrong about this?

When I was a kid I got bullied at school. I was the geeky one with big hair and big glasses, who used a lot of long words and constantly had her nose in a book. I know I wasn’t cool, but that was no reason for people to treat me the way they did. I was popular with five people in my class, once a week, when we had our weekly spelling test and I used to let everyone on my table copy my answers. The rest of the time, I just got teased and left out, like Rudolph. My classmates weren’t really that awful, and the bullying wasn’t particularly extreme, but it still made me miserable.

Thankfully, things got better, and those people who liked to say “your school days are the best days of your life” got it completely wrong. I’m now 27, I don’t wear glasses any more, my hair is (more-or-less) under control, and I earn a decent salary by still being a geek and a massive pedant.

One Christmas, when I was about 20 or 21, I was in the pub in my home town, having a drink with some friends. I saw a group of people sitting at a table in the corner, some of whom I recognised from my school days. When I went to the bathroom, one of the girls I’d been at primary school with was in there. She’d never been particularly unkind, but at the same time we weren’t really friends even back then, and she gave no sign that she knew who I was.

A little while later, I was queueing at the bar when someone called me by my name. I turned round to see who it was, but it was someone I didn’t recognise.

“Sorry,” I said. “Do we know each other?”

“It’s me, James,” he said.

I looked at him, blankly. “James…?”

“James Richardson? From school?”

Ah, I thought. A school villain if ever there was one.

“Oh… hi,” I said. “I remember now. I didn’t recognise you though! How are you?”

“Yeah, good thanks!” he said. “We were just saying over there, we can’t believe how much you’ve changed! You look really different… we almost didn’t recognise you! We were just saying, out of everyone we knew from school, if anyone’s really changed, it’s you!”

I paused for a moment, not really sure how to respond.

“Well… you recognised me, and I didn’t recognise you…” I pointed out.

He shook his head, confidently. “No, seriously!” he said. “You look really different. You look hot!”

“Oh… right,” I said. “Erm, thanks?”

We talked for a few minutes, and then he went back to the group and I went back to my friends.

I was never really very sure how to take that. I mean, on the one hand, a compliment is a compliment. But it was such a back-handed compliment. And although I sort of wanted to take it at face value, I couldn’t help but feel pretty insulted on behalf of my thirteen year old self. What, so I get contact lenses and learn how to straighten my hair, and that makes me worth talking to now, does it? Because my entire value and worth as a person depends on what I look like? Nice.

I don’t know. Maybe I was over-thinking things a bit too much. Everyone knows kids are horrible at school, and that doesn’t necessarily mean they turn into horrible adults. But I would rather he had said, “Hey, you know what, I’m really sorry we used to pick on you at school…” or even just stuck to, “So… haven’t seen you for a long time. What are you doing now?” We could have talked about university, mutual friends, travelling plans, career aspirations or any number of things. But instead he chose to come and congratulate me on leaving my ugly duckling years behind and joining the ranks of people worth talking to.

Part of me wishes I’d told him in no uncertain terms to eff off. But it wouldn’t really have been in the Christmas spirit, and it would have betrayed the fact that I still hadn’t forgotten the way they made me feel all those years ago. He probably would have gone back to the others and told them that I might have better hair now, but I was clearly still a loser. So I smiled and made polite small talk with him instead, and if I ever see him again, no doubt I shall do the same.

I wonder how Rudolph behaved towards those shallow and fickle reindeer when they suddenly started being nice to him for a change. I don’t know whether I’d rather imagine that he handled it with grace and charm, or that he told them to take a long walk off a short ice cap.

Here’s to Rudolph, hero of the hour, who triumphed over the school bullies. I hope that Santa gave him a pay rise, and that whatever he’s doing these days, he’s happy and successful.

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