by Rob Ingle
IKMF practitioner at Carpe Diem Krav Maga.
The playground at my comprehensive school was affectionately called ‘The Cage’, probably because of the high chain-link fence which enclosed it, but perhaps because for a ninety minutes each day it prevented a smelly, hollering group of ne’er do wells from causing damage anywhere else. For some reason, the school authorities had seen fit to cover the floor of the playground with a dusting of fine gravel, guaranteed to swiftly remove the skin from your hands, knees or face if you dared to attempt a game of tennis-ball-footie or tag. Perhaps the school board had shares in Elastoplast, I don’t know.
It was a crisp, bright day at lunch break and some of the lovely children in year ten had decided to play a game whose name I can only imagine was ‘Kick the ball at the meek kid’. It was simple to play, with apparently few rules other than picking up a football and drop-kicking it as hard as possible, from point-blank range, at either the head, face or testicles of the nearest child who was minding their own business. And these guys were good. The playground came alive with pained cries and anguished yells, a refrain which no doubt greatly amused the four or five tormentors who I will here call Lee, Dean, Dazza, Gazza and Tristan. Ah, Tristan. Name from Eton, chip on shoulder from who knows where. Maybe it was small-man-syndrome (he was short, but stocky). Maybe his parents didn’t lavish enough attention on him. Maybe he was just a frustrated young man, frantically paddling against a wave of new and confusing emotions, thoughts, feelings, hormones; desperately scrambling to find some meaning in his young and bewildering life…
Maybe he was just a bit of a dick.
Whatever the reason, Tristan took it upon himself that afternoon to rudely interrupt my important conversation with my friend Johnny (which Warhammer army was better: Dark Elves or Dwarves—dwarves obvs…) by kicking a football really hard at us from about four feet away. I remember seeing the ball approaching like a vengeful comet, turning away from it too late and shouting in pain as the thing drove like a mallet into the general area of my kidneys.
I was confused. An armistice had been violated. You see, my friends and I navigated the choppy social waters of senior school by staying right in the middle: not too nerdy, not too popular. If the Year Eleven bullies tried it on, we made things just difficult enough to make them find easier prey elsewhere. Rather like punching a shark in the gills; ours skills were limited, but some desperate flailing proved effective. We existed in a moderately comfortable no-man’s land where we just got on with our own affairs and watched the carnage go on around us. So what was Tristan doing? Why bother us?
Because he was Year Ten, that’s why. He wasn’t party to the finer mechanisms of the Year Eleven social strata. The little f*cker was messing with older kids. The gall!
To the sound of his compatriots’ jeering I picked up the ball and was about to turn and boot it straight back at him (mature, I know) when I was shoved roughly from behind and crashed against the fence. The ball fell from my hands and bounced away as I turned and stared angrily into the smug face of Tristan. Then I watched in a kind of detached fugue as my right hand swung round and smacked him firmly in the side of the mouth.
There was a moment of silence as the five bullies comprehended what had just happened and nearby witnesses gawped in expectant excitement (no doubt hoping for an opportunity to form a circle and chant ‘Fight, fight, fight!’), then tears sprang into Tristan’s eyes. He swiftly wiped them away and hissed “You’re DEAD, I’m gonna GET you after school!” With a final glower, he rejoined his cronies and they swaggered away. I looked at Johnny, who stared back at me, aghast. A moment ago we had been happily discussing fantasy role-playing games and now suddenly I was going to be in a fight with one of the school’s ‘hard nuts’. Oh dear.
I spent the rest of the day not listening to my teachers, worrying endlessly about my impending doom. I had double science in the afternoon but facts about magnesium drifted into one ear and out of the other as I pondered what the end of the day would bring.
Too soon, it was home time. My friend James walked with me as I clinked down the hall in my orange jump suit and chains… I’ve never been a violent person, I don’t really understand the need to fight; MMA, boxing, K1 et al bemuse me slightly—I do Krav so that in the unlikely event I’m ever attacked my odds of surviving are increased. Aside from a few boyhood shoving matches with my friend Johnny, born of annoyance and pre-teen angst, I have never had a fight. And until the moment I wandered nervously out of school, watching for Tristan and his cronies to appear, I had never had one then.
He wasn’t there. Children streamed out of the gates, but Tristan was nowhere to be seen. Well, I wasn’t going to stand and wait. Would it be cowardly to just go home? I decided no. It’s not like I was backing out of a prearranged appointment, I was an unwilling party here! Give a death-row convict the opportunity to walk and he’s going to take it.
As I entered the alleyway across the road there was a commotion behind me. I heard a squeaky adolescent voice shout “There he is Tristan, get him!” and I half turned in time to see Tristan hurtling through the air in a crazy berserker leap. I flinched away as his fist slammed into my left ear. He had sucker punched me! For a second, I stood, stunned and stinging, rubbing my sore ear. Then Tristan squared up in front of me and began the shoving and posturing. Why do people do this? As Krav practitioners we know that someone standing with puffed out chest, arms splayed, legs braced apart, chin jutting, is offering up a wonderful array of targets. So it amazes me that you see this time and again. It’s like a peacock posturing—make yourself look big. Well, Tristan was doing his best to make himself look taller and he was certainly being successful looking wider, but I can’t say I felt particularly intimidated. Not now my ear was stinging. I was oddly emotionless as I grabbed Tristan’s jacket, yanked it over his head and dragged his head down until he was bent double. He grabbed at my wrists ineffectually and tried to straighten up, but I had hold of his jacket firmly and there was no way I was going to let him back up so he could hit me again. But aside from that, I didn’t really know what to do. Present this situation now and an assailant in that position would be a gift, but as a bewildered fourteen year old I just delivered a few half hearted knees to his general head area, which was heavily padded by his bunched jacket. I didn’t really want to hurt him, I was just acting out of reflex and self defence. And when I let go and he straightened up, dishevelled, tears standing in his eyes, looking hurt and confused, I felt bad for the guy. “Go on Tristan, f*ckin’ hit ‘im,” someone shouted. But Tristan stared at me and said in a wavering voice, “I already have.” Then he walked away, no trace of a swagger this time.
So that was my first and only school fight. Sloppy, totally ineffective and very brief. With hindsight, I didn’t have a chance to de-escalate the situation, but had plenty of chances to finish it quickly and decisively. I wonder what a fourteen year old who’d studied Krav since they were tiny would have done?
I didn’t get much gratification from the experience, but a small part of me did secretly look forward to the slight rise in my social standing once it became known I had ‘bested’ one of the school bullies. This was short lived however; swiftly quashed by the first kid in the playground who said “You’re that kid Tristan beat up aren’t you?”
Proof that the best career for a former school bully is Marketing and PR.