The Outsider

During one of the panels at Fantasycon Joanne Harris spoke about being an outsider and how, despite appearances at the time, it helps the individual in the long run rather than hurting them.

She then spoke about her own experiences of not being one of the popular children at school, not being with the ‘in crowd’ and being one of the oddball kids who didn’t seem to fit in. She believes (and I agree with her) that those children who are popular, those who glide along in the middle of a crowd through school without ever being challenged or bullied or just put-upon, are less prepared for the challenges of the real world when it comes knocking on their door. Because they’ve never faced adversity and had to improvise and overcome it. Because they’ve never been alone and left with only their wits. Because they’ve never faced mental hardships. Standing alone in the shallows and facing the waves is a lot easier when you’ve done it before.

I was never very good at sports at school. I wasn’t lazy and I wasn’t overweight. I just wasn’t that good and didn’t excel at any of them. I tried all sorts of sports over the years and I did enjoy some of them, indoor rock climbing and badminton, to the point where I pursued both outside of school for fun. I swam for a local club and even played rugby for a few years, and there was fun there, and friendship, and camaraderie, but eventually I stopped playing and don’t miss it. Every week I’d come home from rugby with a fresh bruise, cut or scrape, and I certainly don’t miss those.

I was never on any of the school sports teams and I never really enjoyed football. As far back as middle school I remember sitting on a bench  and reading at lunch time, beside the massive green playing field, while others chased a football in the sun. Even further back in primary school I remember asking teachers awkward questions and then getting annoyed with them, because they didn’t have the answers. I don’t think I was just endlessly asking why a hundred times over and over. I’ve always been genuinely curious about lots of areas and my disappointment stemmed from the realisation that they, as teachers and adults, didn’t have all the answers. That definitely left a mark on me.

After that I was told off for miming hymns (back when we had religious assemblies in public schools) because it didn’t make sense to me. Others just sang along happily, never asking why we had to sing those songs or what they really meant or who we were praising. Even now I am often baffled why some people just go along with something and never ask why, never question authority, never want to scratch the surface. They vote for the person who seems the nicest and never dig beneath the bold statements. This is particularly on my mind as here in the UK we have a general election next year.

I don’t recall any specific incidents of being bullied at school, but I’m sure I was to some degree like most people. I had an ordinary family background, I looked pretty much like everyone else and I did fairly well, but didn’t excel in most subjects. There wasn’t anything particularly weird about me, so that blunted any number of weapons bullies could use before they even had a chance. My name was a little odd so that was one weapon. I think I was an outsider not because of any external factors, but because of the inquisitive nature within. Children are usually very curious, so it wasn’t just my inquisitiveness that made me an outsider, but it’s definitely a part of it.

I was (and still am) never satisfied with an answer that doesn’t make sense on some fundamental level, whether that’s scientific, moral or just plain old common sense. The Green Cross Code told us to look both ways before crossing the street. That made sense because cars came from both directions. Stubbornly looking only in one direction would just get you run over. So there was nothing to be achieved by rejecting that rule.

Most mornings in middle school before class we had a religious service, which was often a Bible story followed by hymns. One morning we had the story of the Good Samaritan. The following morning, a different teacher took the assembly, and he started to tell us the story of the Good Samaritan. Someone, probably not me although I’d like to believe it was, put their hand up and said ‘Sir, Ms Marr told us that story yesterday.’ His reply was one that came from a place of anger. He basically told us that we would listen to it again and this time learn the lesson because it couldn’t have sunk it overnight. So the seeds were planted for my problem with authority. After a while I would excuse myself from the assemblies and leave the hall when there was a religious service. In the corridor outside the two Muslim lads in the school and I would then chat or sometimes play cards, usually Top Trumps, until it was over.

As we grow older and become adults, as the world becomes more complex and less black and white, do we stop being curious and stop asking questions because it’s easier?

I’m still very curious and I’m still asking questions. I still get agitated and annoyed by a lot of things, major and minor, that other people don’t. They don’t see what the problem is. They don’t see why I’m making a fuss, whereas I can’t see why they’re not upset.

Is it fear of standing out and being noticed again that keeps some people quiet? There’s an old saying in Japanese that roughly translates as ‘that nail that sticks out gets hammered down’. Is it the old fear from childhood of being an outsider that makes people ‘go with the flow’ and just follow orders? Do they want to belong so badly and be part of something that they ignore the other voices? Or are they quiet from neglect?