By Pieter van Zyl
SUDDENLY everyone knows his name and knows who he is – but for all the wrong reasons. Morné Harmse (18) of Krugersdorp West has now been labelled the ‘‘samurai sword murderer of the playground’’.
I see pictures of him arriving at court on the front pages of the newspapers and my blood runs cold. It could have been me when I was a schoolboy – he’s the mirror image of a boy who was bullied and teased mercilessly, an outsider who hid behind the domestic science classroom to avoid the cruel taunts because I wasn’t like the other guys. I did pottery, played the French horn and won gold certificates for art at the Welkom show. But I was terrified of a rugby ball and ran in the opposite direction when it was kicked my way.
‘‘Moffie, sissie, queer, freak . . .’’
The more you’re called names the more they stick and the more difficult it becomes to get rid of them.
I DON’T know Morné who’s now been charged with the murder of a schoolmate and I don’t want to pretend his story is like mine. But just in case the message gets through to school bullies I’d like to shout from school rooftops: Leave other kids alone! Do you know how long it takes to restore your self-image once it has been destroyed?
I know. A woman once told me in passing: ‘‘Your eyes are too pretty to be a boy’s. You should have been a girl.’’
When I was in Grade 8 a girlfriend told me how masculine and sexy my sunglasses make me look. They were those Men in Black kind of sunglasses you get as a free gift with aftershave lotion and deodorants over Christmas.
Suddenly everything fell into place and the bizarre logic made sense to me: Eyes are the windows of the soul and if people can’t see my eyes they can’t hurt me.
So I started wearing sunglasses all the time – in the car on the way to school, during break when I hid somewhere in a corner on the school grounds, on the way to church, in the vicarage where people often came to see my dad for counselling and at the dinner table when I came home from school. I even wore my dark glasses in the evenings until all the curtains were tightly drawn. My mom would hide them but I would always find them.
Whenever one of the schoolboys grabbed me from behind and pulled out my underpants in front of all the girls or spat onto me from the top of the school walkway I would go home and randomly open the Bible to find answers. Why? Will the taunting ever stop? I would desperately search for a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ among the verses. But I only found the answer years later at university.
My mom refers to those dark days at high school as my dark glasses period. I still feel as if I’m suffocating when I think back to that wasted Spring and how I wished my youth away. It was only at the end of my school career that I started making friends with other outsiders and with their help and my mom’s prayers I became my own best friend.
It took years to believe what I was trying to tell myself: How boring life would be if there were only first-team captains and head boys and girls in the world.
It’s people who’re different – like my friends and I – that make life, whether it’s school, church or parliament, interesting and worthwhile.
I still can’t help wondering: If I’d been able to lay my hands on a samurai sword, gun or any other weapon would I have ended up behind bars? I used to spend my time thinking violent thoughts.
Thank heavens my caring parents and teachers at Welkom Gymnasium intervened and encouraged me with love and understanding.
I wish I could turn back the clock and tell boys like Morné: ‘‘It’s okay to be different, just be yourself. You’ll get further in life because you’re not like the other 99 per cent carbon-copy tin soldiers.
‘‘But don’t let your anger smoulder and unleash a blood bath. Rather let it become your driving force to do what everyone says you can’t.
‘‘Look at me, I came out the other end without blood on my hands. I know about your anger and how it foments cruel emotions inside you.’’
I have the following message for fathers: Go and look for your children wherever they’re hiding. Open the curtains in their dim bedrooms and let in the sunlight. Hug them tightly and tell them over and over: ‘‘I love you just the way you are.’’
And mothers, repeat the following mantra in your child’s receptive ear: ‘‘Stop wishing you were different. You’re unique, you’re one of a kind!’’
Ruthless bullies should be in the dock with their parents to account for their actions. Where do those disgusting words come from? Is your child the mirror image of you own loveless life? What do you say when you think your kids aren’t listening? Stop using words such as moffie for any man who doesn’t fit your testosterone-laden image of what a man should be like.
I beg of the more enlightened, popular kids at school – the Breakfast Club – to reach out to the loners. You have the ability and strength to involve outsiders and help them to believe in themselves.
Take a walk around the school grounds at break, look behind the domestic science classroom and shooting range, find the loners who’re drifting on the edge. Find the kids who pray period after period that someone will come up to them and say: ‘‘Hey, listen, you’re actually okay.’’
Or do you want to sit back and do nothing, waiting for the next cry for help to erupt into a schoolyard blood bath?
But reach out now because who at that school in Krugersdorp could foresee a murder would be committed in their midst before school was out that day?
Stamp out bullying
- Parents, talk to your children every day after school. Find out what they did and get to know their friends, suggests Janine Shamos of the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (Sadag). ‘‘Children won’t easily admit of their own accord they’re being bullied; parents must ask them.’’
- Don’t tell children to fight back; that’s not the answer. It’s better to walk away and talk to a sympathetic teacher. Tell your child to stay in a group. Bullies hit on kids who’re alone, isolated and vulnerable.
- Children who’re being bullied must learn life skills at support groups and workshops and with the help of psychologists.
- Children who passively watch others being bullied can themselves become bullies. Drill it into your child that doing nothing while someone is being bullied is wrong. Encourage them to create a bully-free area on the playground where everyone is welcome and bullying isn’t tolerated. Tell them that reaching out to children in need will make them stronger and more powerful.
- Contact Sadag on 0800 567 567 for information about image-building workshops and how to crack down on bullies.