When I was little, we moved into a house in a newly developed neighbourhood. It was just an average neighbourhood with some state built houses and some private built houses. I guess you would say that it was the lower side of the middle class range. Every house on our street was occupied by young families. It was just one street really. Built into the side of a hill which at the time was full of empty lots and provided ample space for all of us to explore and make huts and set up boundaries where only our groups were allowed. We ran wild in the streets until well after dark, Lord of the Flies style.
There were no shortages of kids to play with. I was one of the younger kids – my siblings both 6 and 9 years older than me were in a different stage of childhood than me – not that that stopped them from letting me tag along and be part of their groups.
There is a strong hierarchy in built into childhood. A ranking of how cool people are, of who is worth playing with, and who isn’t. A solid foundation of bullying that no one really takes any real notice of at the time it’s happening, because being mean is so fun for those who are the ones being mean. They don’t really stop to think about what their meanness does to their victims, not at that age. It’s all just a game.
I had a friend growing up called Phillip. He was one of the kids who wasn’t considered cool. In fact, he and his brother were probably the two kids most picked on in our neighbourhood. We’d have ‘wars’ against neighbouring kids. It was always really serious, and I never understood it. I remember being told off by my fellow allies when I’d cross enemy lines to play with someone new. “You can’t DO that Kelly!” “You’re on OUR side, you can’t just SWAP SIDES!”
“Why not?” I’d ask and always be greeted with “because that’s not how it works.”
But I always wanted to know WHY. Why wasn’t it the way it worked? Why couldn’t we all get along? Why were people so mean to others? I never really suffered anything other than exasperation at my constant defying of the rules. My siblings protected me.
Phillip was the oldest of two boys in his family. He was a year or two younger than I was. Every one called him Shit Lip – it rhymes with Phillip, see? The things they said about him were awful. They accused him of having dropped his little brother on his head, causing his little brother’s “slowness”. I never knew if that was true or not, but I liked Phillip.
When everyone else was gone, I would go to Phillip’s house and I remember knocking on his door and being scared of his father’s reaction. I never really understood why his father would storm to the door looking as if he was going to beat the shit out of whoever was knocking on it – until quite recently. Whenever he saw me, his face would soften and he would smile and ask me if I wanted to come inside.
Phillip’s mum made the yummiest cakes. They gave me juice and fed me sweets and Phillip and I played happily together for hours.
As we grew older, the taunting still happened. I don’t know what school he ended up going to, but it wasn’t mine. I don’t know if Phillip was a victim of bullying at school as well as when he got home, but I do know that we just sort of drifted away from each other and I never really thought much about him.
I remember those days I spent with him pretty fondly though. I remember the feeling of pleasure I would get whenever I defied the rules of our war games and played with the kids we weren’t supposed to play with. I remember how hard my mum worked to make sure I didn’t join in any teasing. I don’t actually remember this photo being taken. I don’t remember Phillip coming to our house much. I know he was pretty scared to leave his property at all because of the way the hoards of kids would taunt him. Calling him Shit Lip, telling him he was the reason for his brother’s slowness. They made up cruel poems about how it happened, and I listened to it all and wondered why.
About 10 years ago, Phillip committed suicide. He’d climbed high up into a tree and hung himself. High enough that the search team never saw him. His father had been going out with them every day to try to find him – this day he happened to look up.
Every time I think of Phillip, I think of how hard things were on his parents. His mother was such a sweet and quiet woman, I never saw much of her aside from when she came to give us cakes. His father always seemed like such an angry man, but I have absolutely no doubts that he was the way he was because of how the neighbourhood kids treated his boys. I remember being told of the arguments his parents had, and now I think I understand why that was. Of course they were fighting, how could they not be?
Those stories turned to his father too. How he was such a bastard, how badly he treated his family, about the yelling people would hear coming from their house. I think about how kind he was when I came to play, and how welcoming he was. How much he loved to see my face at his door and to see me playing with his son. I think about how he must have looked when he found his son hanging from a tree at the age of about 24. Of how helpless Phillip’s parents must have felt because of a bunch of mean kids who saw weakness in their son and exploited it. Of how much pain and humiliation Phillip went through in his short life.
I wonder what sort of man he’d be now, because he was a fucking sweet boy who never complained about how the other kids treated him. He never said a word to me about it. He was always willing to play my imaginary games and keep me company. We mostly did the things I wanted to do, and he played my games without ever complaining if they were too girly or boring. He let me into his life and became an important part of mine.
I always regretted the fact that we drifted apart. Going to different schools and having different things in your life will do that I guess. It hurt so bad when I found out he had died. To have gone through such callous and horrible bullying and to only find one way out is intolerably cruel.
This one is for you Phillip. For you, and for all the other countless people out there who were and are being bullied. There are always people who love you. People who want to be your friend. People who will look past the cruel things that other people are saying and see the real you. I’m sorry it wasn’t enough.
Thank you Shane Koyczan for being such an incredible voice for those kids who don’t have one of their own. x