There’s a scene in the film “International Velvet,” where a young American girl who has relocated to the UK (played by Tatum O’Neal) is teased in the playground of her school by some local boys. They show her a fake bloody finger, prompting her to run away in floods of tears.
As a child, this sequence had a strong impact on me. I remember being horrified at how cruel English schoolchildren could be. Poor Tatum O’Neal hadn’t been bothering anybody and those little British kids went out of their way to try to frighten her and make her feel unwelcome. I remember being furious that anyone could be so mean. It left me with a rather poor impression of the youth of the UK.
Eventually, of course, I forgot all about this relatively obscure film and my concerns over the viciousness of British school lads faded, until I happened on an airing of International Velvet on the BBC just a few weeks ago. When the bloody finger scene came on, a surge of emotions came over me again, even stronger than what I had felt as a child.
Now, everything was different.
I wasn’t just an American child abstractly observing the cruelty of English schoolchildren on a movie screen from a great distance. Now I lived in England, and more importantly, my own daughter has been going to school here – for years. How could I have forgotten how worryingly vicious these little British bounders could be- and how could I have been so neglectful in exposing my own precious little snowflake to them? How could I have forgotten the lessons of International Velvet?
Right after the film ended, I resolved to speak to my daughter, to make sure she was not getting teased, bullied or tortured. Here is how the conversation went:
Me: “Hey kid, I’m going to ask you some questions about school, is that okay?”
Daughter: “Okay daddy. What do you want to talk about?”
Me: “Has anyone ever really teased or hurt you at school- like by giving you a noogie or something like that?”
Daughter: “What’s a noogie?”
Me: “Wait a minute – you don’t know what a noogie is?”
Daughter: “No, what does it mean? Like to give someone a hard time maybe?”
How could this be? My daughter didn’t know what a noogie was? Maybe there was a different word for it in the UK, so I probed further:
“A noogie, you know, when someone puts you in a headlock and then rubs your head really hard back and forth with their knuckles, hurting you and also messing up your hair?”
She stared at me blankly and shrugged her shoulders. She had never heard of, or seen such a thing.
Is it possible English schoolkids don’t give noogies?
Clearly my kid had never received a noogie, if she didn’t even know what one was when it was described to her. But there were many other ways children could be cruel, so I continued with my queries.
Me: “Well, do you know what a wedgie is?
Daughter: “Is that like a flat tire?“
Me: “Oh, so you know what a flat tire is- when someone steps on your shoe from behind to make it flap loose off your heel?”
Daughter: “Of course Daddy, you’ve done that to me a million times.”
Er, she was right. I had given her many a flat tire as we walked around together. Each time I would pretend it was an accident, and then a minute later, I’d do it again, until she got really annoyed. But when I do them– they’re funny. Trust me? Anyway, a flat tire (or a ‘flat tyre as it probably would be known as in the UK) is hardly the worst thing you could do to a child. There was worse. Much worse. I pressed on.
Me:”If you don’t know what a wedgie is, then how about a Melvin? Tell me what a Melvin is.”
Daughter: “Maybe somewhere to eat?”
Me: “Somewhere to eat?! Are you messing with me?”
Daughter: “No Daddy. What is a Melvin?”
Me: “It’s another word for a wedgie.”
Daughter: “You still didn’t tell me what a wedgie was.”
Me: “Never mind. How about a swirlie? Do you know what a swirlie is?”
Daughter: “Like swirling around, when you’re dancing?”
Me: “No. It has something to do with the toilet. Do you know what an Indian burn is?”
Daughter: “Is it like a burn you would get if you visited India?”
Me: “No! How about a Wet Willie?”
Daughter (now sensing my frustration and trying hard to give me a right answer): “Is it when you tell something to someone even when you know it’s not true, just to make them a bit scared?”
Me: “No. Never mind. A wet willie is gross. How about a purple nurple?”
Daughter: “I have no idea what that is.”
Me: “Okay, good. A dead finger?”
Daughter: “Is that when you bash your finger very hard. That can be quite painful.”
Me: “How about a raspberry?”
Daughter: “Yes. It’s either the fruit, or the thing where you have someone’s tummy, and you blow and kiss on it at the same time to make a ‘phthftft’ noise. It doesn’t feel too comfortable”
Again, I realised that she was familiar with raspberries not because of nasty schoolmates, but because I had been teasing her with them since she was a baby – a lot. Any time she said the word “raspberry” for any reason, I would run up to her, pull up her shirt and blow fart sounds on her belly, while she would either laugh or scream to her mummy for help. I eventually stopped this form of teasing when she started to become phobic about asking for what used to be her favourite fruit. Feeling a little guilty, I tried to move the conversation forwards.
Me: “How about someone coming up to you and saying ‘quit hitting yourself, quit hitting yourself?'”
Daughter: “That’s like when you do that to me!”
Now I was starting to feel really uncomfortable. Yes- I’ve done that prank to her, but never to actually make her hurt herself. Just to make her kind of only very slightly whack her own head with her own hand in a totally-not-painful-at-all manner. I mean, raspberries, flat tires, and making kids hit themselves were just part of my youth- they were part of me and how I was raised. They were, and are funny. Right?
And then I realised it.
English schoolchildren are rank amateurs when it comes to playground cruelty. It was Americans like me who have cornered the market. Yeah, maybe a British kid might call you “common” or show you a fake bloody finger. But if I were sending my daughter to school in America, I can guarantee you that she would know the meaning of each and every word I had quizzed her about. And it would have been quite likely she would have experienced all of them- and more! There’s also towel snaps, shoe-lacing, pantsing, spitballs… the list goes on and on.
I’m relieved to say that International Velvet had it wrong. British schoolkids can’t be that bad if my own 8-year old daughter is almost completely, blissfully unaware 0f the gamut of childhood brutalities that I experienced (and sometimes inflicted) when I was her age in America.
But in the future, if any kids start to bother her, I’m going to teach her how to administer an atomic wedgie. That’s where you pull up a kid’s underwear so far up their backside, that the top of it goes over their head like an elastic cap. That’s what that stupid little victim Tatum O’Neal should have done to those British bullies and their stupid bloody finger. That’s the American way.
I also asked my daughter about common playground insults and comebacks. Here are more answers that display her schoolyard innocence:
Me: “What are cooties?”
Daughter: “They’re people who talk alot.”
Me: “Complete this sentence: ‘I’m rubber and you are glue….'”
Daughter: “…let’s ruin this piece of paper.”
Me: “Complete this sentence: ‘I know you are but…'”
Daughter: “I know you are nice, but you won’t understand this game we are playing.”
Me: “Hey, do you kiss your mother with…
Daughter: “Love. And your mouth”
Me: “If you love it so much, why don’t you…”
Daughter: “Kiss it. Hug it.”
Me: “Why don’t you take a picture…it’ll…”
Daughter: “be nice to look at when we get back home”
Me: “Sticks and stones…”
“Are perfect for making a campfire!”
Me (trying again): “Sticks and stones may break my bones but…”
Daughter: “only if I eat them.”