We’ve been conditioned to think of bullying as something that happens only one way: violent. Bullying can be violent and straightforward—and it often is—but it can be so much more. It can be insidious, quiet but potent. It can be disguised, buried in charm and charisma. It can be a defense mechanism, a thick shell to hide in, a costume people put on to appear meaner. A facade.
My aunt said I was a small, stretchy thing that cried too much. I grew into a tall, stretchy thing: all bones. I didn’t have chubby baby cheeks nor did I have cute rolls of baby fat for people to admire and pinch with affection. It didn’t help that I spent a lot of my early childhood in hospitals, treating bout after bout of malaria; a disease I’m very susceptible to. This was way back when chloroquine was still used to treat malaria. I spent many nights trapped in elaborate chloroquine-induced fever dreams and hallucinations. Hallucinations in which lions chased after me, and wicked fever dreams where I was always drowning in a well, blowing desperate bubbles before my demise.
I’d just recovered from another bout of malaria and returned to school. I was in primary two. I must have looked like death warmed over, because the other kids in my class stole glances at me. My uniform that never quite fit was even looser, succumbing to small gusts of wind. I noticed the hush-hush way I was being treated, as if I was a pariah, an anomaly that should be avoided until it was understood. My mother would feed me two spoonfuls of sweet syrupy multivitamins from a bottle, willing it with her eyes to improve my appetite, to help me fill out my cheeks and chest and stomach. I’d pray to Allah to make me as big as the other kids at night, my little hands cupped together in supplication. I always made sure my voice was low, a small murmur my mother couldn’t hear. She told me I was perfect the way I was. She’d muss up my hair, kiss me on the forehead, and call me her little professor; a nickname that bore witness to how brilliant I was.
I grew taller and lankier. Most people made peace with my sinewy physique. Or rather, they’d postponed my redemption to the future. They said I would fill out when I got married. The only problem I ran into were the kids at school. I was this thin, reedy boy with prominent clavicles that could be seen from miles away. Every time I got into a quarrel with other kids, they threatened to break me. My seatmate, Charles*, would draw a line with chalk on the desk we both shared. It always gave him about three-quarters of the desk space. I’d manage my space and tell him “sorry” every time my finger crossed the line. He often threatened to break me too, staring me down every time I complained. One day, Charles smudged ink on my note and I yelled at him. He told me to apologize but I didn’t. I was smoldering in righteous anger and hatred. My right hand closed over my pen and squeezed it hard. He smacked me across the face, hard enough to make the entire class pause, hard enough to put a spotlight on both of us. I didn’t think, I reacted. I stabbed him on his left thigh with my pen. I packed in all the force I could muster into that stab. About a third of the pen sank into his flesh. The wound bled freely. Blood soaked into his purple shorts, turning it a deep midnight blue. I felt no remorse, even after our class teacher beat me, even after she called my father and told him I was violent. I felt proud and I enjoyed watching him cry. I was given my own desk which I used alone after that incident and Charles never bothered me again. I learned an important lesson that day. I knew I had to fight my own battles.
In secondary school, the power of my intelligence became apparent to me. It was like a revelation, an epiphany. All my life, even when I was a sickly kid, I’d always been first in class. I was brilliant. I was quick with numbers and even quicker with words. I had a great memory. I placed first in almost all the subjects. It was in secondary school I turned my intelligence into, first, an armor, then later, a barbed-wire I tore at people’s self-confidence with.
I came across the word “nincompoop” for the first time in Chinua Achebe’s children’s book, “Chike and the River”. I looked it up in the dictionary and saw that it meant stupid. I checked my thesaurus for its synonyms and wrote down all the impressive-sounding ones like “opaque”, “knuckleheaded”, “birdbrained”, “thick-witted”, “obtuse”, and my old favorite, “vacuous”. I instinctively knew insults worked best with timing. It’s like music, or rather, a joke. Knowing the words wasn’t enough, knowing when and how to drop them was where the sauce was at. It cuts deeper when it is dropped at the right time, with the correct cadence, tone, and facial expressions. Insults were like performances, and I knew it was the audience I was performing for. I knew for it to hurt, my audience had to help me deliver the message; they had to stamp it with their approval.
The first time I called a person a “nincompoop”, the class stopped, and ohhh-ed. The boy I called that, Gideon*, froze for a few seconds because he didn’t know how to react. It wasn’t an insult he was used to. And after the entire class ohhh-ed, they followed it with laughter. He sat down and shot daggers at me with his eyes but I knew I’d already won. I’d just owned him in front of twenty-seven kids.
I practiced insults in my head. I’d create different scenarios and practice exactly what I’d say if those things happened. I became good at performing this new skill and people who could break me started avoiding me because they knew I could shame them in public, that I could reduce them to tears on a whim. It wasn’t as if they couldn’t talk back to me; they could and often did. They couldn’t match me because they didn’t know enough words. They hadn’t practiced as much as I had. Once, I told a girl who was struggling academically that the reason she was dumb was because her parents were dumb. I didn’t stop there. I went further and told her her kids would be dumb too, because she carried the gene of dumbness. My audience ohhh-ed and the girl ran away to cry. I’d just read about genetics for the first time, and that was my first application of what I’d learned. I was a budding menace.
I read voraciously because I was curious and wanted to know things, and also because I had to know more than everyone else. To stay on top, I had to have new things to tell people. I knew the correct answers to all the popular trivia questions. I knew where Jackson, Mississippi was, even though my school was in Lokoja, Nigeria. I read all the popular classics, read colorful books about animals, history, ancient art, old Egypt, Japanese civilizations, etc. I read things that I needed and didn’t need. Once, I stumbled upon a book about the sexual habits of teenagers in a public library and read it too. Later, I’d find out a psychiatrist wrote that book for other psychiatrists.
I was popular and still the smartest kid in my class. I was now the leader of my class, the person boys flocked to and listened to. It was a power I was aware of, something I’d carefully stoked. I didn’t look like a bully, certainly not like the ones in American movies and TV shows. I wasn’t struggling academically. I didn’t beat up anyone on the playground. Teachers loved me because I was quick-witted. I was still breakable but I was no longer helpless. I could cut people down with words, and most times I cut deep. I’d even mastered insulting people with longer sentences, shaming them with everything I could lay my hands on: their weight, their inabilities (usually stuttering), their complexion, their masculinity, and of course, their intelligence.
In senior secondary school, two girls that sat behind me would snigger at the way I walked. They said I walked like a girl. They would make fun of my inability to participate in sports (I sucked at sports). They never confronted me, but I knew they were talking about me every time I walked into the class. I knew they were laughing and making faces behind me every time I stood up to answer a question. I stewed in this perceived disrespect and bided my time.
I got “vengeance” during an experiment on the refraction of light in the physics laboratory. I was again the star attraction. I understood Snell’s Law. I had the math at my fingertips and dazzled with my accuracy and speed. Other people were comfortable with me leading, performing the experiment with blocks of transparent glass and white light. But not one of the two girls who sniggered at me. So, I snapped and said the nastiest things I’d ever said to anyone. I called her many things: fat, ugly, big-breasted, dumb. When it was too much, she burst into tears and ran into the toilet to hide and cry. She didn’t come out of the toilet until school ended. Another victory for me. A small voice in my head told me I’d gone too far, that I’d hurt this person more than they hurt me, but I quashed that voice. I was untouchable, King Kong.
In George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones, an exchange between two characters, Tyrion Lannister and Jon Snow resonated deeply with me. Tyrion said to Jon:
“Let me give you some advice, bastard. Never forget what you are. The rest of the world will not. Wear it like armor, and it can never be used to hurt you.”
I took Tyrion Lannister’s advice and began to wear my thinness on my sleeve. I made it my identity, made it my house and lived in it. People began to interact with me on the basis of my intellect and not what I looked like. Apparently, I even looked good. “Skinny guys aesthetic” or something like that it was called. I still got insulted because of the way I looked, but it no longer hurt. I didn’t need to defend myself anymore. Dry replaced break as the derogatory word of choice but I debuted the word myself as a description for my chest.
While reading another book, Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora, I ran into another conversation that took hold of me and refused to let go. You see, Locke Lamora was a clever smooth talker, an apprentice thief. His character reminded me of myself as a kid. His mentor said to him:
“Someday, Locke Lamora, someday, you’re going to fuck up so magnificently, so ambitiously, so overwhelmingly that the sky will light up and the moons will spin and the gods themselves will shit comets with glee…”
That was when it hit me. I’d fucked up and fucked people up. I’d never thought of myself as a bully before then. I thought I was defending myself, attacking before I was attacked. I thought I was being clever. I got the number of the girl I verbally abused when I was fifteen and sent her an apology via text. Mercifully, she accepted my apology. I’ve since apologized to most of the people I put in the crosshairs of my hurtful words, people I bullied into self-doubt and conformity.
I am still acerbic but my sharp barbs are directed at things that require sharp barbs; at injustice and Nigerian government officials making the lives of Nigerians difficult with their actions. I hold myself more accountable now. I choose my words carefully and have become obsessed with language.
About the Author:
Raheem Omeiza is Ebira and writes from Lagos, Nigeria. His works explore boyhood, grief, sexuality and the liminal spaces where they intersect. He was a finalist of the 2022 Afritondo Short Story Prize and the 2022 Alpine Fellowship Writing Prize. His works are published and forthcoming in Afritondo, Litro Magazine, Lolwe, and elsewhere. He likes cats.
Feature image by MDARIFLIMAT / Pixabay