When I was ten I went to war.
Not war in the actual sense, of course. My war was with the kid down the street. His name was Derek, and he was a year younger than me. This might make me sound a bully, but believe me, this was anything other than the case. When Derek moved in, initially we tried to make friends. We both liked Hot Wheels. This was a firm basis for a friendship.
However, me taking offense at blackcurrant jelly on a PB&J at his house snowballed into blood feud in short order. (Derek’s family was of Eastern European descent and blackcurrant jelly was only beginning to really enter into the Canadian market.) As anybody knows, it only takes the slightest insult – and personally, I think choking at the unexpected mix of blackcurrant1 and peanut butter is definitely pretty damn slight – for children to form inviolate hatreds. After the Blackcurrant Incident, Derek hated my guts. I didn’t understand it, but one thing about kids hating you, when you’re a kid, is that it’s incredibly easy to reciprocate.
It really only took one-half a heaved brick for my confusion to curdle into hatred. (Well, it was a whole brick, but it was only half a throw.) And because wars inevitably escalate, friends got dragged into it. However, friends-of-warring-friends have varying degrees of interest. In my case, my friends were willing to cooperate in missions of espionage when they came over to play (tipping over of bikes, careful theft of basketballs, that sort of thing), but they weren’t emotionally invested beyond wanting to support me in my Ahab-like quest as much as they were able, which was not a lot. They didn’t live down the street from Derek, after all. They weren’t Queequeg and didn’t need to bring along their own coffins.
Derek, on the other hand, had friends who were invested. He befriended another Chris and Jason. Other Chris and Jason hated me. Not personally, you understand; I was a mouthy kid even then but hadn’t yet mastered the art of personally offending people for life.2 Other Chris and Jason hated me impersonally, the way they hated anybody in my year at school, because Other Chris and Jason had been in my year until they were left back just before Derek moved to Toronto in the summer. When Derek met them, they were given a cause. It wouldn’t last forever, of course. Just long enough.
(Incidentally, I feel it worthy mentioning that Other Chris and Jason’s experience is one of the reasons I’ve always felt that leaving back poor students is counterproductive. Yes, it sucks that students who don’t entirely understand what they’ve been taught get advanced regardless, but Other Chris and Jason got to feel marginalized at the age of nine. So far as I know neither one had any education past high school; I believe one of them didn’t even finish. They weren’t dullards. They just got told, right off the bat, exactly how much society thought of them. I don’t see how it helped. I particularly don’t buy the “leaving them back helped all the other students” argument, because if they were disruptive in class it was just a matter of transferring the problem to a new bunch of kids. And they weren’t particularly disruptive before they were left back.)
Other Chris and Jason, combined with Derek, formed a terrifying unit. Jason was athletic, Other Chris had a particularly criminal sense of inventiveness, and Derek was, even at that early age, a master of covering ass. An example of this happened when I was riding home on my bike, around the corner where Derek lived. I was still at the “ride on the sidewalk” age, so it was easy for Other Chris to run out into the sidewalk suddenly. I hit the brakes (coaster bike, push the pedals in reverse), which gave Jason, hiding in the bushes across the street, the chance to run across it and jam a broomhandle into my spokes. This led to about five minutes of shoving me around while I sat on my bike saddle (I wasn’t going to relinquish my bike), which was exactly the amount of time available before Derek’s mom arrived home from work. Really, you have to admire the precision.
Another time, down at the park, the traditional “water pistols filled with Kool-Aid” attack went awry for Derek and his crew. Water pistols filled with Kool-Aid are a great weapon when you’re a kid: you get your target in trouble if he’s wearing anything the Kool-Aid will stain (and he probably is), the sugar attracts mosquitoes and other bugs, and of course there’s the soaking factor combined with a little unpleasant stickiness. Unfortunately, my friends and I knew the woods behind the park better than Derek did (and Other Chris and Jason didn’t live near the park so they didn’t know it at all), so it was easy to run, jump the creek right next to the log we knew was almost entirely rotted out, get our feet wet and continue. When Team Derek gave chase, they naturally tried to run across the log, which snapped. In retrospect, it’s probably lucky they didn’t break anything.
I wish this story ended with a dramatic flourish, but it doesn’t. Kids lose interest in things over time, and kid-wars are no exception; eventually Jason and Other Chris found better things to do with their time as they got over being left back as best they could, and my friends had never had much interest to begin with, exhortations of “I got your back” aside. Derek and I eventually just learned that giving one another dirty looks was a lot easier than carrying out “missions” to spray each others’ pet cats with water pistols.3
It’s part of growing up: with luck, you realize when bullshit is bullshit.