“I know how to get hold of a gun,” crowed the 14-year-old at my side.
He looked at me quickly – part jubilant, part watchful, and waiting to see how I would react.
We live in England, where such things are strictly illegal, but I believed him. There are always ways, if you have enough money and can find the right contacts. This boy certainly knew where such contacts could be found.
“And why might you want to do that?” I asked, as levelly as I could.
He was the sweetest, gentlest, kindest of kids. He still regularly came to visit me (his old primary school teacher) and usually chatted about our mutual interests. Today, though, I was being shown a different side to him.
“If I had a gun – a really big gun – people would have to listen to me! They’d have to take notice. I’d be a big man.”
I watched him as he spoke. He was half serious, half parodying himself, knowing as he said the words how stupid and clichéd they sounded. Yet he badly wanted to believe them. He wanted to believe there was some magical way to transform himself from a timid, socially anxious teenager into someone who would be held in awe by his classmates.
“And that’s the best solution you can come up with?” I asked.
He began to bluster then, to talk about an ever-increasing arsenal of weapons, of the penalties he’d exact on anyone who wouldn’t listen to him, of how revered he would be.
“They’d respect the gun,” I agreed, when he finally paused for breath, with a big soppy grin on his face. “Do you think they’d have any respect for the guy holding it, though?”
The bravado continued. “It wouldn’t matter. They’d just have to do as I said.”
“It matters to you,” I persisted. “You’re not looking to be surrounded by a bunch of dead bodies, you’re looking to feel empowered, to have a voice and to be looked up to by the others at school. You’d like their respect and you’d like them to hear the thoughts and ideas that are burning away there in your head but never spoken because you’re scared the rest of them will laugh you down. That’s what this is really about, isn’t it? You want to feel brave.”
He thrust his hands into his pocket and lumbered off ahead. I caught him up.
“We covered all this when you were in primary school,” I reminded him. “The coward who wants power will bully weaker, smaller people or he’ll surround himself with a few mindless thugs to be his henchmen – or, I suppose, he’ll get a weapon to threaten others with. None of those things will remove his fear, though. He’ll still be terrified all the time.”
“SO WHAT’S THE ANSWER, THEN?” he yelled in my face.
What indeed? What could I say?
I could offer him a whole bunch of truisms: ‘There’s nothing to fear but fear itself’; ‘Feel the fear and do it anyway’; ‘There is no fear until we make it up’ and so on and on…
He was fourteen, in the midst of that agonising transformation from child to man. He was a chess player amongst a throng of football fans, a quiet, gently spoken kid in a rough school where the mouth, the fist and occasionally the knife ruled supreme.
I had no magical words of comfort, no panacea for the whole, sorry business.
“Just don’t try to take them on,” I told him finally. “Try to keep your head down and stay out of their way whenever possible. Stay in safer, central areas and hold tight to your knowledge that you are a great person with a brilliant mind and your time will come. School seems endless now, but in a few short years you’ll be free of it. University or the workplace will be far less threatening and you’ll find people who give you respect for who you are. You’ll also find that the fear gradually fades as you get older. That’s the best I can offer.”
Was it enough? It’s a long way from the perfect answer. I’m still searching for that.