WHEN IS A SCANDAL EVER A SCANDAL?

Massacre de la Saint-Barthélemy, François Dubois

I’ve been remiss in my sharing of life’s experiences with everyone. Travel and work has been horrific but good as there’s always something new to learn, and the discovery of knowledge I do not possess always impresses me no end. One can never be in possession of too much knowledge, so it becomes precious when I am given the privilege of learning directly from people with valuable know-how willing to spare time to talk to me like I’m a five-year-old in a fail proof process of ensuring I get the picture pronto, so to speak.

Since the last post where I mentioned about my young classmate who got severely punished by our ever strict teachers in Primary School in Hong Kong for alarming contents hidden in his desk — and I was the cold-blooded 10 year old Prefect who reported him — I was finally able to talk to that very same old classmate back in Hong Kong in my last trip. I did text him first before meeting him for lunch, and I wrote to apologise to him for what I did all those decades back, some 40 and more odd years ago. I don’t quite know why I did that but I felt it was the right thing to do.

He surprisingly said to me all he had was a wonderful impression of me — I was one of the kindest little girl in the school, he sincerely told me looking into my eyes.

I felt absolutely crushed when he said that, he honestly could have told me he hated me and I was such a mean person for making him open his desk. He could have blamed me for being punished shamefully in public by our terribly strict teachers. He could have made me feel better letting me know I had a mean awful streak of terribleness in me as a young child. How could he say I was kind?! What I did to him was not kind, I could not be sub-consciously tormented in the wee recesses of my mind by a reminder of how our eyes locked and how he looked pleading at me not to expose what he kept in his desk. It was not kindness on my part that prompted me to report him and to have him publicly reprimanded severely and shamefully by our teacher, who was notorious for being frightfully abusive verbally and yes, physically too, at times, with some young students.

But what did he actually have inside his desk? Why did I make him open his desk and why did I tell my teacher about him?

Young Shaun (name has been changed to protect my friend) always had an air of sadness and quietness about him which I noticed and found strange. I didn’t understand what I felt at that young age, but it did make me feel very uncomfortable. Something did not feel right with him. Recalling now, after decades, of how I seemed to observe him unobtrusively as a young child, I remembered walking by row by row, as we were instructed to do when our teacher asked us Prefects to inspect our classmates and to ensure they maintain orderliness while they sat waiting patiently for our rounds to be completed before the start of lessons. I recalled coming always across a strange stench every time I passed Shaun. I thought at first the stench came from him and it was probably a hygiene thing, but the days he would be absent from his desk, I could still detect that awful smell as I walked passed his desk.

That one fateful day, I decided not to just pass by his desk any more, I would make him open his desk and let me have a look inside to see if the source of the stench was there. So yes, I stood by his desk, looked at him, and commanded him, “Open your desk.” He hesitated. I glanced to check on our teacher and she was distracted by something so she didn’t notice me pausing by the side of Shaun’s desk. I looked at Shaun again, compelling him with my direct gaze into his eyes, to make a move, and he slowly, painfully complied, and silently opened his desk.

There inside was a stash of moulding food. They smelt so bad, I had to call out to the teacher to let her know.

And of course, Shaun had a brutal scolding and punishment right after.

It would take 40 and more years later for me to understand little Shaun and why he did what he did. He told me in confidence when we met recently, that he had been under a lot of stress and medication, and he had been trying to cope. He tried to make light of his health condition. He revealed that no one understood him when he was younger, and he did go through a traumatising period. He said he had to watch his mother’s infidelity with a man friend every time his father would go off for work and leave him and his mother alone. He described how he had to put up with everything taking place before his eyes as a young sensitive and impressionable 8 year old. He couldn’t understand to this day, why his mother made him go through that ordeal. She never explained and he never asked.

As a little boy, felt instinctively what his mother was doing behind his father’s back was wrong, and he didn’t know how to tell his father. He could only blurt out the truth to a relative when he was away from home.

His parents overcame the challenge to their marriage and were together until his father passed away — but he never quite recovered fully from the trauma of his mother’s infidelity, although he showed so much intelligence and command of his emotion and his words were lucid as he told his story to me. He expressed his ability to control, evaluate his situation, and a clarity that will tell you you are dealing with no fool here. No fool, no little boy, and no weakling — not any more.

As he quietly told me his story during the dim sum we had with two of our other classmates who were chatting and joking loudly together at our sides, I realised no one actually heard him tell his story except me. The Chinese restaurant was typically noisy so his voice didn’t carry around loudly enough for everyone to hear, especially not across our table. He tried to make light of his story, but as he spoke, I lived his life.

And, I was there with him. I could feel the fear, the betrayal, the confusion, the hurt, and more, as he witnessed time and time again what no young boy should be exposed to, not when he knows who his mommy and daddy is and what they mean and represent to him in his young world and mind.

At the end of his story, I looked at him, my eyes relayed what I could not utter, and I held his arm for a moment squeezing it slightly to let him feel, I could feel and I could understand him deeply.

And perhaps that’s why young Shaun did not eat the food his mother prepared for him for school, and why he left them in his desk. And why he was always sad and quiet and a strange little boy.

Then, in that two weeks I found myself staying in Hong Kong, my other friend, powerful and aggressive now, found himself telling me how his father would grab him by his hair as a boy of 5 and dangle him outside the window, 15-storey high and physically beat him for no reason every time he was in a bad mood, which was often. No wonder he stayed away from home. He would be the first to arrive in school every morning, and the last to leave. And he preferred not to leave if he could help it, so he would end up staying in other classmates’ homes for as long as he could resist returning to his own family. Home was a constant round of beating the moment he returned to it.

He would eventually grow up to be a tough guy, conditioned by years of abuse. His childhood hero was Bruce Lee and he emulated him all his life, and became a strong person who no one could bully easily.

We will all experience something tragic in our life at one time or another. For some, it will be a shameful secret we do not want the world to know for fear of being condemned by people who are truly heartless, vindictive and malicious. Sadly such people exist. But they are only such because they lack understanding and self control. They lack the ability to show or feel empathy. They lack maturity, education and sadly, a heart that truly cares for others. Some are such, because it is a projection of their own experiences and inner self, the one that could not reconcile, understand and detach from the person that existed once upon a time in the past … they must amplify and make others feel bad or look bad, just to conceal their own lack of integrity, or their own private fear and insecurities.

They see only the person who stays silent, void of what hidden sadness, pain, sacrifices and difficulties he or she suppresses. There is immediate judgement and the need to throw poisonous darts at a target, any target in a mindless, heartless assessment of what they think is “scandalous” as they themselves try to project a holier-than-thou attitude to the world — but ask them, what secrets do they, themselves, hide. No one is void of a shameful, sad or unfortunate experience. Not if you still live and breathe into your later years.

There will come a point in time, after enough years travelling and meeting people, experiencing the highs and the darkest of lows in life, that you’ll realise you’ve become de-sensitised and oblivious to any hurt and attack levelled at you. You don’t count any more. You don’t feel anything aimed at you any more. Nothing matters to you any more. And why?

Somewhere out there, someone delicate is going mad because the trauma he is experiencing is something he cannot bear and manage. That person will take a knife and slowly slit his wrist or throat, or squeeze a trigger at a point where there should be no return, just to stop the pain from continuing. And sadly, that will be done in secrecy in an attempt to conceal a scandal.

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