Revenge and justice

At the start of our second term as sixth formers (January 1997), a school was visiting for an inter-school debate competition. These events were a cross between a PR gimmick and a social networking opportunity – a chance to boast about your school and its facilities while capitalising on the opportunity to date one of the visiting students, which would guarantee you a spot in the popular clique that term.

But instead of celebrating our achievements to the visiting school, one of the boys in our class – let’s call him George – apparently criticised the girls at the school during a midnight male gossip session, and described us as “cheap and dry”.

Whoever coined the phrase Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, must have had high school girls in mind. Nothing could abate our anger. We had been criticised in front of outsiders! It was the worst form of betrayal imaginable.

Quickly the word spread across the girls dormitory and that same evening, informal vent sessions took place in every dorm room. By two o’clock that morning, after a couple of hours of stewing and steaming, representatives from each form gathered in the Head Girls room to discuss what was to be done. As the breakfast bell rang the next morning, plans had been firmed up and we had a clear course of action for that evening. The plan quickly developed an unremarkable code word – “Tonight” – and every time one girl passed another in between classes, it was whispered conspiratorially.

Most of the girls at the school had been in a verbal tussle with George at one point or another. I don’t know what it was about him that infuriated us but anecdotes of his cocky arrogance and puffed up attitude circulated. It didn’t help that George, with his loud rambunctious laugh, was a newcomer to the school having joined for the A level certification, while the rest of us had been together through a painful adolescent period and the harrowing IGCSE exams. George on the other hand was an outsider. We took it upon ourselves to take him down a peg or two.

The plan was for the senior girls to gather in the common room as usual. The other senior boys had been warned to stay away, or to risk receiving the same treatment we had planned for George. We intended to shut the doors of the TV cabinet when George walked in to minimise light in the room, which would allow us to get a beating in before he could identify our faces. One girl was to serve as lookout for his arrival, while a second was to blockade the common room doors with a chair to prevent a rescue attempt. While the juniors waited on the back steps of the common room (which led to the dormitories on the first floor), the senior girls feigned indifference in the common room.

We were going to use pillows and sofa cushions to give him a good pummeling; one he would never forget.

The event had been whispered about all day and so it wasn’t surprising that there was a leak and that the boys had found out what was planned for that evening. But we were confident, even boastful, about our plans for revenge.

Somebody must have tipped off George but with his usual show of bravado, he decided to face the girls in a nonchalant manner rather than be seen as a coward.

He walked into the common room. The door was closed behind him. No one knew who should throw the first cushion, but seeing George walking in calmly threw some of us and some girls scuttled up the stairs into the safety of the dormitory. But before a single pillow could be thrown, there was a banging on the door. George’s reinforcements had arrived. Spurred on by the possibility that we would not get a chance to complete our plan, we all jumped in at once and a torrent of pillows landed on George.

A group of boys burst into the room. In the pool of light that their entrance created, George was seen lying on the floor howling in pain, surrounded by a pile of pillows and a handful of the senior girls. The rest had escaped up the stairs.

The boys didn’t hesitate and raced after the escaping girls. They streaked down the corridors, and stormed into their dorm rooms. There was banging, and the sound of loud and heavy footsteps overhead. Chaos reigned for half an hour after which the seniors restored their authority and ousted the boys from the girls’ dormitory.

The whole crowd – boys and girls – then gathered on the flower bed outside the girls dormitory, and the duty teachers arrived. George was standing in the middle of a crowd, clutching his side. Apparently during the furor, he had been hit in the kidneys with a hockey stick. We looked around at each other, unsure of who had carried a hockey stick into the common room and attacked him with it.

We felt terrible. In the aftermath of the attack, we knew we hadn’t planned any serious harm – just an expression of our anger. Threats were made by the boys which the girls responded to valiantly. The teachers set up individual interviews to question each person involved and clarify the facts. No one owned up to having attacked George with a hockey stick.

The senior girls took responsibility for the whole event – after all it was our territory – and we were confined to our rooms for the next month. Understandably, the school administration was disappointed that rather than protecting a student in our midst, we had been the ones to attack him.

The injuries George suffered that evening could have been a lot worse than they were, and we were lucky that criminal proceedings were not instituted. We were even luckier that George did not hold onto his anger and hurt because that would have fractured the close knit class that we became in the run up to our A level examinations.

I don’t know whether he ever forgave us. But that experience – of ganging up and physically attacking someone: not a stranger but a classmate, a colleague, a friend – has never sat easily with me.

I cannot help but compare it to the wekatyre form of mob justice practiced in Kenya, and the post election violence of 2007/08. The rush of power experienced in the build up to the event, the curiously satisfying release of tension and emotion during the attack, and the silent confidence and feeling of invincibility in the aftermath – albeit with moments of total denial dictated by self preservation.

Physical violence is a heady – and addictive – thing.

January 9 2013

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