My Back Tooth

Fr Bobby Gilmore recalls an incident of bullying on the rugby pitch at school which woke him up to the existence of unexpected, mean, aggressive, wanton violence. 

In 1953 I was in second year at boarding school. It was a school that played rugby. Coming from rural Ireland our sports interests were confined to Gaelic football. Hurling had not reached that part of the country where I grew up.

Arriving in boarding school in 1952 I was introduced to rugby. Our coach selected us for the various team positions and then taught us how to take our field positions, pass, run and sidestep with the oval-shaped ball. To my surprise, forward passing of the ball to a teammate was not part of the game of rugby. Then he taught us how to safely and legally tackle an opponent. He insisted it was legal only when an opponent had the ball.

Tackling or blocking an opponent off the ball was illegal and penalised. It took him a long time to explain the meaning and implications of offside. Having done that he took great patience to teach those who were chosen as forwards to line out, bind, form a set scrum as well as what was a ruck, maul and loose scrum. What really surprised me was the acceptance of the physical aspects of the game, the tolerance and the camaraderie during and after the game.

Gradually, I and my first year companions became acquainted with various aspects of the game under the observant eyes of our excellent coach. We enjoyed the games each week and looked forward to game days throughout the winter.

Our coach affirmed smart play, corrected and role-played mistakes. As we progressed, he changed positions as he saw how each of us adapt or not to the various positions. If he was aware of over aggressive physical play, he immediately took the player aside and privately cautioned him without put down or embarrassment. Any kind of bullying by the stronger over the weaker was taken on and sternly dealt with.

Our coach was well aware of the issue of bullying as it was present in all boarding schools. Those who had tendencies to bully others were well-known and sternly dealt with when observed or reported. However, that did not mean that it did not happen when unobserved.

During second year, depending on ability, one was promoted to more competitive teams playing against other more senior students competing for places on the college team. It was during one such game I was caught in possession of the ball unable to safely pass it to a teammate. In the loose maul an older opposing player put his arm around my neck holding me in a choke hold which is illegal and punishable. Having released the ball, he tightened the arm lock taking my breath.

It was so severe I felt my lower back tooth cracking. There and then to survive, I dug my elbow into his ribs. He grunted and released his lock on my neck. He action was not seen by our coach who was also the referee. This particular student was a known bully and got away with it until this encounter. He did not apologise. From then on, we respected each other as equals.

Personally, this incident was a deep shock for me. I never had experienced that kind of traumatic event in my young life. The incident woke me up to a level of unexpected, mean, aggressive, wanton violence. Surprisingly, it didn’t diminish my self-esteem or my bitterness toward this student. It somehow encouraged me to be an assertive team player.

But, it put me on my guard to make sure that it would not happen again. It made such an impact that if I saw it happening to others I would be impelled to intervene. There is nothing as devastating as bullying particularly against those who are unable to defend themselves. It destroys self-esteem, drains confidence and well-being.

I am daily reminded of this incident as my back tooth is still cracked sixty-seven years later.

When the issue of verbal, physical, mental or emotional bullying is reported, I understand the pain of victims dealing with its effects as they try to rediscover, maintain selfhood and express a positive view of life. There is a constant struggle in the hearts of all who have been bullied to become prisoners of anguish unable to forget rather than remember and use the memory as a positive agent in confronting it in whatever form it takes.

Over the years my back tooth is my in-built antennae for debasement perpetrated against whatever colour, sex, creed, ethnicity or status. I have always felt it to be a reminder rather than a burden. There were occasions when I failed to act on the activation of my antennas and for those I am ashamed. My back tooth is my constant reminder.

If you turn your face the other way when someone is being bullied, you may as well be the bully too. (Unknown)

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