Bully For Me
I was five when my mother put me on ice skates because the doctor said I had weak ankles. This was the beginning of my career at the Kerrisdale Skating Rink in the west end of Vancouver. I was given figure skating lessons, which involved skating in two large circles that made a figure eight, first on the outside edge of the skate, then on the inside edge. It was excruciatingly boring.
When I was eight, my mother heard about a month long training program in the east side of Vancouver, at the Hastings Park Arena. All the other girls’ mothers had knitted them fetchingly adorable skating skirts that were fluted along the hem, with a contrasting stripe made from angora. To make one involved casting a thousand stitches on circular needles. I begged my mother to knit me one, but she just laughed scornfully and went back to her detective novel.
By the end of the month, I was a fairly competent skater. I could do a simple jump, a spiral, a spin and my favourite, something known as the spreadeagle.
But when I returned to the Kerrisdale Arena, I was a star. And I was really fast. Faster than anybody, except my best friend Philip Clement, known to my entire family as Flippy, who could just keep up with me. We tore around the rink, skating as fast as we could, crashing into the boards or swooshing up to a dramatic stop on one skate. That feeling of freedom, of no limits, of flying across the ice. Other children began to be afraid of us, and we started teasing them. At first in fun, then it got meaner. One girl had a hat with a very long tail, with a pompom on the end of it. We’d swoop by her and wind the tail around her neck, to her fury and our delight. Soon we were chasing children, even ones bigger than us, but who weren’t as fast. They would slam into the boards to avoid us, the 8 year old ice skating avengers from hell. We started making them give us their snack money in exchange for not chasing them, or even for not beating them up. We were running an extortion racket, right there in the mid 1950s in an upper middle class area in what was at the time a backwater provincial town. At the end of the sessions we feasted on hot dogs, ice cream bars, and cup after cup of hot chocolate, bought with our stolen money.
It was heaven. The feeling of absolute power, absolute control, was absolutely intoxicating. Knowing I could bend others to my will, make them do my bidding, was a state of no limits, no edges. No shame, no remorse, only the beauty of speed and the sweet power of instilling fear, of being faster and stronger than everyone else. I loved being a bully.
I came home from school one day to find my mother shaking with anger. Read this, she ordered, and handed me a card. What does it say? Read it. Out loud.
It says Robin Bell is a member in good standing of the Kerrisdale Arena Figure Skating Club. In good standing. Tell me, what does that mean? The lecture continued, but I’d stopped listening. I was suspended from the club, and forbidden to play with Flippy for a month. We were pariahs at school, and my figure skating career was over.
I still skated, up into my forties when arthritis made it too painful. I still enjoyed the feeling of skimming over the ice, of a certain freedom, but the ecstasy I’d felt in my bullying days was gone. I did, after all, come of age in the 1950s, when smart girls like me were told not to take up too much space, not to ask too many questions, not to give too many right answers. The feeling of no boundaries became its opposite. Life was nothing but boundaries, edges, and limits. Indeed, nothing but shame and remorse.
But some part of me had tasted a strange form of immortality, of liberation from the ethical ties that keep society safe. To this day I think I understand how a dictator feels, even what it would feel like to torture someone. “Nothing human is alien to me”, as the saying has it. We all have a bully and a coward inside us, we all cower in fear, and we all raise the whip. Children, of course, cry in terror and crack that whip. But we have the power to stand up and face our tormentor, and to lower that arm and drop the weapon. It’s just not as much fun. Not nearly as much fun as flying across the ice--fearless, invincible, and cruel.