⚽ Teacher Jing Ling’s take was about a child called James who had to endure a friend’s manipulative and toxic behaviours for way too long.
"𝙰𝚛𝚖𝚎𝚍 𝚠𝚒𝚝𝚑 𝚊 𝚍𝚊𝚣𝚣𝚕𝚒𝚗𝚐 𝚜𝚖𝚒𝚕𝚎 𝚊𝚗𝚍 𝚋𝚕𝚎𝚜𝚜𝚎𝚍 𝚠𝚒𝚝𝚑 𝚜𝚝𝚎𝚛𝚎𝚘𝚝𝚢𝚙𝚒𝚌𝚊𝚕 𝙳𝚒𝚜𝚗𝚎𝚢 𝙿𝚛𝚒𝚗𝚌𝚎 𝚐𝚘𝚘𝚍 𝚕𝚘𝚘𝚔𝚜, 𝚆𝚒𝚕𝚕𝚒𝚊𝚖 𝚜𝚎𝚎𝚖𝚎𝚍 𝚝𝚘 𝚑𝚊𝚟𝚎 𝚝𝚑𝚎 𝚠𝚘𝚛𝚕𝚍 𝚊𝚝 𝚑𝚒𝚜 𝚏𝚎𝚎𝚝.”
“FASTER, you idiot!” William bellowed as I dribbled the ball desperately.
I gulped as I lurched towards the goal and kicked the ball towards it, praying fervently it would score our team the winning goal. It hit the goalpost with a sickening thud and bounced off, as if mocking me. The referee blew the whistle, signalling the end of the match.
Every person on my team sighed as our rival team whooped in glee.
We had lost the championship of the year to our arch rivals. Thanks to me.
As we cleared out the lockers out at the school stadium, William charged at me, slamming his fist in the locker next to mine. My eyes welled with tears as I looked downwards.
“What good of a striker are you if you can’t score? You should no longer be on our team, you fool,” he sneered. I lowered my head meekly as I squeezed my eyes shut, ashamed of the fact that I was being berated in front of all my other teammates by William, of all people.
William was the soccer team captain. Armed with a dazzling smile and blessed with stereotypical Disney Prince good looks, William seemed to have the world at his feet. Teachers adored him, fellow school mates looked up to him for having both wits and the “perfect aesthetic”. He achieved near-perfect grades and was always the captain of any team and I, in contrast had an average intellect, athletic ability and looks. As his friend since we were little, he understandably outshone me in many ways. However, he had always made me feel acutely aware of this.
I apologised hesitantly as I looked at my feet. William grunted in frustration as he snatched his bag out of his locker. I jumped. “I’ll do anything, William! I promise! Don’t kick me out!” I sputtered. He glanced at me questioningly, pondering. He tapped his chin for a moment and told me that he had to think about it.
The following day, he told me he had come up with a list of things I had to do to stay on the team and be his friend. Not only did I have to buy everyone’s sports drinks before every session, I had to clean up the locker room and equipment after every training session. Everyone agreed to it, he informed me smugly. I brushed off the feeling of dread that I had, happily agreeing to it as long as it meant staying on the team and possessing a sense of belonging.
As the days went by, I felt more exhausted. Our soccer training was three times a week. That meant I spent many hours ferrying drinks as well as laboriously wiping down the dregs of everyone’s mess in the locker room. My performance on the field took a turn for the worse as I was bone-tired from my soccer chores. I would constantly get pelted by William’s words and shoves for my less-than-stellar capabilities as a striker. I was not as fast as I used to be. I knew that. I had no more stamina.
The barrage of verbal and physical abuse descended into an abyss of unbearable days. I could see the troubled faces of my teammates. They could not stand my presence, William claimed. When he claimed that, my heart felt like it was pierced by an arrow. I had done my best for the team. Why did it have to be so hard? The hushed whispers and furtive stares by my teammates every every session made my lower lip tremble and heart sink. However, I still did my best to hold it together.
However, it all came to a head when William dirtied his shoes during training.
“Clean my shoes up for me, loser!” William commanded at the benches after we finished the session. I ambled over from the field, biting my lip. Everyone was hanging around by the bleachers after the session and all eyes were directed at me. I could see my teammates’ faces as red as lobsters. I did not know if it was from the situation or the intensiveness of the training.
William repeated himself, louder. “Hey, loser! Clean my shoes up for me or I will kick you out from the team!” Staring in a horrified silence, my eyes welled up with tears. I was being publicly humiliated by someone whom I had considered one of my closest friends. My heart throbbed in embarrassment and fear. I felt my heart beating out of my chest. I felt like I was having a heart attack. Realisation stung me like a bee.
It was at that moment that I suddenly caught sight of the silhouette of a little bird, cruising alone, but happily and freely in the sky. The yolky sun shone brightly in my eyes, blinding me. I glanced at the sky, wishing it would envelope me and take me away from there. I could have stared at it forever.
That reverie was jolted by William’s shriek, repeating his instruction. He aggressively pushed me against the wall, roaring at me for my insolence as I did not carry out his instruction immediately. I glanced at the little bird, once more.
That was my trigger. No more. I would take no more of this. I had to get my soul back.
I charged back at him, pinning him to the opposing wall. Collective gasps could be heard around me, like a surround-sound theatre hall. I gripped his muscular arms as I extended my hunched back, reaching my tallest height in months. As I stood up, I realised that I had forgotten how tall I was. I towered over him with a glare that could melt steel.
All these years, I had been the quiet, meek, and shy kid who would never talk back to William, no matter what he ever said. That day, everything changed.
“I have had enough of this! Somebody needs to call you out on your behaviours! How did I ever go so long being your friend? You are manipulative, aggressive, and a bully! You are toxic! You need to cut that out, now! But you know what, William? That was my fault too! I put up with your nonsense for so long that I allowed you to get away with it! Enough is enough! I am done with you! I do not need you in my life anymore. You and your team can get another striker! My name is James! Not idiot, not loser, not fool!!!” I unleashed a torrent of unfiltered words, but truer words had never been spoken by me.
As soon as I had uttered that, a part of my soul was set free. I smiled for the first time in a long time. I stood tall. Heaving a sigh, I let go of William, whose eyes had popped out of their sockets. He crumpled to the ground in astonishment. I turned to each and every one of my “teammates” and berated them for their lack of ability to stand up for me even when they knew what was going on. They were not my mates at all! They were at a loss for words. I could hear a sporadic “Sorry, man” being uttered here and there, but they did not mean a thing to me.
Without looking back, I turned on my heel and sprinted away faster than I ever did on the field. I remember that long run home. I hurtled out of the school gates and into the park. The trees were dancing beautifully in the breeze as I relished the breath of the wind on my face. My energy was being drained with every sprint I took but I was filled with inspiration from this new me. The air smelled sweeter and the sky looked bluer. I will never forget that run home.
The day that I stood up for myself changed the course of my life. From that day onwards, I never accepted anyone’s manipulations over me nor tolerated manipulation or bullying in any form. If I saw someone being victimised, I would immediately say something. As for William, I cut him out from my life. Although leaving him and the football team was hard on me, it felt like I had amputated a gangrenous limb. It was agonisingly painful but it was the best course of action from me. However, what I did know was that not only did I change, William changed too. I heard through the grapevine that he stopped his toxic behaviours and sought therapy with his parents, becoming a happier, less aggressive child.
One action changed my life for the better. Like the little bird, I learnt that it is alright to be alone. However, it is not alright to not speak your truth and stand up for yourself. You have only one life and your destiny is in your own hands. Enabling toxic behaviours is something that would only prolong pain and suffering. Always put your foot down and stand up for yourself.