If they don’t think you’re hot, sexy, cute or cool, you’re in trouble. That’s what growing up in Philippi taught me. That’s what watching TV taught me. And, hell, that’s what being in high school taught me. That’s the world I think we live in.

Or maybe I’m just the pessimistic twenty-five-year-old guy who had a rough time in high school and now thinks everyone else also gets bullied. Maybe I’m like the kid who gets burned once or twice by a hot stove and forever stays away from stoves, thinking all of them burn, even the ones that are always off. Who knows?

All I’m saying is that if you grew up or are growing up in my world, you’ve probably seen someone get bullied, teased, pushed around, and who knows what else? Maybe you’ve also pushed a couple of people around and called others names, laughed at how old their shoes looked. Or maybe all of this happened to you. Maybe you’re the one all of this is happening to right now. Who knows?

All I’m really sure about is my story, and it starts all the way back in grade one, when I was seven years old. Back then I believed in running to my mother whenever I got bullied. I thought calling her to come and deal with my bullies was the only solution. I told her about all the lunches they were taking from me. I didn’t tell her that sometimes I’d give my lunches away thinking I wouldn’t be bullied if I did – that I was paying for protection.

Back then, the bullying wasn’t about whether I was hot, sexy, cute or ugly. I was getting pushed around, beaten up and having my lunch stolen because my bullies could see that I was physically weaker. I wasn’t a strong boy at all. My mother only has one or two pictures of me from that time, but let me tell you, those pictures are worth ten thousand words. I looked so innocent with my chubby cheeks and that shy little look on my face, like I couldn’t even hurt an ant, never mind a fly. And that’s exactly what my bullies wanted to see. They saw a chance to score free lunches, and to make themselves famous amongst the other boys by beating up the sweet-looking, chubby-cheeked boy.

When I was twelve, things changed. The bullying changed. I suddenly had more to worry about. I began to wonder why even the girls in my class treated me like I didn’t deserve to be talked to or looked at. Soon enough, I got my answer.

For the first time in my little life, the focus was not just on my physical strength, but on how I looked as well. When I came back to study in Cape Town, after passing my grade 6, other kids started laughing at my big ears, and what they said was a big head and nose. To be honest with you, I felt like I was the ugliest and most unwanted kid in that entire school.

To make matters worse, our school had casual and movie Friday. I hated that Friday. It was like Poverty Day for me. I got reminded that I couldn’t afford what the other kids had. To watch the movie, all I needed was fifty cents. Fifty cents! But most of the time I didn’t have it. And if I did have it, it meant that I wouldn’t even have a packet of chips to chew on the whole day. Truly desperate times!

If you ask me now what the one thing was that I liked about myself in all that time, the answer would be pretty simple: I was one of the smart kids. No matter how hungry I was for a delicious lunch or love from the other kids, there was one thing that I always had, the one thing no one could ever take away from me: I knew I was pretty smart. And because I also learned to draw later on (like my cool older brother could), I started believing that I was more creative than all of them combined, and that it made me a bit cool somehow.

Those are the two things that helped me deal with being called ugly. Even if all my bullies were sexy or cool, I was smarter than they could ever be, and I could draw. I could draw, and they couldn’t! It felt like I had a super power.

Looking back now, I’m glad they didn’t think I was hot, sexy, cute or cool. Being bullied forced me to find beautiful things deep within myself, things that made me awesome, things that I live for now…