Jake has a problem. "The trouble is,'' he says, "I just don't fit in. I'm too big and everyone thinks I'm hard and I'm not. I'm only eight.'' To be large and sensitive is a trial. Not only do you feel keenly the sting of harsh words from your peers; you are also expected, by dint of those extra few inches, to be "big enough'' to rise above it. "Aren't you big enough to stand up for yourself?'' adults want to know. As Jake has observed, for people who are big for their age, physical attacks are less likely to succeed, but hostility hits home none the less. "Why do they want to hurt me, mum?" Later in life, Jake will find out that everyone is different and everyone feels a misfit, which is exactly why groups are so hard on difference: every member is so afraid of his or her own shortcomings that they direct attention on to those of others. Children, so busy defining the limits of their identities, are sharpest of all to police these outlines of the acceptable. Each one who does not fit in confirms the ones who do. Yet no one can ever be sure of their status. Ask Fatma, crying in a corner because her friends have just called her "too fat''. The same Fatma mocked Jake last week for being "a baby though you are so tall".
I sympathise, though with incredulity. I was always too small. "Titch'', "half-pint'', "squirt'' were names that haunted me throughout my school days until I finally got the nerve to yell that I didn't like it. Now my son is too big. But is there a right size to be?
For a couple of years in a genteel school for middle-class misses in the 1960s, lunchtime play for me began with classmates crying "Get Titch in a corner and pinch her till she cries". (I did.) When my mother told me that "good things come in small parcels'', I wanted to die.
Recently, however, I met my chief tormentor at an old girls' do. She explained earnestly how she was not going to send her daughters to our alma mater as she had "suffered so terribly there''. "What?'' I wanted to shout. "I didn't see anyone pinching you in the playground.'' "You probably can't imagine," she went on, "since you were so popular and brainy, what it was like only to be good at sport and to have grown so quickly." (But I was only three foot, 11 inches when I was 12. Everyone hated me.) Here was the captain of the netball team revealing that she "never fitted in''. Yet when I was 13, I would have sold my soul for the need to buy adult sizes of Aertex blouses.
Oh well, I told Jake, you'll grow out of it. Or they will.