This is the story of a really, really big nose, and how it was excluded from the bullying canon at a boarding school in the late nineties.
The year was 1997 and there was little mercy. I was receiving a pretty generous share of the bully cake. My crimes were numerous: I was a nerd before being a nerd was cool. I was not au fait with the fashion world (oh the devastation of mufti days). I was gangly, like an elastic ape assembled from paper towel rolls and inner tubes. I would bike home late at night wearing fluoro arm and leg bands replete with blinking red LED lights (my mum made me wear them). I was afflicted with a blizzard of chunky dandruff, but was completely unaware of it (it was years before I knew what the jibe “white elephants” referred to). My hair was a puffy mushroom helmet, probably from using too much conditioner, a substance I have never properly understood.
My name was wrong too. The second syllable (“bert”) of my former surname—I changed my name, but that’s another story—proved to be a highly versatile and ridiculous slur that people would bellow from across the grounds or honk like a car horn.
Everything was a target, except my nose. And this is a curious point, because my nose is not something you’d easily look past — when I lie on the beach it could serve as a sundial. At social and family gatherings it has always been referred to euphemistically as a “Roman nose.” I used to imagine that this clumped me with other notable noses from history, like Julius Caesar, Roger Waters and (years later) that actor guy from The Pianist. When I lived in Japan, people used the phrase hana ga takai, which can mean either “tall nose” or — unfortunately for down-to-earth big nosers — “snob.” However you look at it, there’s no denying that I sport some intimidating olfactory equipment; but during my high school days, I wasn’t aware of just how intimidating it was.
Some minor insults were directed at the nose, but they barely registered in the catalogue of names I accrued over time (if I had to estimate percentages, I’d say nose putdowns would be in the single digits, if that). One guy used to shake his shaggy head like a floppy-lipped old Labrador, exclaiming “Hullo, Big Nose” over and over. If shaking off insults was like navigating a Monopoly board, this idiot was a free pass to Go with some get-out-of-jail-free cards thrown in. No one paid him any attention. There was also a brief period where my profile was likened to a parallelogram, given that the large triangle of nose at the front is paired with a head that’s a bit… bulbous at the back (possibly because of an overzealous forceps delivery — they squeezed too hard at the front and the brains smooshed the skull out the back). But we soon moved past polygons in math and people got bored of the idea.
When my least favourite person — my archnemesis — leaned over during English class and whispered “So, your nose: did you, um, break it or something?” at first I didn’t know what he was talking about. This was a moment of revelation on two counts: I realized that (1) my big nose had come to be considered a no-fire zone (he whispered, as though it might pain me for others to hear), and (2) that it was abnormally big, not just a noble Roman. And then I got to thinking, how bad must it be to invoke pity where mockery would usually sit comfortably? When it came to the nose, the bullying collective didn’t pull their punches so much as put their hands in their pockets and shuffle away. None of them would hold back when a pair of wing-nut ears fluttered into the room, or when someone got their head shaved save for a fluffy piss-fringe; the nose, however, was sacrosanct.
I should have been grateful for The Nose’s holy status, but actually it provoked a period of critical self-awareness. I became obsessed with trying to catch myself in profile as I walked past reflective surfaces, which is really hard given that your eyes are designed to look straight ahead most of the time. Eventually I concluded that the reason I hadn’t noticed The Nose before was that my head is shaped like one of those fish — the kind that when you see them straight on, they look tall and skinny; but when viewed from the side, you see that there’s a whole lot more fish. A flounder head. A parallelogram fish.
I got over it. In my last year of high school a girl I liked told me that she considered it one of my more defining features, that it was distinguished. It may have been pure flattery, but those words were all it took.
I have a two-year-old son now, and his nose is a sweet cartilage button: petite and squishy. That’s how it starts. With a genetic landscape of big noses on both sides of the family, he is destined to grow quite the schnoz. Come puberty, his feet will flipper out, his hands will grow to the size of cast-iron frying pans, and he will grow two feet in the space of eighteen months (as far as I know, this is how it goes); then he’ll emerge from the chrysalis with a massive increase in nasal surface area and, with it, a preternatural sense of smell. I hope it serves him well.