Straight out of a Horse’s Mouth

By Raajeev Aggerwhil

A few years back when we had just moved from Boston to the Los Angeles area, I went to my middle son, Vicktor's, high school for a parent-teacher day. His school, Palos Verdes High School, was the best high school I had ever seen. They had a view of the Pacific Ocean from the basketball courts. I was admiring the view and thought to myself, “This is progress." Growing up in India and going to high school there, I never had that luxury. We had views of rickshaw pullers, stray dogs and cows crapping on the street.

As I have mentioned before, as an Indian-immigrant, my fears about my American-born children are that they will get into drugs, get a divorce or worse, pay full price for everything. I thought the best way to prevent my kids from getting into drugs was communication and vigilance. At school, I asked Vicktor to show me his locker. He was a bit hesitant but I insisted. When he opened the locker, on the inside door, somebody had written in big letters, “F U Vicktor." I looked at my son and tears rolled down his eyes.

I was so mad. What's wrong with these people? Why couldn't they be a bit more thoughtful? Why couldn't they go one step further and write, “F U Brownie. F U Raghead or F U Turban Dweller." At least I could sue some people and make some money. What happened to the good old racists from the 60's that we keep reading about in the history books?

I asked him who did it and he said he knew. I immediately took him to the principal's office. The highest person in charge was the vice principal. I explained to him the situation. He checked around and found that they had already reprimanded the kid who did it over a month back but they failed to give my son a new locker. I immediately demanded a new locker and had him shift his contents there.

My heart was broken. Bullying ran in our family. As a high school student, I was bullied in India. The kids used to call me a horse – maybe because of the way I walked or the way I ran. In our physics class we had learned that one horsepower is equal to 744 watts. One mean kid wrote on the board during recess that one Raajeev power is equal to 744 watts. Such bullying continued on for two years, until I changed high school, hoping that no one would know my secret that I was a horse! My self-confidence was sapped and it took me years to recover. My father also told me how he was bullied and badly beaten by one of his teachers in grade school. Before that we were bullied by the British! My father and I were bullied in India; at least my son was bullied in the US. That is progress!

Prior to moving to Los Angeles, my son was bullied in middle school in Boston. As a former bullied victim, I knew it would take more than a locker change to restore his confidence. We had seen the signs and always thought that he was a shy and bit awkward kid who could not make eye contact with adults while speaking. However, it had not occurred to us that the primary reason for such diffidence was bullying. We knew that besides continuing to provide a loving supporting environment for our son, we had to take some other actions.

Around that time, my youngest son, Neil, who was in primary school, expressed an interest in taking acting classes. My wife and I thought we could have Vicktor also try it. The person organizing the acting classes had also set up a comedy troupe for teenagers to perform stand-up comedy at shows around Los Angeles. Both my children started participating in those as well. They learned to write well-structured jokes with a set-up and punch lines. They learned to take their miseries and embarrassing moments and make fun of themselves. They turned bad situations into self-deprecating humor.

One of the jokes my son Vicktor wrote was a comeback against a bully in school. It went something like this: At school, this kid kept bothering me. He would say, “Hey Vicktor, you smell like curry. You smell like damn curry." So I said, “I don't smell like curry. I smell like Tikka Masala - similar but different. But Rob, did you eat our holy cow? Because you smell like bull crap." Not only did this joke always get a good laugh, he used it against the bully at his school.

Looking at the various negative and humiliating experiences of life, turning them into powerful premises and coming up with witty punch lines took some effort but with repeat performances and participating at open mikes, Vicktor became more natural on stage. His acting and impressions became more expressive and real. Performing comedy in front of strangers at various comedy clubs in the Los Angeles area and making them laugh boosted Vicktor's confidence. We could also see a change in him. He seemed more content with himself. He also was able to carry on conversations with our family, friends and other visitors to our house.

A couple of years back, my wife, Vicktor, Neil, and I were invited to perform at the Burbank Comedy Festival. Vicktor and I were at one of the after-parties, where people were dancing to salsa music. I was dancing with a friend. I am not a great dancer but I manage. A few minutes later, I saw Vicktor at the other corner of the room. He was dancing really weird as if he was drunk or had some disability. My heart sank. I thought, “Oh, my God. He is dancing like a horse. He will be subjected to the same kind of humiliation as I did!" However, I didn't say anything. The next day, he came to me and showed me a video. He said, “Dad, somebody sent me this clip on Instagram. It looks like I am having a seizure." And then he gave a big laugh.

At that moment, I knew that my son would be fine and I had nothing to worry about because he had learned a very valuable lesson. Something that took me a couple of decades to discover by trial and error: An ability to laugh at oneself is one of life's greatest gifts. That is the truth. And that is straight out of a horse's mouth!


Los Angeles-based comedian Raajeev Aggerwhil has starred in Nickelodeon's TV show 100 Things to Do Before High School and also acted in the film based on the television series.