1. A variety of domestic
2. The dead stump of a tree
3. Any animal which is
unusually small compared
with others of its kind.
I come from a family of two girls and two boys and I was unquestionably the runt of the litter.
Oh, I wasn’t feeble or sickly as an infant, but I was … small — and slower to develop than most of my kiddie colleagues. Public school was unrelieved misery. I never won any ribbons on Field Day and I stayed on the bench at school dances — mostly because all the girls were at least a head taller than me. Naturally, I sucked at sports. When the captains chose up sides for baseball games I was usually the last pick.
“Okay, you have to take Black,” the opposing captain would say.
I was definitely low man on the totem pole. The runt of the litter.
It was the best thing that ever happened to me.
Being a runt reveals social Darwinism at its most cold-blooded. Runts are automatically at the bottom of the pecking order and they have to think fast if they expect to survive. They have to hone their hearing to stay out of the way of their more robust siblings. They have to sharpen their vision and sense of smell to snatch the scraps before the Big Guys get them. Runts have to develop a kind of radar to be able to analyze situations more quickly.
Otherwise they’re toast.
I remember when I was maybe nine or 10 years old, rafting in a creek swollen by spring runoff. I was poling along the creek doing fine until Timmy Fermier, a big kid, took a huge leap from the creek bank and jumped on the raft with me. Not good. The raft began to settle ominously in the water which began to creep up my boots. Inspired, I faked hysteria. “WE’RE SINKING! WE’RE SINKING!” I shrieked. “WE’RE GONNA DROWN!”
It worked. Timmy freaked and leapt into the creek (which was only about three feet deep). Naturally, when he abandoned ship, the raft bobbed up and I poled serenely to shore.
True, he beat me up later — but at least I didn’t get wet.
Being a runt made me learn other survival skills. If Tommy Farmer was the bull mastiff in the motley mob of mutts I hung around with, I was the Jack Russell Terrier — yappy and annoying but fleet of foot and an artful dodger.
In The Brothers Karamazov, the Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote: “Schoolboys are a merciless race, individually they are angels, but together, especially in schools, they are often merciless.”
It’s true. And it’s a lesson every schoolboy runt learns early and remembers for the rest of his life. Some runts never get past it and go on to live nervous, stunted lives, shrinking from danger, some of it real, but most of it imagined. Others learn to play the hand dealt them.
As Charles Darwin said: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.”
My all-time favourite runt hero? The skinny little guy, who, legend has it, went for a wilderness hike in the Yukon accompanied by a larger, beefy guide. After a few kilometres they come to a clearing and spy a huge male grizzly on the other side. The bear spots the hikers, gives a gut-shivering roar and begins to gallop across the clearing toward them. “Quick! Take off your jacket and wave it at him!” yells the guide. Instead, the runt shrugs off his backpack, opens the flap and pulls out a pair of running shoes. “Are you crazy?” says the guide. “You can’t outrun a grizzly!”
“I don’t have to,” says the little guy as he sloughs off his heavy boots and slips into the sneakers.
“I just have to outrun you.”