Okay – deep breath!
In my last Good Enough Mother piece (Are You Too Nice For Your Own Good) I touched upon the topic of bullying – and what I went through while I was at school many years ago.
So it feels like a natural progression from my last piece and a necessary part of my journey here on GEM to write about this topic now. But I’ll be honest, opening myself up like this is hard!
In the past two weeks I’ve heard from two friends whose kids are being bullied at school, one friend is actually moving house, moving towns and schools entirely to escape the hell her son is going through. I am even more angered that the school in question is the very same school I attended and experienced bullying at over 20 years ago.
For me, things at high school became tangled and confused with my home-life when a friend of the school bullies who were already problematic for my sister and I, became our step-sister. Our personal life ended up as part of the public life of our school and nothing felt safe anymore.
Then, when I started to date a guy in the same year-group as the bullies, things got much worse. My idea of having a boyfriend at age 15 was to hang out at break times, have lunch together, hold hands and share the odd kiss. That was it. But the rumors and names that had started to spread around school were nothing short of vicious and I couldn’t understand it.
What I didn’t know but learned eventually, was that this guy had previously got a girl pregnant and she’d had an abortion. I had no idea. But this is where the rumors and names were coming from. By being associated with this guy I myself was labelled. I felt sick. I am sure there was jealously at work there too.
Shortly after, we broke up. I decided I really didn’t like him enough for this kind of hassle. But the bullying – verbal and physical – continued relentlessly. Time and time again I went to the teachers, my mom took time off work to come into speak to them, time and time again, But NOTHING WAS DONE.
It was becoming unbearable. I started to skip school but it was my studies of all things that kept me going. I would skip school and work on my assignments in the peace and safety of my home. I’d attend just enough to get to grips with the work, get books out of the library, buy books if need be, and then skip what I could to avoid break times. Books became my refuge – everything from Shakespeare (the witches in Macbeth? Oh yeah, I had my own coven to deal with) to Maya Angelou (‘I know why the caged bird sings’? I did in my own way) – and my work was my voice. It felt like the only way I could show those bitches the middle finger. By reminding myself one day I’d be out of there and my hard work would take me far away to better things, I felt some hope. But it was hard. I’d also started to smoke and drink to deal with the stress.
The worst was yet to come. An end of year show was planned by the bullies’ year group as it was their graduation year, but they were the main organisers and had free reign. I heard rumours that they had something lined up for me during the show.
I was nervous but I knew there was not much longer to endure before the bullies left school and my life for good. Before heading to the hall on the day of the show, a teacher called me out of class and told me I wouldn’t be going to watch it. I was to go with him instead. What was going on?
While the show went ahead across in the drama hall, I sat alone in a classroom, supervised by the teacher. Eventually he said as if in explanation: ‘They’re using your name in vain over there’. That didn’t sound good.
Later I found out what happened. During the end of year awards segment, I’d been awarded ‘Slag of the Year’, a prize specially devised for me by my long-term antagonists. Two year groups had watched this, which included all of my peers, my friends, my sister, and all the teaching staff: 300 or so audience members in total.
I was devastated, horrified.
I will tell you that a couple of years later I bumped into the ringleader of the gang in a nightclub washroom. She claimed not to remember me. High heels and alcohol gave me the guts I needed… this time, I blocked her way out of the cubicle as she had done to me at school but instead of hurling abuse at her, I demanded an apology. I sure as hell got my apology. Did I feel better? A little, but I also felt bad. This wasn’t the kind of thing I did. But on the other hand, I guess she deserved it ten times over.
But how come more than 20 years later, the same problems are going on at the same school? Why are these bullies allowed to rule? Where are the rights of the vulnerable?
What I realise is there will always be bullies, in every walk of life. What we can do is learn ways to arm ourselves against them while they are dealt with harshly – yet also of course – constructively.
Despite my attempt in the nightclub at some sort of ‘resolution’ I carried the pain and shame caused by that time around for many years and it reverberated in many negative ways for a long time. Only later, much later, in my late 20s, did I really start to ask, why was I removed and shut in a room while they were allowed to go ahead to do that? Shouldn’t it have been the other way around? I’d had no way of defending myself. The school had failed in its duty to me.
If I could I would set up workshops for kids who need to know how to deal with this sort of shit: real, practical survival skills for personal protection. We can support and empower the vulnerable even if the bullies will never be completely gone.
With my own son I have performed role-play, showing him how he can react to threatening people and in threatening situations, giving him the words and the body-language to use. These things just don’t come naturally to a lot of kids. We owe it to them to teach them. Simply saying ‘stand up for yourself’ isn’t enough. Telling them to ‘tell someone’ is not enough, although it is vitally important. The vulnerable kids need to know the power they have in them and to know the issues lie with the bullies, not with them.
I found strength in holding onto some sort of goal (a dream) and in doing good stuff for myself – education – that NOBODY could take away. I could see ignorance all around me and I knew I was not like that. And the experience then is part of the drive now that allows me to go for my dreams more and more as my life goes on and without apology.
That said – I’m still saddened that nothing has changed. Things MUST change. But what will it take…
Okay – that’s what happened to me… but what were your teen experiences? Were you bullied and how did you deal with it? Do you still carry the scars around today? Or were you a bully who now regrets your actions… I’d love to hear your stories…
Nikki Newman, 36, from England, currently lives in Qatar, where she moved this year due to her husband’s work. A former teacher and proud mother of 7-year-old Oliver, she’s currently focusing on settling her family into their new lives, while also pursuing her passion for painting. To see Nikki’s work please go to: www.nikkinewmanart.com