I’ve been thinking a lot about bullying recently. I’ve
been working in schools and talking to young people. It still seems that school staff struggle to stop bullying and the effect it has on the self-esteem of their victim. Despite their best intentions, it’s sometimes very difficult to separate playground squabbles and everyday disputes from something more worrying.
As a newly self-employed person, making a lot of new connections and creating my own opportunities, there’s a lot of pressure to be confident and bold. Most of the time, I manage to be comfortable with myself, and some great things have happened to me over the last few months. But there are times when I feel that I’m holding myself back – that self-doubt is creeping in and that negative voice in my head tells me that I’m worthless.
Sometimes it doesn’t help to hark back to the past. But sometimes it can be useful to examine what happened; what changed; how I survived – and thrived!
Bullying is all about psychology. A child more likely to be bullied is often more insecure to begin with. As an only child, I wasn’t used to the rough and tumble of sibling arguments and the back-up of a close family unit. My parents may have over-protected me slightly, as they didn’t have any other children to worry about. I was naturally independent and imaginative, apt to day-dream (some things never change!), but maybe lacking the social ease of others and the confidence to join in with playground games. I remember wandering around the playground on my own at primary school in Kendal in the Lake District, complaining to the dinner ladies that no one would play with me.
In reality, I was okay. I had some good friends at that school, even though my best friend Michael Jackson (yes, we all thought it was really cool that he was called Michael Jackson, even Michael himself) moved to the Isle of Wight. At home, Russell from next door but one played out with me and an extended gang of kids on the back streets, getting into scrapes like making bows and arrows and firing them at car tyres (don’t worry, the arrows were just made of twigs!) and climbing into the gas works and making a den in some coiled-up pipes. I was a tom-boy, despite my parents worrying about my safety constantly and not letting me watch Star Wars. I probably was bullied occasionally but I had a bit of an attitude and I could give as good as I got.
When we moved to Derby, things changed. I joined Portway Junior School mid-way through Second Year Juniors (Year 4 nowadays). The school was run in a bizarre fashion, by a very eccentric head teacher called Mrs Shaw who seemed to think it was a public school (a private school!) The boys had to wear short trousers, even in winter, and I had to go from wearing whatever I liked, to a proper school uniform with a tie, and a red and white stripy dress in summer. We even had to do proper joined-up handwriting with fountain pens. The desks were the old-fashioned wooden kind with lids that lifted up and inkwells. I was used to a much cosier, modern school. And here I was, stuck in a “posh” suburb of Derby. The head teacher looked down on people like me, who lived in the part of Allestree near the school, which was still nominally a council estate, albeit a very leafy one!
In my first week, I made a fatal mistake. A plump, blonde girl sat next to me, smiled and gave me a novelty rubber. Most kids collected novelty erasers in the mid-eighties, shaped like various objects and scented. I kept mine in an old ice cream tub. She gave me one shaped like a teddy bear. Soon after that, I stuck up for her in the playground when a tough-looking girl was picking on her, and my fate was sealed. It turned out that the girl who’d been kind to me was a social pariah. She did her own thing and didn’t seem to care what people thought of her, even though she could behave rather oddly at times, trying to kiss ants in the playground. The tough-looking girl lived in our cul-de-sac and all her cousins and brothers played out there too, taunting me as they rode around on their bikes, and once even throwing stones at our front door. So no playing out for me after that. It took me until my mid-teens to dare to walk to the end of the road, rather than running through the “gitty” at our end of the cul-de-sac, hoping that I wouldn’t run in to the bully or any of her family.
But at least she was honest about being a bully. It was the snobby kids, who got their school uniforms from Next; whose parents were estate agents, and who were invariably picked to be prefects and lunch monitors. The lunch monitors were the amongst the worst. Rather than a canteen system where children could pick what they wanted, we were forced to sit at the same table every time, where some incredibly stuck-up, bossy child would dole out inedible luncheon meat, greasy chips and mushy peas that were actually so dry they had cracks in. If you didn’t eat every morsel, with a wilful effort not to be sick, holding your nose so you couldn’t taste anything (or at least that was the idea), then the lunch monitors would “tell on you”. Looking back, I can’t imagine the sort of child who would willingly volunteer for a job like that, unless they were power-hungry and enjoyed humiliating other people. They’ve probably got top jobs in management now!
Nasty things were whispered about me (for example that I had AIDS!!!), because I continued to stick up for my only friend. I started to think there was something wrong actually with me. Surely I didn’t smell? Was I hideously ugly? The only thing that made me different was that I wasn’t a snob and I wasn’t “rough”, as my mum would say. As a teacher’s daughter, I had my grammar corrected all the time! I didn’t know where I fitted in, and it didn’t help that by the time I went up to Secondary School, I was five feet and four inches tall, with size six feet –already the same size I am now! My confidence was at rock bottom, and I had a mullet hairstyle. It was 1988 though, so maybe I wasn’t the only person who’d been given that hairstyle at the unisex hairdressers.
Woodlands Secondary school wasn’t much better. Most of the kids from Portway Juniors were there. Children from the other feeder schools were more ethnically and socially diverse, but I had very few friends – and only because we were left-overs. We clung to each other, while I gradually discovered that I was totally bored in their company. I fell in love with music, with bands like the Stone Roses. My only friend from Junior School was still obsessed by Kylie and Jason (this is way before Kylie was cool and Jason became a gay icon!) and her tiny bedroom was a confection of pink. Before long, I was listening to the John Peel show under my duvet and buying the NME. But I was very lonely and didn’t have anyone to share my new passions with.
When I started singing and playing the guitar, I got a lot of name-calling after my performances, and sometimes it felt unbearable. But I was also on the road to recovery. My form tutor was very understanding, and got me some counselling – I got some stick for that as well, but gradually, I was becoming stronger. My passion for music was stronger than my fear of the bullies.
The biggest turning point came when a new girl started in Year Ten. She was a couple of minutes late to our first GCSE History class. Of course the only spare seat was next to me, the social outcast. But the new girl just smiled and sat down next to me. Over the next two years, Kirsty and I became best friends. We were both imaginative, intelligent and unconventional.
Instead of makeshift friendship groups reluctantly associating together because we were the dregs who didn’t fit in, Kirsty seemed to bring everyone together: the talented but shy people; the classical musicians; the drama queens; the science geeks and the sporty clean-cut girls. We were proud of standing out; of being who we were. There were struggles along the way, but whenever bullies tried their luck, I had a real group of friends to back me up. And I backed them up in return.
By the end of Year Eleven, I was officially cooler than almost anyone else, because Kirsty and I – and another friend called Mary, were going to Glastonbury festival on our own – our first genuinely grown-up adventure. And since then, the only thing that’s stood in my way is my own fear; my own insecurity, whether it’s innate, or born out of the days when no one fought my corner.
Toolkit for overcoming bullying – things I wish I’d known at the time but probably helped me through. This is written as if I was advising myself at the age of thirteen!
- Be proud of who you are. Whoever you are, you are not a freak. There’s nothing “wrong” with you.
- Don’t be afraid of being alone sometimes. Make the most of your time. Read a book, play a game, daydream, write, learn an instrument.
- Don’t conform to fit in. Be proud of the music you like and your hobbies. That will make you a million times cooler than the bullies.
- Don’t be afraid. Hold your head up high. Pretend you can’t hear the things the bullies are saying about you. Failing that, think of some put-downs and say them calmly, without sounding angry or upset.
- Tell your teachers and your parents about bullying, and they’ll help. But the biggest struggle is actually with yourself. You need to start believing that you’re an amazing person and you can achieve great things.
- Start doing great things: write songs and perform them in public; volunteer for interesting things that take your fancy! Don’t hide in the corner – follow your dreams!
- Be patient. Great friends are just waiting around the corner. You’ll find your soulmates – eventually, you’ll have a whole circle of friends who are really cool, amazing people!
- And just remember that bullies are really insecure people who get their kicks from making others feel small. Sometimes they come to their senses and change their ways. Don’t give them the satisfaction of letting them make you unhappy.
- Making yourself happy is the best antidote to bullying!