Thursday, 3 July 2008

which one are you?

everyone is involved in bullying at school. you were either the bully, the one who was bullied, the one who watched and did nothing, or one of the few who had the courage to try and stop it happening to someone else.

i'm one of those who was bullied. never physically, only emotionally. it was insidious, nothing major, but a constant stream of harassment that wearied the soul. there was the name calling, there was the constant pointing out of how ugly i was and what a big nose i had. and big feet. and horrible clothes. then there would be the picking of sports teams, where i would invariably be the last person to be picked. but the worst would be the ballroom dancing, when the boys would all make fun of the sucker that had to end up dancing with me because there was no-one else left.

there was even harassment from a particular teacher when i was in standard 2. it was so bad that my grades fell within 3 months, and my parents asked to have me moved to another class. again, it was no single event, just a constant belittling and singling out for criticism, usually in front of the whole class. the first thing my new teacher did was to take out the strap and inform me that she would use it if i was ever caught lying, as if i'd been making the whole thing up. which proves anna's point: bullying doesn't stop because corporal punishment is allowed.

the effect of all this is that i try to erase my childhood from my mind. it's not one of happy memories, although i'm sure i must have been happy some of the time. i'm starting to feel sick even as i write about it. i've been to counselling, some years ago, but the memories never leave me. i have to keep fighting to remind myself that i'm not a worthless nobody because the constant message my brain keeps sending out is "you're not good enough".

so many times i wish i could step into my past and hug the little girl that i was. i wish... well, what's the point. i can't change my past. but we can try to change the present for our children who face school every day as a member of one of those four groups i mentioned above.

one of the key things is communication. i always make sure to ask my kids how their day at school has been, whether it was a happy day or not. they get used to telling me about their day, so that when something bad happens, i find out. a couple of years ago my younger daughter came out with the fact that another girl had spat at her. when i probed further, i found that there had been instances of hitting, pushing, name-calling. i immediately contacted the teacher, and it was all resolved in a good way. the girl in question had been bullying other kids as well, as it turned out. but unless they're used to talking to you, you won't find out. creating that relationship of trust with my kids has been the most important thing to me.

listening to some of the parents talk about bullying of their kids on radio and tv today, i heard some of them say they didn't even know it was happening or the extent to which it was happening. that's not surprising to me, i never told. i don't know why, perhaps i believed the messages i was getting: i was a bad person so deserved the treatment i got.

it's really horrible to hear about the kids that got severly beaten or who committed suicide. the fact is that kids don't invent bullying, they learn it. they learn from their parents, from the tv programmes/movies they watch, from the games they play and from the books they read. it's a learned behaviour, and it happens because we allow it to happen. it happens because that's what they see when they watch gordon ramsay abuse people on his show, and be admired for it. it happens because adults abuse each other in the nastiest of ways on blogs and internet discussion forums, without caring about the impact of their words. it happens because they watch us verbally abusing other drivers as we treat the roads like our own personal highway. it happens for so many, many reasons.

the best interview i heard today was with the mother of a child who had committed suicide because of bullying, on radio nz this morning (about 21 minutes into the clip, although all of it is well worth listening to). she talked about the solution coming from the community, and it's so true. there is the individual response: being aware of what our kids are doing, correcting them when they are rude about someone else, modelling good behaviour, and making sure that we never stay silent when we see bullying occurring. but we need to respond as a community as well, to take collective action against the violence that even now we tolerate.

because one thing i can say for sure is that the effects of being bullied don't go away. ever.

12 comments:

Ari said...

Or you were a combination thereof.

A lot of people who bully others are themselves bullied and the powerlessness makes them act out desperately and violently instead of seeking help.

I've always been an outsider to some degree and that was no exception at school. Plenty of emotional bullying, and as I was a boy, also physical bullying, (apparently it's okay if you're expected to be tough) which tends to get worse if you complain about it.

Once I let a very bad friend (we weren't friends for long) pressure me into acting out my own bad feelings on someone else- at the time it felt good, but I hadn't really thought about the younger kid he was harassing and that I was standing by and letting it happen, even after I had quickly grown a distaste for doing anything to him.

Fortunately, the kid rang both of our parents and I felt so terrible I never let said "friend" talk me into anything like that again- part of why I think your main point is very good. We mostly stopped talking around about the time he started taking drugs... until his personality changed dramatically (probably due to the cannabis) and he started turning on me instead of just being indifferent. As you can tell, not the greatest person to be around.

I think our failure to talk with kids about how to deal with this sort of thing before it starts happening is important as well as checking up on them, too.

Part of that has to involve dialogues with the parents of bullies and make sure that a culture of bullying is being prevented at home, too. Obviously not everyone will be lucky enough to have a parent that can do that, but we should try.

Carol said...

Yes, as a tomboy way back in my younger days, I experienced an insidious, low key kind of emotional bullying in a girls' school. So while I am a strong feminist, I still feel intimidated by some groups of teenage girls who actively support media standards of acceptable femininity.

BTW,in this culture that supports bullying, as well as the road bullying you mention, we have today the media salivating over the bullying tactics of truckies: "I have a big truck and am going to use it to force others to agree to my terms" What kind of message does that send to young people?

Anna McM said...

Stargazer, one of the hardest parts of your story to read is the bit about your new teacher. This is because a) adults who uphold the bullying of children (or other adults, for that matter) are in my books the lowest of the low; and b) corporal punishment or the threat of it was part of the bullying, not a solution to it. Some stuff commentators are complaining that acting against bullying just mollycoddles kids and makes them less likely to succeed. FFS.

Ari & Carol, you've mentioned something crucially important - the story of bullying is in large part a story of upholding gender and sexuality norms through cruelty. This is just one more reason why it's imperative we make schools safe.

ms poinsettia said...

Thanks stargazer for telling your story. I am lucky to be one of those who was only mildly bullied (as part of the high school psychological mindgames common among girls). Unfortunately I was also a bystander.

One of my greatest regrets is not defending a friend from intermediate once we got to high school, even though I had defended her at intermediate. I was so lilylivered in the face of trying to make friends at high school, that I just stood by and said nothing. Even at 30, whenever I think about that I feel ashamed.

I think a lot of people think bullying is normal and condone it as child's play, refusing to censure their child's behaviour. When I was teaching I had a terrible bully in my class (aged only 7), chasing another student all the way home every day and beating him up. I made him pinky promise me that he would not bully anymore and that if he did he would not be welcome in my class (this was overseas, private language tuition). He *very reluctantly* promised. But the next day turned up with his mother, who accused me of bullying her son because I was homesick. I stood my ground and he never returned to our school. It was frustrating because his mother was blind to his behaviour - and the way she attempted to emotionally bully me was very suggestive of where he learnt his behaviour.

hungrymama said...

I too was subjected to that low-ley emotional bullying that just went on for the length of my school days. I think the most damaging thing was that somewhere along the line, probably from well meaning adults trying to provide me with strategies to keep myself safe, I got the idea that it would all go away if only I could change myself sufficiently.

Sometime I run into those people who made my schooldays so unhappy and they greet me with genuine warmth and enthusiasm - I don't know if they never knew how they were affecting me or if they have forgotten or what but it does my head in.

Anonymous said...

I was bullied a lot at school - the absolute class reject. School was a total misery.

I had other problems at the time - a very violent homelife, and between the two I simply got used to running away. My parents showed little interest in my absence, and I think the school was somewhat complicit in this too - they simply never asked where I was. I considered suicide many times as a child - I was too wimpy.

My point is that someone told me years later that she thought all children saw themselves as the victims of bullying, that we all saw ourselves as the friendless outsiders. I felt pretty sure I could attend a school reunion now (at 30) and my classmates would confirm that I was, in fact, the school outcast. But maybe not. Maybe many of them felt that way.

On another note; there were two children who had the good grace to not bully me. They weren't nice to me either, they just didn't participate in the bullying. I note that they have both become very successful - one is a well known broadcaster, and the other a popular musician. It love seeing their success and will always remember their actions at school.

And as for parents not noticing bullying...my six year old nephew came home and talked about a child at school who they wouldn't play with because he was gay - in that sing song cruel tone they have - and I knew EXACTLY what him and his friends were up to. We talked about it, and got involved at school too to make sure it wasn't going further. Parents (and bossy aunties) can do something about it, and SHOULD. The kids who didn't bully me at school were no doubt responding to their parents' interventions.

stargazer said...

wow, thank you everyone for sharing your experiences. i think, difficult though it was, it was easier to admit to being the one who was bullied than to own up to being the bully or a silent watcher. so thank you for those who have done so.

I think our failure to talk with kids about how to deal with this sort of thing before it starts happening is important as well as checking up on them, too.

true. i never actually thought to do that. and i have to admit that i really was surprised when i heard about the pushing, shoving etc my daughter had been dealing with. she had said nothing to me until the spitting incident, and i thought (until then) that we were communicating really well.

Stargazer, one of the hardest parts of your story to read is the bit about your new teacher.

actually, after the strap incident i did very much better in the new class and really liked that teacher. it was the bullying one who had the lasting implication. she's a deputy principal now at an intermediate school, and i came across her during one of the open days. she said she remembered me, and i thought of telling her how deeply her behaviour affected me and how angry i still was about it. but then i didn't. mostly because i couldn't see that there was anything to be gained. but i never sent my kids to that school.

I don't know if they never knew how they were affecting me or if they have forgotten or what but it does my head in.

well, when it's lots of small cases, people sometimes don't realise that they were the fifth person to say do something nasty that day and how difficult it was for you to deal with. or maybe it's just selective memory. or maybe they're being really nice to you now because they feel guilty. if you never say anything, then it's unlikely that they will.

My point is that someone told me years later that she thought all children saw themselves as the victims of bullying, that we all saw ourselves as the friendless outsiders.

i'm sorry but i think that's nonsense. those of us who were "the shunned" damn well knew it, and knew it well. so did everyone else around us. yes, everyone gets teased and gets nasty comments, but your experience at school sounds similar to mine. we certainly didn't imagine it, nor have we blown it up out of proportion.

hungrymama said...

well, when it's lots of small cases, people sometimes don't realise that they were the fifth person to say do something nasty that day and how difficult it was for you to deal with. or maybe it's just selective memory. or maybe they're being really nice to you now because they feel guilty.

It's probably all of the above. I recall getting, and attempting to follow, a lot of advice along the lines of "don't let them see they are getting to you". So they genuinely may never have known they were hurting me. This probably did them no favours.

Dobsonites said...

The trouble with "don't let them see they are getting to you" is that you might end up like me - I shut down and did my best to pretend I didn't exist for my high school years, and am still unable to show emotion or let my real personality show. I figured if I showed no emotions then it would be like I didn't have any so I couldn't be hurt.
My parents still don't know what high school was like for me because I came home and was chatty as usual, when I often spent the day at school not saying a word.

Violet said...

Well, I don't think i fit into any of those categories. I was never bullied at school and was unaware of the bullying that apparently did take place. I don't see myself as being someone who watched and did nothing, because I really didn't know it was going on. I can't have been the only person in that position at school.

hungrymama said...

Violet - I think a lot of bullying (and probably particularly the sort that goes on amongst teenage girls) is very hard to spot if you aren't looking for it. A tone of voice, a sly reference or sneakily passed note will slip under most people's radar.

Ariane said...

I just found this through the Feminist Carnival, so I know my comment is way late. I just wanted to mention that not all bullying is learned from the older community. At least some of it starts as a lack of impulse control. My son is 5, and the bully in his class is actually a nice kid, but has impulse control issues, a bit like a toddler. Everyone walks a fine line between understanding his situation and tolerating the behaviour and therefore teaching him about the power it might give him. It's very tricky to avoid making his social problems worse, but also not allow him to hurt others.