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Was it bullying?

January 9, 2010

I was thinking about school shortly before I went to bed. Five hours later I’m still thinking about it now.

I remember a time when the rules about school uniform at my school dictated I wear shorts. Such a demand was made with the sole intention of making men out of all of us. The thinking must surely have been that if the boys spend most of the winter months envying the relative warmth a jacket and trousers offers the final year kids, then aspirations will be put in place. The boys will have people to look up to. They’ll have goals to pursue. They’ll want to be older, more mature children if only because their knees will be shielded from the hard ground or cold air.

I bought into this whole-heartedly. Things will be better when I make it to the fourth form. People will be more grown up. I am more comfortable with grown-ups.

Until that point, years of relative immaturity stretched out in front of me. Endless days of getting dressed, lugging my old briefcase to school, scribbling in notebooks, taking those notebooks home to do even more scribbling in them before going to bed to start the whole thing again the next day.

Each day wasn’t only about attending lessons to improve knowledge. Instead, schooldays were to a greater or lesser extent also about managing the chasms of loneliness which regularly emerged in between lessons and during break-time. I needed allies – everyone needed allies – although where as most others seemed able to maintain a healthy and relatively wide-ranging alliance system, I seemed able only to secure one firm friend with a couple of waverers at the same time.

Allies asked each other important questions at the beginning of lessons like, “can I sit next to you during English?” When the chairs were pushed back against the parque floor at the end of English, those same allies would to turn to each other and unwittingly ask one variation on a theme. “Can I walk down with you to maths?”

Those were the important issues, you see. Not when Henry VII reigned or how photosynthesis actually worked. Maintenance of identity was the priority and that was achieved by the construction of social networks. That goes on right into adulthood.

But what happens when that all important network of allies breaks down?

For me, it meant an inescapable and seemingly never-ending period of loneliness mixed with feelings of exposure and total confusion. My previously ever-reliable chum had gone through a personality change and now appeared to be insuring himself against those gaping chasms by allying himself with the most unlikely crowd I thought imaginable. My backup ‘waverer’ allies were nowhere to be seen, hiding behind the ring-leader who marched into lessons with his army behind him.

How come my desk buddy had suddenly become friends with this squirt? Why was my friend now totally blanking me? Why in the space of 24 hours did we go from being friends to me being totally frozen out? How had this happened and how long exactly wthis go on for? Why was I now sat on my own in class?

It affected me deeply, it has to be said. It was during these periods that time seemed to grow longer. Term seemed like it stretched out far longer than it had before. It felt like I spent hours and hours not talking. I felt totally alone. I’d snatch looks over my shoulder to see whether today was the day my alliance would be re-established, seeing instead one face grinning innanely at me like he was the victor with his prize sat next to him looking straight through me.

Then a few weeks of being left in the wilderness and everything returned back to how it was. It was sudden. I hadn’t done anything to make it happen. Everything just appeared to return to normal. My friend and I were sitting next to each other once more, walking to and from classes together and entertaining each other in the playground, both of us avoiding the ‘dark time’, me still not understanding why it had happened in the first place and hoping it wouldn’t happen again.

And then, a few months later, it happened again. Exactly the same series of developments, exactly the same behaviour and exactly the same alliances being reformed. Exactly the same feelings. Exactly the same people involved. Exactly the same outcome.

To this day I still don’t know what I said or did to effect such a series of stark change in the alliance with my friend and for the changes to then be repeated some months later. All I recall was how lonely it left me feeling when I saw a previously familiar and engaging face replaced with either a blank expression or one of intense irritation. If there was a reason or if I had done or said something to prompt such action, its results were spectacularly effective even if they were totally disproportionate.

There’s a tendency to look back on that time now and temper the occasionally still raw feelings with a demand for some kind of justice. In situations like this, those who care want to find the perpetraitors. Why wasn’t something done about this? Why didn’t somebody stop this? Why didn’t a teacher step in and do something?

The reason was that those teachers couldn’t. Teachers can’t really do very much. The only thing they can deal with is something they’ve witnessed. It needs to be something physical, ideally something which comes with bruises or cuts. Anything else and it’s summary justice which will over time threaten their own classroom reputation.

So instead, it’s down to the players in the game to figure out a solution. And that’s the toughest thing of all. Because to describe out loud what you’re seeing and feeling is to risk the guarantee of ritual humiliation, especially when you’re a kid. Like teachers, kids need tangible evidence (even if they don’t understand the word at the time). Anything short of that tangible evidence is evidence of paranoia. And paranoia is a source of ridicule.

Was it bullying? If I can still recall those feelings keenly twenty-five years on, that’s quite serious. We remember bad stuff from our childhoods and carry it forward  into our adult lives. So on that basis it might be a form of bullying.

But if it is bullying, what sort is it? Is it valid? The fact that my father doesn’t bang on about his childhood experiences might suggest that maybe we now pay way too much attention to what was at one time dismissed as an unimportant sequence of events and feelings. He’s not damaged by his childhood. At least not as far as I can tell.

And if the players in my particular story were bullies, what sort were they? If a child’s sub-conscious can be populated with the trash which lingers in their parents’ sub-conscious, isn’t it theoretically possible that can be played out at school? Whilst there may no have been cuts and bruises, is the emotional impact of inexplicable events evidence of the silent danger of emotional bullying or just evidence of paranoia which makes the individual easy fodder in the playground?

It’s a difficult one. Who said school was the best time of your life? Whoever it was probably a bully. Probably a bully with passive-aggressive tendencies. There’s quite a lot of it about.

  1. Group behaviour that makes an individual feel isolated and vulnerable is bullying. When I started at primary school there was an angelic five year old with platinum blonde ringlets and huge china-blue eyes who already had her own gang and used to push other children in front of cars. She never laid a finger on me but threatened the bejesus out of me… I remained vulnerable to bullying for the rest of my time at school, especially social bullying.

    Not having kids of my own (horrible things! who’d want one of those to live with them??) my only real way of actively working against bullying is through being on Admissions Appeals Panels for schools in my county. Where an appeal is based on bullying, I tend to wade in against the often sceptical attitudes of other panel members.

    What appals me is that, even in these more enlightened times, a school’s response is often to remove the victim rather than the bully from the situation. What message is that sending to tomorrow’s workplace bullies?

  2. A very honest and heart-rending blog – and one that I suspect many of us can relate to.

    Although I don’t think of myself as having been bullied at school (I have some very fond memories of my time there), like you I can still remember that loneliness and isolation when, sometimes for no apparent reason, I was out of favour. I also remember the time, sometime in my fifth year, when I suddenly realised that I had managed to collect a group of loyal friends and didn’t need the approval of the ‘trendy’ kids to feel happy. What a moment that was! By the end of the sixth form I’d actually started to feel sorry for them – they had to work so hard to keep their badges of cool and had nothing but transient friendships to show for it.

    I wonder whether the hard-nosed cool kids are still in touch with any of their friends from school (or should I say followers)? And are they any worse off if not? I like to think that they got a bit of a shock when they left the safety net of school and the rules of cool no longer applied. Alas, I suspect it’s not true – they’re probably still doing the passive-aggressive routine in the workplace instead.

  3. It can still happen today, in the workplace or the pub. You might walk into the pub or walk past me in the corridor, and I totally ignore you when before I’d have exchanged mild pleasantries or something. I wouldn’t call that bullying.

    But that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t have an effect on the other person and can be a brutal reminder of your social standing (or lack thereof).

    It happens more often than you think, but you can’t *make* people hang out with each other or like each other.

  4. The old adage “Kids can be cruel” is very true. I think a lot of this kind of behaviour is power-play. Kids, just like anyone else, often like to be associated with the successful, the powerful, the glamorous – and in a school situation that can be someone who is cheekily naughty, or the sporting hero, or the person who doesn’t give the game away, or the person who just makes you laugh, or many other types. So losing ones fans, then getting them back, then losing them again is all part of a struggle for superiority. And it can be bullying. You probably were bullied. Anyone who wasn’t a bully tended to be bullied.

    I had a schoolfriend who was a bully. He did a number of minor bullying things but the thing that hurt the most was when he laughed his head off when he heard my Dad had died. Whilst playing football I kicked him in the shin so hard that it split his shinpad in two. I think he knew it was deliberate. He didn’t bother me again.

    But yes it’s a very warm glow when you feel you have friends at school. You’re definitely doing Something Right then.

    Didn’t you look cute!! That collar outside the jumper look is so “dressed by ones mother”.

  5. cyberguycalif permalink

    My school years didn’t include anyone being a bully, no one ever treaded anyone badly. Yes there were certain groups of kids who hung out with each other, but no one picked on anyone else. You were just part of one group of friends and others were part of other groups of friends.

    But Jon being older then you, it was a different era. But it could also be because in this country, we didn’t have to wear shorts or a uniform in my schools. Now today all the kids wear shorts because that’s the style and they are allowed to. Private schools used to have a uniform, but now a days a number of public schools in not so good areas have switched to a uniform to get away from kids wearing ‘gang’ colors to school or wearing the latest high priced fashions and shoes and being robbed by other kids.

    It’s a sad time in schools these days for the kids in general. It’s not like it used to be for me starting school in the early 60’s.

    Funny how what you described in your childhood is what happens more to adults. You are friends with someone and they say something that you don’t care for so you ignore them for awhile. Then a couple of weeks later you are back to being friends. It can be a cycle that happens over and over many times. But you still remain friends.

  6. Something similar happened to me when I was at Prep School and, like you, to this day, I have no idea WHY it happened. I can fully identify with those feelings of confusion and pain and although I never really thought of what happened as actual “bullying”, the feelings of insecurity and doubt that have lived with me since then are very real and, to that end, I believe that what both you and I went through was a form of bullying. Nobody really called it bullying way back then but now we live in an age of labels so not to have one for a particular set of behavioural patterns, seems quite strange.

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