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.
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