Sometimes I wish my mind would stop ticking over. Just. Stop. For an evening. Please!
That was my plan for tonight. A mindless evening on the couch. Having just returned from 3 fantastic days of Year 8 Camp with my gorgeous homeroom (who, as much I love them, I am now exceedingly glad to send home to their parents and have a reprieve from) I decided to indulge in a bath, a couple of glasses of the FABULOUS Wirra Wirra Church Block and some magazines. I went for Women’s Fitness and Marie Claire. Maybe, considering my goal, I should have chosen something trashier. Open the latest issue of Marie Claire to be drawn into a great feature called “A letter to my bully…” . The article included poignant letters from a number of medium to high profile Australian women (including Ruby Rose, Sarah Lloyde and Jesinta Campbell) to the bullies who had tormented them through their teenage years. Goodbye mindless evening – hello constant stream of thoughts.
Bullying is not a new issue. Not at all. But with the proliferation of technology and social media, perhaps it has become more noticeable and unrelenting because of the potential 24 hour access bullies now have to their victims.
On a personal note, I distinctly remember the bullying I, myself, endured during primary and high school. I remember the friend in Year 5 who all of a sudden turned against me and said nasty things to the other kids in my class behind my back and then to my face. As a kid who loved school, Mum knew something was wrong when I started getting upset about having to go. I was fortunate enough at that time to have a close group of friends from other classes that I coped after that friendship disintegrated. But things were different when I went to high school. Only one of my close friends went to the same school as me and she was in a different class and joined a different circle of friends. I still maintain some contact with her and another close primary school friend via Facebook – our friendship wasn’t broken but it is safe to say that our lives have taken different directions which has made it difficult to catch up regularly.
Beginning at a new school with a new class proved a huge challenge for me. I was one of those students who kept a very close circle of friends and did not venture far from them, and who immersed myself in my school work (as I said, I LOVED school, and still do!!). All of a sudden I had to find acceptance with a new group of people. I certainly developed friendships at the school but they were not close. And looking back at it now, I realise that the bullying started early on although I couldn’t, or wouldn’t, acknowledge it. The ‘alpha male’ of my class intimidated me into showing him my test answers. I was a very capable student and had quite a reasonable vocabulary for my age so snide comments were consistently directed my way about using ‘big words’ or being the teacher’s pet. And they were not said in a nice – or friendly joke – kind of a way. Don’t get me wrong – I worked HARD for my grades – they were not achieved through any particular talent. When my parents wanted to transfer me to a different school half way through the year, I threw a tantrum because ‘all my friends’ were at the school. By the end of the year, when I had had my shoe laces tied together for one of those ‘friends” entertainment and had pencil sharpenings tipped through my hair, coupled with the humiliation of my music teacher attempting to pick them out for me (I seriously would have preferred he had left them there, just to spite the cruel boy who did it) I asked my parents to take me out. I know many kids endured and endure far worse things than I did, but I still distinctly remember the sick feeling in my stomach every time some of those classmates spoke to me or came near me, because instinct told me what was coming. I hate to imagine how other students feel. Every. Single. Day. I even remember the Deputy of the Middle School telling my parents that I, like most of the other students who transferred to the local Catholic school, would probably be back within six weeks. He didn’t know me at all and missed the mark. Completely. My parents withdrawing me and sending me elsewhere was the best decision they could have made for me.
Fortunately, mine is a good news story, and my new school, my new friends and the friends I did choose to keep from my old school (and who I still consider friends despite our very occasional contact) restored my faith in schools and people. Without doubt, bullying still occurred at the new school – I still have clear memories of my younger sister facing some pretty nasty bullies – but the way it was reported and dealt with was completely different and, most importantly, gave the victims voice. The pastoral care system ensured that teachers knew us as people first and students second, and it explicitly recognised (and enacted in its processes) that our emotional well-being and sense of personal safety was central to our learning. We were empowered to take a stand against bullying- something I did not feel I had as a student at my old school. The thing about the bullying we faced, however, was that it was mostly done face-to-face. Whilst we only graduated from high school in the mid-2000’s, social media had not yet taken off. Home was still a refuge from our bullies. Not so much anymore.
Now, as an educator it still absolutely baffles me how some students can treat each other the way that they do. Behaviours are learnt, or developed from somewhere. But where some of them come from I don’t think I will ever know. I find the negative way in which some girls treat their ‘friends’ incredibly confusing and difficult to deal with. For some reason females seem to have buried deep within ourselves this frightening ability to destroy the souls of others through psychological abuse. I struggle to understand why girls and women (and I certainly do reprimand myself for this at times) can become so focused on pointing out the flaws and vulnerabilities of other females, rather than celebrating each others’ beauty and talents. Why do we, as a general group, sometimes develop this urge to ‘bring her down’?? And usually for a petty reason or no reason at all.
And girls are so underhanded in the way that they bully. Yes, studies say girls are becoming more physically aggressive, but I still find my girls, when they do bully, can be sneakier, crueler, and inflict more emotional scars than the boys. I would rather deal with two boys having it out with each other than two girls. I find boys are just so much more open about why they are doing what they are doing.
My last post was about empathy -about understanding others’ emotions and reacting in a way that helps them to develop a more positive outlook or take a more helpful course of action. I have been talking with my Year 8 key class about empathy and kindness and how we might demonstrate that in our day-to-day interactions. This was one focus of our camp over the last few days. This has strong connections to our discussions throughout the year about not being a bystander when bullying occurs. Someone who has empathy will take an active stand against bullying and defend the rights of the victims without forgetting (but not excusing!) what might cause the bullies to act the way they do. There are many campaigns empowering people to cease being a bystander, including a fantastic advertisement by the Catholic Education Office of Wollongong (click here to view on YouTube). Our students need to learn that it takes strength, courage and a sense of justice to combat the negativity of bullying, and that ultimately, it comes down to them working with teachers, parents and other adults in the community to ensure everybody’s well-being.
But even adults don’t seem to do this very well sometimes. Recently, ex-model and Australian television personality Charlotte Dawson admitted herself to hospital following abuse from Twitter trolls. Some adults callously commented that she should ‘suck it up’ because abuse comes with being a media personality. But does it? I don’t think being the victim of school or workplace bullying comes in any contract that adults or youth might sign. So why should people, celebrity or not, have to just ‘put up with it’.
Like so many people, I still remember the faces of the students who bullied me. I now teach in the local area that I went to school in and, every now and then, I pass the people who tormented me in that first year at high school. We are all now in our mid-twenties and most of them don’t remember me. But I recognise them. And I will not forget how they made me feel. But they also serve as a reminder for me about how far I have come. I only hope that many others come out the other side of that darkness and feel the same way.