“Sticks and stones may break your bones
But names will never hurt you.”
I wish I had a pound for every time my Mum or my Wee Gran said that to me while I was growing up. I’d be a very rich girl if I had!
Bullying, for various reasons, has cropped up in several conversations recently. It’s stirred up more than a few ghosts from the past, I can tell you.
The childhood rhyme has played in the background like a soundtrack to my schooldays.
As the summer break draws to a close, if you’re a parent of a child who is being bullied and harassed, or a teacher of a class hiding a bully in its midst, you might want o pause and read the tale my daughter and I are about to share.
I’ll pause for a moment to allow you to reflect before continuing….this is could prove to be a difficult read for some.
I was bullied for six years in school (roughly 1979-1985 if you need a timeframe for reference here). To this day, I have no idea what triggered it but I can recall the first incident as clearly as if it happened yesterday.
It was a wet afternoon interval in school. I was in Primary 5. As a class, we had been painting pictures. I genuinely don’t recall saying or doing anything to trigger this but suddenly a few of the kids in the class were round my desk commenting on my poor artwork. (I never was much use at art and never claimed to be any good at painting.) There was a nasty, hurtful edge to their taunts. My desk was in front of the classroom door. The door to the corridor was open. I bolted!
I ran down the stairs, from the first floor to the basement, to seek refuge in the girls’ toilets. Twenty plus kids from the class followed me- boys and girls. I made it safely into a cubicle near the end of the row and locked the door. Safe. Wrong! All the kids, boys and girls, came charging into the toilets screaming and yelling, hammering on the door, trying to climb over the door and partition walls, trying to squeeze under the door and partition walls. I was absolutely terrified. The bell rang and, gradually, they all retreated. I stayed where I was until all was quiet then returned to my classroom. The teacher asked where I’d been and, when I told her what had happened, she didn’t believe me, suggesting I was lying. Suddenly, I was the one in trouble. I returned to my seat feeling twenty plus smug pairs of eyes watching me.
It all spiralled rapidly downhill from there.
I’m not going to go into this blow for blow (Yes, this went beyond name calling on a semi-regular basis for years)
I was ostracised. Outcast. I was nine years old.
If I arrived at school with something new, shoes or a bag or a coat, I was laughed at and ridiculed. My coat or blazer would regularly disappear from its allotted space in the cloakroom, only to turn up stuffed under a sink or behind a radiator, usually having been kicked about by muddy feet first.
The heavy metal band Iron Maiden with their skeleton mascot Eddie were just coming to the fore and one of the boys, who liked the band, nicknamed me “Beast” after the creature in the song “Number of the Beast”. That nickname stuck for years…. for ever. Kids, sometimes kids I didn’t even know, would grab me by the hair and haul at my clothing to determine if I had “666” tattooed at the back of my neck. Funnily enough, I don’t. Maybe that experience has contributed to the fact that I have no ink on me whatsoever, despite having two designs that in my heart I would love to have discretely tattooed.
The few friends I had in the class vanished into the crowd.
Lunchtimes and intervals became endlessly long, lonely periods of time to be endured instead of enjoyed. I retreated into myself. I kept myself to myself, finding a quiet corner to hide and read my book in peace, losing myself in the words on the pages to escape from the reality I was living.
By the time I reached Primary 7, things were no better. It was in Primary 7 that I remember physically striking back for the first time. I was reading the book My Friend Flicka. Several of the girls were taunting me about it and I was doing my level best to ignore them. Eventually, one, who thought she was being smart, was standing in front of me flicking the book up into my face, chanting “My friend fucka me and I enjoyed it.” I snapped. I slapped her. Slapped her hard.
For a short while, the bullies backed off.
All the while, my mother and grandmother thought they were reassuring me with that old childhood rhyme. They weren’t. My mum had tried approaching the school’s headmaster about the bullying but that only served to make matters worse. One of the kids in my class saw her in the school and told the others. The bullying became even more vicious and hurtful as a result.
My mum and grandmother changed tack as the time approached for me to start high school. Almost daily during the summer holidays, they attempted to convince me that moving to a bigger school meant more opportunity to make nice, new friends. I just listened to them, knowing in my heart that they were wrong.
My primary school classmates found a new bigger, rougher, tougher audience in high school and, for roughly three years, things were worse than ever. Now, it was the boys more than the girls who were my daily tormentors. There were parts of the school I dreaded passing through.
Things hit an all time low one Tuesday afternoon in my second year. Again, it was during an afternoon break when it happened. I was standing quietly minding my own business outside my English class when a boy in my year from a different class came towards me and, without a word, drew his fist and punched me in the face. I felt my nose break. Apparently, I was supposed to have passed comment on his girlfriend’s new haircut. I hadn’t seen the girl and certainly wasn’t aware that she had changed her hairstyle. Why would I even care? I barely knew her. Sitting through that English lesson, trying to staunch the bleeding and trying not to cry was one of the lowest points I can recall.
Eventually, by the time we were all fourteen or fifteen, the bullies grew bored and moved on. I continued to keep myself to myself for most of the time. I’d hide at lunchbreaks, usually in the assembly hall, and write as my means of coping with my reality.
It was all too late though. The mental and emotional damage had been done and those scars run far deeper than any of the physical ones.
I left school in 1988.
Several years after I left school, one of the worst of the bullies reared his ugly head again. I was walking on my own from the branch of the bank where I was working into the town centre to catch the bus home. Along the way, I passed several pubs and as I approached one of these, The Green Oak, a group of drunk young men stumbled out in front of me. Among them was one of the bullies. He recognised me, even in his drunken state and started yelling, “I know you. We called you the Beast in school!” Before I had time to react, they had surrounded me and were all chanting “Beast! Beast! Beast!” At that moment, the bus I was rushing to catch came down the road. Fortunately, the driver recognised me, stopped the bus in the middle of the road and yelled at me to” get on.” I’ve never been so relieved to get on a bus in my life. In those few terrifying moments, I’d gone from a 22-year-old young woman to a frightened 12-year-old in my head.
2010 marked the year that my class turned 40 and a school reunion was arranged. It was the last event I wanted to go to but I reasoned that by going, I might finally put some of the ghosts to bed and get some closure. Two friends, who felt similarly uneasy about it, suggested we go to together. Safety in numbers and all that. The event was arranged via Facebook and, as the guest list grew, so did my nerves. When I saw one name in particular, the worst of the original bullies, appear, I almost changed my mind about attending. Even on the evening of the event itself, I was in two minds about going. I was feeling physically sick with nerves as I left the house. The reunion was held in the local rugby club and was all going well until that person arrived. A group of us were already seated at a round table with a drink when she walked in with her friends. She was all “huggy/kissy” with the people round the table until she saw me. As I looked at her, I realised she had stopped in her tracks and was looking at me with the same childish hatred from 30 years before. I looked away and she moved off. Even, after all these years…..oh, well, I guess leopards don’t change their spots.
I will never attend another school reunion.
That one long look from her opened up all the old wounds.
Sticks and stone may break your bones, but bones mend. Words scar your soul forever.
On reflection, while the years of abuse that I endured seemed never ending at the time, I was lucky.
I was lucky this all happened pre-internet, pre-mobile phones, pre-social media, pre- group chats.
At least when I went home from school, the bullies couldn’t reach me, unless they phoned the house or turned up at the door.
There is little escape from 21st Century bullying. It’s a 24/7 affair with little or no respite.
As a mother, one of the hardest things to watch and handle as a parent, has been seeing history repeat itself for my Baby Girl.
She’s agreed to tell her tale for this blog for the first time, so, in her own words-
“Through my life, my mum has told me about her school experiences, now I’m going to tell you mine.
“School years are the best years of your life” – absolutely bloody not!
So, let’s start from the beginning of high school. In first year, I was no longer “cool” enough for my primary school friends so I had to find a new friend group. I managed that and, as far as I can remember, the rest of first year was enjoyable (apart from getting glasses)
Second year things started to go belly up. This was the year I discovered how imaginative people can be. I can’t remember how it all began but a very hurtful story was invented by someone ( I still don’t know who) and it spread like wildfire around the school. At first people shouted names and comments at me in the social area. Then I lost all the friends I had just made the year before because nobody wanted to be seen to associate with me. One day I couldn’t face another day of it at school so pretended to be sick to stay home. Peace and quiet – or so I thought. By 4 o’clock the messages started arriving. My favourite message was from a boy I had never spoken to saying “Have you killed yourself yet?”
At 12 years old, I remember sitting on the bathroom floor with a bottle of toilet cleaner in my hand trying to grow the balls to drink it.
This was the first time I wanted to commit suicide. This was just the start.
From then on, I was extremely self-conscious. For the next few years I worked to lose as much weight as possible with the hope of disappearing. I became so weak it got to the point I struggled to stand without help. This simply led to more taunting. I was now “a bag of bones” and “a starving African child”. As you can assume, this led to more self-loathing and concerning behaviour.
At this point, I had new friends and I was in that group until one girl decided she didn’t like me and turned everyone against me. Of course, there were a lot of nasty messages sent. I will admit, I responded with my own unhelpful messages, fuelled by pain and anger.
In fifth year, I found yet another group of friends who were outcasts like myself. The comments from classmates had continued from second year but in my last year I found a new way to cope. I started to suffer from health problems, for which I was prescribed 30/500 co-codamol pills. After a few weeks, I no longer needed them but continued to take 8 a day for 11 weeks just to get through school. Being in a constant dazed medicated state made it a lot easier to ignore the comments.
So, to summarise my school experience, it was filled with: people making abusive comments, receiving horrendous Facebook messages, self-hatred and self-harming behaviours. But, at the end of the day, I can say I made it out alive.
Now, at the age of 18, I have considered suicide at least once per day every day. I have been prescribed strong anti-depressants and am open to the community mental health team. I have nightmares most nights, some about events from school.
But, I have 3 amazing friends and a family who love and support me.
Upon reflection, I am glad this happened to me instead of someone else, because the thought of another person going through it is unbearable. But the sad fact is, this happens to hundreds of thousands of kids every single day.”
I knew my Baby Girl had had a rough time throughout high school. In fact, it started in primary school. I knew about some of the bullying. I knew about some of the Facebook messages because she would screenshot them and send them to me.
There’s a lot though in that story that I never knew until she gave me her story to add to this blog a few days ago. At this point in time, I feel as if I have failed her.
21st century bullying is beyond evil and, selfishly, I’m relieved that it didn’t exist while I was being bullied all those years ago. I don’t believe I have the strength of character to survive it.
There is NO escape from it.
Facebook group chats are the worst vehicle ever for it. Countless times, she would show me message chains where the comments were directed at her. They were beyond vile. They had been sent day and night.
I sat on the local high school’s parent council for seven years so speaking to staff without my daughter’s knowledge was easy but proved to be a complete waste of time. I tried time and again but was always told that the school had no control over online bullying. As far as I witnessed, they had little control over the bullying and harassment going on within the school itself. On the odd occasion, when a teacher would listen, they never acted as bullies have an uncanny knack of being the teachers’ favourites, the “cool” kids.
As a parent, I felt helpless. Utterly helpless.
I failed her.
Neither of us are sharing this with a view to gaining any sympathy.
Neither of us are sharing this to point the finger at the bullies. If they happen to read this and recognise themselves, then I hope they feel at least some remorse for their past actions. Somehow, based on my personal experience of my school reunion, I doubt that they will. I think that’s sad…..tragic.
The reasoning behind speaking up now is that summer’s almost over and kids are going back to school. Bullies will be seeking new vulnerable targets. Some kids will be facing the school year with dread.
For what they are worth, my words of wisdom are:
If you are a parent, be vigilant. Teenagers are experts at hiding things from us.
If you’re a teacher, don’t turn a blind eye and presume that its just kids being kids.
If you’re a target (I hate the word “victim”) stay strong and speak up. Don’t suffer in silence just because its easier. Be yourself. And remember bullies are cowards at heart.
If you’re the bully or you were the bully, I hope you’ve learned something from this and use your time to reflect on the consequences of your actions.
Thank you for listening.
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