When I grew up, teasing wasn’t called bullying until there were visible bruises. My abusers knew to leave their mark inside my head where it didn’t show.
I always felt there must be some fundamental problem with me – some flaw that made me a target. Was I inherently unlikeable? Somehow absurd? Whatever it was, it seemed obvious to my young self that it was me, not them, that was the root of the problem.
I was generally safe with friends, but whenever I was alone they would walk behind me, singing about me, teasing me, pointing me out to everyone.
It’s odd. The worst song sounds harmless enough – it began “We love you Linda.” Yet I can’t tell you how profoundly I dreaded it, and how badly I wanted to just disappear into the ground whenever I saw them, or heard that song behind me. It echoed in my nightmares for years. Their incessant mockery, and the attention they drew to me, was unbearably distressing.
There was plenty more, of course. Most of it not as benign. No aspect of my appearance or behaviour went un-mocked. My hair, my clumsiness, my clothing, accent, food – everything I said and did. It was all, apparently, contemptible.
Sometimes I wonder – do those girls even remember it? Did it mean anything to them?
I have often pondered whether I could have made it stop. Certainly the advice “just ignore them”, which I followed as scrupulously as physically possible, was all but catastrophic. I vividly remember the way they took it as a challenge. How far could they push me before I snapped? Those rare times when I said something back were snatched up like trophies, and used for further torment.
Just writing about it now, the fear, humiliation and rage swirl around me again. Rage at them for their cruelty, but even stronger rage against myself for whatever it was about me that drew this torment down on me. These days I know that it was much more about them than it was about me. I know that intellectually, but the emotions still run deep. The sense of shame and failure is hard to shake off.
I think the worst part was the sense that it was inescapable and unavoidable – somehow my due lot in life. “Just ignore them” was the best I could do, and I did it with all my heart, magnifying my own torment with the belief that I was irretrievable and beyond help. Of course, back then it might not have helped going to the teachers with it. I wasn’t bruised or bleeding. But I wish I had tried. Who knows – it might even have helped the bullies.
Perhaps it was because I wasn’t good at blending in. I was always bored by mindless conformity. Maybe it was worse being at an all female school, but whatever the reasons, not conforming was a dreadful crime that never went unpunished.
That wasn’t all it was though. Other girls were different in more visible ways than I ever was, and they didn’t seem to attract the same level of torture (although it may be that I was too miserable to notice).
In the grip of adolescent angst and uncertainty, it seemed clear that I somehow deserved it. I was not able to get through school in harmless obscurity. I had to admit to not liking the colour pink, or give a different answer to questions in class. I was always getting myself noticed.
Oddly enough, it didn’t teach me to keep my head down. Perhaps at 185cm tall that was always going to be too much to ask. I still have a tendency to put myself in the line of fire – particularly if I think something is unjust.
It strikes me as strange, in hindsight, that no passer-by ever intervened. Of all the other girls who must have seen it (and there were over 350 in my year level alone), not one ever turned around and said “hey, stop it. That’s mean.” Perhaps they didn’t realise the extent of it. Perhaps they were glad it wasn’t them. Perhaps they, too, thought I deserved it.
These days, anti-bullying campaigns in schools focus heavily on passers-by. Or more accurately, on not passing by. On stepping in and calling attention to the bullying. They call it “Bystander Training”. Last year when my daughter was bullied a little in prep, her friends, some older kids, and even the grade sixes in her school rallied around her. There is a culture of looking out for each other in that school that is wonderful to see.
It is the intense sense of helplessness and unworthiness that makes it so hard for the victims of bullying to stand up for themselves. Imagine the profound effect it could have for a bystander to stand beside them and say “that’s not fair. Stop it.”
I believe the strongest impact we can have on the world is to stand up for what’s right. To speak out against injustice, stop to help those who need a hand, and to teach our children to do the same.