I didn’t know then what I know now

There is a song that makes me choke back the tears every time it plays on the radio. I love the song and am tempted to buy a copy, but I’m not sure that I actually want to listen to it very often. Called “Caught in the Crowd”, by Kate Miller-Heidke, it’s about bullying. Not about being bullied, or doing the bullying, but about standing by and letting it happen. Most of the song talks about a friendship developing between the singer and another student.

Well he was quite a big guy, kinda shy and quiet
When the kids called him weird he didn’t try and deny it

The singer gently develops the friendship, and it’s not until the last verse that you find out the reason for the song:

Three guys I knew pushed him into the cement
Threw away his bag and said he had no friends
He yelled that he did and he looked around
Tried getting up but they pushed him on down
That’s when he saw me, called out my name
And I turned my back, and just walked away.

Yeah I turned my back, and just walked away.”

I was bullied at school. Nothing physical – there was rarely so much as a hand laid on me – but nonetheless vicious and with lasting impact. The overwhelming emotions associated with those times were shame  (what was wrong with me?) and incredible loneliness. I felt completely isolated by the fact that no-one stood up for me, and no-one took it seriously. At worst the teachers assumed I had brought it on myself. At best they said it was “kids stuff” and I should just ignore it. It was pretty brutal on a teenage psyche.

And yet, there’s a bright side. As a result of that, I have a fierce anti-bullying obsession. I think I am physically incapable of seeing someone being bullied without trying to rescue them, and it’s been very interesting learning the most effective ways to defuse bullies. There is a reason that effective anti-bullying programmes in schools enlist all the students, by teaching them what bullying is, and building a culture that doesn’t tolerate it. The secret lies not in direct confrontation with the bullies themselves – that can be dangerous and can make the situation dramatically worse. Instead, the secret lies in supporting the victims.

Bullying works by singling out a vulnerable target, isolating them and making them miserable. At its worst, it cuts the targets off from any means of support, sometimes with threats:”If you tell anyone about this, I’ll kill you.” And sometimes more subtly. This makes it impossible for people to defend themselves effectively, and access the support they need to rebuild their self esteem to the point where they can overcome the bullying.

Which means, of course, that the best way to stop a bully is to support his or her victim. When a mean comment cuts them down, make a nice one and build them back up. When they think they are alone and friendless, make it clear that you care and will support them.

As the haunting chorus shows, this can be hard to do when you’re young.

I was young and caught in the crowd
I didn’t know then what I know now
I was dumb and I was proud
And I’m sorry
If I could go back do it again
I’d be someone you could call friend
Please please believe that I’m sorry.”

Anti-bullying programmes in schools have come a long way. I am closely involved with two schools where, although bullying arises from time to time, it never lasts, because the school culture simply doesn’t give it house room. Sadly, many schools have yet to get the message. But it’s not just schools where bullying is an issue.

There are many levels of bullying – from aggressive shoppers shouting at sales assistants, to drivers running cyclists off the road. From kids acting out their aggression on the playground, to everyday bullies who cut people dead with a snide remark.

We all see minor acts of bullying from time to time. Sometimes we witness major ones. It’s tempting to pass by on the other side of the street and avoid the issue. No-one wants to draw a bully’s attention to themselves. But that’s the beauty of using support as an anti-bullying weapon. Because if you’re supporting someone else, you are a team. And bullies hate teams.

7 thoughts on “I didn’t know then what I know now

  1. Joe

    Thanks for this article. You’ve hit one of my few personal passion topics. (Drugs -> youth was another.)

    I think it’s brave even to make the plain statement “I was bullied”. (Congratulations!) I can totally empathise … I too was bullied. Things like name-calling, ostracisation, physical attacks, a bicycle destroyed (and routinely other property), and spending a year being completely arbitrarily blamed for the arrest of a student who did tens of thousands of dollars damage to the school one weekend. In one example (year 12!) I had a chair thrown at me in the year common room with about 20 students in the room. And, as you say, the worst of it is … nobody ever objected.

    As a 30-something when my older sister said she got bullied and I said “me too” she spoke of some of her experiences, which seemed pretty tame to me. I said something like … “oh … that sounds uncomfortable but pretty mild. Let me tell you what I meant…”

    By the end of my explanation she was totally stunned and bewildered for many seconds, and eventually said, “You must have felt betrayed by everyone who was supposed to care for your welfare.”


    My daughter has been doing quite well at her daycare, socially. Yet she does often play alone almost all day. Her language development is *exceptional*, she is inclined to insist on her rules and, may I say, be “an insufferable know-it-all”. In our children, we see much of ourselves :-P

    I’ll be watching her interactions closely as she enters school next year, but I am indeed very glad to see a “no tolerance for bullying” policy at the school with student cultural education and engagement, encouragement to students to get involved and speak up, a buddy arrangement, and supportive intervention for both victims and bullies. Things have indeed come a long way.

    1. lindamciver

      Wow, Joe. That’s pretty extreme.

      My daughter sounds a lot like yours, and I found her starting school opened some pretty raw wounds for me. Stirred up a lot.

      It sounds as though you have chosen a pretty good school – I have been amazed to find that these anti-bullying programs are not the norm. A lot of the kids who have moved on to high school from our school have had a rough time with bullying – and these are in schools with wonderful reputations, that people go to great lengths to get their kids into. Our oldest is only in grade 2, so we have time to choose a high school, but it’s obviously not going to be easy.

      I hope that as time goes on silently watching and being grateful it’s not *us* will become less common, and that supportive intervention will become the norm in schools. And I think it will happen all the faster if we can model it more often as adults in society. Bullying is everywhere.

      1. Joe

        Happily our local high school is a few hundred metres down the road from the primary school and also has a good reputation. There’s a high transition rate from the primary to the high school so the culture should graduate with the kids moving into the high school.

        We are in NSW. I have the impression a lot of primary schools have the policies, but whether they actually put them into good practice is another matter.

  2. Jane

    I was too bullied when I was in primary school. Back then, we don’t have anyone to turn to and I dare not even tell my parents. It hurts and still does till today. I can still remember who called me names, who singled me out and which teacher made nasty comments to me. It affected my self esteem and self confidence when Igrew older. It is just like leaving a scar in my childhood.

    I will be watching my kids in school too, ensuring that they won’t go through what I did. Your article is very interesting, Linda.

    1. lindamciver

      Jane, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head – watching our kids and making sure it doesn’t happen to them is one of the best things we can do, knowing what we know. But I think watching *everyone* – being more aware of the people around us and intervening more often, is crucial as well. Schools with zero-tolerance for bullying are great, but what about social groups? Workplaces? passers by? Now *that* would be cool. :)

  3. Julia

    Thanks for this article. Just today I discussed some preschool situations with my son, who has seen a couple of children hurting others in the class on many occasions. I’ll probably change my advice to him.

  4. Once our whole society exhibits zero tolerance to bullying, I will rejoice! Meanwhile, we keep educating people and have discussions like this and with our kids. And we stand up for each other, all the time.

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