I was bullied at school. A lot. I’m a connoisseur of bullying, I’ve been bullied by girls and boys, by peers and teachers, by lone individuals and whole groups, by kids who saw me every day and kids who’d never met me before, by the wealthy privileged kids with power, and by the alienated loners who were victims themselves.
The very word bullying bothers me a great deal, because it is so innocuous. It has no impact. What would be assault or abuse in another context becomes bullying if it happens on school grounds.
People like the big stories. The time this or that happened. They are the stories we tell when we talk about bullying. There’s a hierarchy of horror – sexual, physical, emotional. I have those stories. But they’re not what did the damage. Kids are resilient, surprisingly so. They get through big impact crap if they’ve got support. The boring story of my bullying, the ugliest and most damaging side of it was simply the alienation. The sheer, relentless loneliness. The daily rejection by my peers. It wasn’t the presence of the abuse that left such scars, as much as the absence of friends and care. It was being forced to spend days in a place where I had no value that eroded my spirit. I hated myself, I hated my situation, I hated the bullies, I hated the bystanders. Everything hurt and there was no escape. I spent hours sitting by the fence with my fingers laced through the wire, knowing that more than a fence stood between me and freedom. A whole society that believes in schooling the way we do, a whole culture that calls what was being done to me ‘bullying’, a whole school that fervently believed that it did not have any bullying there, a world in which hurting the principal was wrong but hurting me was fair game, stood between me and escape.
I suffered, and my whole world denied the reality of that suffering. While adults lectured us about the evils of drugs and sex, I was dying of loneliness.
It stays with you. The impact lingers long. It takes courage and faith to believe they were wrong.
It also, perhaps, takes a modicum of common sense and cynicism to realise that sometimes the most interesting, brilliant, and unusual, the ones we fear or don’t understand, or envy, are the ones we torture.
More thoughts on bullying and empathy.