Reading Lou McCudden’s blog post Three faces of feminism: Louise Mensch, Laurie Penny, and Jodie Marsh I was moved to watch the Channel 5 program on bullying by Jodie Marsh. I cried.
Secondary school is nominally about learning “subjects” but a huge part of how we experience school depends on our friends, classmates, teachers and the school’s atmosphere. I can remember the lessons I really liked, the teachers who inspired me, but I can also remember the couple of teachers – supposed to be our mentors, hah bloody hah! – who were themselves bullies – the always enraged music teacher who stood me in a corner for something someone else had done then, when someone flicked paper spit pellets at me (remember those? the ceiling was always covered – biros made superb pea shooters) he grabbed me by the shoulders and shook me. His class was always silent but it was the silence of fear not of engaged learning; there were those of us who wanted to get it over with and those disruptive few who liked the challenge of baiting him.
At break time there was the horror of the girls’ loos. I didn’t see much female physical aggression but there’d be fourth year girls laughing over the loo partitions, ciggy butts chucked, name-calling. I was teased for my clothing, my hair, a birthmark, swottiness. Boys had it worse in physical terms. A friend of mine had his head shoved down the loo very much as described in Inventing Elliot.
As if growing up isn’t tough enough already, school forces kids into some Lord of the Flies-like microcosm of the world and abandons them to their fate. Caged teens establish pecking orders in strange almost prehistoric ways, a secret society. We have a school system that was designed for the factory heyday with its bells, whistles, uniforms, queues and deference to authority – no wonder employers complain they cannot find youngsters with the qualities they need of self-motivation, people skills and innovation.
Children, en masse, instinctively test their captors and each other. If anyone is found wanting, found weak, god help them. Something I must have absorbed from Quaker Sunday School histories was the importance of not showing fear – serenity in the face of terror; don’t run away from an attacking animal – or person. Keep calm. Bullying wasn’t talked about in those days but I suppose I had accidentally discovered that trite maxim that you can decide not to be a victim; learn to act. Like Elliot I reinvented myself – the quiet, swotty but impervious girl. I did it so well everyone fell for it and I was soon left in peace. I did it so bloody well that when they announced the fifth year heads I was Head Girl; first I knew of it was in the massed school assembly of over 1,000 sweaty kids – no prior warning. I regret to this day that I did not stand up and tell them where to stuff their badge* but the calm acceptance was – I tell myself – part of the persona (of cowardice, I can’t help thinking but I was only fifteen). I still have the badge and one day I shall ritually dispose of it. (Being HG was a nightmare because, suddenly, I was NOTICED – the thing I’d done so well to avoid for four years; but it was great on the CV for uni. I haven’t mentioned it since – until I decided it might get your attention in the blog title.)
Bullying can happen in ANY school and to ANYONE. It probably happens to almost everyone at some stage in the how-much-ragging-is-acceptable playground “banter”. But at posh schools or even good state schools there’s something to look forward to; some expectation of something better eventually; a job or university; some chance that staff might deal with problems; some awareness that it’s not for ever; a sign of weakness in the bully’s mentality. In run down schools in run down areas bullying can become attacks by the hopeless scapegoating whoever is available with no chance of escape, no way of dealing with it, no one caring.
The English education system needs an overhaul but going back decades wasting money on “free” schools (that are anything but) is not the way to drag it into the twenty-first Century.
*I am proud of my husband who, made a sixth-form prefect at his all boys grammar school, handed back his badge refusing to participate.