Confessions of a Head Girl

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.

This entry was posted in non-fiction and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Confessions of a Head Girl

  1. garylongden says:

    “Children, en masse, instinctively test their captors and each other. If anyone is found wanting, found weak, god help them.”

    This is true irrespective of social class or teachers calibre. I recall a fantastic, eccentric, history teacher whom we failed to get the best out of through habitual misbehaviour, and a music teacher whose life we made a misery – because we could.

    I also recall collaboration with, and acquiescence to, some pupil bullying by some teachers. Amongst pupils there was also a tolerance of bullying because if it was someone else – it wasn’t you.

    I too watched the Jodie Marsh programme. I found the scenes with the parents of the child suicide victim unwatchabley painful.It raised profound issues, but I was not convinced with the credibility of Marsh as the vehicle to explore them.

    As a coda, although the dynamics of bullying are as old as the hills, twitter, facebook,computers and smartphones provide bullying opportunities far in excess to that which today’s parents experienced when they/we were at school.

    • Myfanwy Fox says:

      Thanks, Gary.
      Yes, there’s so much more that could be added on bullying. Phone and cyber bullying are now huge issues. (I’m relieved that my children seem to have made it through school relatively unscathed so far. I tried very hard not to pass on any hint of my own memories of high school before they started.)
      I actually thought Marsh was excellent for the program as she’d attract kids who wouldn’t watch a “better” role model, perhaps. They wouldn’t notice the credibilty gap, probably.

  2. Ron says:

    I’d never have thought of you as a swotty girl. Impervious perhaps, but swotty….

    I was at the receiving end of the pecking order. So I left the rabble’s dungeon for a more solitary cage.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s