My first memory of bullying was at primary school. I must have been about ten years old and at the end of lunch break one day a girl came over and punched me really hard in the stomach. She knocked the wind out of me and I doubled over in shock and pain whilst I got my breath back.
I told the teachers what had happened, they called both sets of our parents and we all ended up in the headteacher’s office to talk about what had happened.
So what had happened?
She slipped, apparently.
After that she’d made comments every so often and call me names. I ignored it and the following year we went off to different secondary schools.
At secondary school I experienced bullying that was on a whole different scale to that first encounter. From the age of 11 when I started secondary school I was picked on, constantly and consistently. There was a group of boys, 4 or 5 of them, who would make sure they would always sit behind me in class. They’d call me names throughout the lessons and they’d kick the back of my chair, pulling it out from under me when I went to sit down. This group of boys tormented me day in and day out throughout the 5 years of secondary school.
At the same time there was a group of girls who were just as awful but they stuck to name calling and threats, they never touched me. That is until the last year of school when they cornered me in the girls locker room and poured bottles of water over my head during lunch break. Absolutely soaked for the rest of the day.
Both groups of school kids had friends in the higher years and I found that I would often get called names in the playground or get shoulder barged in the corridors by people I didn’t even know. I turned into a recluse at school, I had a couple of friends who were also bullied by people – all the social rejects stick together at school, you’re either a reject together or you’re completely alone. I would stick with this group of outcasts as much as possible but would still spend breaks hiding in the school corridors, reading a book and eating my packed lunch or hiding in the toilets. Anywhere to immerse myself in a world of fiction and get away from my actual awful school days.
There are a couple of times that stuck in my head as occasions when my bullying came to a head. The first was when I was 14 and in year 9 at school. I was on the bus with my best friend at school, both going home for the day. We were sitting on the top floor of the bus, next to the stairs and a lot of older kids from our school were at the back of the bus. At that point I didn’t know who they were – you never, ever, looked at the back of the bus and never, ever made eye contact with anyone. I became aware of them saying things about me, making the usual ginger comments, swearing and calling me names. The next thing I knew, the bus was stopping suddenly in the local town centre and everyone at the back of the bus got up and made their way down stairs in a blizzard of school uniform and backpacks. Whilst they swarmed past they all spat on me and my friend. Big ‘gobby’ spit, in my hair, on my blazer. Everywhere. I have never felt so humiliated as I did at that point. My friend got off the bus very soon afterwards and I made my way home, a couple more bus stops and then a 20 minute walk. When I got home I was really upset by the whole situation. My Mum opened the door as I walked up the path and said she’d had a call from my friend’s Mum. She wasn’t going to be friends with me anymore, her Mum didn’t want her getting dragged into the bullying too.
At that point I lost my best school friend.
I then went, with my parents, to speak to my head of year. My parents were adamant the bullying had to stop. My head of year listened to everything we all said and then he said something that has stayed with me for the last 15 years.
‘My wife is Sri-Lankan. She walks down the street and people call her names, shout at her. She’s used to it now, she expects it when she leaves the house, she knows that she’s different. Donna, you have red hair, you’re a redhead. You’re different to other children, you’re going to get picked on and you need to get used to that like other redheads. If I were you, I’d grow a thick skin, ignore it and get used to it.’
Things must have been different 15 years ago as this was how things were left. The kids involved got suspended for a week and I was then picked on even more when they came back to school. I didn’t tell anyone though, I was ginger, I was going to get picked on because of it, I was just going to accept it and get used to it.
Day in and day out I had kids calling me names. I had ginger hair, braces and glasses. I stopped wearing glasses and muddled through with not being able to read the board in class and not being able to see what number bus was coming when I was standing at the bus stop – anything to give them one less thing to pick on me for. The braces came off when I was 15 too but they still had my hair colour to use as ammunition.
Everything came to a head again in my last term of secondary school before my GCSE’s started. I remember doing a PE lesson where we played badminton. One group would be on the court and another group would wait at the side. One minute I was standing on court, with my badminton racket, waiting to return a serve when I was hit in the back and the back of my head with shuttlecocks. One after the other, full force. Smack, smack, smack. Dozens of them. I turned around, waving my arms around to stop the barrage of missiles and ran out of the sports hall – straight into our PE teacher. She told me to get back in the hall or she’d be giving me a detention. I tried to explain that whilst she was out of the room I’d been put under fire by the group of boys I mentioned earlier, but the PE teacher wouldn’t listen. I ended up with not only the physical bruises but an even bigger dent to my self esteem and a detention too. Amazing.
Later in that same week I was in my design tech class. I was helping another kid in a woodworking room when one of the boys started calling me names. I ignored it and he carried on. Then he started pushing me around. He obviously knew that this was one of his last chances to pick on me as school was finishing soon. He pushed me and I backed away instinctively and before I knew it I was backed into a corner and he had a metal woodworking file in his hand. He started smacking me with this file and I put my arms up to block the blows. The teacher walked in and he stopped. I went to speak to the teacher, my arms throbbing, but the teacher was busy and didn’t want to know.
A couple of days later it was the last day of term. We were free apart from our GCSE’s. I walked out of the school gates and immediately realised I was being followed. The group of boys were behind me and I just kept walking. I knew I couldn’t get the bus, I couldn’t stand still and let them catch up which they would if I waited for a bus. No-one at school would stick up for me, I was on my own, I had to get away. So I kept walking. I used to get a bus all the way home, about 30-40 minutes and then a 20 minute walk afterwards but instead I just walked. I walked as quickly as I could and the boys kept walking too. I got to the point where I’d usually be getting off the bus and the kids were still there. It was a completely different town, none of them lived there, they were following me and I was scared. I started to walk quicker. The boys were walking quicker too and I had to run. I ran quicker than I’ve ever ran before and the boys were right behind me. Somehow I made it to my front door, into my house, and sat behind the door getting my breath back. My Mum asked what had happened, what was wrong but I made something up about missing my bus and not wanting to miss Neighbours on the TV. I’d stopped telling them about my bullying literally years before – why would I mention anything now?!
That night I wrote a letter to my headteacher. told him everything that had happened over the 5 years at the school and I told him how let down I felt. I told him about the teachers that had turned a blind eye, the times when I’d had no support. I told him about my lack of self esteem, my lack of confidence, how I couldn’t bare to make eye contact with people or talk to anyone I didn’t know. I opened up about how upset I was, how at times my school days had made me feel almost suicidal, how I just didn’t see the point in getting up in the morning and how I would dread walking through the school gates each day. I explained how I’d got used to being picked on, I was ginger afterall, and that I hoped, despite my years of bullying, that I would walk away from school with decent GCSE results and that the bullying would ultimately make me a stronger person, that I would not let the bullying define me and that I would learn from every single thing that I had experienced throughout my school years.
The headteacher sent a message to see me during my 2 day art GCSE exam. I went to his office and sat in a chair opposite him. I maintained a tough exterior, I wasn’t upset by the bullying any more, I knew I wouldn’t cry. I was hardened to it all, I’d grown a thick skin and I knew I just had to get through my exams and I would never have to set foot in school again. My headteacher said something that I wasn’t expecting.
He apologised for the years of bullying I’d endured and he promised me that no other child in the school would suffer in silence like I did.
I’d like to believe that in the last 13 years since I left school that he kept that promise. I feel that, to the best of his knowledge, no other child did suffer. I know he would never turn a blind eye to bullying like the teachers under him had done. But there are always going to be teachers that want an easy life and don’t want the aggravation of dealing with detentions, suspensions or even expulsions.
My school years were hell and my parents split up the week before my GCSE exams started. But school taught me so much. It taught me how amazing the english language is, it gave me a love of reading and introduced me to books I would otherwise not have read – The Great Gatsby & To Kill a Mockingbird, school taught me how to use my imagination, to dream and believe in things. Ultimately school taught me to be the bigger person and that we are not purely a product of our past – our future is there for the taking.