My husband, Ken, and I spent last Christmas in Wales with our daughter and my best friend and her family. We loved every minute of our time with our “chosen family.”
Two days after Christmas Ken and I set off on our drive back to London. Ken was to head home and I was to stay on for another four weeks in the U.K with my daughter and some dear friends. We decided to take a few days and play tourist, stopping at Bath for a couple of nights, and at random villages throughout the Cotswolds. That’s when we discovered “the village of light and shadows.” Of course that is not the name of the village. It would not be fair of me to name it. Suffice to say the village was beautiful. It was a picture postcard English scene. I would discover the small shop/café/post office the next day, the only “industry” to grace this village since the closure of the silk mills in the 1800s. The recorded history of this gorgeous place goes back to at least AD 855, when the village was granted a monastery. The Doomsday Book records much of the early history.
We arrived at our hotel just as the sun was setting. A golden light warmed the yellow Cotswold stone. Terraced houses lined the steep and hilly streets like sentries on duty. Long shadows sheltered doorways. Detached cottages and farm houses occupied fields a stone’s throw away. The meadows heaved rich blue-green grass, and the water caressed the stones in the brook. The only sounds to break the silence were the babbled conversations of the brook, and the last evensong of the birds nesting back down in the trees.
Ken was careful not to knock his head against the low exposed black-stained wooden beams in the doorways of the string of 17th century cottages that together made up our hotel. Snuggled up on the sofa in front of the inglenook fireplace, waiting to be called for dinner. I fed the fire periodically, throwing on splintering dry aged logs, warming myself to the bones during this, the harshest winter in the UK in 30 years. Flipping through the stack of magazines on the antique mahogany coffee table, I stumbled upon the Parish Magazine. That’s when I began to contemplate bullying, a subject that would cause me to look deeply into my own life over the months to come.
The Magazine was filled with reports. Some told of the financial health of the village church, and the other small churches in surrounding hamlets that combined to form this parish. Other reports told of social activities. I read about the tree lighting ceremony just before Christmas. The Christmas tree was beautiful. I could see it from the window on the hallway in front of my bedroom door. It was unusual in that it sat atop the church spire and was dressed entirely in bright blue lights, lights that shone an eerie beam over the graveyard behind the church. I read about the Women’s Institute, the WI, an institution worn deep into British life, and made famous by the film, Calendar Girls, all over the world. It was heart-warming to see how many charitable activities the community engaged in. There were food drives for the hungry, collections for Cancer research, and the usual requests for used clothes and coats for winter warmth.
Admiring this tiny community I moved on to read the village school report. I don’t remember much about it, only the part about parental attendance at the annual parent-teacher evening. This is the opportunity for parents to meet with their children’s teachers to discuss the progress and needs of each individual child. It is an evening some children look forward to. An evening when paintings and projects are on display, and assignments with their letter grades are laid open on each child’s desk. This is a time when the truth is told, and some children dread their parents returning home with the inevitable chastisement, questioning and the occasional accusations of laziness.
Memories stirred in me of my childhood, and how I could never be quite good enough for my parents. I can still hear my mother’s voice: Belinda, why can’t you be like Sarah? Or any other number of children about whom my mother had overheard the teacher regale their achievements to adoring parents. I was a “daydreamer.” I was a creative child with a wild, seemingly untamable imagination. Creative children who did not conform to the workbook and rote style learning of the 1960’s did not win many gold stars to be pasted on the classroom achievement chart.
A statement in this annual report brought me to a pause in my reading. It read something like this: Parent-teacher evening was a great success last month. We had the best turn out ever. All but one set of parents attended.
My heart went out to the one set of parents. Shame? Guilt? What was the intention of this statement? Who knows why these parents didn’t attend? I could imagine the gossiping adults overheard by children as they read this and hazarded guesses at just who, exactly, the absentees were. I could imagine the playground conversations as some of the more precocious kids would inevitably relish in the fact, that it wasn’t their parents who dared to miss parent-teacher evening. I could imagine the anger felt by the child or children of the missing parents. The embarrassment. Surely there was another way to let the readership know just how successful the school event had been. How about “we were delighted at the best turnout ever for our annual parent-teacher evening.” How about leaving it at that? Was it really necessary to spell out the specifics of the turnout? I think not. I truly felt that to have thrown one set of parents into the spotlight of non-attendance was an act of bullying.
Childhood is a time during which bullying has its roots. Most schools these days, have anti-bullying policies. Educators are aware that at some point in a child’s development he/she desires to be in control of another child. Children jostle for position. It’s about hierarchy. Someone ranks higher than the child – a parent, teacher, or sibling. A child feels the need to assert him/herself, and being in control of another child, asserting ones will over another, is often the means to express this. Children experiment with power. We see it in the games they play. It is as clear as day in peer leadership, such as classroom/school, captain and prefect systems. Reading the statement in the school report made me feel that the people who should be guarding against the act of bullying were actively engaging in the practice. In my opinion, teachers and head teachers should be leading the way by example. I didn’t get the sense that the author of this school report had any interest in understanding why the family in question had not attended. Set against the background of a report that boasted the achievements of school, children and parents, this highlighting of one set of parents seemed cruel to me. I can only hope that this family were either unaware of this depiction of their actions, or knew how to deal with the fallout.
At some point in our lives, most of us are the victims of bullying, be it as children or as adults. We are also often the perpetrators. If we are honest with ourselves we can surely find instances when we were the bullies. No matter how significant or insignificant the act, we were there. I look back on my school days, and I will admit to have been to some degree at some time, a bully. In my situation it was in my role as a class leader. I feel sorry for the pain I might have caused.
Some children are able to articulate their experiences of bullying and seek help. Others are not.
I attended a reading by a famous author a few years ago. The book he read from was about his childhood growing up on an Indian Reservation. He talked about his experiences being bullied. When it came to question time from the audience, a twelve-year-old boy with Asperger’s Syndrome stood up. He told the audience about his experience with Asperger’s Syndrome, and about how he was being bullied at school. He asked the author for advice on how to handle being bullied. You can probably imagine there wasn’t a dry eye in the place. The author left the podium and went to the boy. He turned his back on the audience as if trying to find a private space, and sat down on some steps with the child. His advice to the boy in summary, was to find a friend, or make a friend of an adult he trusted. The author suggested making friends with a teacher, telling the teacher he needed a friend, and he encouraged the little boy to tell the teacher about the bullying. He suggested he ask the teacher for advice on how to cope with his situation. It was sensible advice delivered in a caring and sensitive way. Looking back on it, I wish that the teachers in the village school last Christmas could have heard this little boy talk about bullying. I wished the author of the magazine article understood the subtleties of bullying and his/her participation in the act.
It is not only in childhood that we can experience bullying. Some of you reading this will identify with your own adult experiences of being bullied. Bullying takes so many forms. We see it in situations of many kinds of discrimination. We experience it at work, and many people experience bullying at home, in their private lives, in the most intimate of relationships.
If you are being bullied, consider carefully what you can do about it. The advice from the author I mentioned earlier can be applied to your situation. You might substitute friend, trusted family member, or therapist, if you are lucky enough to have one, instead of teacher. Find someone and talk about it. Strategize on how to manage your bully.
I can add a little advice to that of our famous author.
I have a bully. When I say “have” I mean that she exists, and attempts to assert her cruelty on me. However, while my bully exists she cannot touch me anymore. I have developed strategies to eliminate the pain she tries to inflict on me.
In my case my bully is a family member. Those of you who have been reading excerpts from the book I’m writing about my relationship with my mother, will have come across my bully already. For those of you who have not, I can tell you that this woman has worked systematically to wreck my relationship with my mother. She has succeeded. My mother, as many of you know, had a serious stroke in 2011. I looked after her in Ireland for six months. During that time I did not see my daughter, and I only saw my husband for six days.
Strategy number one – use humor as a way to reduce your bully’s power. With that in mind, I chose to substitute a new name for the real name of my bully. I call her “Root,” as in root of all evil.
Strategy number two – examine your bully. Look at her life as closely as you can. Ask yourself where her need to bully comes from. Once you understand that, you can begin to get a sense of perspective on her, and how to manage her. For example, my bully had an insecure childhood. She came from a very large family where she jostled for place. In her mind she probably had to compete for her mother’s love, and knowing as much as I do about her childhood, this was probably true. Going beyond her childhood, I can tell you that Root married young. Her first husband was abusive both mentally and physically. I remember my mother attempting to rescue Root on a number of occasions. It is not always the case but childhood and adult abusive relationships can lead the abused into becoming an abuser, subtle or otherwise. So now, knowing even this much, while not excusing Root’s behavior, I can feel pity for her.
Strategy number three – once you have looked as deeply into your bully’s life as you can, ask yourself what she has to gain from bullying you? I can tell you that typically, and certainly in Root’s case, a bully derives her sense of self-worth from putting people down. A bully needs to make her victim appear bad in order to make herself seem valuable in the eyes of others. Root has made a career over the last few years out of blackening my name to my mother and other family members. Root has systematically taken everything good I did for my mother and lied her way into making all of my loving actions seem bad. Root is clever in this way.
Look for the areas in which your bully seems clever, and look for her weaknesses. Root is not that well-educated. Her understanding of people is extremely limited. She has had problems at work as well as with the family. She is to be pitied. She clearly has a warped sense of her own self-worth. You might find that your bully has both intrinsic and extrinsic things to gain from bullying you. These could be emotional gains, and even monetary gains. Do your homework - forewarned is forearmed.
Strategy number four – reduce your bully in size. Seeing your bully as a pitiful individual will help this. Consider your bully’s physical attributes as you shrink her. I have reduced Root gradually from being mentally monstrous in size, down to this withered little splintered stick creature, bent over and hobbling. She has an accent and voice that my mother once said could grate granite. This mental image allows me to pick up Root and chuck her into a dark desk drawer, or even on the fire whenever she rears her ugly head. This mental picture allows me to feel sorry for root, something I know she’d hate.
Strategy number five – last but not least talk to the people you trust about your bully. Ask for their support. They might be able to help you with practical ways to deal with your bully. They might be able to intervene with your bully and get her to see the error of her ways. I have tremendous support in dealing with my bully. We can’t make her go away, but other people who know her well, trust me and reassure me. They know her and her potential for bullying and deception.
In my case, the result of Root’s bullying has a greater impact on my mother than on me. Root has silently bullied my mother, depriving her through her deception, of me, her only daughter, of my love and company in my mother’s sick old age.
If the potential exists for your bully to extract financial gain, or to hurt someone other than you, put measures into place to protect third parties as much as possible. Although my bully has caused permanent damage in my life, your bully doesn’t have to be allowed to cause permanent damage in yours. Seek help.
I have come to terms with the fact that my bully has made it so that I will never see my mother again alive. I can tell you that my bully has done her worst, and will never be able to inflict pain on me again.
My situation is extreme in some ways. The situation at the village school seems to be naïve and in the early stages of bullying. Catch it early. I would have loved to have been able to point out my observations to the author of the annual report, but I couldn’t.
In fairness, I must tell you that in reading further, and researching this school and the staff, the school appears to be an excellent school, with good teachers. The children appear happy and enthusiastic about learning. So please, village school, be careful, and Practice what you preach. Defend and protect those vulnerable children and families. Be a source of good, not bad.