The B Word

There seems to be a love affair with the B word in New Zealand education: bullying.

There’s no denying that bullying occurs. That would be like denying breathing keeps us alive. But the use of the word disturbs me in the fact that, from what I have encountered in my professional life, the B word is thrown around a bit too freely and a bit too quickly at things that are not usually bullying.

In some cases, a student claims she is being bullied, when, in fact, it’s just not getting along with someone. Once, a student said she was being bullied because a fellow student, “looked at me funny.” Another thought the teachers were bullying her because they kept asking her where her homework was and why it wasn’t being turned in. In another case, two students were sniping at one another about petty little things.

To be honest, this isn’t bullying. It’s a myriad of different things — a misinterpretation of someone’s look or a single look of whatever it was, the teachers doing their job and the student refusing to comply with her obligations, sheer bitchiness at one another — but it isn’t bullying.

We do cover the information in orientation — if you think you’re being bullied, please follow the Complaints Procedure, which means put it in writing with as much detail as possible — but we find, more often than not, that gets filed in the “too difficult” basket, or, as stated before, it probably isn’t really bullying but two people not getting along for whatever reason. This year at orientation, I made a big song and dance about bullying and reporting it. I even threw in that I had been a victim of bullying as a child (and yes, I was) which was uncomfortable for me but I wanted to put that out there so if a student was truly being bullied and needed someone sympathetic to talk to, she could know I had been through it and I could help.

A wee side-step here: Part of the depersonalization has been dealing with this feeling of suspension of reality in parts of my life. Like I wrote in my blog about the seventh anniversary of the 22 February 2011 quake, some memories and events feel like they belong to someone else and I’m merely hosting them inside my head. It is the strangest feeling.

Another side-step: The article in the New Zealand Herald the other day, “I thought my bully deserved an awful life. But then he had one.”, along with my conversation the other day (as below), spurred me to write this. Anyone who knows me knows I would never wish ill on anyone, really, so I wouldn’t wish an awful life on anyone (although I do believe you reap what you sow).

So when I say things like, “I’ve been bullied and I know what it feels like,” sometimes I perceive others thinking that I’m somehow not telling the truth or blowing my experiences out of proportion and then I start doubting myself.

The other day, one of my bosses Don and my colleague Catherine and I were on the subject of bullying. We hauled out the “She looked at me funny” line, but then I did get a bit personal and shared some of my own experiences.

I divulged that, when I was in first through third grades, I was bullied quite a bit for being gay. Whether that was deliberate exclusion from events, being called a “fag” or “faggot”, being shoved or pushed, it all was bullying. If I cried, that only made the taunts worse. By third grade, I spent recess alone more often than not. Later in the school year, I came home one day and wouldn’t stop crying. I don’t know what set me off, but I do remember the feeling of being very deeply unhappy. My parents tried to calm me down and speak to me about it, and I remember when I told them what was going on, my mother’s jaw tightening as her lips pursed.

They asked me if I would feel better going to Saint Paul Lutheran, where my brother was at school, and I knew a few kids there from pre-school and also Sunday school, so I agreed to give it a go.

Other than a few kids who picked on me at Saint Paul (none of who were in my class, if my memory serves correctly), it was a much better experience. I remain friends with many of my Saint Paul classmates to this day.

The look on Catherine’s face was one of shock, especially when I told her how often I was called a “fag” or “faggot”. To be honest, it has been one of the only times, outside of counselling, I have told anyone about what happened to me when I was at Lions Park in first through third grades.

The story continues, but I didn’t let Catherine know this. Actually, many people don’t know this.

My freshman year in high school I was back in the public school system at Prospect High School. Some of those grade school bullies were my classmates, but I tried to reintegrate myself with them as many of them lived in the same area and would be on my bus route and in my classes.

During gym class, I had brought my yearbook with me to have a few of my classmates in that class to sign. At one point, we had to participate in something, so I left my yearbook in an area with other classmates’ things, thinking it would be safe.

When we were excused from class to go change in the locker room before we ventured off to next period, we gathered our things from the bleachers. My yearbook had moved, which I thought was strange. For some reason, I went through it, and on my Freshman photo, me with a beaming smile, someone had scratched the word “FAG” on the photo’s edge.

To say I was devastated would be an understatement.

I tried very hard not to cry, but the entire day, I felt extremely anxious and very upset.

It would never end, would it? That was my thinking. No matter where I went or who I tried to be, the bullying wouldn’t end.

It did end, in a way. There were several more incidents in high school, but, for the most part, I decided to steer clear of those who were giving me problems. Overall, I think most of my classmates liked me because I was (and am) a kind person. I made excellent friends with whom I still am friends today. They became like family for me, and when I came out (which actually takes away the power from the bullies using the “fag” word), most (if not all) accepted me because they loved me and cared about me for me, not whom I am attracted to.

I’m not going to lie and say there still aren’t bullies out there. Some of the Government agencies I work with are very good at using bullying tactics with providers like ours, and I find that very discouraging and demoralizing, especially in light of the fact that they are educational agencies who state they want to end bullying, yet bully themselves. To lead change you must have the culture you are trying to foster, encourage, and promote.

I don’t claim to have the monopoly on being bullied. There are many other people who have been legitimately bullied, some very much worse than I was, and I understand and acknowledge that. It’s not a competition to see who gets bullied the worst. It is an opportunity to bring our experiences out into the open and push for understanding and change.

I admit that I am weary of the overuse of the B word in circumstances where bullying isn’t taking place. That “removed” part of me I discussed before, alongside the inner critic, wonder if I’m being over-dramatic or subconsciously trying to make my experiences somehow superior or more dramatic than those other circumstances. I don’t think I am.

The B word bothered me because I was a victim of bullying. I accept now that I went through that. There were effects that I am still working through to help me come to terms with that.

And maybe part of my mission in life is to help stop it happening whenever and wherever I can.