Roz Kaveney (rozk) wrote,
Roz Kaveney

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It's anti-bullying week

I meant to do this earlier in the week, but being bullied at school is part of my life and something I survived.

Two floors down, the sun glinted a thousand times off the concrete. My ankles felt as if they were tearing away from me as hands clutched at them, bruising them through my socks. Blood ripened in my temples as if they were about to burst; someone had snatched the glasses off my head as they pushed me through the window, so at least I did not have that to worry about, but spare change pushed out of my pockets and fell past my face.

At that moment, I really did not know whether this was going to be just another incident or whether it was going to be the time that things went too far; the fact that my classmates had pushed me out of a window and were letting me dangle by my ankles seemed pretty much a definition of too far, but not as much as it would if they decided to let me go.

Each day, for those first two terms in Leeds, they added something new to their repertoire. It was as if they got together when I was racing down the street ahead of them at the end of school and decided on something new to do next day, as if they had formal meetings with propositions and votes.

Whenever they came for me during break or lunch break, they seemed to know exactly what they were going to do next.

Lunch break was safer - quite often we ended the last lesson of the morning somewhere apart from our form-room and there was no way that they could drag me back there after mass, say, or after a lesson in the science labs. If I made a point of going straight to lunch, and then going straight to the library and staying there until the last possible moment before the first lesson of the afternoon, the only way they could find me was to wait until I had to go to the toilets, and even that was not reliable, simply because the sixth form kept an eye on the toilets in case people were going there to smoke, or, presumably, to have sex, although as far as I know, there was nothing like that going on at St. Michaels, either openly or secretly.

It was never clear to me whether anyone outside the twenty or so boys in my class knew what was being done to me by about half the class every single day. It almost never happened outside the classroom - the time they hung me off the edge of the playground was something of an exception and did get broken up by sixthformers eventually - and they took care never to leave so many marks that it was obvious.

I assumed - and I was probably right - that several of the teachers had a fairly good idea; the fact that my class so rarely left the building during morning break, preferring to stay in and torture me must have been at least something of an indicator. Jim Grady, for example, the classics teacher - he was astute enough that three years later he got appointed to the headmastership of St.Thomas Aquinas, the other Catholic boy's school in Leeds. Father Edwards - under the veneer of genteel camp and the occasional nervous giggle, he had a steely intelligence and will that made him pretty much the Jesuit of melodramatic cliche. They must have known.

They probably thought it would be good for me.

Certainly, when I mentioned it at home, I just got told that I ought to stand up for myself, as if it were possible for one skinny kid to stand up against the determined bullying of ten or twelve boys a year older and a lot tougher who wanted to hurt him for the sake of it.

I suppose that Father and Mother assumed that I was being hit occasionally, or given chinese burns, or made to fight individual boys - that bullying was taking any form they would recognize from their own schooldays, rather than endless remorseless mobbing. It was difficult enough to talk to them about it - it is not just children who think you should never talk to adults about bullying, it is adults who still stick to the ideas about it that they got when they were children.

The members of class 5A would form rugby scrums and a couple would force me to the floor and the scrum would trample its way over me and then use me as the ball, competing to see which side could kick me out on their side. They would pin me against the wall by holding chair legs against my wrists and ankles to see if it were true that people crucified died of suffocation with arched chests. Once or twice they made a noose from a school scarf, tied it to the central light fitting and made me stand with the noose around my neck while they constantly feinted at taking the chair away. And they would hold me against the wall while people pummled me at random or twisted my limbs until I thought that they would break me.

Every so often, a couple of the larger boys held me down while someone made up my face with coloured chalk - a foundation of white chalk, with dutch doll dots of red on my cheekbones and a smear of blue or green over the arches of my eyes.

It was this last that makes me assume that this was all in some weird way meant to be sexual, that and the way that they constantly told me that I was a pouf, a worthless Southern queer and the extent to which so many of them forced me into an odd physical intimacy just by torturing me. Even now, I am conscious of how it felt to be held and twisted and bruised,. of the tension of the muscles in their arms and chests through shirts and blazers as they held me tight against them to hurt me.

I hated the humiliation and the pain; I also resent the way that for years I associated physical contact of a close kind with that humiliation and that pain and that intrusion on my sense of myself. Let me make it quite clear - none of this was any fun.

Whenever I read about cultures in which it is legitimate for the masculine male to alternate sexual advances and physical abuse of the younger and the weaker and the more effeminate, I have a pronounced sense of what that means. For those two terms, before my voice broke and before my accent flattened, I lived in one of those societies and was treated like a pariah by people who were using violence as an excuse to touch me.

I don't know what any of them think they were doing - the one or two I occasionally see I have never felt able to ask. Afterwards, I let it go and I got on with several of them, but I cherished the rancour like a delicately festering wound whose rot was sweet in my nostrils.

The other reason it stopped was that, quite suddenly and dangerously, I snapped and I did stand up for myself in the one way it was possible to, by changing the rules of the game I had been forced into.

One day, I got past them and into the corridor at the start of morning break and several of my regular torturers chased me around the school, not caring if anyone saw them dragging me back to my fate - by that time, the whole thing had become such a feature of their lives that I think they thought they were simply entitled to have it continue forever.

Instead of carrying on running into the playground, where I had no allies and no friends, just a larger audience for what was being done to me, I dodged into the sixth-form common room and grabbed a snooker cue from the rack beside the door. Sixthformers chased after me, then stood and watched as I chased my tormentors back the way we had come, swinging the cue at the end of my long right arm. I knocked one of them, an unappealing whiny boy whose name cannot really have been Eb short for Ebenezer can it? over by pushing the cue straight at his chest and watching him fall as he backed away from it, and ran more or less directly over him as he lay on the ground.

Presumably, if I had actually hit anyone especially hard, I would have done serious damage. I have always regarded it as strong evidence that everyone had known what was going on that I was never punished or even admonished for what was a more or less murderous assault on my classmates.

I hate that this happened, I hate that I was forced to become a crazy person for a few minutes in order to stop its happening - I hate the idea that someone thought all of this pain and humiliation was to be connived at because it would be good for me.

The education I got at St. Michaels was in other respects mostly rather good - several of the teachers were key influences on me - but I will never forgive the place for the unthinking bigotry that made people believe it was not only all right, but right, to do those things to me.

Bullying is not cool; it needs to be stopped.

Pass it on.
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