Bullying


Fifteen years have passed since the day that changed my life. It seems like yesterday and it seems like a century ago. So much has happened since that day – good things, although there’s plenty more I hope for. And yet, I remember that day so well, and the months that followed.

To celebrate, I’m repeating my post from five years ago.

—o—

On 3rd March, 2002, I received an email. It began: “Hi, it’s Gill Balbes (as was) here. Was talking to Jane the other night and she was telling me about how she’d been in contact with you and that you remember me (as I do you) so I thought I’d say hello. Schooldays seem a long way off but it would be nice to hear how you’re doing.”

Schooldays certainly were a long way off. It was over thirty years since I’d walked out of the school gates, vowing never to have any connection with any of the girls I’d known over the previous seven years – a few even longer. It was only recently that I’d added my name to the Friends Reunited site, opening up the possibility of contact, although I didn’t expect anyone to write to me.

But Jane did write and I made a decision: that if I was going to correspond with anyone from school, I would make the relationship meaningful by being open about what happened to me there. If they didn’t want to discuss it, there wasn’t much point in reuniting.

Fortunately, Jane did agree to discuss it. She also apologised for what she did to me, although I didn’t hold her or any of the former pupils to blame as adults for their actions as children. I always knew the bullying (which I called teasing then) had had a bad effect on the rest of my life, but never thought the children were mature enough to understand what they were causing.

Jane soon put me in contact with Gill, who had more time to write. Gill and I corresponded almost daily for a long time, and she became a very special friend to me. It was Gill who told me about social anxiety. I didn’t realise the significance of it at first, but gradually two things became clear. I was not alone in being this way and it’s possible to improve. (I don’t think it makes sense to say there’s a cure, and I don’t think there needs to be one.)

Gill has been the catalyst for many changes in my life – for starting to write, for starting a blog, and much more. We have now met several times. After ten years, I still count Gill as a very special friend.

—o—

Actually, Gill and Jane are both very special friends. Do you have a friend story you want to share?

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Girls spreading rumours

It’s been a while since I’ve posted about bullying. Time to bring it up again, methinks.

This post from May, 2014 describes a study that shows the impact of bullying can last a lifetime.

To me, the results of the study are obvious. I would have been surprised if they had been different. But I’ve heard the opposite account:

I was bullied as a child. It made me stronger and better able to stand up for myself.

And I say (under my breath): well done. I’m happy for you. But don’t ever make me think I’m to blame because that wasn’t my experience.

Probably when people have said this, they didn’t intend to apportion blame to others. Probably it was simply the way I viewed it for a long time. Fortunately, I have learned to change that view. The way I coped with the bullying then was what caused it to influence my adult life. But I couldn’t possibly have known then what effects my coping method would cause.

I have read two excellent Crooked Cat novels that feature bullying: Myopia by Jeff Gardiner and Once Removed by KB Walker.

In the first, the victim is unlikely to have lasting effects, as the experience is short-lived and he is a popular child. In the second, I think effects could continue. It depends how her life spans out.

Are there any novels that continue past the childhood experience? I haven’t read any. But one of the novels I’ve been working on of late attempts to do just that. I hope it sees the light of day soon.

By the way, the post mentions three signs that show that something is wrong: children not wanting to go to school, failing grades, crying. While these are common, they’re not universal. None of them applied to me.

Letters from ElsewhereHave you ever written a letter you didn’t send? I have… once or twice. I didn’t know how the letter would come out when I started it. But when I finished and read it through, I knew it was too revealing. No, I’m not going to tell you the details, but I will let you read the letters (or notes) that Beth didn’t send or give to her mother. Three failed attempts to tell her mother what she couldn’t say. I think they speak for themselves, but there is an explanation below.

Three crumpled sheets, tear stained and blood spattered, escape from the bottom of a torn bin bag…

Kimm1

Kimm2

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Once Removed

Once Removed: CoverA silent cry for help…

Suspecting self-harm, newly qualified teacher, Abriella Garside, risks everything for a troubled pupil. An incident with a craft knife and unexplained injuries are not enough to secure help for the girl.

Unsure whether Beth is being bullied or has problems at home, Abby tries to win her trust and the two begin a friendship. But has the teacher gone too far?

In the midst of Abby’s own complicated life, Beth disappears. Rumour and suspicion ignite, fanned into an inferno with Abby at its heart.

Two lives hang in the balance.

Once Removed is available in digital and paperback formats from:

Once Removed: Banner

Click on the image to join in the challenge

The task this week is to write 105 words including:

…. it was 50 years ago…

For the first time, I think, I’ve decided to write non-fiction for this challenge.

The Last Day

The last day of primary school. I remember it vividly, even though it was 50 years ago. Teachers and children actually wrote nice things in my autograph book. I strolled round the playground with one of the girls. She said, “I’m sorry we were so nasty to you.” I said, “It’s easy to say that now,” to which she replied, “But I mean it.”

If only she’d said that earlier, and followed her words with a change in her attitude, and encouraged her friends to do the same. I believe I would have been a very different person today, even though 50 years have passed.

***

Only 15 days to the launch of my book.

I remember three books I’ve read about bullying in the past. In all three, the victims were boys.

In William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, Piggy is an obvious victim. He’s obese, he wears thick glasses and he says all the wrong things. He remains that way to the bitter end.

Marcus, in Nick Hornby’s About a Boy, is a bit strange. I loved this book but was disappointed in the end when Marcus stopped being strange with no transition from one state to the other.

In Nineteen Minutes, Jodi Picoult does a great job of portraying Peter, the boy who has taken as much as he can and gets his revenge by going on a shooting spree. (I’m not giving anything away because this happens right at the beginning.) When it comes to Josie, the plot becomes unbelievable, in my view, but that’s another topic.

Jeff Gardiner‘s Myopia, which I read recently, has a much more believable plot. It’s aimed at young adults, and so I had to get used to the style, but it works very well and definitely held my interest.

And yet I was disappointed when I finished it. Jerry, the victim, seemed too normal. The bullying eventually turned him into a hero. It all seemed too easy.

Then my vision cleared as I realised what my problem was. This story isn’t my story. It’s very different. But that doesn’t make it any less valid. In fact, it’s probably more typical than mine. And all stories about bullying serve a useful purpose in helping readers to understand what bullying does.

Well done, Jeff, for tackling this difficult topic in such a sensitive way.

***

Writing the above list made me realise that I’ve never read a book about a girl who is bullied. Have you? Can you recommend one?

I have another visitor, today. Jeff Gardiner has dropped in while on his blog tour. It’s just as well you didn’t arrive in Jerusalem yesterday, Jeff, or you might have found yourself drowning in a sea of black hats!

I’ve just started reading Jeff’s previous novel, Myopia. I was attracted to that one, of course, because the main character is a boy who is bullied.

Igboland cover5

Igboland is a very different sort of novel, as Jeff’s description shows.

Igboland is a novel of passion and conflict set in Nigeria during the late 1960s Biafran War. Lydia is a young English girl, recently married to Clem, a Methodist Missionary. Their first home together as a couple is in the West African bush, thousands of miles away from her beloved family. Lydia and Clem arrive in Nigeria just as civil war breaks out and the extract below is of their first sight of their new home. The novel is inspired by the diaries and photos of my own parents, who lived out in West Africa for six years. They travelled to Nigeria on a ship, The Apapa, and then travelled hundreds of miles on a train into the foreign bushland.

Box 1001 Apapa

Here is an extract from Chapter 2 of Igboland:

***

That evening the train came to a sudden, jerking halt.

‘Here we are, my love,’ Clem said with a nudge. ‘This must be Enugu. Look lively.’

‘Sorry,’ I mumbled. ‘I’m so tired. I don’t feel very well.’

With little sympathy, Clem pulled me up and tucked his arm into mine. We stopped by the door and I wondered why he didn’t open it straight away. Instead, he stepped back and I heard a harsh but muffled voice shout from below us.

‘Why’s there no platform?’ Clem asked aloud. ‘What’s going on?’

I looked out the window and noticed a soldier outside on a raised hillock, waving two hands above his head at us. In one hand he held a gun.

‘Stay behind me,’ Clem ordered.

The soldier was gesticulating for us to exit the train.

Clem opened the train door and stood in front of me with his hands up.

‘Come down from the train!’ the soldier beckoned furiously again; his face impenetrably dark under his peaked cap. I had no idea which side he was on – or even which side might show us the greater sympathy. Thus my ignorance enhanced my fear.

box 1066 Zonkwa station

The soldier came closer, placing his gun in his holster.

‘Quickly. The line ahead has been bombed. Enemy soldiers are patrolling and all ways into the city are blocked.’ His English was excellent; clearly the product of a good education. With there being no platform, the drop down to the floor was considerable. Clem jumped for it but tumbled over and turned his ankle. The soldier reached up and signalled for me to jump onto him. He easily caught me. I wrapped my arms round his neck and my legs round his waist, and then he lowered me gently to the ground.

Behind me, I became aware of the other passengers jumping down, the driver and stewards amongst them. They stood in large groups chattering excitedly amongst themselves.

‘You must turn back. Go back North. Perhaps we could drive you north to a safer place like Jos.’

Clem shook his head. ‘We’re going to Ngkaluku.’

‘This is not a good idea.’

But Clem insisted and nearly came to blows with the soldier.

He asked to see our passports.

‘Mr and Mrs Davie.’ He enunciated each sound very deliberately.

‘Reverend Davie,’ Clem replied pedantically.

When he saw he was getting nowhere with my stubborn husband, the soldier whistled behind him and a group of about a dozen similarly dressed soldiers appeared. They talked to each other in their own tongue. A few of them gave us dirty looks and began to argue amongst themselves. Eventually the first soldier, presumably their leader, returned accompanied by another.

‘Corporal Nwoko here will drive you to your destination and leave you there. Are you sure this is what you want?’

Clem stood firm and the soldier in charge shook his head. He obviously had a more important mission to complete and was keen to get us out of the way. Giving up on us as a lost cause, he went to talk sense into the other passengers.

Corporal Nwoko pulled the limping Clem towards a clump of trees away from the stationary train and I followed behind like a puppy. It occurred to me just then that he might be preparing to shoot us and a rising sense of panic struck me. The relief was palpable when I saw an open-top Jeep parked under a mahogany tree.

‘I will drive you now,’ said Corporal Nwoko, leaping into the driver’s seat and jerking his thumb behind him.

Clem got in the back with me and we sped off down a red dirt track pocked with potholes. The bumps only worsened my headache.

‘You come here at very bad time,’ our driver shouted over his shoulder, ominously.

For the rest of the car journey I phased in and out of the intermittent conversation. I remember very little about the last part of our long and tortuous trek. My only recollections are short flashes of being bumped around, with my head on Clem’s lap; having flushes of being freezing cold and then sweating profusely; the voices of the two men chatting between long silences as I drifted in and out in waves, feeling horribly claustrophobic. A new warmth embraced me as I allowed my entire being to be engulfed by the looming jaws of darkness.

box 1015 Iga village

‘Lydia? We’re here!’

‘What, home?’ I said, filled with happiness.

I was going to see Mum’s dimpled smile and her mischievous eyes; Dad’s strong arms would welcome me back and Oliver would proudly call me his ‘favourite sister’. I even saw Frisky bouncing up on his back paws, tongue out, tail wagging–—

‘Welcome to Ngkaluku.’

The dream crumbled.

My life crashed about me as my head swam in a panic. I wanted to scream and thrash about but my whole body felt drained of all energy. All my limbs were paralysed.

This wasn’t home. Home was thousands of miles away.

Clem helped me out. We stood alone in the West African bush.

Corporal Nwoko revved his engine noisily and turned his vehicle round. On the way past he slowed down and leaned over towards us.

‘We try to warn you,’ he sneered in a chilling tone, before accelerating away.

The sight awaiting us was horrific.

Ngkaluku had been recently bombed.

The devastation shocked us. Bodies and limbs lay piled up. Dead faces stared out with eyes burnt from their sockets. Many of the corpses had been smashed beyond recognition, or possessed gashes of bloodless open flesh exposing rotten innards. Swarms of flies flickered around the heaps. Dogs and other small scavengers made dashes past the children instructed to keep them off. Vultures hopped about sullenly only a short distance away. Grotesque as it was, the sight continued to entice me to look. After a while, I could no longer return the gaze of these death masks. Without a second thought, Clem went to help the locals in their search under debris for further bodies, which were then carried over to a hut now designated a makeshift medical centre. A local doctor had already assembled a team of helpers and was doing what he could with very few resources.

***

Wow – exciting stuff! Thank you for that excerpt, Jeff, and good luck with your new novel.

Igboland is available as a paperback or e-book (Kindle, Epub or PDF) from Amazon US, Amazon UK or Crooked Cat Books.

You can visit Jeff Gardiner at his website or his blog.

Igboland cover6

Yesterday I began to write my reasons why I no longer want to hide my past, and how I should answer a writing colleague who wonders why. He deserves an answer; as well as asking me to my face, he wrote the question on his critique of my personal essay: “Why can’t the writer just MOVE ON and forget about all these injustices which are way gone?”

Interestingly, the same man also wrote, “I learned a lot about this social anxiety problem,” and he told us he’d looked up the term.

In the excellent post I mentioned yesterday, Joe Warnimont also wrote:

It’s when we forget to listen to stories of misfortune, the same events happen over and over again.

In writing, we need to consider what readers can gain. The rest of my reasons for writing about my past are for the readers:

  • I want to help readers to understand me and the many others like me. I want to clear up the misconceptions: that we’re stuck up, don’t want to talk, etc.
  • I hope, like my writing colleague, readers will learn about social anxiety, which is much more common than most people think.
  • I hope readers will learn about bullying and what it can do to the one on the receiving end of it.

If my writing could also lead to help for those who are suffering now, that would be the best reason of all.

I didn’t gain anything through all the years I tried to forget what happened. As Angela Brown said in her comment on my post from yesterday:

Forgive, forget, move on. Easier said than done because, in more instances observed, moving on doesn’t come from forgetting, it comes from the growth learned and earned from experiences.

Remembering is much healthier, if done in the right way. I don’t write about the past to perpetuate some feeling of victimhood. I’m not stuck in the past. My essay ends on a positive note with my hopes for the future. Looking back has helped me to look forward to something better.

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