MY OWN STORY AND THAT OF MY FAMILY's
The following interview was published in the 6th July, 2011, issue of 'Take 5' magazine, but due to space limitations etc it did have to be edited heavily.
I will never forget the overwhelming feeling of forboding that overcame me when Mum and Dad escorted me into the boarding house at what was to be my home during the school term for the next five years. At the ripe old age of eleven I had already had one year at this school but in a different boarding house with different girls. When I began the second year I felt excitement and perhaps a little bit of apprehension - and this awful sense of forboding. The feeling was actually quite different to that felt at the beginning of the prior year. And for some reason the fact that I was leaving my home, my parents and the way of life I had known and loved for the last eleven years really hit this time, not the year before. My only memories of that very first year were of the boarding house - I do recall that there was a bit of unpleasantness but I think it was because the older girls might have resented my age more than anything. They felt that I was favoured by the boarding house staff - that could not have been further from the truth.
I do remember the boarding house mistress in that very first year scaring the wits out of me: 'I am very close friends with your teacher - we talk a lot about you.' It was said very nastily, fully intending to scare me. She had continued: 'You grades had better improve or you will be in huge trouble.' At this stage my grades weren't even really suffering - I was actually doing pretty well but again I was terrified.
However the real unpleasantness started the following year. I couldn't explain the feeling - I also kept it completely to myself. I knew I was going to be living with a lot of new girls my own age, all away from home for the first time. As I recall it I did enjoy being with those girls for the first few weeks but it didn't take long before they began ignoring me, excluding me from everything, whispering, giggling and pointing, talking behind my back and behind cupped hands. I was very confused and upset because I could not work out why this was happening. But it did not occur to me to say anything at that stage. I just kept on keeping on. Most of the bullying during that year was psychological but the following year it started to turn physical. I dod vividly recall being locked in a cupboard for what seemed like an eternity but was actually only an hour or so, I think. It was in a busy traffic area an my calls for help were completely ignored - by staff and students alike.
I distinctly remember recognising the voice of one of the teachers: 'What's that?' I sobbed in response that I was locked in that cupboard and to please let me out. Unbelievably they ignored me and continued walking and chatting as if nothing had happened - to this day I fail to understand that..... . When I was finally released I was again berated for: 'trying to attract attention to myself.'
My grades were pathetic by this stage, never to improve. I was failing at absolutely everything I tried, both scholastically and with sports, music etc. All my bad reports throughout the entire six years were completely blamed on me. I was so miserable. But this must have had some effect on the decision the boardin house staff made for the following year becuase when I returned from one of those beautiful holidays I found I had been removed from being with the girls of my own age and placed with those of the year below. This did help to make that year more bearable. While none of those girls became friends and I was still basically excluded and ignored at least the whispering, giggling, pointing etc had stopped - except those times when I couldn't avoid being with the girls my own age again.
But that breif reprieve only lasted a year and the following year I was placed back with those horrible girls again. The psychological bullying continued and I did call for help with both the boarding house staff and my parents. The staff was hardly reassuring: 'You need to learn harder to make friends and try to get along with the other girls'. My call to my parents was written in one of my weekly letters: 'I am absolutely miserable'. I was actually crying as I was writing and one tear dropped onto the paper. 'There, can you see that tear that just dropped? I am so unhappy here. Please take me out.' Of course they could not see the tear and this was ignored - I think because they felt I was exagerrating. This was also in the days prior to bullying being recognised and acknowledged. Anyway I didn't bother again. Looking back I was so miserable and could not see an end to it - if it hadn't been for the wonderful school holidays I am not sure that I would not have considered suicide. As it was, that didn't occur to me because it was not heard of then - at least I hadn't heard of it. But I was stuck with it 24/7. We only had three terms then and school boarding houses were not the homes-away-from-homes that they are today.
Another very distinct memory was physical. It occurred in the last year we were in that particular boarding house, prior to my final year at the school when we were moved to a new house altogether. I was back with the girls of my own age. I had been put into a two bedroom dormitory. Along with one other bedroom which housed three girls we were at the bottom of a very steep and quite long flight of steps (which have since been closed). Needless to say I was pushed down those steps and rolled all the way to land in a heap at the bottom. Miraculously I wasn't hurt at all - just shocked and slightly bruised. I did not see the person who pushed me and nothing was ever mentioned beyond the fact that several of those girls said I had tripped. I did want to say I had been pushed, that I had definitely felt it, but I also realised any complaints I made would have once again fallen on deaf ears.
One other incident which actually involved the boarding house staff was a health issue. This occurred during that brief year of reprieval when I was put in with the girls one year lower than me. At the beginning of this particular week I began suffering a nasty earache in my left ear. It was fine during the day but acted up at night and was extremely painful. I recall mentioning it to the staff and the school doctor was called. The diagnosis: 'Absolutely nothing wrong. All in her imagination'.
In those days to do prep (homework) we used to walk up in a group through the school grounds to the library where we would spend a couple of hours doing our homework, supervised by rostered staff. On the Tuesday night, the ache became unbearable and the staff member actually took pity on me (I was crying) and got three of the other girls to (very reluctantly) to accompany me back down through the school to the boarding house. They then returned to the library and I was told to continue my homework in the company of the two junior boarders at the time. I was given a couple of painkillers and they worked - that time. Again the doctor was called the next day - same diagnosis. That night, same thing happened. But this time the staff on duty was not so sympathetic. She did send me back to the boarding house - but alone. I do recall running - for dear life. In those days there was a lot of bushland between the buildings in the school and we used to have problems with prowers hiding. Anyway miraculously I reached the boarding house safe and sound, but it didn't worry me anyway - I was in excruitiating pain. Again I was put with the two younger boarders, but with the added threat: 'Stay here and finish your homework. If you go to bed, you will be expelled'. I was in such agony that I could not bear it - and went to bed. I just did not care. The staff member found me and continued the threat: 'Right. You have asked for it'. Again I didn't care - suddenly there was an almighty explosion in my head. And the pain stopped. I was stunned - and soooo happy - it was pure bliss. When the other girls returned from homework I flew into the bathroom, excitedly yelling: 'The pain has gone. It's stopped!' One of the girls then quietly told me to look in the mirror at the left side of my head. I did. It was absolutely soaked in blood. I honestly cannot remember what happened after that. All I knew was that the pain had gone and I had to clean up the mess. I also do remember that I never got an apology from any of the staff concerned, nor that doctor.
A final health incident did occur in the following year, I think it was. I had been very ill and that same doctor was called. He prescribed Penicillin. The school did the correct thing and rang my Mother to make sure I could have it. She wasn't thinking and told them to go ahead. To this day I don't know what was in her mind because there is a deathly allergy to Penicillin in Mum's family and this has been passed onto me. The doctor duly gave the staff the prescribed amount with directions to administer it immediately - now this reminds me of a scene from a movie - in slow motion what's more. Mum must have suddenly remembered or realised what she had done and rang to stop the school from giving it to me. They were literally about to plunge the needle in. It was touching the surface of my skin - I could feel it. Literally an eleventh hour saviour!! However, when the staff contacted the doctor to report this, he became furious with my Mother for not ringing him rather than the school. Had that happened, I could very well have been history. But the staff turned their anger on me for having such a stupid mother. Come onnnnn.........
Thus my memories of boarding school are anything but pleasant. Once I left school I knew I would eventually move away from Adelaide forever. So at the age of 24 I moved to Perth. Six months later I met and married my husband, Stuart. He has been told something of my experiences but not a lot. He has also been bullied.
Both my daughters were bullied in different schools in different states. They both attended many different schools through from pre-school to secondary. Like any mum I was sad to see them start school but also shared their excitement. The possibility of bullying never even occurred to me. However as it turned out both girls did suffer. My eldest, Robyn, 26, suffered at the hands of a teacher at one of her schools. She was lucky in that she actually found it very easy to make friends, unlike me. She is a smiler which is lovely but it seems that it proved to be a negative in some ways. This particular teacher took exception to her smile and Robyn was actually punished for it. It seemed that a couple of her friends had had a fight and according to the teacher, it was caused by Robyn's smile.
She had berated Robyn: 'Look what you have done. You have caused these two girls, who used to be best friends, to fight - because of your ridiculous smile'. Huh??? Now to my absolute shame I seem to recall her coming home and repeating this to me - and I didn't do anything about it. I should have gone up to that school and demanded to see the teacher or the principal or both. But I didn't. And I cannot help but wonder why. I am thinking it might have been because of my own feelings when we lived in that city. I was miserable. Not because of my own bullying experience, which was now pretty old news, but because we had just moved, my father had just died and my husband was away more than home and I felt very alone. I would suggest that I did put myself first on that occasion, which is so very, very wrong. I was also dealing with severe personal health issues but none of this is any excuse.
Anyway, naturally Robyn was very upset and did not understand - she was being blamed completely for the breakdown in that friendship between those two girls. It seemed that this teacher took a complete dislike to Robyn from then on - she would yell at Robyn for smiling in class. This was upsetting enough that Robyn began spending recess and lunch with girls from our street, rather than her former friends. Failing that she would spend time in the library. In short, she was miserable. We encouraged her to join the school netball team and the two warring girls were also in this team but it seemed their problems were overlooked in this scenario and they all managed to have a lot of fun. Robyn also enjoyed the time out of school when she would be able to spend time with the warring girls but the bullying continued by the same teacher untilt he end of the school year.
My youngest daugher, Fiona, 23, also experienced bullying at several stages of her school life. When she began with one of the many schools she attended she attempted to befriend a group of girls in her year. Unfortunately they appeared to decide amongst themselves that they didn't want this new girl with them so they found various ways of tricking her into thinking they were including her, only to run off without her, laughing all the way. At the same school a year or so later, Fiona found herself the target of two girls who didn't like her friendship with one of their friends. Fiona cannot remember a lot about this but one incident does remain clear. They tried to tie her to a pole with her jumper. The knots weren't tied tightly and she was able to escape.
Her recounting of this story was also full of fear: 'Two of the girls tied me to a pole but I was able to get away. But (knowing my reactions to any form of bullying these days, she was scared) it's OK though. Please don't do anything about it. Promise?' So I felt powerless - very very angry but completely powerless.
However her worst experiences occurred in a different school and this one we did finally act on. Fiona was the subject of name calling from one of her 'friends'. The climax of this experience occurred one day when she finally moved to a different group of girls.
'Mum I have been bullied by this girl and have moved to a different group of friends. I am a lot happier'. This was the first I had heard of it but again she asked that I didn't do anything. And again I felt absolute fury and so frustrated because I was powerless to do anything.
That evening we got a phone call from someone - Fiona is still not entirely sure who it was given that the caller had a disguised voice. Apparently the person said something along the lines of: 'Your new friends do not like you', along with a few other nasty things. This time I did react. We received another call and I answered (Fiona was now too scared to and I was too angry to let her answer the phone). 'We know who you are and we know how to reach you'. Which, in hindsight meant that I was no better than the caller, that I was also bullying. And to be honest I am not sure what I would have done had it continued. As it was we did contact the school, I kept Fiona away for a week and I understand that the bully was reprimanded. Ironically Fiona has remained reasonable friends with this person as both my daughters have done with quite a few of their school friends from most of their schools.
The one major thing that helped Fiona through this time and later years of resultant anxiety was her beloved rabbit who she had a very powerful bond with. Sadly he recently passed away but he was definitely a huge part of her coping.
MY FIGHT TO RAISE AWARENESS
Having lived through the above, being powerless to do much about any of it and constantly hearing of new cases of bullying I decided to write down my experiences. Others heard about this and having been victims themselves decided to follow suit. The one feeling most of us shared having done this was just how therapeutic it was. Given the enormity of this problem and not decreasing, the suggestion of compiling a book to give other victims the chance to share their own experiences with the possibility of having them published was put before me. Through word of mouth and a couple of small advertisements placed in an issue of 'The Woman's Day' magazine, I received around two hundred responses, thirty six of which were published. Some years later, 'Bullseye' was borne. It is completely anonymous and carries a special disclaimer to help protect the innocent. My own experience is not included - with the cover bearing both my name and photo, it is hardly anonymous for me. However, I have since had a 'tell-all' interview published in 'Take 5' magazine.
Since 'Bullseye' was published and my little fight was launched I have now gained four other equally passionate ladies in my team. While three of us are offering to speak with students around the country one is preparing for us to try to gain access to the anti=bullying policies that the schools nationwide have in hand. We want to see what these policies involve, their effectiveness (particularly given that in some many cases the bullies are almost rewarded while the victims are penalised....why??? There is something VERY wrong with the system), how often and effectively they are used by staff (from the angle of victims, friends and relatives of victims) and what can be done done to improve the situation. I will also be meeting with my local MP as needed.