When I read Amanda Craig's article on the bullying she experienced at expensive-but-progressive boarding school Bedales in the 70s, it triggered memories in my mind I didn't want to remember. Over the last few days, I watched with alarming familiarity as current and old Bedalians defended their school, some turning into bullies themselves as they left obscene and threatening remarks on Ms. Craig's public Facebook site.
Bullying doesn't exist at Bedales, current students claim.
It's an exaggerated story - it wasn't like that at all, her contemporaries say.
Well, from my own experience, there's some truth to everything people have said - whether it be Amanda Craig, the current students or the old Bedalians who are defending their Alma Mater. For when it comes to bullying, the truth often lies in the eyes of the beholder.
I went to a somewhat idyllic primary school with small class sizes, where everyone just seemed to get along. Yes, we were all young, but that doesn't change the fact that bullying can happen at any given age. In my class, there were boys who were sporty, and boys who were more nerdy. There were girls who were tomboys, and girls who were girly. I belonged to the latter group, though was surprisingly invited to birthday parties of girls in the former group. There was teasing going on, but the kids seemed to know when they were overstepping the mark. I was happy there - to the point that I complained being at home whenever I was sick. These days, I know that my happiness was all due to the work of our class teacher. She had the ability to bring everyone together, to discipline us kids with words when we needed to, as well as being a source of solace in times when we needed support. You know a teacher was good when even decades later, you think of her with fondness. She was one of those.
But everyone has to move on, and by the time I reached high school by way of middle school, I already had mixed feelings about school itself. I went to a completely different middle school compared to my friends at primary school. Mostly, due to my parents' emphasis on practicality. Why send your child to a school miles away, when the nearest one will do?
If you're a parent, think again.
My parents didn't send me to the middle school my then best friend went to. That one could probably be described as academic-posh. Latin was the first foreign language they taught. Neither did they send me to the middle school most of my primary school friends went... one that even had it's own swimming pool. The middle school I ended up in was more akin to an inner city school, despite being in the middle of suburbia. It was a grey block, and its sight alone was enough to make you depressed. Bullying was ripe. Still, I knew I only had to go there for a couple of years before moving on to high school. That was what kept me going.
In a complete turn from their middle school choice, my parents sent me to a high school that was seen by some as catering for the elite of the area. It was OK at first, but due to my experience at middle school, I wasn't the most outgoing person. Neither was I all that interested in boys at that age. This made me unpopular and a likely candidate for being bullied. I made friends with a girl who I thought was bullied even more than me - to the point that I once stepped in to defend her. Again, probably not the best move to make, but one I thought was morally apt. The bullying mostly remained at an emotional level. You know, the kind of non-physical meanness you often see in teenage movies. But after three years of attending that school, I had enough. I told my parents I wanted to switch school, but they didn't understand.
Don't get me wrong. My parents were good parents in that they provided me with a lot, but they had a complete lack of knowledge of what was going on inside me, and how much I dreaded going to school by that time. My dad was way too confident to even know what bullying was like, and my mom was ever so popular in high school. It took a whole tantrum to make them change their mind, and even then, my dad wanted the opinion of the girl who had become my friend. The one I had previously defended from the bullies in class.
And guess what.
She didn't know of any bullying at all.
I was dumbfounded by her remark. I started to wonder whether I had imagined it all. Was it just teenage angst? The people I was closest to - my best friend and my parents - seemed to tell me so. After much pleading, my parents eventually let me switch school, and I ended up attending one with a progressive reputation. Some teachers were dedicated, but the kids obviously took advantage of the situation, and yes, there was still bullying there. But by that time, I had learned to be invisible. And when after GCSEs, most of the school bullies had dropped out, I rejoiced. I still feel a trace of triumph as I write this now.
Luckily, my parents allowed me to go on various school exchanges to Australia and the U.S. For all parents out there - nothing can teach your child more confidence than being in a foreign country on their own, and staying with a different family... particularly the U.S. When I came back to my school, I was more happy with myself. After having seen more of the world, I realized what a small portion of it my school truly was, and that really, my stay was only temporary. I stopped caring about the cliques, or what people thought of me 24/7. I became more of an observer, and with that came my salvation. Because if you take yourself out of the equation, you suddenly see the world with different eyes.
In short, it was like watching Discovery Channel.
Instead of being threatened by what went on around me, I found it rather entertaining to watch. Instead of being hurt by the bitchiness of others, I took it in my stride, inwardly rolling my eyes. I wish I had always been like that, but it took me years to get to that stage. In a way, my experience of feeling alone... feeling vulnerable... makes it easier for me to understand others in that situation. However, had I always been more tough, I probably wouldn't be able to comprehend how it feels like to be bullied. The girl at my school whom I (needlessly) defended probably didn't think much about the bullying. She simply brushed it off. She was made of much tougher stuff than me.
I understand how Amanda Craig must have felt at Bedales, but I also understand how others may have formed a completely different view of what happened. Their experience was different from Amanda's. They may not have been bullied by that gang who went after her. Or maybe, just like the girl I knew, they were more tough.
But it doesn't make Amanda Craig's experience any less true.