I started to feel anxious. I found it harder and harder to sleep and I lost my appetite.
THE THINGS WE DON’T USUALLY TALK ABOUT
Bill Masters* witnessed years of cruelty as a teacher, only to become a victim himself.
Iwas a high school teacher for more than 25 years. I taught in four schools and saw the best and worst that people could dish out to one another.
I witnessed enormous struggle, unexpected euphoric success, disappointment, despair, viciousness and much more.
I taught a gentle, sweet autistic boy, whose lunchtime routine was to sit alone against a wall, open his tin of tuna and eat it with a fork. Sometimes, his class mates would come up to him, say hello and tell him to dance for them. He did and they laughed at him.
I worked with a boy whose mother sent him to school wearing steel-capped boots so he could kick the kids who tormented him. For years, she had told him he was human bait and he believed her. And now that I think of it, he had been, for year after year.
One girl in Year 8 had been tormented since primary school by a group who made her life unbearable; they insulted her, called her vile names, encouraged others to join in and made her feel stupid, ostracised and abandoned. They were relentless, subtle and relished every minute of it.
Schools can be nasty. Some kids end up self- harming or suiciding, others seek counselling, still others retreat, lose themselves and all but disappear.
We did a lot of talking with the bullies and their targets. Typically the former said things like: ‘‘ I was only kidding. Can’t he take a joke?’’ ‘‘ She deserved it!’’ ‘‘ I wasn’t bullying him, everyone does it.’’ ‘‘ I get much worse at home!’’ and on it went.
So why then did I not recognise bullying when it happened to me? How did I not recognise the blatant behaviours as bullying? Perhaps because I wasn’t expecting them.
As civilised adults, we behave thoughtfully towards our fellow man. We treat others as we would like to be treated. We don’t shout and swear. If we make a mistake we apologise, we try to do the best we can, we excuse others if they err and we give praise where it is due. We don’t blame others for our mistakes and we take responsibility for our actions.
I was in a business partnership when I was bullied. And for quite a while, I didn’t even realise it. Then, I tried to understand why? Was my partner under enormous stress; were her kids giving her grief? Was there trouble in the family, illness maybe? Were there financial pressures? What could possibly be the explanation for the escalating level of fault finding , insulting language and personal attacks? I couldn’t do anything right; my decisions were questioned, my work ethic denigrated and my efforts derided. My judgment and
behaviour were scrutinised, sneered at. I was told I was incompetent. I’d go to work and there’d be sarcastic notes and written instructions, underlined, highlighted and followed by three or four exclamation marks. There was shouting, swearing and there was badgering and game playing.
I started to feel anxious. I found it harder and harder to sleep and I lost my appetite. My heart rate was up. My skin felt different, my hair felt different. I wasn’t me. I was losing myself and my family and friends were worried.
I loved working with our customers; mothers- of- the bride looking for something divine to wear to their daughters’ weddings, women wanting to look elegant and stylish but not too conservative, gorgeous girls who were out to find their dream ball gowns and grand- mothers who were determined to shine at their grandsons’ Debutante Balls. So many warm, friendly and interesting women! We talked about books, films , music, the footy, food, their problems, their triumphs and of course, their body issues.
But when the shop was quiet, I became restless and nervous. If the phone rang, my heart thumped suddenly. I felt sick. I dreaded seeing my business partner and I was constantly on edge. Every conversation we had was fraught and ended badly.
The whole fiasco occupied my mind. I relived every conversation, thinking about what I should have said and could have said, but didn’t . I should have walked out on her, I should have shouted and sworn, I could have told her to shut up, I could have, but I didn’t , because that’s not me. I’m not like that, never have been.
I imagined that one day I would arrive at my shop and the locks would have been changed! I thought about it all before I fell asleep and as soon as I woke, there it would be again.
I didn’t go out. I just wanted the sanctuary of home. I spent a lot of time alone, thinking about how to resolve the situation.
I kept pushing for a meeting to try to sort things out, and eventually we had one, the upshot of which was that I left the partnership.
Signing the papers and returning the keys felt like being dishonourably discharged; the injustice of it all left me speechless and I sat in my car, taking deep breaths and trying to calm down.
What had I done?
Why had she treated me with such animosity and contempt? I think she actually hated me? Why?
The answer? Only she knows.
What I now know is how those kids I taught felt, every day. I admire and respect them even more now for even coming to school, knowing that in all likelihood they would have to deal with more harassment, more jeers, exclusion, more threats and worse.
What got them through was the love, validation, encouragement, advice and support they received from the adults around them and the few students who had the courage to stand up for them.
Bullies come in all forms and have some unforgettable role models – Draco Malfoy, Nurse Ratched. We love to hate these onscreen bullies and we love to see them fall and crash and burn!
In the ‘‘ real world,’’ they are all destructive, dangerous, toxic and needy.
They need help.
*Name has been changed