Helen Purves All you need to know about Helen Purves. And, indeed, much more.


Bullying: horrific, but not surprising

A few years ago I was walking through Hammersmith Park on my way home from work when a group of teenagers leapt out from behind a wall and started throwing shoe-sized lumps of solid ice at me. I don't know what reaction people might expect me to have had - maybe I should have screamed, or run, or something - but in real life I kept doing what I had previously been doing. I kept strolling along, listening to my iPod, looking straight ahead. It was only after several severe blows to the head - one of which I would later discover had left me bleeding - and I could hear them approaching me from behind that I reacted. I turned to face them, and very firmly told them to f**k off. They stared at me, stunned, and I turned again and strolled off. At home I rang the police then ordered takeaway and quietly poured myself a vodka.

The next day, my friends and colleagues were surprised by my reaction. As I said, maybe I should have screamed, or run. But neither of those things occurred to me. Why not? Well, I'm afraid to say I'm still used to it - to being pushed around, belittled, bullied. It still seems normal to me: it still seems to be what I feel I deserve.

I have no idea how old I was when I started to be bullied. After around ten years of it (from primary school right up until I was 16) I've blocked out most of my childhood. That could be my epilepsy or it could be intentional - it really depends whether you speak to my neurologist or one of the many school therapists or counsellors I have spoken to throughout the course of my life. All I know is that I was bullied very badly - physically and verbally - by a great many students and occasionally even by teachers. The former was easy to spot: you know you're being bullied when you're in a corner of the playground being called a pervert and having your head kicked in. The latter only became obvious after other students reported it to their parents, who told my mother. Teachers (and indeed adults in general) are more intelligent in their bullying. More passive-aggressive. One teacher would consistently put every student's work on the wall except mine, which would somehow get torn/dirtied: another gave me such horrific referrals to my next school that I was placed in remedial classes for every subject. Within months I was in the top set for nearly everything.Playing the piano at home

I went from school to school, sunk in a cloud of misery that I could share with nobody. I was silent, troubled, obsessed with death and pain. I came to expect scorn and derision from everyone: everywhere I turned I looked for hate. So, why?

Good question. There are and were reasons everywhere, but never good ones. I was bullied for being too tall, too plain, for not having trainers, for wearing old-fashioned clothes, for having brown bread and no crisps in my lunchbox, for giving the correct answer in lessons, for not knowing what a turkey twizzler is, for going to a cottage in West Ireland in my summer holidays as opposed to some resort somewhere. Once I was bullied because I'd read all the books on the "difficult" shelf of the school library.

Obviously I was bullied because of my surname, but the bullies were more imaginative than that. They sensed when it no longer affected me and looked elsewhere, and I learned to try and predict their behaviour so I could shape myself to their changing moods: so I could deflect their coarse, blunt words with sharp quick ones of my own.

Naturally, these years of watching my step, inspecting myself for and hiding undesirable/vulnerable elements of my life, this need to constantly shift my personality - all these things have made me an extremely cynical person. They've also left me easy to hurt, because even the most seasoned warrior can't station troops at every battlefront when faced with a lifelong war.

And that’s what it becomes, because when you've been bullied for so long you stop thinking about it: eventually, the bullies can and do win. You begin to believe them: as adults, people become better at hurting each other and bullying becomes more about terrorism than open war. If you're used to looking for attacks about, say, your personality, then you don't see the harm in “well-meant” digs about your appearance until it’s too late, and the poison has already been absorbed. The one thing you do learn, however, is to never show your cards; to never let your enemy know they're winning. So even when you know you're being hurt, you learn to accept yet harden yourself to it, and to fight - if it's worth fighting at all, that is - in other ways.

So, I imagine we can all agree that bullying sucks. It really sucks, yes? Yes. Pessimistic, I know, but it feels too late for me somehow. Because there’s a reason I'm writing this tonight, and not some other night. It was very windy in Manchester this evening, and during my cycle ride home my long skirt kept getting whipped up to my thighs by the wind. After abuse from blokes on the street and honks from idiots in cars, I broke down in angry tears and walked my heavy, Dutch-style bike home. On my way I was approached by two guys, one of whom tried to take my mobile off me.

Did I scream, or run away, or give him my bag and phone? No. I took my massive metal bike lock out of my bike’s basket and whacked him round the head with it (I checked with police - it's okay in self-defence), then embarked upon a lengthy and vitriolic attack on his - their - character. I unleashed every swear word I know, and they left me. I was angry, upset, annoyed. But I wasn't surprised. I don't think I'll ever be surprised that someone wants to hurt me. I expect it, and I even try to look for it. Because in my experience every and any close friend, every partner, ever family member who treats me well - they could turn on me in an instant. If they’re someone I really trust, then it’s because I am a bad person and I deserve it. Every relationship I build could fall at any moment.

However, for millions of children out there, it's not too late. Bullying is still a huge issue, but it’s now one we recognise - and one that schools monitor more closely. I can't wait to get hold of the landmark film Bully, which happily did end up getting through the MPAA ratings system as a PG-13 despite problems in America. Check out their website - and if you're feeling plump in the pocket at the moment, consider donating to an awareness charity like BeatBullying - or to the NSPCC, who fund ChildLine. Feel free to leave links to other such organisations in a comment.  Here's the trailer.

A note to parents, here. If your child is being bullied and they've told you, congratulate yourself: you're a good parent. Is your child not being bullied? Definitely not? Then ask yourself - is your child a bully? Because not one of the parents of the children who beat me up, who tortured me, who slung constant verbal abuse at me, ever believed their children would do such a thing. Not for a moment. They would look their awful, malicious, violent brats in the face and see only angels. Nobody is an angel. No child is an angel either. Children can be vicious. I have scars: mental and physical. Be careful what you teach your child. I don't have a child - but if I did, like my parents I would hang Dorothy Nolte's poem Children Learn What They Live in the hallway. To quote the last few lines:

If a child lives with security, he learns to have faith in himself and those about him…
If a child lives with friendliness, he learns the world is a nice place in which to live.
With what is your child living?

Here are some links to bullying resources, in case any of this strikes a chord with you.  I sincerely hope not.
BBC Schools: Understanding bullying
BBC Health: Bullying and teenagers
ChildLine: Get some help
Red Balloon Learner Centres: For the recovery of bullied children

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