One of the things I miss most about teaching children is the way they take you into their confidence. I have lost count of the number of times I have been called ‘mummy’ (although never yet ‘grandma’, thank the Lord), I’ve been asked if I’d be allowed out to play, and I have had to fill in many, many, many child protection forms in my time. This last is partly a consequence of working in small groups. In the intimacy of small spaces and with smaller numbers of children, the barriers are reduced, and the tales come tumbling out. Standing at the front, doing the teaching thing, isn’t exactly what you might call conducive to confidences.
Even as their mother, the stories come out in dribs and drabs, a little bit here, a little bit there; a slowly growing testimony to their ability to understand the world. Sometimes it is relatively easy to make sense of it all, the day Sam was incensed that a game of ‘throw the shoes about at playtime’ ended up with a lost arch support (it was lying at the bottom of the shed and had to be retrieved by the caretaker) was a simple mystery to solve (although, in the heat of the moment, at school, he couldn’t make himself understood), making sense of the slippery world of social relationships is altogether another.
As a young person, I remember wondering why I was so unpopular. I’d look in the mirror and think I was nice enough, not unkind, and wonder what it was I was doing wrong. I couldn’t seem to figure it out at all, and I gloomily concluded, as I tried in vain to fit in, straighten my hair, mould my accent into something more acceptable and change my behaviour into something more traditional, that it must, somehow, be my fault.
I never told my parents. It didn’t seem worth it. Not that I wouldn’t be believed, but that it wasn’t important enough, somehow, to make a fuss over. Something that happened to everyone, nothing special about me. I did take it up with one of my teachers, though, I remember that. I sat in his office, after a lesson gone wrong, one I refused to return to, explaining what had happened. He told me that the other girl had a hard life, the implication being that her behaviour to me was somehow understandable, acceptable. Inevitable.
But there is nothing inevitable about bullying. It is only when we, as a community of adults stand aside, when we fail to call it out when we see it, or don’t bother to take the time to understand what is really going on, that we allow bullying and belittling to flourish. A poisonous atmosphere of fear is entirely within our control.