The last thing I want to do is make this some sycophantic ‘woe is me’ rant. The last thing I want to do is pretend that my life has been hard. I didn’t grow up in poverty, I attended a good school and I’ve got a good job. I’ve never known real hunger, cold or despair. I’ve never had to stare at someone and tell him or her it would be all right, knowing our worlds would crumble in a matter of moments.
My life hasn’t been easy, but it also hasn’t been hard.
But maybe that’s what makes what I’m about to say so much more poignant, maybe that’s why it will resonate that little bit more. Everyone expects the downtrodden, the disenfranchised to hurt, to understand pain, and we empathise with that by granting them allowances, donating to charities and even, on occasion, throwing some money into a tin cup. But what about me, growing up in a middle class, white, suburban family and attending a prestigious private school? What happened to me when my world fell apart and I felt alone against the world? What happened to me when I got bullied?
At the age of 5, I attended my local primary school in Wichita, Kansas, USA. Not only was I new to the school, I was new to the country. For the next two years I attended that primary school. For those two years I had no friends. Every lunch I would eat alone, and, whenever the teacher mentioned the phrase ‘group work’ my lip would tremble. Nobody wanted to work with me.
Eventually, I got a nickname, Peanut Butter Ears because, once or twice, another student had noticed a build up of wax in my ear. The name stuck and, despite being trivial and ridiculous in retrospect, for a 5-year-old boy with no friends, it stung.
Thankfully, coming back to Australia in Year Three I found a group of friends that accepted me. In fact, one of them was just recently the Best Man at my wedding.
Unfortunately, the problem with bullying is that quite often, it finds you, no matter how hard you may want to avoid it.
In Year Five, I met Jacob and Sam, two Year Six students. Over the next year, they systematically set out to destroy me. And, for the longest time, they succeeded. I endured a seemingly non-stop verbal assault from the two boys over a myriad of personal matters. Whether it was the shoes I was wearing, maliciously turning my last name from Precel to Pretzel, the way my hair sat or the way I spoke with a funny accent due to my time in America, among many other things, they laughed as they tore little pieces off of my self-esteem. When they learnt that I had already started to shave, the bullying became unbearable.
You know that student, that child who you hear about some times? The one that cries himself to sleep every night and wakes up in the morning refusing to go to school? The one that throws his books to the ground as soon as he walks in the door and, as the emotional tidal wave of the day sweeps over him, collapses in an inconsolable heap?
That was me.
My parents talked to the school but nothing changed. My parents talked to my bullies parents, but nothing changed. Instead, the more authority that got involved, the more vicious the bullying became.
Recently my wife and I went to go and see Bully, a documentary by Lee Hirsch. As I listened to the teachers and principals respond to bullying, I couldn’t help but realise that I had heard all of those tired words before. Exasperated, exhausted teachers offering hollow words of support, but no solution.
Luckily, I did have a tight knit group of friends. Numerous times, they would comfort me when necessary and support me when needed.
Tyler Long, one of the focal characters of Bully, was not so lucky. You can read Tyler’s tragic story here.
In the midst of bullying, life seems vacuous and obstacles seem insurmountable. The world sits on your shoulders and drives your spirits into the sand. You feel as if there is no end, no answer, no hope or solution.
Eventually, all you see are the negatives. Even today, I suffer the effects of being bullied. When in large groups of strangers, I constantly feel as if those same judgemental eyes that told me I was worthless in primary school are bearing into the back of my head. For the longest time, I couldn’t look at my reflection in the mirror without hearing my bullies laugh, and I still feel as if I constantly have to prove something to that doubtful voice in my head, the one the bullies implanted in me when I was younger, among many other issues that I grapple with daily as a result.
Every day, I still feel that chip sitting on my shoulder.
Bullying is an epidemic that doesn’t have an easy answer. Quite often the system, parents and the individual are powerless to stop it. That’s why you have to.
Whether you are in the schoolyard, the work place, walking down the street, or, in bullying’s latest form, surfing the Internet, if you see someone being bullied, step in.
Speak to that boy or girl standing nervously, alone, in the corner, ask them to play with you, ask them to share your lunch, and save a seat for them in your next class. Let them know they aren’t alone.
Stand next to that person, whether it’s an adult or a child, when you see someone push them around, either physically or verbally, even if you don’t know them, even if you’ll never see them again in your life. Let them know they’re not alone.
When browsing Facebook or Twitter, if you notice slanderous comments on someone’s page, tweet or message back, supporting the victim. Let them know they aren’t alone.
Encourage victims to talk. Sit with them, console them, and refer them to a help line, such as Beyond Blue, or Head Space. Let them know they aren’t alone.
These are all tiny gestures, moments that take no more than a minute of your day but they could save somebodies life.
My life hasn’t been hard. I’ve never known real hunger, cold or despair. I grew up in a middle class family in a affluent part of Melbourne. By all means, my life was normal, average and mundane.
Yet there were still times when I thought about not waking up in the morning, times when I thought about leaving and never coming back. But I did come back, time and time again.
However, without my friends, and their small moments of encouragement in the worst of times, I just may not have.