“Written in these walls are the stories that I can’t explain.”
I’ve always loved music, although I make no claims to be a purist in doing so. Anything that makes me smile will do, and so the tracks on my ipod are eclectic if nothing else. Perhaps what I love most about music is the ability of others’ tunes to uplift and the ability of others’ lyrics to explain the world. As a result, this blogsite features all sorts of musical connections that have no right to belong together or to belong with the topic they explain. Indeed, the very title of this blogsite – Dailygenius – is taken from a Hue and Cry song whose lyrics inform the ‘confident humility’ with which I try to approach life.
Musicals make an appearance, with Evita being used to explain the importance of school structures that support staff and Grease to explain the importance of extra-curricular contributions. Children’s programmes and films make an appearance, with the Muppet Show linked to a post on crap leadership and Pocahontas helping to justify a serendipitous approach to my work. At the distinctly cheesy end of my musical range is ‘I am what I am’ informing an early post on my attitude to professional (as well as personal) life and the Walrus of Love being deployed in a critique of TeachFirst. Perhaps less embarrassingly, Prince is utilised to discuss interview techniques, Toyah to challenge Ofsted myths and the Red Hot Chilli Peppers brought in to validate the reasons why I’d never write a for-profit EduBook.
Today I’m back to cheesy by tune and serious by nature, using One Direction’s “The Story of My Life” to talk about my experiences of systematic and fairly brutal (and brutalising) bullying as a child. In doing so, I’ll be explaining how I came to leave 1D over thirty years before Zayn Malik did so, and offer him some hope for life after a boy-band.
“I leave my heart open but it stays right here empty for days.”
This ‘story of my life’ starts at the biggest point of discombobulating, disconcerting dislocation I’ve ever experienced, that between primary and secondary schooling. What made the transition harder for me than most was the death of my brother a little over half a year earlier. As I was preparing to move into first year (Y7 for the youthful amongst you), he should have been there, in fourth year (I’ll let you do the maths), waiting for me. But he wasn’t. My primary school not only knew the facts behind the tragedy, but had seen first hand the impact it had on me and my sister. There was no counselling, of course. Child welfare in the 1980s still had a long way to go. But there was a tight-knit, small community who wrapped around us as best they could in a way that, as it turned out, secondary school could not.
I was still dealing with the very real effects of the loss of Paul, including becoming ‘the man of the house’ by locking away my own tears whilst ensuring that the endless flow coming from my mum were mopped up. I also became ‘the woman of the house’, the ‘newly-oldest sibling’ and, most crucially in terms of making the leap to Oxclose Community School, the ‘unexpectedly alone first year pupil’, who had the unfulfilled dreams of a very bright brother to make a reality in spite of my own rather average and gently checquered history plodding through primary school.
“The ground beneath my feet is open wide.”
And so I began secondary school life brimful of determination to be better than I had ever been which, accompanied by my natural, pre-existing and never-to-leave-me disposition to put my hand up and answer questions, made me a dream student for teachers to teach. It was at this point that I became a member of 1D, so named because our form tutor was Mr Shepherd and the name 1S had already been taken. 1D, it rapidly emerged, were the tutor group of bad dreams for the teachers at Oxclose and nightmares for me. The boys in particular (I can still name them all but struggle to recall any girls) rapidly became a mob composed of clever, insinuating bystanders to what they brought about, and fairly vicious, voracious perpetrators of mental and physical violence. They soon latched on to me.
It began in an unsubtlely subtle way, with murmured breathy insults. ‘Swot’ stuck and quickly moved from being a common noun to being a proper one for me, sniggeringly giggled each time the register was taken. The ground beneath my feet was opening, with only one thing in between: Chrissy M. In the first term of that first year, he took my under his wing. And what a wing. Chrissy was as hard as nails, but one of the good guys in spite of his presumably awful home life (he was rarely clean and his purple pants stood out a mile in a school where the uniform was black). He couldn’t stop the words or the increasingly common threats, but he twice preventing them from turning their threats into reality. I still smile at the thought of him. But then he left, with absolutely no warning, and it was just me and them.
“And time is frozen.”
The next six months or so in 1D were a living hell. With Chrissy gone, the campaign of hate cranked up several gears. Whispered insults became more and more brazen and, emboldened by a classroom environment in which they were largely left unchecked, they openly mocked pretty much every contribution I made to class. I tried to recoil and keep quiet, but teachers by then knew that they could rely on me to say something half decent, and they sought me out even as the boys were sorting me out. Unable to contemplate the notion that I might let my teachers, my mother and my brother down, I had no choice but to inflate the hate by answering questions as best I could, even though I knew the consequences.
Quickly things advanced. I received free school meals and was soon ‘invited’ to sell my dinner ticket for less than half it’s value, meaning that lunch regularly became a cheap packet of crisps from the local shop. My stationery became mobile. My unblemished books became besmirched. My hopes became fears. My fears became realised. My body became bruised. At first it was the odd ‘dead leg’ and ‘birthday beats’ (I could have been adopted by the royal family with the number of birthdays I had), but eventually it culminated in an ‘all for one’ lop-sided Battle Royale in which the clever, insinuating bystanders acted as lookout or held me down, whilst the vicious, voracious perpetrators did what they did best, taking turns to kick me in any place that hadn’t yet been kicked. I, of course, told no-one.
“Running after you is like chasing the clouds”
If I have one thing to thank the Battle Royale for, it is the fact that it marked the zenith of their bullying and the nadir of my responses to it. Things got better. When I say ‘got better’ I mean that they knew that they had broken me completely. From that point I was theirs entirely. Their smartarse words no longer smarted but simply became a fact of life. Their bullish behaviour still bruised but I could feign a smile as if I were in on the gags. Each dead arm disarmed them to a certain extent, and occasionally I began to get Bartle, rather than Swot, as my moniker.
In many ways I hated this period more than what had preceded it, mainly because in every way I hated myself for how I talked and acted around them. I became their patsy, turning a blind eye when they turned their sights on others (including some teachers) and goofing around them in search of their appreciation, rather than their opprobrium. But this is the real victory of bullies, isn’t it? The point at which they no longer need to hate you for what you are, because they have outsourced it to you and you do it far more often and effectively than they could ever manage. In that scenario, all they have to do is give you a little bit of encouragement once in a while. Little wonder then, how many lives this phenomenon claims.
“The way that I been holding on too tight, with nothing in between.”
Towards the end of the summer term, I had become resolved and reconciled to my fate in 1D. They said “jump”. I said “how high” and then proceeded to jump even higher for their amusement. And so it came to pass that I stole a number of craft knives from a textiles room, and from the teacher I loved more than any other, in order to please them. I can’t remember if they literally or figuratively told me to do this, but I distinctly recall presenting them with the ill-gained gifts and grinning gormlessly as they took them and left me to play ‘stick in the mud’ with them (I’ll leave you to imagine the details of this grim game). It was simultaneously the worst and best decision of my life in first year.
Later that afternoon the Head of Year came calling, the other members of my boy band got to grassing (something they’d beaten me up for later that year) and my mum was summoned to the Headteacher’s office. Finally, and in the face of that unanswerable question of “why did you do it?”, I crumbled. Or rather, I revealed how far I had crumbled, how many pieces I was now in and how utterly miserable I was and had been for some time. In that office on that day I’m still not sure who carried the most shame, but it must have been a close run thing. And like that, my ordeal was over.
“Although I am broken, my heart is untamed, still.”
The very next morning I began life in my new form group, 1R. I have no idea how the decision was made as to which group I should go into, but whoever it was and however it was made, I (to this day) can’t be more thankful. The boys in this new group (let’s call them One Redirection or One Reprieve or One Resuscitation) were almost a different species to the boys I had been bulldozed by in 1D. Freaks and fools and geeks and ghouls they may have been, but there wasn’t a bad bone in any one of them and, for the first time in first year, I could genuinely smile and be genuinely smiled back at.
I even remember the girls in this form. For the first time I could breathe in an atmosphere that wasn’t testosterone-infused and machismo-toxic. Of course, all my teachers changed overnight too and I had to work out my place in relation to others, but the sense of joy (a sense coming back to me in full as I type this) was instant and intense. I don’t recall any hiccups, any false starts or any lapses. 1D were on the other side of the year group and so I only had to avoid them at lunch and break. To be honest I think the fact that I had stolen knives and taken the punishment for it had belatedly won them over, but in reality I didn’t care then and I don’t care now.
“The fire beneath my feet is burning bright.”
I joined 1R in the dog days of first year and so I’ll always remember them more fondly as 2R. 1984-5 wasn’t an entirely easy year, but things improved so much that I’ll forgive myself for thinking it the best of the seven I spent at that school. Me and a new friend, Gary, were given responsibility for the mixtapes played in the second year common area (White Lines by Grandmaster Flash was a firm favourite). Me and Scully used the freetime gained during the teachers’ strikes that littered that year to build a bond I wouldn’t have thought possible a year earlier. Me and Haydn mastered Daley Thompson’s Decathlon on his ZX Spectrum. Me and all the other boys fantasised about Mel and Michelle; even though they were dating the fourth and fifth years we competed to impress, not least of all with padded or supersized Valentines cards. All to no avail.
For the first time in secondary school almost everything was a case of ‘me and…’, something that I had spent six months thinking would never be a possibility. It still took me a time to blossom at that school, and I don’t honestly feel that I ever did so fully, except in one-to-one relationships with some of my new friends. Even at sixth form I was, for the first time on a pastoral level, thrust back into the company of the clever, insinuating bystanders who had been sure not to make any visible marks, but who had left some subcutaneous scar tissue nonetheless. Most were quietly conciliatory, but one or two made it clear that they still smirked inside at the plight they plied upon me. I never fully loosened up in their company.
“And I’ve been waiting for this time to come around.”
In the end, it wasn’t until I left home and that school to go to university that I was fully and properly born as the person I now am today. It wasn’t until I had placed 120 miles between myself and these experiences that I fully flushed them out of my system. It wasn’t until I began again with nothing that I felt that I had everything, or at least everything within my grasp. Thus, it took me almost seven years to wrestle my unrest into submission (another Battle Royale, but this time I kicked arse), to banish the bullies entirely and to be at peace with myself.
I haven’t looked back since. Some people are born to love adult life and I guess I’m one of them. My childhood and teenage years included many, many special memories but adulthood has been something else altogether, in spite of the challenges it has brought. Perhaps unsurprisingly then, it has been my twin roles as a teacher and school leader that have shaped my adult life and my determination to not only ensure that the opportunities of my life are present in the lives of others but also to ensure that the obstacles (bullying included and possibly most of all) are absent.
“Seems to me that when I die these words will be written on my stone.”
Perhaps surprisingly, I have never (until becoming Head) held a pastoral role in my life, but now that I do I am more aware than ever of the ability I have to tackle this issue head on and ensure that no child at Canons endures as I did. I’m blessed in this endeavour by having incredible people and processes around me that make this an area of existing and significant strength for the school. Our tutors are endlessly giving, the Heads of Year wonderful at managing both academic and pastoral behaviours, and our Behaviour Support Team (BeST) are a gift I would bestow on any and every school if I could. Added to that is school counsellor, our Y10 Peer Listeners, Y8 Buddies and both staff and student mentors. The holes in the net are small enough that big issues, such as that experienced by this swot 31 years ago, don’t fall through.
More to the point, having a rich network of people and relationships aimed at ensuring there is little or no bullying, means that there is an ethos of little or no bullying that is almost perceptible; it lives and it breathes in so much of what we do, academically as well as pastorally. I’m not foolhardy enough to claim perfection, but I am humbly confident enough to claim that perfection is in our sights and won’t be going anywhere anytime soon.
I’m well aware that this has been one of those ‘deep and meaningful’ posts and so, to lighten the mood, here’s my favourite version of “The Story of My Life”. If this doesn’t make you forget your woes and forgive those who made you woeful, nothing will. In doing so, I wish my fellow 1D leaver, Zayn Malik, all my best for his own 1R moment.