Friday 24 May 2019

Kate Byrne: Classroom warfare - Do we ever really leave our schooldays behind?

Irish Independent features writer Katie Byrne
Irish Independent features writer Katie Byrne

Kate Byrne

Last week, both the model Joan Smalls and the author John Green spoke out about being bullied during their school years. Smalls said getting her Victoria's Secret Angel wings was the ultimate one-fingered salute to her former tormentors. "Like, 'Ha!' to all the guys in school who made fun of me for being so tall and skinny," she told Sunday Style.

Green, who is generally more philosophical about his experience of bullying, said "I kept telling myself that things would get easier".

Smalls is 27. Green is 37. They left school a long time ago but they took their experiences of being bullied with them. Our formative identities are shaped at school and I sometimes wonder if we ever really move on from them.

Bullying is especially defining. Ask anyone, of any age, to tell you about a time when they were bullied and they will evince a vulnerability that suggests that they are right back there in the locker room. They will regress to a time when they had to affect an air of resistance and dig their thumbnail into their hand to suppress their tears.

Bullying leaves a fire in the victim's belly that never really goes out. I know this because recently, while eating breakfast in a local restaurant, I spotted a boy who was mean to me when I was a teenager. The last time I saw him he was wearing an oversized pair of O'Neill's tracksuit bottoms. He was now about two feet taller and slightly balding.

And there it was. Rage. My heartbeat spread out to my shoulders and my hands became numb. My thought process suddenly had no beginning, middle or end.

"I'm going over!" I announced to my brother.

"Ah for Jesus's sake, sit down will you?" he said.


"Sit down ya big eejit."

Our back and forth continued until he employed a diversionary tactic: "Look! Pancakes!" (When a person regresses to childhood, it's probably a good idea to treat them accordingly...)

The red haze lifted a few minutes later and the lunacy of what I was about to do became clear. But I left wondering where this rage had been hiding. Had it always been smouldering away in the hinterlands of my psyche?

Adolescence can be a cruel beast. There are pecking orders and popularity contests and same-same-different ranks and files. One day you're in with the in-group, the next you're off the invite list for a slumber party ("I didn't want to go anyway"). School identity formation is a dogmatic process. Jock, nerd, messer, dosser, outsider - often your peers tell you what it is that you are and you oblige in a sort of twisted self-fulfilling prophecy. And it only takes a little bit of a leaning for a reputation to perpetuate like a hall of mirrors.

Eventually we get to an age when we can wear red lipstick and buy coffee table books. But it's still there. Just beneath the apparent layer of sophistication is the schoolgirl who doesn't really know where she fits in. The secret, by the way, is that very few of us felt like we fitted in - perhaps this is why back-at-school dreams are so common...

Our school years have a profound bearing on the people we become. Outsiders always feel like they're on the fringes; trophy-winning athletes carry that sense of self-possession into adulthood and bullies sometimes have a guilt so entrenched that they can't even bear to explore it.

As for the boy who always got picked last for the team - that one takes a lifetime to get over.

It's no surprise then that many bully victims have a "look at me now!" retribution fantasy similar to Joan Smalls. Indeed, how many interviews have you read in which a celeb reveals that his teacher "said I'd never amount to anything"?

This doesn't happen in every classroom, though. There are some exceptional schools where diversity is celebrated, just as there are exceptional students in every school. I can remember girls who simply didn't partake. "I don't talk behind people's backs," they said. And that was that.

The parents that gave them that advice anticipated the insidious bitching and subtle ostracising that can be rife in some all-girls schools, and they prepared their children in the most emotionally evolved way possible.

Things have, of course, changed since my schooldays. It must be even more difficult to negotiate the pecking order in the social media era. By the same token, CSPE (civic, social and political education) is on the curriculum, along with yoga and meditation in some schools.

Subjects like these promote emotional resilience. They introduce students to the cornerstones of empathy, compassion and tolerance and help them understand that bullying is a disease of the group dynamic.

Still, schools could try harder. Anti-bullying policies should go deeper than just sticking up a No Bullying sign.

They ought to acknowledge just how critical the school years are in our identity formation and give students the emotional development tools to work it out by themselves. Or else somebody else will.

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