I was as nerdy as they got, really. I was not the sports star of the year, nor the cheerleader type. I was bookish, gentle, quiet, scribbling poetry into the margins of my notebooks. To be perfectly honest, I barely remember my school days - I was in so MANY schools, and the whole thing went by in such a complete blur. There were a few nasty remarks - but in general I skated by without being singled out. I didn't have my books ripped or stolen. I didn't have catterpillars fed to me for lunch. I didn't even get called nasty names - much. There was the time, when I was only eight or so, when I - and I alone, somehow, out of vast multitudes - contracted the highly contagious scarlet fever, and was out of school with that for MONTHS, and then, when I went back, because this had been established about me by the grown-ups who knew about the disease, the whisper "CARRIER..." followed me down school hallways, labelling me as a sort of pariah Typhoid Mary although I was no longer remotely contagious. But that lasted only as long as the average attention span granted to a fad by a kid of a certain age. By the following year I doubt if anyone except me even remembered that I had been laid low by that dread disease, let alone that I had been branded with carrying it around with me like a bag of killer bacteria to distribute amongst my peers. It was a once-only thing, and it faded, and was gone.
I saw others who were more specifically and more seriously targeted. Did I do anything about it? Not then. Not the me who existed then. There was nothing I COULD do other than throw myself under the bus with the other victim. I understood the dominant beast character of the classroom, and I was not in the running. I kept my head down, and out of the way.
The price I paid for most of this? The moving around, the never being at the same school for more than at best a school year and change? The price was BEING ALONE. I never really had a "best friend" that lasted more than just a short glittering moment of time - and then I was off again, somewhere else, with promises to keep in touch which never happened. I think I am still in touch with two people I knew through my ENTIRE school career, and with one of them it's a question of sending a Christmas card every year. (If one of us ever missed a year I think we'd probably drop the whole thing entirely...)But the price I paid for being invisible was oblivion. The only reason I was interesting to a number of people who might otherwise have taken it out on me in other ways is because I was a bright scholarly light and my homework was copiable - and often cribbed. If you want to take that circumstance - that I had DONE my homework, that the notebooks were somewhere else and being copied by the people who had not done so - as minor bullying, I guess you could, but the thing is, I was never threatened, or coerced, or had the work demanded of me with an "or else" hanging in the air above my head. I was asked. And most of the time I shrugged and handed the notebook over. I remember well the "copy attic" of one of my schools, a dusty place which my schoolwork knew well because my notes were often up there while those who had actual, yanno, LIVES outside of school - boy/girlfriends, parties, stuff like that - scribbled frantically into their own books to beat an assignment deadline. I remember sitting in a desk at one point with the guy in front of me passing back a note during a maths test begging me for the answers (he was a jock type. Not really given to remembering his numbers, as it were. Especially if he could find out the answers the easy way). So perhaps I helped a few kids cheat on a test. Whoopdedoo. But I was never threatened by dire consequences if I did not.
I was a RESOURCE. Not, perhaps, entirely a person.
I had people I was friendly with, to be sure. My little "circle". But that didn't mean that I'd be automatically included in anything any of these people did. I was on the outside, looking in. I made real friends slowly, and did it the hard way - and I hovered between being a necessary adjunct with the academic answers when required to being gently ignored, and sitting on my own at breaks.
You might say I was lucky. Other than (almost always) being the "immigrant", the "foreigner", the "other" - other than having a faint accent - I had no distinguishing characteristics on which anyone could hang anything. I was white (usually in schools which were predominantly so, except for a few places in Africa but even those were a mix of kids who often came from diplomats' families or the UN crowd, so there was a healthy cohort of the like-me kids, at least on the surface, for me to blend in...); I wasn't anything outside what was considered "normal", as in I was not a gay teen, or marked by a physical disability of any sorts (I wore glasses for a very brief period when I was in my early teens, is all; nobody seemed to give a damn), or poor to the extent that poverty became an obvious defining characteristic (I always had good, clean, even elegant clothes; I always had food on the table and lived in a home with indoor plumbing). I was ORDINARY. They'd have to work at finding something to bully me about, and that was just too hard - so they found easier prey and left me alone. Sometimes VERY alone.
If there was any isolating or bullying behaviour involved in my growing up in my many and varied schools, it was that I never quite managed to fit in anywhere. ROund peg, meet square hole. I was ten when we left the country of my birth, and I went back to school there for a year when I was 12 but it was already too late - those kids were growing up without me, away from me, their attitudes and their interests and their argot were already not my own, and I was not so much ostracized as simply self-selecting myself out of their ranks because we increasingly had nothing more in common. But even as I was metamorphosing into something different from the children of my generation who were growing up in the place where I too had been born, I had missed the crucial formative years in the childhoods of the kids with whom I did do my growing up - kids in Africa, kids in Britain, all of whom had been reared using different social standards, different books, different contexts. I was growing away from my past, but I wasn't really growing into a future, which was already a closed and foreign country which the kids who inhabited it didn't quite know how to share with the Outsider.
So - I kept silent, because I wasn't bullied. Really.
I was just left alone.
I figured out my own way, when I was a kid. There were no maps - if any existed, they weren't offered. I was alone in the wilderness, navigating by the stars and the sun and all the books I lugged on my back. I was not strictly speaking a part of anyone else's world - I carried my own around with me, like a snail carries a shell on its back, and I would retreat inside that shell if the rest of it ever got too much. I had my books. I had my stories. I had my dreams. I had my imagination.
In time it became easy to think that I didn't really NEED anyone else at all.
Perhaps this WAS psychological warfare at its most insidious. I don't know. To this day I am wary around new people. I still carry my shell with me wherever I go. I am very good at wearing a social mask, in certain defined situations - if you met me at a convention or a conference or teaching a workshop you might think I am a confident outgoing person who is strong and competent and socially adept, but that is because I'm in my chosen environment, talking about the things that are close to me. If you met me again at some party where I didn't know anybody, I would be the one sitting in the corner, on my own, gathered up into myself, paralysed, unable to walk up to a stranger and start a small-talk conversation. I was never trained in small talk, when you're on your own as much as I was you never needed it, why would you chit chat about pointless everyday thinngs with yourself? So this invisible wall which rose up brick by brick - perhaps the foundations of that were laid by other hands but a significant part of it was self-reared as bulwark and protection. The world didn't care, and that was fine, but the wall was there just in case they started to care in unpleasant ways.
I know how to survive in solitary.
Was I actively bullied? No. Not that I know of. Not that I could point at. If I was isolated, that was at least partly my own doing.
This is why I have been quiet on the matter. I don't have anything to add, there are no harrowing stories, there is no dark past. There is only the shadow of loneliness, perhaps. I didn't feel that I had anything substantial to contribute to the discussion, on a personal level.
But here's the thing. I couldn't do much of anything about this THEN, even if I saw it happening before my eyes. I don't really see much of it now, having no kids of my own and no direct line to plug into the whole sorry mess.
But I know people. And I know what people are capable of doing to their own kind.
I am here, now, simply to say - I am standing. I'm standing up, and speaking out. Even if the worst of it never happened to me, it happened to somebody, is happening to somebody even today. And I am here to stand beside the ones who have no defenses. I cannot be a protector vigilante - but I can and will be the person who speaks up against this wherever it is found, whenever it rears its head. I can tell the people who CAN step in and prevent tragedies that they ought to at least try. If we all save ONE life that's at risk because this kind of behaviour is no longer ignored or dismissed, well human lives, and all the potential which they contain, are precious vessels, and one life saved is one vessel left unbroken. To turn a well-known slogan on its head, "Ask. Tell." Shine the light of day into the darkness of the bullying tunnels. It might not ever stop - there are always the weak and the strong, and in the schoolyard is where the strong rule by the law of Might Is Right - but perhaps it can be leashed, and broken, and caged like the wild animal that it is. Shining a light upon it, calling it by its true name, might, in the best tradition of the fairy tales, reduce the monster from a terrifying and undefeatable shadow to merely something with claws and teeth - and and claws can be blunted, and teeth can be pulled.
Stand up, and speak out. How much does it hurt? The old adage has it that sticks and stones might break bones but that words can never hurt - and we all know that for a bitter lie, that words can scar just as violently, if not more deeply and more permanently, than a set of bruises or scratches. Words shape the inner you, and inside wounds fester faster. It hurts. Even those of us who escaped the worst of the carnage know that it hurts. Stand up, and speak out, and listen. Sometimes, when you're down in the bottom of a pit and can see no way out, it helps just to look up and see a hand held out to you - if not in solidarity then at least with compassion, and sincerity, and understanding. And things can hurt a whole lot less if only there was somebody to understand and share that pain.