Bullying: à la guerre, comme à la guerre?

For the first time in many years, my son has agreed to talk on the topic, as well as giving his consent to write about it.


There was that call from his school: a school’s secretary had asked me to come to the school as soon as possible. Hearing that could cause quite a few grey hairs for every parent. So it did to me. Although I was assured that my son is safe and sound, I was, nevertheless, to come to the school urgently right in the middle of the school day. There, the Deputy Head told me that I am to take my son home earlier today and to have some serious talk with him. Which was not surprising considering that earlier that day my son asked his Science teacher where he can buy a poison to kill himself. He was 11 at the time.


That was more like a climax for the chain of the events that have been causing us quite a disturbance, to say the least.


There was a star-shaped sticker, which I found on my son’s sports T-shirt, and which he did not notice. I, not being able to read it without glasses, happily called him to ask what he got the star for, and then we both realised that it could have been better if he hadn’t seen it at all: the sticker read “Mentally deprived” (thinking of it — they sell even those!). It was obviously one of those silly jokes from his classmates. I can still see this star-sticker in my mind. (As one of my friend recently told me, some could have just dismissed the case without a second thought. Some could have, but if only that was the single case).


There were bitter tears my son was pouring onto my shoulder several times a week, while we were sitting on the stairs which led to the second floor of our house. We have even established the sad routine: every time he got upset in the school, he, like a bullhead, would throw himself at me, butting me with his heavy head of not-yet-teen, until I would retreat to the stairs, where we sat and talk, and cried, my son uncontrollably for some time, and I — silently. He would notably force himself, as he was seemingly ashamed even in front of me, to tell me the whole bunch of insults and bitter jokes he was addressed and experienced during the day.


There was a farfetched vacuum around him when even quite friendly peers would avoid being in contact, at least in public, which is all even sadder. Some did it trying not to attract an extra attention to him, some did not wish to become victims themselves. All in all, that, as the matter of fact, have led to becoming his way of life, in terms of loving to be all by himself.


All the above has the very exact and frightful meaning: bullying. And, as I see it, there is nothing more dreadful in the entire childhood of your kid than that. When he is unwell or even sick (not fatally, of course), we can help him with the medicine and our love. When his feelings are hurt we have only love to offer, which is, unfortunately, helpful only when we are around. They are alone, scared and hurt, there, where they are being bullied. While we are sitting at home, all adult-ish, strong, experienced, smart, and can do nothing, just to wait for them from school and to love them with all our might.


I have dreamed to smother his tormentors. I wished I could prompt my son to do that. At the end of the day, who else but us, street children from communal flats, “kommunalkas” or tiny environments of Khruschev’s living developments, who know better how to stand up for themselves. I myself, was the victim of bullying, that almost cost me my eye. My parents were not even aware that I was being bullied. The school authorities were not aware as well — otherwise, I would have been bullied “to death”. I was lucky and even became a leader and all-time favourite after that. But luck does not work for everyone.


My son, as thousands of other children, is completely normal, regular boy. He is neither fat, nor skinny, neither squint, nor crooked, neither a leader, nor an outsider, neither stupid nor a genius, although all of that is not important. Be he either the Quasimodo or Esmeralda, if the luck is tough, here you go. They catch you once, and if they are not pushed back by the inexperienced victim, if you show them your distress, you are busted.


In reality, no one knows exactly how to deal with it, in the sense that there is no cure-all for this situation. Obviously, there are ways, if not to cure, at least to ease the tension. Although, in my opinion, none of it could be enough. And even if you lessen the bullying wave using all those instruments, your child will still be left traumatised, sometimes substantially and/or irrevocably. My son, by the way, still does not like to remember or to talk about his primary school days, like those never existed.


In the UK, in theory, the law regarding the bullying, be it school bullying or other, is very particular and strict. The issue could be resolved even with the involvement of police, social services and MPs. But it is always better to be familiar with the system.


In our case, as for the newcomers to the country, the whole education process was anew (we learned the perks of the system step by step, together with our son's progress in it: from the first fiasco with the tights in the winter (a no-no for the boys, as contrary to our home-country, where winters are THE winters), all the way to the nerve-wrenching process of school assessments, tests, waiting lists etc.). In some issues we were treading instinctively, taking from our own experience, but, as I see it now, not quite effectively.


I realised that there is something wrong with my son almost immediately, but still not soon enough to nip it in the bud. His first brief on the situation I had to tear away from him: he learned the rule of “no snitching” before the Jingle Bells lyrics. Then, there was that sad routine of ours: stairs, tears, stories. As I mentioned, either out of old habits or because we were not familiar with the system, we did not appeal to the school immediately. Actually, our son was himself very reluctant about it.


As the matter of fact, I would point out, that, in my opinion, all the actions regarding the issue we must discuss with our kid, no matter what age he or she is. We do not know, what is the situation out there, what subtle aspects are in place. We will not be there, when the reaction on our actions will begin, either. And above all, our kid is not only the victim, but he is also a witness and an insider.


So we talked. Every day. We listened to him, sympathised with him, encouraged him to ignore, chewed over every tiny detail. There was some progress, but still, very slow, very unstable, one day at a time.


Then Deputy Headmaster asked me to see him and informed me that our son looks unhappy. I have to say, the school’s response was efficient and quite tough. Two notorious, as it occurred, bullies soon was expelled from the school. Not only because of their encounters with our son, they have been kept on notice for quite a time, but our case was the last straw. As the matter of fact, the practice of expelling from the school is not so rare here. The fact that you pay your fees for schooling is not relevant if the case is serious enough. I was informed on the spot that in the case of physical response on my son’s part, he would be expelled unconditionally.


That is why, as I see it, the bullying up here more often comes in physiological form rather than physical: it is more contrived, and far more difficult to prove. Anyway, specialists on bullying issues firmly recommend the kids to hand-write every single case, with all the details and dates. This way you will be provided with some kind of proof as well as with therapeutic means to calm down the mood of your kid. We did not know that this was the routine recommendations, and, just out of intuition, organised the diary for our son, where he could put all his thoughts and concerns. He even enjoyed it for some time.


When the matter started to get overwhelming and the “poison question” was asked, the school authorities have offered to start a series of sessions with the school psychologist, which we accepted. It is often the case at the public schools to have a psychologist as a member of staff. Not that they are brilliant and that the help provided is very resultative, but still. In case of the state schools, they could not have psychologists in-staff, but they are in the right to recommend your GP to issue a referral for your child to see NHS provided one. I am not sure how easy it is, I suspect not, as anything with NHS, but in some complicated and serious cases, it could be possible as well as necessary.


I have to repent, that I would not and could not evaluate the situation like the one out of control back then. So, I haven’t trumpeted about our problems, I haven’t tried to change the schools (that is also one of the ways, as advised), I haven’t been through the array of private psychologists with our son. Firstly, because of our past experiences when we were kids. Not to wash our dirty linen in public was the mantra I took in with mother’s milk, as some kind of protection from notorious Soviet-era inspired victim blaming: being raped is your fault — wrong place, wrong clothes, wrong behaviour; being cheated on is your fault — wrong soup, wrong words, wrong attitude; being bullied is your fault — wrong self-presentation.


Secondly, I have thought at the time, that the more people we will involve in the process, the more stress our son will get. I thought that the new school is not the solution but just more reasons for distress, considering the assessment period.


I am not telling that I was right. We just got lucky as we were not left with some serious psychological consequences. Ok, our son prefers solitude to the noisy companies, even having very good and solid friends now. But I would not call it a problem, it's just a type of character. Now, when we started to talk about it again, he told that no one, neither the school nor the psychologist, has helped him as much as we did, even with our primitive, Moscow-style methods, casually tacked books or watched movies.


And we talked. A lot. We discussed every single bitter word, every unpleasant incident. We invented and played out many responses: funny, daring, strong — you name it. We learned to laugh straight in the face of the bully, to ignore them, to retort.


For instance, for bullying such as “I hate/do not like you”, we invented or looked up in the internet several possible responses, like “It’s OK, not everyone has a good taste” or “And why have you decided that I am interested?” We have learned them by heart. We visited different forums and voted for the best replies to bullies. In short, if someone calls you stupid, ask them to prove they are Einsteins. It may look a bit of naive, but it works with the kids perfectly.


At least, with our son it did. It cost us tears, doubts, time, but it worked. It is not necessary to put into life all those replies — enough to know that there are replies, all kinds of them. Those replies themselves act as the therapy.


Still, based on our experience, I would insist that it is an absolute must to try to exhaust all possibilities given by the law.


In the UK, we have quite a distinguished and clear chain of command one has to go through to prove, deal with and to solve the issue: the teacher, the Head Master, relevant higher supervising authorities, police, social services and so on with the local MP at the end.


State school should organise relevant events to make kids and the parents aware of bullying and how it could be prevented. Public schools’ policies vary but they also do everything to comply with the law. Yet, there are still about 40% of pupils (12-20 y.o.) yearly, who experience the bullying issue.


I, once again, will not insist that the system does not work, it is quite opposite. But the most important support should come from us, parents. And please, do not, out of your old street habit, provide your child with any kind of physical or other aggressive retaliation advice. Just listen to your kid, talk to him, be on his or her side, never tell him he is weak.


In the long run, if your kid is being called “useless, inadequate or weak minded”, our DNA is being called so as well. It is no one’s fault. It is anything but anyone's fault. That is the most important thing I am talking about. Neither kids nor parents are guilty, that some of the classmates probably have some family issues which he or she decides to compensate for by bullying others. This is, and I would insist, the main thing to be learned by heart. Almost like or even, sometimes, instead of the prayers.

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