Sometimes, fighting back against bullying may be the best response. Photo: Getty
My daughter is still so young that we deal in absolutes. ‘Don’t hit’, ‘Don’t bite’, ‘Don’t push’ I tell her. It’s a black and white world devoid of nuance. But as she approaches school age I know my days of simple and rigid rules are drawing to a close. The age of contingency and caveat will soon be upon us. My anxiety about this new world centres on bullying: what to do if my child is bullied. What to do if my child is the bully.
My own experience of being bullied at school was mercifully short compared to some who endure it for years. My bullies’ campaign lasted about four months. Brief, yes, but pungent. And problematic. It began when I was in year seven and three girls with whom I thought I was close friends turned against me. The reversal was swift and total.
It was also co-ordinated. They would approach me in the playground from different directions and corral me. Then they would circle, exchanging taunts that they had devised earlier. They were strategic in how they did this; materialising when there were no teachers or adults around, melting away when there were. At swimming training they would kick me under the water, safe in the knowledge that they could plausibly call ‘accident’ if I complained.
It didn’t occur to me to approach an adult for help – a fact that worries the hell out of me as a parent. Childhood is such a hermetically sealed world with its own rules and conventions. Parents and other adults inhabit a parallel universe with which there are exchanges of conversation, affection and food. But it’s hard for an adult to look at a twelve year old girl and grasp just how menacing she can be. How, when you too are a twelve year old girl, she can suck the oxygen from your world until each day is just another exercise in anxiety. Even if they could have grasped it, what good would it have done me? My parents couldn’t accompany me to school, to swimming training, to dance class. I was on my own.
I dredged my memory for something I had done to bring down this reign of terror on my head. Once, I approached one of the girls when I found her alone and asked, point blank, why she was treating me this way. She was embarrassed and claimed it was all one of the other girls’ ideas. (She was especially vicious to me in the pack attacks after I dared to confront her). I became smaller, effacing all traces of personality to make myself as invisible and inoffensive as possible. Normally voluble, I kept quiet in class, bunkering down in the library during recess and lunch. Nothing I did made any difference. There was nothing rational I could do to make the bullying stop because – I realise now - it wasn’t rational.
Here’s the part where it gets tricky.
I did eventually do something that made it stop. I belted the ring leader.
I didn’t plan to do it, but after months of stress and the total exhaustion of my ingenuity about how to change the situation I was at my wit’s end. Corralled by the girls (again), on the oval away from teachers (again) I took one step, two steps as if to start a gymnastics routine (they had expressly forbidden me to do gymnastics, my favourite thing). Rather than lowering my hand to do a cartwheel I smashed it across the ring-leader’s face. Then I did it again.
The three of them dissolved into outraged tears. Then they went straight to a teacher. I was hauled up to the principal’s office to explain myself. Then my parents were hauled up to explain themselves. My teacher ordered me to apologise. I didn’t and wouldn’t. There was an ugly black mark against my name in the adult universe. But in the universe I lived in, the childhood universe, the bullying stopped. They left me alone after that.
To this day I think I was in the right for refusing to apologise. But how to package this incident up in a way that sends the right messages to my daughter is another thing. ‘Don’t hit’, I tell her, ‘Don’t push’, ‘Don’t bite’. Soon she will be beyond my reach. Once she starts school her peer group will loom much larger to her than I do. I want to equip her to deal with the uglier side of childhood. Yet I also want her to reject violence as a solution. It’s the ifs, buts and maybes around these two propositions that are so damn difficult. Especially this one: the unpalatable idea – rejected by the Victorian Education Department - that fighting back might be the right thing.
Sarah Jones is a writer and regulatory analyst. She holds a PhD in history from the University of Western Australia and is the author of the novel Red Dress Walking.