A friend of mine was updating me this weekend on the progress of her American niece who’s just started High School. Being 15, she has to come home on the school bus, unlike almost everyone else in the school who has turned 16 and owns a car. In America, significant age markers are sensibly spaced. Unlike in Britain, where coming of age to legally drive, drink Southern Comfort and take the most important academic exams of your life happens within 12 months – something generally considered nothing more than a happy coincidence.
Anyway, the bus is called the Looser Cruiser, for obvious reasons of puerile High School amusement, and the previously status-happy niece is now living in a state of permanent mortification.
I also learned last week that the older brother of a child in my daughter’s class had been bullied persistently since the day he started at our lovely Ofsted-perfect primary school. ‘Until the day he left,’ according to his mum. Which was July, so it’s still all a little raw. And more than a little shocking.
I was bullied at school, fairly mercilessly for a fairly short time, and even in my world of perpetual self-criticism, I’m not really sure to this day why it was me. I was neither the prettiest or the cleverest, or the quietest or the strangest. I did however have a habit of thrusting my sleeves up over my elbows – regardless of the weather and in a slightly obsessive manner possibly – and this seemed to be the reasonable focus of months of unwanted threatening, lurking and hair-pulling behaviour. Funny what bothers a bunch of fourteen-year-old girls.
Bullying continued for me into the work place, but this time as a time-honoured extension of the women’s-magazine interview process. Surviving two years as the most junior female on the all-female staff of a weekly mag – when everyone else was old, face-lifted and snagging their cashmere on the way back down the ladder – was all part of a natural selection process that starts with The Lady and ends with Vogue. Unless you take a break for children, or fresh air.
And so it all goes down as good character-building stuff, lessons to learn from, reasons to drink, and amusing anecdotes to add to the after-dinner chatter. But suddenly now there’s my kids? How can I just leave them all day in a world where wearing the wrong coloured socks might be enough to turn them into victims of endless persecution?
I feel already as pained by the injustice of the bullying one of them will inevitably suffer as I do the inevitability that one of them will be the cause of another child’s pain. I know about girls, and I see the way they’re already skirting around the periphery of behind-the-hand whispering and three’s-a-crowd play dates. And even the four-year-old boys have got clear ideas about who they will and won’t entertain, based on truths unperceivable to even the most observant mother. They’re honing their skills right in front of us, and it’s going to be a long journey back to character-building.
Gentle bullying, teasing maybe, is a common thread in many of my most precious adult friendships. It’s the easiest way of saying ‘I love you’ to someone you’re not sleeping with, to show that you’re completely candid and irreverent about the weaknesses that make them special. But no form of bullying is without its pit-falls, and I have always been suspicious of the Eleanor Roosevelt school of self-belief, where no-one can hurt you or make you feel inferior unless you let them. It’s not true, not even with a decent therapist. No-one will stay hurt or inferior if they’re picked up and cuddled.