Wall of Silence: What Your Kids Won't Tell You About Bullying
|About the presenter: Gina Waggott is a 23 year-old lifelong stutterer from Yorkshire, UK. In 1997 she took her first steps into the worldwide stuttering community with an ambition to help others. Gina is currently an Executive Board Member of the European League of Stuttering Associations (ELSA), where she deals with Youth issues, and has been an active volunteer of the British Stammering Association for seven years. She has written numerous articles, speeches and workshops relating to stuttering that have been read and heard throughout the world. Gina is the owner of StutteringChat, the world's largest online group for people who stutter. In her elusive spare time she enjoys listening to & creating music, art, writing, and approaching life and cooking with reckless abandon.
Wall of silence: What your kids won't tell you about bullying
by Gina Waggott
I wonder if you disagree with that old phrase: "Schooldays are the happiest days of your life".
I always cringe when I hear that, because I am unwillingly forced to think about my own appalling experiences in childhood. For me, schooldays were full of misery, loneliness and fear - emotions that are not just exclusive to we who stutter. Sadly, I know that I'm not alone.
I have written this autobiographical paper for several reasons - first and foremost, to attempt to enlighten parents, carers, teachers and the like about how it feels to be on the receiving end of severe and relentless bullying. I want it to be made clear why many kids choose to suffer in silence, not telling a soul about it until it is sometimes too late and the damage has been done. Above all, I would dearly love to prevent any child going through what I went through - years of despair and heartache, culminating in a suicide attempt.
Many people have different ideas about what bullying actually is. It doesn't have to be physical - in fact, kids have cited the psychological and verbal aspects of bullying to be far worse. The most common acts that constitute bullying are:
- name calling and teasing
- threats and extortion
- physical violence
- damage to someone's belongings
- leaving pupils out of social activities deliberately and frequently
- spreading malicious rumours
There are also many common myths about the personality types of both a typical bully and a typical victim. The truth is, most kids are capable of bullying another (especially in a group, if only to "join in"), and almost any child can be a victim. For some children, bullying is ignored or forgotten and doesn't even register. For others, it can start to harm self-esteem and confidence in a downward spiral. That is what happened to me.
I used to think "why me?". Although you do not need to be weak or vulnerable to become a victim of bullying, I was both. Funnily enough I doubt that my stuttering was the thing that singled me out to the bullies. There are plenty of other reasons - I had red hair, an unusual surname, and I was very, very quiet. Almost a mute. I figured if I didn't speak, I didn't stutter, therefore there would be no more ammunition for the bullies to fire. I still think they would have targeted me anyway - I never had it in me to fight back, either verbally or physically.
The bullying began when I was six... around the same time my stuttering started. Perhaps there's a link, although I can't be sure. I happened to be a very intelligent child with an unusually high IQ for my age - something that I hated, because it no doubt angered and frustrated the other kids. I frequently got singled out in lessons to work on my own, eventually ending up being double or triple promoted through the classes, sitting with kids three or four years older than me. I despised this "special treatment" because these other, older kids immediately targeted me.
Therein lies the problem - six years old and already hating who I was. Nothing like that could ever bode well for the future. Self-consciousness, rather than stuttering, was the thing that silenced me then, and would last another decade. It scares me that children can have such complex, mature emotions because they don't have the tools to deal with them. I certainly didn't. I just tried to cope with it in my own way.
I decided I would not speak in class. I have kept my old school reports and the same comment repeats itself year after year: "Extremely quiet", "reluctant to join in class discussions", "will not voice her opinion". They never knew I stuttered. When they asked me questions, for a while, I pretended not to hear them. The poor teachers thought I had a hearing problem and I was moved to the front of the class in all my lessons until a doctor was called in. He established that I was hearing everything absolutely fine, I just wasn't keen on speaking. I really should have been referred to a speech therapist then, but I wasn't. I was painfully shy and they took that to be the reason for my silences.
Things went from bad to worse. I started a new school, and within the first week I was a target. A boy my age decided to make hitting and kicking me his lunchtime entertainment. I remember cowering in a corner, not understanding what I had done to provoke him or why he would want to hurt me - and boy, did he hurt me. I don't know how the teachers missed it, or perhaps they turned a blind eye, because one day he cracked my head against a wall and knocked me unconscious. I recall coming round on a couch in the headmistress's office as they cleaned me up. "Did you fall over or did someone do this to you?" she asked. That was a mistake - giving me an option to lie. "I fell over". I said. She asked me if I was sure. I said yes.
This continued for about a year. I was hit, kicked, punched, trodden on, even bitten. My arms, legs and back were the only places the marks showed and presumably that's why my parents never knew what was going on. Why didn't I tell anyone? Well, the boy threatened that if I did, he would kill me - and I believed him.
The day did arrive when I decided to tell someone - it turned out to be the first and last time I would. That someone was my dad, who said, "hit him back". So I did, which provoked and angered the boy even more. I decided it was a mistake having opened my mouth in the first place.
By this time, my mother had started regular trips in and out of hospital (unknown to me at that time, she had developed terminal cancer), otherwise I would have told her. Perhaps she would have dealt with it in a different way to my father - who probably advised me the best he could, even if it was wrong. Hitting back, fighting fire with fire, hardly ever works. With both of them struggling to cope with my mother's illness, I was left with nobody to turn to for help. I couldn't speak to the teachers, I was too afraid that they would punish the bullies, who would then (I presumed) punish me in turn.
If bullying is a hard thing for teachers to deal with in the playground, school buses are a nightmare - many educational authorities won't accept responsibility for what happens on the school bus as it's out of school grounds. By the time I was a little bit older, the boy who bullied me was suspended from school for other reasons, but a group of girls soon took his place. I was pushed and pulled around for a while, then someone came up with the idea of setting fire to my hair. It is unbelievably scary having a lighter flicked just behind your neck as you are sat there, paralysed with fear at being burned. I managed to run out of the bus and walked several miles home, the other kids spitting at me out of the bus windows as I went.
What followed, sadly, was a catalogue of incidents spanning a further five years. There was less violence but more psychological battles. I made the mistake of bringing things to school during parties or "show and tell" type sessions, only to have them stolen, or taken, smashed, and returned to me gleefully at the end of the school day. I had started to collect articles on Scatman John (my then hero) and one day they were taken from me and ripped in half in front of my face. I still have all the pieces in a box.
Such events support the saying that "kids are cruel". The one thing that was worse than any of the physical pain I endured was being teased when my mother died. There was a group of them singing "where's ya mamma gone?" to me over the dinner tables each day. I cried every lunchtime and the teachers plucked me from the hall and had me sit with them instead, perhaps thinking it would make things better. To the other kids, this appeared to be preferential treatment and made things even worse.
By the time I reached high school, I was at my wit's end. I thought a new school would be a new start, but again, the old cycle began. I felt like I had a neon sign on my head saying, "hurt me". The friends I had deserted me whenever the bullies appeared, not wanting to become victims themselves through their association with me. The teachers only saw me as a quiet, shy student who kept herself to herself. At home, my dad was a mess and I was trying my best to look after everyone and be a pillar of strength following my mother's death. On top of all this, nobody knew I stuttered. I had been avoiding, substituting and hiding for most of my life. Even if I wanted to speak up, I felt nobody would listen, and I knew I wouldn't be able to get the words out (even now, my stutter takes over if I speak about something personal or emotionally-charged). It was all too much. I decided the best thing to do would be to end my short life. Contrary to most beliefs about suicide being a selfish act, I thought I was doing the world a favour by not being in it. I did not know I was contemplating a permanent solution to a problem that would be temporary, despite feeling like it had gone on forever.
19,000 young people a year attempt suicide due to bullying. That's one every half-hour ...the time it may take you to read this paper. In the USA, more people die from suicide than homicide. In the UK, suicide is now the number one cause of death in young males. Every now and again we read a sad story in the papers of a child taking his or her own life, leaving notes saying, "I can't take it any more. The bullying won't stop".
I wrote my own notes on a beach one July afternoon in 1994. I was thirteen. I remember wishing the sea would come out and swallow me up. I slit my right arm and wrist and waited. I can't remember what happened afterwards, not because I passed out, but because my memory of those days has become an emotional blur. My family still doesn't know about that day - they presumed I had fallen on the beach rocks. I do remember reading the notes some time afterwards, and the content shocked me so much I destroyed them.
I am not going to be idealistic and say that bullying can be eradicated completely, but like stuttering, it is often misunderstood and not talked about enough. Campaigns come and go, but bullying is here to stay. That is, unless we do something about it for our own kids and students.
What parents can do
If my experience has one message - it would be to make yourselves available and open if your child wants to talk about any kind of problem. Some parents, despite all their good intentions (and who will be saying "but I know my son/daughter would come to me if they had a problem!"), often appear "too busy" to a child who wants to sit quietly and talk about difficult subjects that hurt them. Bear in mind that bullying is often a problem that breeds fear. I feared telling my parents, because they would inevitably contact the school, who would contact the bullies, who would then hurt me.
Such fear usually means that if you ask your child outright - "are you being bullied? Is someone hurting you at school? Do you get made fun of?" they may well deny it, scared of you taking action. It's not because they don't want to tell you or they aren't close enough to you, my experience is that fear of the bully finding out you have "told" on them rises above everything else.
Some kids are very good at hiding things. In some of the cases where a child commits suicide, the parents say "we never knew", "he/she seemed happy and popular". Sometimes it's the popular kids who are bullied... remember that there isn't a "typical" victim.
What Teachers can do
Most schools have anti-bullying policies, which only work if the staff become aware of bullying occurring in the first place. There was always a teacher "on duty" in the playground in my school, but there are only so many kids you can watch at once. Bullies wait for the teacher to walk in the opposite direction and then do their deeds, often making threats to the victim to prevent them from telling the teacher.
The best way to find out if a child is being bullied is through the victim's friends or classmates. They almost always know if another child is being bullied as they generally witness it, but don't get involved to prevent the bully turning on them. It's this same reason that they may be reluctant to confirm they know of a victim. If parents and teachers collaborate at the first sign of something being wrong, it could go a long way towards nipping bullying in the bud.
No child should have gone through the experiences I went through. Now in my early twenties, I am happy and outgoing and will never allow myself to be a victim. The past hurts, but not as much as the knowledge that somewhere, right now, children are being bullied. Kids who stutter are among them. I don't want them to spiral downwards, think the unthinkable, and write, "The bullying won't stop", because it must.
Now... put down this paper, go talk to your kids. They may or may not have problems, but tell them you're there for them regardless... even if you've said it before. You'll both be happy you did.
July 10, 2004