I'm going to apologise in advance for the fact that this blog may not be enjoyable reading. It's something I've wanted to write for a while and today just feels like the day. I'm also hoping that a few important people read this, because I think it might just help them to understand me a bit better.
When people say the word "bullying," it conjures up certain images and emotions. It's a word that's used to cover so many different forms of abuse (because essentially, I believe that that's what bullying is) that it's easy to develop a somewhat flippant view that it stands only for petty name-calling. Many of us have experienced it at some point in our lives. Some of us may even have been guilty of inflicting it upon others. I fall into the first group. What I experienced between the age of 12-14(and a half) not only affected me at the time, but changed my life so completely that to this day, the memories bring tears to my eyes and a shiver down my spine. It made me an entirely different person to the one I was before and I sometimes wonder (thankfully no longer as often as I once did) what I'd have been like - what sort of life I might now be living - had it never taken place. The bullying I suffered was not restricted to petty name-calling. To this day, I wish I could turn the clock back and ensure that it never took place. Sometimes I still dream of things I should have said or done in response, even though I know that it's several years too late. But I want to share my experiences in a public place, in the hope that it might help someone (and yes, for a little catharsis).
I began secondary school in September 1994, a little less than a week before my 12th birthday. Nearly 16 years have passed since that very first day, but I can remember it with the sort of clarity that you hope to remember happier times, such as weddings and holidays. I can remember the butterflies in my tummy as I took a seat on the school bus (at the front, near the driver, like my mum told me to). And I can remember the first time I saw him. For the purposes of this blog, I'll call him S. His stop was the next but one along. He climbed on board with a swagger in his step and called out a greeting to those already gathered on the back seat. It sounds horribly judgemental, but from the first second I saw him, I didn't like him. There was something about his stocky demeanour and his long hair, shaved underneath and tied back in a ponytail that made him look frightening. Lets not forget, you're talking about an eleven year old girl who was less than five feet tall and would have struggled to fill an adult size 6 dress at the time. I was tiny and I knew absolutely nobody on the bus. Mum used to call me "Lamby" because of my soft, blonde (then) curls, but on that September morning, I was a rabbit, caught in the headlights.
It didn't take him long to focus on me. I was a gawky looking kid and with my face pressed against the glass (in that tried and tested: "If I don't look at him, I will obviously become invisible" trick) it was clear that I was nervous and didn't want to be the subject of unwelcome attention. If my memory serves me correctly, his first words to me (or rather about me) were: "What is THAT?"
And that, quite literally, was it. From that day, up until I moved away at the end of January 1997, I became sub-human. I was never referred to as "her," only as "it" or "that." My femininity was removed as well as every shred of self-confidence I had ever had. In the mornings, when S got onto the bus, his first words would refer to me. If I was wearing my hair down (which I think I only did two or three times; I've never been happy with my hair), it would be: "Oh God, it has it's hair down today." If I had a new coat on: "Look! It has a new coat!"
Those comments were, however, only the tip of a particularly nasty iceberg and relatively easy to ignore. My parents had always told me: "If someone's nasty, just ignore them" and that's what I'd do. Stare out of the window, clenching my fists and counting the stops til we reached school or, in the afternoons, the safety of home. Unfortunately, silence wasn't the reaction S wanted.
In the afternoon, on the way home from my first day, he came to sit beside me. I was uncomfortable - he was sitting deliberately close, whispering in my ear for maximum effect. At first he asked me simple questions. Where do you live? Do you have any brothers or sisters? How was your first day? My answers came back in a tight-sounding, high-pitched voice that I didn't recognise as my own. It certainly didn't belong to the confident, somewhat feisty young girl who'd left primary school just a few weeks earlier. Then, as the (rather one-sided) conversation continued, the questions became more attacking: Are you posh? Have you ever kissed someone? Do you know what you look like?! I decided I wasn't going to play anymore and elected not to answer. What's the matter? He cooed, with mock-concern. I'm just being friendly... And with that, he erupted into howls of laughter and returned to his throne at the back of the bus, where he loudly shouted that I was the ugliest thing he had ever seen and that I was pathetic and couldn't even stand up for myself. I went home and cried. Mum said it was probably just because I was the new girl and that it would get better. It didn't.
Over the next few weeks, he took to sitting beside me and whispering into my ear. I'd bite the insides of my cheeks, silently wondering where the hell the cocky, outspoken girl I used to be had disappeared to, willing her with all my might to return to tell this idiot where to go. But she had gone for good. He had effectively killed her with his words: You know nobody likes you, don't you? Your friends might pretend to, but actually they feel the same as the rest of us. We can't stand to look at you - nobody can. You're so disgusting, you're barely human. I feel so sorry for your parents, you must be such a disappointment. They must be so ashamed, knowing people are looking at you and thinking: What is that thing?! You should kill yourself, so nobody has to look at you anymore. Nobody would miss you. Your family would probably be relieved. And it's not like you have anything to live for, is it? Who's ever going to want you?! Nobody. Nobody could bring themselves to love something that looks like that."
I was only a child. I was twelve years old. An age where your body is changing. Your opinions about the world are just starting to form and you're confused about who you are and what you look like. You are, in a sense, growing into yourself. I had been on course to grow into a confident (some might argue cocky), intelligent young woman. Someone who had very little interest in whether anyone thought negatively of her, because I was content in who I was. Surrounded by love at home and the centre of attention amongst my friends. Suddenly all of that changed. I was frightened. Confused. Was he right? He must be - my friends at school talked about having boyfriends, whereas nobody gave me a second glance. Of course he must be right.
When, inevitably, the words caused tears to fall from my eyes, he would screech with delight: It's crying! It's fucking crying! Oh my God, you have to see this, it looks even more gross now! He would try to turn me round, so the baying group of his mates at the back of the bus could see my tear-stained cheeks and, when I resisted, he would laugh: Fucking hell Gonzo, don't try to fight back, you freak.
Sometimes simply tears weren't enough. He and a friend (the name of whom I have, mercifully, forgotten) would come and sit behind me and play a "game." The rules were simple: You gobbed at me and the one who got the most phlegm in my hair and on my clothes was the winner. My friend Clare began waiting for me at school, knowing she would have to usher me into the toilets to wash my hair and scrub at my clothes whilst I sobbed uncontrollably and told her I wished I was dead. It wasn't just bodily fluids, either. Sandwiches were thrown at me. On one occasion, black sugary stuff was rubbed into my hair so it looked like I had nits. Nits are disgusting and so are you.
The driver of the bus never said or did anything. The teachers at school were clueless as to how to deal with the situation. My parents offered to take me out of the school, but it was where my friends were. Besides, all of my confidence was shattered - how could I go to a new school and try to start again? I was a hideous, disgusting freak and I may as well stay where people knew me.
The Emma I once was had disappeared for good by Christmas. My leavers report from primary school had referred to me as a "bright, confident girl, unafraid to join in with debates or to be centre of attention." I came home in December 1994 with a report that said I was "worryingly quiet and withdrawn." S had murdered the person I was. The adult I could have become. In place of that girl was a frightened, lonely scrap of a person. I put my head down at school and did my best. I still managed to make my small group of friends laugh. But inside, I was terrified. Not simply of going to school. Not simply of the bullying. But that S might be right. That I was a disappointment to my parents. That I would grow up to be unloved. That there was no point to my life. That I would be better off dead.
In late 1995, I climbed up onto the edge of our bath and tied my school tie to the shower rail. I tied the other end around my neck and jumped. My feet landed on the warm, fluffy bath mat. I couldn't even get suicide right, for crying out loud. I took five or six paracetamol, before I got scared. I didn't want to die. I went to bed and cried myself to sleep.
Finally, in January 1997, I was given the news I'd prayed for. My dad had been posted to an RAF base in Gloucestershire. We were moving away. I can still remember the overwhelming joy of stepping off that bus for the last time. I don't know whether S knew I was leaving and I don't care. He spent that last bus journey sat next to me, with his arm around me, telling me: Enjoy this. No other man is ever going to touch you. The thought would sicken anyone to their stomach.
I walked into my new school a few days later, feeling like an enormous weight had been lifted from my shoulders. My form room was up a flight of stairs and, once registration was over, I followed a few girls out of the room and asked them to show me where to go for my first lesson. We walked halfway down the stairs and then I realised an enormous crowd of boys had gathered. One of them pointed at me: Look! THAT is our new GIRL. Look at it! That's not a fucking girl!
I felt my stomach drop to the floor. S had been right. I was hideous. I was going to spend the rest of my life alone. Luckily, that incident was pretty much isolated. I made it through the rest of my school life with only a few snide comments - the sort you can allow to pass you by (or at least pretend to). S did enter my life again, though. When I was 15, a friend from my old school phoned me and said he was with her - did I want to speak to him? He took the phone from her:
I bet you're still an ugly freak - I hope someone there is doing my job for me! Say something then, Gonzo!"
I hung up.
There are people who argue that the things that happen to us in our past should be forgotten to an extent. That we shouldn't let the past affect our present. In some ways I agree. But I believe that what happens to us shapes us and affects the way we treat others. It affects the choices we make and, although mine have been painful, it teaches us lessons that can prove to be invaluable. I wish I had never been through what I went through. I wish I could go back in time and put a comforting arm around that frightened 11 year old on her first day at school. But I can't. What I can do is learn from it. Learn never to judge others solely on their appearance. To have enough emotional intelligence to know when someone is upset and to try to help wherever I can. To offer support to those who need it - I helped to run a counselling service for lower school pupils affected by bullying when I was a sixth former and it was incredibly cathartic, albeit bittersweet as it reminded me that there was no such service afforded to me when I needed it most.
I may not be the confident, out-going girl I could have been. I may be infuriating at times, when I look in a mirror and proclaim myself to be fat and ugly. I can't imagine how frustrating it must be for people who think I'm actually half-decent to hear me constantly put myself down. But those people have to try to remember where that comes from. No, I don't live in the past. No, I don't believe I deserved to be attacked for the way I looked. But it takes a lot of effort on my part to look at myself and be pleased with what I see. I've never stopped seeing that gawky little girl.
And yes, I know it's annoying when I feel the need to justify myself by saying "I don't want to sound arrogant, but..." before I compliment myself. But for someone who spent years feeling unfeminine, sub-human and not worthy of any compliment, it's a pretty big step forward to be saying something positive at all.
I'm not perfect, by any means. I have my flaws (and I don't just mean physical ones). But I'd like to think I'm a pretty good version of the Emma I was forced to become and I really hope that reading this helps those around me - those I love and wouldn't ever want to be without - understand me a little better.