Sunday, 15 June 2014

You Can Lead An Emma To Water... But You Can't Necessarily Make Her Water-Ski.

Over the course of the years, I'd like to think I've pretty much nailed going to the beach.  I've got a big, floppy hat and I can man a barbecue with the best of them.  Okay, so I don't tan so much as either remain so pale I practically glow in the dark, or burn so fiercely that I'm roughly the same colour as Sebastian the Crab in The Little Mermaid, but on the whole, I reckon I've got the beach thing down.

The sea, however, is another thing entirely.  I'm not the strongest swimmer and my sense of balance has never been exactly brilliant.  So when my workplace suggested a team-building day out at the beach, doing water sports, my first thought was "Are my financial affairs in order?  Because I'm almost certainly going to drown." And then I thought: "I've never worn a wetsuit.  What if I look like a beached whale?  OH MY GOD, WHAT IF SOMEONE HARPOONS ME?!"

The thing is, I've always been the kind of girl who'll try most things once.  I like a challenge, I like an adventure and I kind of like the smell of neoprene.  So off I went yesterday, in the blazing sunshine, to the Camel Ski School down in Rock.  Ladies and gentlemen, I wore a wetsuit.  And there wasn't a harpoon in sight!  HOORAY!

The first thing we tried was paddle-boarding (unless you count eating the meat we cooked on the barbecue as the first thing we did, in which case, I was really good at that).  I was told that newbies to the sport tend to try it on their knees first, before standing up once they're confident.  Being bolshy (it's the Greek in me, I swear), I shook my head and insisted on standing up straight away.  To my surprise, I barely wobbled and set off down the Camel Estuary at quite a pace, even managing to manoeuvre my board away from a very large bollard sticking out of the water.  "Bloody Hell," I thought.  "I'm good at water sports!  Who knew?!"

I am WOMAN.  Hear me ROAR.

Having gotten to grips with paddle-boarding, next up was kayaking.  I was possibly a little over-confident by this point, but I got into the boat without managing to roll it over, which I took as a good sign and the next thing I knew, I was sailing back up the estuary with one of my workmates.  Tired thighs and achey arms aside, I discovered that kayaking is not too tricky and lots of fun.  Well, not too tricky when you've got a gentle tide and the water's only around four feet deep, anyway...  I was doing exceptionally well at not sinking, until I switched crew mate and we attempted to let our Deputy Manager join us in the boat.  Next thing I knew, the boat was upside down and I was on my back, thrashing around like a most inelegant seal.  No offence to seals.

Check out my oars, baby.

Once we had all finished paddling - in one way or another - up and down the estuary, the tide had come in enough for us to head out on the speedboat and try our hands at water-skiing.  I'm not going to lie to you, I was pretty nervous.  I'm quite fond of being alive and I had a few visions of disappearing beneath the waves a la Jack in Titanic, whilst my workmates sobbed "I'll never let go..." (as they let go).  Still, like I said, I'm a girl who'll try most things once and I'm also a bit of an adrenaline junkie, so somewhere amongst the nervous twitching, there was a voice in my head trying to convince me that I was about to discover a hidden talent for the sport.  Did I?

Weeeeeeell...  Maybe not.  I stood up whilst holding onto the practise bar and I caused our instructor to ask: "Are you sure you've never done this before?!"  I was pretty proud of myself for that, given that my sense of balance is so notoriously awful, I've been known to trip over thin air.  I progressed on to attempting to actually water-ski, with an actual rope, being tugged along by an actual speedboat.  And I experienced actual sinking, yet more seal-like thrashing and actual sea water up my nose.  BUT I didn't give up.  As I mentioned, I can be pretty bolshy and there was no way I was going to let a body of water and a pair of skis get the better of me.  In spite of having actually lost my skis (more than once), I jumped - well, okay, slid awkwardly - back into the sea, put the rope between my skis, got into the first position and gave the shout to our instructor that I was ready to go again.  And as the engine roared into life and I felt myself being propelled forwards, I rose out of the water like Ursula King Triton from The Little Mermaid and I only bloody well went and did it!!  I mean, okay, I stood up for roughly 2 seconds.  But those were two of the proudest seconds of my year so far!

Today, my body aches like I've been hit by a truck and whilst watching the England game at gone midnight last night, I was still blowing seawater out of my nose (I know - so sexy).  But it was totally worth it.  Lesson learnt?  Give new things a try - you'll only regret it if you don't and you might end up having the time of your life!

With HUGE thanks to Charlie and Faith Toogood and everyone at the Camel Ski School in Rock, North Cornwall.  :-)

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Why I Hate Bullying More Than Pretty Much ANYTHING Else.

Thankfully, the operation to remove the toy dog from my face was a success.

There aren't that many photos of me between the ages of 12 and 16/17.  The ones that exist often feature me hiding my face in some manner, as the picture above demonstrates (I was 16 in that).  It isn't because we didn't have a camera.  It's not because I didn't have family or friends who wanted to take photos.  It's because I hated the way I looked so vehemently that I avoided being in photographs unless I had to be.  Sure, there were exceptions, but on the whole, that period of my life is pretty much undocumented.

And here's the thing:  Very few people just randomly decide they hate their face.  It's rare for someone to think "I'm fat and ugly" without any outside influence (although yeah, teenage hormones/body hang-ups are a nightmare).  Sometimes that influence is the media - there's a reason I don't buy glossy magazines - but sometimes, that influence comes from people much closer to us than the airbrushed models we see in print.  All too often, it comes from people we see on a daily basis.  People we go to school with.  Bullies.

"Hate" is a very strong word, but I'm going to use it here and not in a casual "oh I hate it when that happens" sense.  I mean it in the true "it makes me feel sick with rage" sense.  I hate bullying.  More than that, I hate people who don't hate bullying.  Because we all should.  Every single one of us should be outraged by the mere idea of it.  And yet it happens.  It happens so frequently that it's shameful to us as a society - students, teachers, governers and parents.  We should all be disgusted by it and we should all be trying to stamp it out.

The figures are hard to get hold of, but recent surveys in the US reveal that suicide is the third biggest cause of death to young people in the country and that around half of those suicides are a result of bullying.  In the UK, 44% of cases of suicide in young people are a result of bullying.  The charity BeatBullying undertook a major survey in 2006, revealing that a massive 85% of school students had witnessed bullying and 69% said that they had been victims of it themselves.

But it's hard for some people to get emotionally invested in statistics.  Sometimes we need real stories, or real action before we can comment passionately on a subject.  So imagine the scene, if you will:

A girl is on a bus.  She's thirteen years old - a child.  An older, much bigger boy comes to sit beside her.  He touches her arm and she recoils.  He laughs and tells her no other man will ever touch her, because she's so disgusting.  She ignores him; staring out at the rolling fields as the bus travels closer to its destination.  The boy whispers that she's a hideous freak, before moving to the back of the bus and leaving her alone and afraid of what might happen next.  Before she has time to wonder, the boy and his friends begin spitting at her.  Phlegm - sticky and disgusting - lands all over the new coat her parents have bought her for school.  The girl forces herself not to cry; she doesn't want to give these bastards the satisfaction.  As the bus reaches school, the girl is forced to go into the toilets with a waiting friend, to try to clean herself up.  It has become a morning ritual.

The girl goes into her form room.  She sits quietly, ignored by the pretty, popular girls in her class - the bullying on the bus has made her shy and withdrawn.  She sticks out like a sore thumb.  Her form tutor has newsletters to send home to parents and he asks two boys to hand them out.  When they get to the girl's seat, the boys hold the newsletter as though it's burning their flesh and throw the paper at the girl, laughing to themselves.  Then they pretend to disinfect themselves, because they've had to go near the "ugly" member of their class.  They mock her and joke amongst themselves, just loudly enough for her to hear.

And so it continues through the day, until the girl steps onto the school bus home.  And that's when the older, bigger boy comes to sit beside her again.  He tells her she's unloveable.  He tells her that her parents must be so ashamed of her.  He tells her to kill herself.

That night, alone in her bathroom, the girl tries to hang herself with her school tie.  When that doesn't work, she takes pills; one, two, three... She's finding it hard to swallow them down, because she's crying so much.  Four, five...  Then she realises she doesn't want to die.  She just wants the bullying to stop.  She goes to her room and falls into a fitful sleep, knowing that she'll endure the same Hell the next day.  And every day.

A lot of people reading this will recognise that story.  Many of you may already know that the girl it mentions was me.  But if reading that doesn't make you think "yeah, bullying is shit and it ought to be stamped out," then I want to know why.

People used to say that it was "character-building."  Ha!

It doesn't build character.  It fucking kills character.  And I make no apology for my strong language, because I know I was a girl who went from being chatty, vibrant, confident and outgoing, to being described in a school report as "worryingly withdrawn."  Character-building?!  Don't insult me.

There's no excuse for it, either.  No amount of "oh, he had a bad childhood, that's why he lashes out at others" is an acceptable reason for bullying someone else.  If we make that excuse for bullies, where do we stop?  Do we excuse rapists and abusers because they might have had a shitty past?!  I think most people reading this know exactly where I stand on that.

Maybe I'm being idealistic, but in my eyes it's really very simple.  We teach children that everyone has worth.  That everyone deserves to be treated with respect and compassion.  We encourage them to realise that it doesn't matter what a person looks like; it really is what's inside that counts.  We explain that judging someone because their nose is too big, or their stomach is too fat, or they don't wear the right clothes makes you a much uglier person than the subject of your nastiness.  And we stick to that.  We say it when they're little kids, starting primary school.  We remind them, when they're 11 and getting ready to go to secondary.  We tell them again when they're in their teens and oh so conscious of their own looks and everyone else's.  We never stop.  And we make it easy for kids who experience bullying to report it to a trusted adult and we DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT when they do.  Not say "oh, ignore it."  Not make excuses for the bully.  We crack down on it and we crack down hard.  Because ONE young person taking their own life every year due to bullying is far too many.  The most recent statistic I could find for Britain was twenty per year.  That's nearly two a month.  And that's appalling.

Sure, I don't disagree that we need to be making sure that kids are staying in school and being helped to become decent members of society.  I'm not advocating kicking the bullies out and letting them languish and drift into lives of crime, or anything like that.  What I am saying is that the victims of bullying need to be helped first and the whole thing needs to be stamped upon as firmly as possible.  Bullying is not acceptable and if you're reading this and thinking "nah, it's harmless enough" then scroll back up and read what happened to me.  IT IS NOT ACCEPTABLE.

Ruining someone's self-confidence because you don't find them attractive enough is abhorrent.  Shouting abuse at someone because they don't fit in with your ideals makes you little more than an ape.  And that's offensive to apes.

For what it's worth, I've managed to scrape back a relatively healthy amount of the confidence I lost due to bullying.  But I'm not exaggerating when I say it took years.  And of course, I never got all of it back; I'm still the first person to put myself down and say I'm not pretty enough. And frankly, that's not acceptable, either.

I use the word "hate" casually, just like we all do.  I hate text-speak.  I hate shows like TOWIE and Geordie Shores.  But I loathe bullying.  I despise it with a genuine rage.  I hope everyone I know feels the same.  And I hope there'll come a day when I won't need to write ranting blog posts like this, because schools will have the problem sorted and there won't be any teenagers taking their own lives because of bullying.  Until then, I will continue to shout back against it:  Bullying is vile.  And I bloody hate it.