Being bullied was the making of me: Victim HELEN CARROLL offers a surprisingly different view over bullying
22:18 GMT, 31 October 2012
Stoic: Helen Carroll in her school picture as a teenager
Chatting in the lunch queue with friends, I hadn’t noticed the older girls approaching. So it took my brain a few seconds to compute that the throbbing pain in my left cheek was the result of being punched by the hefty redhead standing snarling before me.
My eyes swam, but I blinked away the tears. I then turned my back on my attacker and carried on my conversation — about my preference for Wagon Wheels over Penguin bars — as if nothing had happened.
After a couple of minutes of name-calling — ‘slag’, ‘bitch’ and ‘cow’ all featured — the fifth-form girls finally walked away and left my friends and me to humorously re-enact what had just happened.
My response to this violence was well-practised because it was by no means an isolated incident.
Between the ages of 13 and 15, I was bullied almost continuously at my mixed Catholic comprehensive school in Bradford.
The attacks — physical and verbal — continued until I moved up to the fifth form and my tormentors, two years above me, had all left.
So did this experience damage me No. Incredible though it might sound, I believe it did me good. It was, quite possibly, one of the best things that ever happened to me.
I quickly worked out that unless they could provide me with a round-the-clock armed guard, neither my teachers nor my parents would be able to protect me from bullies. So I stopped reporting their crimes and got to work on strategies for handling them myself.
My heart went out to fellow writer Shona Sibary and her son when I read about his experience with school bullies last week.
Shona was so aggrieved by the teachers’ handling of the issue that she decided to move ten-year-old Monty to another school.
The situation must have felt very serious for the family to take this step, and I’m sure Monty’s parents are also working with him on ways to handle bullies in the future.
But because of my experience, I would have dealt with it differently. My strategy was never to give bullies the satisfaction of getting a rise out of me.
Successful by 30: Helen says if she saw her tormentors again she might even thank them for helping her develop her 'steely inner core'
I wouldn’t cry in front of them nor would I retaliate. Instead, I behaved as if their actions were so insignificant they had no impact on my life.
And appearing indifferent while being backed into a coat rack by a gang of girls or when picking yourself up after being pushed to the ground is no mean feat.
But it certainly diminished their fun and, in honing my responses, I developed an inner strength that has served me well ever since.
The bullies turned on me after a boy named Ray, two years my senior, asked me out. Feeling flattered and all grown up, I said ‘Yes’ and we went to a local cafe a few times.
I later learned Ray had ended a relationship with a fellow fifth-former, Monica, to date me.
'After a couple of minutes of name-calling — ‘slag’, ‘bitch’ and ‘cow’ all featured — the fifth-form girls finally walked away'
Monica was, to say the least, unhappy about our blossoming relationship and proceeded to make my life at school hell. She and her ginger henchwoman, Debbie, accused me of having intimate relations with Ray and spread the rumour all around the school.
It was absolutely untrue — I’m not sure we even kissed — but I was branded a ‘slag’.
Ironic for a good Catholic girl who at the age of 19 started dating the man who is now my husband.
I suddenly found myself the target of every bully in school. I survived the next two long years by sharing jokes about how stupid these bullies were with my best friends, Samantha, Rachael and Caroline — still bosom buddies today.
Their support left me in no doubt about the importance of good friendships — I couldn’t have turned up at school every day without them in my corner.
Once, when a gang of girls threatened to follow me off the bus and beat me up, my friends formed a wall preventing them from disembarking until I was out of the way.
Oddly, I never saw the bullying as a reflection on me. I’d tell myself my tormentors would leave school without a qualification between them and end up pushing prams before their 18th birthdays.
Differing views: Shona Sibary says her son became far less confident after being targeted by bullies
I even felt some sympathy for them: this was all they had to look forward to when their days as ‘cock of the school’ were behind them.
And so irrelevant were they to my life once they left, I have no idea how it turned out for any of them. But if I saw them again, I might even thank them for the part they played in helping me develop a steely inner core that has served me well over the years.
My father was a bully who was often violent towards my mother and older brothers.
He hit me only once — after discovering that, at 15, I had sneaked into a nightclub with Samantha. As his hand connected with my cheek, I fell on to my bed and pretended to be unconscious. He panicked and called for my mum to check me.
Mum, a wise woman, knew I was play-acting. But I’m sure she admired me for having the presence of mind to halt the violence before I was badly hurt.
Originating from the Dutch 'boel', meaning 'lover', the word bully was first used here in the 1530s as a term of endearment, meaning 'sweetheart'
Dad apologised the following morning, which was completely out of character, and never so much as threatened me again. I enjoyed having outwitted a bully.
The resilience learned at the hands of those bullies has often proved to be my saviour since.
Take the editor of the local newspaper where I worked in my early 20s. She was a ferocious woman who tried everything in the book to break me.
She picked holes in every article I wrote, ensured I got commissions that were nigh on impossible to pull off and eventually moved me to head office where she could call me in for regular dressings down.
I developed the most horrendous rash all over my face and dreaded going to work. But there was no way I was going to let this woman force me to resign.
I bided my time and put up with her abuse for 18 months until I found another job on a regional morning newspaper. I didn’t allow her vileness or attempts to put me down to hold me back. If anything, her cruel behaviour spurred me on.
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School-ground bullying is a reflection of the adult world and children must learn to stand up for themselves
I have three children, whom I hope will never become the target of school bullying. I’m aware it would be near impossible not to intervene, but I know from my bitter experience that the sensible thing to do is empower them to handle bullying themselves.
This summer, my ten-year-old son, Daniel, came home from a football course crying because a group of boys were ganging up on him, telling him he was no good. He begged me not to send him back, but I made sure he was first on the pitch the next morning.
I told him I’d ask the coach to keep an eye out, but that the best thing Daniel could do was face his tormentors and not give them the satisfaction of feeling they’d won.
It was unbearable seeing him anxious the following morning, but I believe that lesson was worth a year of classes in school.
'I wouldn’t cry in front of them nor would
I retaliate. Instead, I behaved as if their actions were so
insignificant they had no impact on my life.'
As it turned out, a couple of members of the gang stopped attending and the ones who did show up got bored of the lack of response from Daniel and, quite possibly, found someone else to pick on.
At the end of the week, Daniel was presented with a trophy for most improved player, an award he would have missed out on had he let those boys drive him away.
Children often make the mistake of bandying around the word ‘bully’ as a form of insult, like ‘idiot’, which I worry devalues the seriousness of the real thing.
But rather than have parents and teachers intervene over every spat, isn’t it far better to teach youngsters how to sort out these differences for themselves
Schools are microcosms of the big, wide world, where we all benefit from knowing how to avoid people who are bad news — and how to handle situations when we can’t.
A thick skin and strong self-belief are pretty useful, too.
I don’t think anyone who knows me would describe me as bolshie or aggressive. However, thanks to those school bullies, I never cower when under attack and, whatever life throws at me, I pick myself up, dust myself down and carry on.