“The way I saw it, everybody takes a beating sometime.” Henry Hill, Goodfellas
They say time is a healer. Not always.
On Friday night, my wife and I were out with close friends for a delightful Turkish meal in the heart of SE4. With the conversation flowing and the meat building up in my belly, the conversation turned to school experiences. My friend shared some unfortunate nicknames teachers (yes teachers) used to call him and I recalled a time when the new African kid turned up at the start of a new school year and was called Whale by our form tutor all year (His name was actually Wale). We laughed and joked and then for some unknown reason the tone changed and left our friends in tears.
I shared a story of when I was at secondary school. It was the last day of term and I was in the 3rd year (year 9 to those born post 1983). I remember it being a hot day. I always enjoyed banter with the boys a couple years above me. When I say boys , what I actually mean are the most hardcore, scary, gang connected kids in my school. However, up until that day all was well and we all got along.
I was playing football and something which felt like a black cloud came over the football pitch. ‘Run’ I heard. So about 10 of us legged it. This black cloud (10 older youths) chased us around the school. Suddenly, I began to notice the group I was running with started to disperse. What started of with 10 of us went from 10 to 5 to 2 to ME! I always had a Nike back pack which basically consisted of a Walkman, Hip Hop tapes, my journal and a pen. They caught me near the music suite and I got a beat down. As the punches rained down, I remember being more concerned about my music in my Nike back pack. Needless to say, they nicked my tapes and Walkman and left me balling like a baby (I was 14 before I get told to grow a pair).
Fast forward twenty odd years, I was surprised why a story never shared before brought genuine tears to my friends eyes and raised such strong emotions in me. To be honest, this experience did not shape me, neither did it turn me into a bully. However, reminiscing on my childhood made me wonder about a few things.
Firstly, if this case of bulling had happened in 2012, would I even be alive to tell the tale. As much as my experience was unpleasant, there were no knives involved. Times have definitely changed. Secondly, if feelings and emotions can come out randomly for me (and this case of bullying was an isolated incident), what must people who are or who have been constantly bullied go through daily – mentally and emotionally.
According to Bullying UK’s 2006 National Bullying Survey (the largest, most comprehensive survey of its kind at the time)
69% of children in the UK report being bullied
87% of parents report that their child had been bullied in the past 12 months
20% report bullying others
85% had witnessed bullying
(admirably, 82% of them tried to intervene).
While these statistics are shocking, they are not unsurprising. What the figures do not show are how many cases of bullying can lead to serious youth violence. Cases of revenge attacks have caused fatal incidents in the school environment. I am personally an advocate of more in school support for issues around conflict. These may include mentors or peer motivators. Models where young people can connect with young adults who have gone through similar experiences have been proven to be successful in diverting young people into making better choices. This combined with emotional, behavioural and mental support for young people could be difference between life or death, or in my case, not reliving a frightening situation 20 years after the event and making my friends cry in a restaurant.
At primary school level, I have seen drama-therapy work well in allowing a young person to express their fears and concerns in a safe and fun environment. At a secondary school level, the MAC-UK model of combining young people from the streets with clinical psychologists to deliver sessions on themes such as knife crime, substance misuse and anger management has proven successful in supporting young people to open up about the issues which impact themselves and their friends in the borough of Camden, London.
I believe part of the solution around the ongoing battle of serious youth violence is for models like MAC-UK to be placed into full time education. We can not keep underestimating the significance the experience of bullying and conflict can have on a child’s education. I was fortunate. I grew up into a 6:2, 15.5 stone black man and my experiences of being physically bullied were minimal (I’ll leave my emotional and verbal bullying tales for another post). Time for a change of focus in the education system to focus on the emotional health of the young person as well as the academic.