Those two words strike fear into most hearts, mine included. Plans for mine seem to have been rumbling along since January (I hasten to add, it’s not being organised by me) for this August. Thankfully I have a get-out, I’m going on holiday the day it’s meant to take place. I can breathe a sigh of relief at that thought. But I have been wondering whether I would have gone if I wasn’t going away?
Now this is probably going to turn into my “it gets better” piece; I don’t intend it to – but hey that’s the way this is probably going to roll. In the first flush of the original plans for the reunion, my Facebook was alight with messages – everyone in the school year was sending in fond memories and accepting the invitation (if it was possible to get back to the tiny town on the south coast). However, something was sticking in my throat, did I have any fond memories? Yes some, but they usually involved a tiny proportion of people from the age of 15 – and even these were focused in one of the few rooms I was secure and could hide.
I know, I know, I probably sound like the majority of people – school sucked. All the people waxing lyrical had been the popular kids, or the ones that seemed to coast through school in the acceptable category of people. Needless to say, I wasn’t included in that group. I was always the oddity. I was the confused kid who knew he should like girls, but knew in his gut he preferred boys. I didn’t fit in. I moved into the school’s area when I was eight years old, and in this area of the south coast everyone had known everyone else since they were five. Friendships were already steadfast by the time I turned up. I was the new kid, and as much as I did make friends – I was always going to be the outsider. I was from London, I had been to private school, I had a posh voice – I was never destined to truly slip into these people’s lives. It probably didn’t help I am chronically shy and an introvert. It takes me a long while to truly accept people and let them into my life.
That’s when the bullying started, at first it was name calling, stupid things like “posho” (due to my accent), “Ugly”, I was fat (I wasn’t at all – I just have good Polish stock legs. And on a very bitchy note, I’m now the thinnest of all these people – hah! Take that!), and in the later years of primary school: “gay”. It’s surprising how deep that could cut at 10. It marked me out, different, freak, friends started to keep me at slight but perceptible distance. Whilst it was never said in the classroom, lunch and breaks started to become hell. Everything I did was gay. Ok, maybe we all didn’t know better – it was just a word, but I constantly wondered where I had gone so wrong. In a small school there was nowhere to hide from people. I think that last year of primary school was my first brush with depression. But I blindly thought things might get better – I would be moving on to senior school and things would be different.
(Golly suddenly this feels a little personal.)
How wrong could I be? Senior School was no different even though there would be people from three towns all jumbled up in the one school. Wrong is probably the word for it. Children are far more perceptive than we, as adults, realise. A mere wiff of being different, and children go in for the kill. And boy did they. To say I was bullied for five years is an understatement. Don’t get me wrong, there wasn’t anything physical – but verbally, well that was daily occurrence – and not just at breaks. Things would be whispered across tables at me in class. Teachers would hear it and turn a blind eye (or ear), I’d get it on the train and bus on the way home. I felt alone, and there was nothing I could do. Saying I’m not gay or leave me alone becomes rather tiring after the first couple of times you say it. Teachers didn’t want to hear about it – it couldn’t be that bad surely? The daily barrage just became my life, my only refuge/respite – my home. I want to say I became stronger – but it just compounded my confusion: Was I? Am I? What do I want? I think at that age, all I wanted to do was fit in, but I couldn’t; however hard I tried.
One memory sticks in my craw. I once lent someone my copy of Far From the Madding Crowd during a lesson (as a gesture of kindness), only to have it returned with “You’re Gay” scrawled on quite a lot of pages. I burnt the book after my English exam.
I left school in a haze of no confidence, self loathing, insecurity. Little did I know but bipolar had reared its head (Ok, I didn’t realise this until much later). Was it my lowest point? No, I’m still discovering that hitting rock bottom is a moveable feast. Yet something changed. College was different – I didn’t have to fit in. I met someone who showed me that I had value, and that I was alright. I loved them – although it’s more platonic now. I was free to be me, and I just didn’t care. Things started getting better. I was being accepted for “me”; however hard I found it. I still find it difficult even today.
It took me until a couple of years ago to realise that I don’t have to be defined by what happened to me at school. I’m still working on the crippling insecurity and lack of trust thing, it’s steady progress – but I’m getting there. I don’t have to put up with bullies in my life, I understand I’m worth far more than that. I refuse to feel like I’m back in the inescapable horror. I’ve learnt to be ruthless and cut people out of my life that bring me down – life is too short for that kind of malarkey thankyouverymuch. I am the only person who is responsible for my happiness and well-being, if I don’t like someone’s attitude towards me – pfft, jog on.
So… would I go to my school reunion? No, I wouldn’t. These people who think it was all sweetness and light have short memories. I may have learnt to forgive, but I don’t forget.
And the one thing I have learnt? It does get better.