I was bullied at school, although not until my sixth and final year of high school.
It wasn’t physically violent, but more psychological – making fun of me, taunting me, talking about me, that sort of thing.
They once had a poster on the wall featuring a photo of me dancing at a school social event and invited people, in the space beneath the photo, to describe what I was doing. Most comments were just poking fun at me but some descended into threats.
They also had a ‘We love Hammy’ day (Hammy was my nickname, for Hamilton), where posters were placed around the school. There was definitely no love, but plenty of ridicule.
It was attacks on my mind and emotions rather than on my physical body. It went on almost every day for most of the school year.
It was a really difficult time for me. I spent a lot of time alone. It seemed more or less fun for them, just a big laugh.
There was a group of about a dozen or so of them, both male and female. They were the in-crowd, the loudest and most popular in the year.
One Friday afternoon still sits clearly in my memory. Some of them had been drinking in the common room. I knew something was going to happen because one of the girls was outside of the door as if on watch. As soon as she saw me approach from along the corridor (I was on my way back from a class), she hurried into the room. I didn’t want to go in, but I needed to get my bag.
Someone threw a lasso around me as soon as I walked through the door. Then a bucket of water was thrown at me. Fortunately, for me, they were drunk and I sidestepped most of the water. There was a huge laugh from the main table where they all sat. I just silently walked to my seat, took my bag, and left.
I went and found somewhere quiet afterwards, the lecture theatre on the floor above the maths corridor, so I could have a cry. I often wondered why I was singled out like this. A friend once said it was because they were jealous. I was good at a lot of things, including sports and academia.
I believed it was because I boasted of some of my achievements. I never, ever did this to elevate myself above anyone, but to try to get people to like me. I had low self esteem, although I didn’t know what that was at the time, nor understand how to get help with it.
My dream was to go to university. Only one person I knew of in the small village I grew up in in central Scotland had ever achieved the feat. It was an escape from what seemed to be the standard social and economic conditions there at that time that offered little hope in my mind for a happy or prosperous life.
I had a conditional offer to get into my university of choice, the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, which my chemistry teachers, Mr Tracey and Dr O’Donnell, had recommended. Professor Peter Pauson was a professor there, someone who had made substantial contributions to the world of organic chemistry, paving the way for new techniques that would years later be used in the manufacture of life saving drugs.
He had only just missed out on a Nobel prize. It was a sore point around the department for everyone except Prof Pauson, who was a kind, gentle and gracious man and simply took it in his stride.
I would work with Prof Pauson four years later during my final year research project and, under his guidance, was honoured to win the annual academic prize for it. By the time I started my PhD, he was officially retired but worked on as emeritus professor and we shared the same lab. He gave me a great many insights into how to think, not just about science, but how to think in general. He’s had a lasting impact upon me.
But I almost didn’t get there. Part of my conditional offer was to obtain a particular grade in what is now known as Advanced Higher, the Scottish equivalent of A-Levels that are the standard in England.
The day before the exam, a few of the bullies stole my bag in the morning. All my study notes were in it. They hid it from me all day and taunted me by saying they saw my bag in such and such a place, and then in another place when it turned out not to be there. I spent much of the day searching from place to place on a wild goose chase. They finally gave it back when the bell rang at the end of the school day. Even though I hadn’t been able to study properly, thankfully I got the grade and entry into university.
I often wondered if the bullies had any idea what it was like for me, even if any of them felt a little compassion.
Perhaps. Some of them seemed genuinely decent in other contexts and quite friendly towards me at some other times. It was only when they were all together that they behaved differently.
One used to stop and speak to me at the bus stop after school. I had to catch a bus three nights a week to another town where I worked an evening part-time job in Tesco. I was a Produce Assistant, stacking fruit and vegetables for the princely sum of £17 per week. That was in 1988.
He always stopped and chatted to me as if we were friends. The following day when he was with his own friends, though, he would be back to being cruel.
All of this behaviour went on for most of the school year, yet I never stood up for myself.
You might wonder why.
I’ve asked myself that question so many times over the years.
To be honest, once something becomes part of your daily experience for so long it becomes more and more difficult to stop it and it feels like it will never end. It just becomes your life.
Any time I did try, even with some of the nicer of the bullies, my lip would quiver, my voice would shake, and my legs would go weak. The lip quiver was so obvious, as if I wasn’t able to control my mouth. It was embarrassing and made me feel so self conscious. So I just put my head down and said nothing most of the time.
One day, when I was looking out of the window while waiting to go into my chemistry class, one of the bullies walked past and smacked the back of my head real hard, forcing my face hard against the window. I thought he’d broken my nose. There was no blood, but my eyes were watering, my ears dulled and I could hear a high-pitched tone.
Through watery eyes and in a half attempt to show some sort of defensiveness, I spurted out something like, “Hey, what do you think you’re doing?”
His reaction was hard and cold, as if I had no right to respond. How dare I speak back to him! How dare I! Would I like my face smashed in? he asked.
My Mum ended up working with him several years later. He became a male nurse and apparently quite a friendly and caring guy. She mentioned the name in conversation a few times, but I didn’t let on I had known him and in what context until years later, after she had retired.
She wished I’d told her earlier. She searched for his number and even though I was then a fully grown man in my late 30s, she intended to take it up with him as any parent would for their child. Once a parent, always a parent. I appreciated the loving and protective sentiment, but I said it was honestly OK now and asked her to let it go.
I never told anyone at all what was going on at the time, although it was obvious to some of my friends. I was afraid someone would intervene and make it worse.
I wrote about bullying in one of my English essays. It must have been obvious that I was writing about myself because my English teacher, Mr McColl, asked me at the end of class next day if everything was OK, to which I put on a big smile and assured him that of course it was. He turned up at the common room a few days later and asked some of the bullies to step outside. It all stopped for a few days after that.
Another reason I found it hard to stand up for myself was because it was also ingrained in me as a child that you show respect for adults and don’t speak back to them if they’re telling you off. These bullies weren’t adults, but it felt the same – the idea of speaking back to someone who is taking a dominant position.
It wasn’t until years later, after I’d written my book, ‘I Heart Me: The Science of Self Love’, that I was able to not feel intimidated and submissive around dominant or authority figures or around anyone showing aggression.
I’d always react in the same way; lip quivering, stumbling over my words, and legs feeling like jelly. It always made me feel self-conscious and weak.
It’s hard to imagine when you’re being bullied that it will ever end, that things will change. But they do. Change is inevitable. It’s the one thing you can bet on. Life moves on, people move on. Things completely changed for me when I went to university and met a group of some genuinely good people who became my friends.
How do I feel about the bullies now?
This might sound odd, but I have a fond feeling for them. Truly. It felt strange recounting (and reliving) some of the experiences while writing this blog, because it almost felt like I was writing about someone else and not the person I am now.
I’d happily chat with any one of them if I ran into them in a bar or coffee shop.
I’ve worked a lot on myself over the years, learning that it does little good to hold onto past hurts or hold grudges. Holding onto things only hurts ourselves again. We get hurt by the initial situations and then we get hurt again by holding onto the pain.
I realised that forgiveness and letting go was an act of self love, a kindness I could do for myself. It needn’t be about them, about setting them free, but about setting myself free.
So that’s what I did, gradually.
I did it in a few different ways. I worked through a forgiveness process created by Dr Fred Luskin, director of the Stanford University Forgiveness Projects and author of ‘Forgive for Good’.
When I first came across his work while researching for one of my books on kindness, Luskin had then run two forgiveness projects – HOPE1 and HOPE2 – where he taught people who had lost loved ones in acts of violence or terrorism, first in Northern Ireland and then in Sierra Leone, how to forgive those responsible.
It produced real breakthroughs and people who went through the process improved significantly in both their mental and physical heal. Luskin had then adapted the process so it could be used for healing all types of hurts, from slights and misdemeanours, to betrayals, to more serious ones.
I found it very helpful. I also practiced the Buddhists’ ‘Loving Kindness’ meditation (metta), where you wish happiness, wellbeing, and peace to loved ones, people who may have hurt you in the past, and to all sentient beings. In time, you develop feelings of compassion for yourself and others.
The other thing I’ve done over the years is to simply develop a gentler, kinder, more compassionate, view of life and towards all people and animals. This has been part of my work as a writer and speaker in both the public and corporate sectors because you must live your work in order to teach it.
Everyone is just trying to do the best they can in life with the knowledge and experience they have. Some find it easier than others. Hurt people hurt people, as they say. Some stumble and fall as they grow up, many repeatedly do so as adults. Perhaps some of the purpose of life is to help those who have fallen.
Practicing this sort of attitude fills the heart and mind. It doesn’t leave much space for grudges. Understanding and forgiveness is a natural side effect.
This has simply been my way. It doesn’t mean it has to be everyone’s way. And my experience of bullying is very different from some other peoples’ experiences. Many people have had it way worse than me and perhaps I wouldn’t be talking about forgiveness if I’d had their sort of experiences.
But I hope you’ve found something of value in these words, even if it was simply to just share in a few moments of what life can be like from someone else’s perspective.