Everything I learnt about dealing with bullies, I learnt from the behaviour of my teachers.
In junior school, I learnt to dodge incoming boiled lollies that whizzed through the air like missiles above our desks. Friday afternoons were the worst because that’s when our form teacher used our heads for target practice while pretending to give us all sweet treats to celebrate the end of another week. I was always in the firing line because I guess I was someone who stood out. It must have been my ‘Jewish nose’, which had also been the topic of a class discussion because of its unusual shape. The teacher had drawn attention to it because she said it was aquiline and apparently back then, one didn’t see too many of those around.
When it came to being bullied at school, it wasn’t the other students who gave me grief. It was the teachers. The very people charged with developing us as independent beings were stumping me emotionally.
Since my earliest days in kindergarten, fitting in was difficult for me. At my northern beaches school, far from Sydney’s bagel belt, I was constantly scolded for talking gibberish. This was mystifying to me because I was simply repeating some of the Yiddish phrases I’d picked up at home. Why didn’t they understand `meshuggah’? I learnt a quick lesson then in keeping quiet as a survival instinct and when I did speak, I copied everyone else’s vocabulary.
Since my earliest days in kindergarten, fitting in was difficult for me. At my northern beaches school, far from Sydney’s bagel belt, I was constantly scolded for talking gibberish.
In fact, when it came down to it, really every skill that I would employ later in life to deal with toxic people, I learnt from deflecting the behaviour of my so-called nurturing teachers.
There’s now a set of guidelines which Australian teachers must adhere to when it comes to the treatment of students especially in terms of physical contact and discrimination. That lolly warfare, for instance, would be outlawed now. The NSW Department of Education stipulates that teachers must ‘demonstrate the highest standards of professional behaviour, exercise professional judgement and act in a courteous and sensitive manner when interacting with students, parents and caregivers’.
It’s also true that many teachers today have it tough and often have to put up with appalling conditions in demountable, frequently violent classrooms for not a lot of pay. They’re to be commended for the work they do.
Still, in the single-sex institutions of my youth, political correctness was an alien concept. Some of my despotic teachers must have thought that it simply meant voting for the right party.
Certainly many of their jibes made me tougher but it was not without leaving a bruising mark on my psyche with feelings of inadequacy and a loss of confidence that I’m still battling with decades later. Looking back, some of those scenes from my primary school years are just as raw to me now as they were then. And I’m sure, this is true for many of us. It’s those often cruel, offhand remarks made to us when we’re at our most vulnerable by someone in authority, which we remember all through our lives.
At least by high school, we had become more resilient as we’d learnt to push away all the nastiness and shove it in a compartment to be explored at a later date. But in primary school, those feelings of self-preservation had not yet kicked in.
Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t an attempt at teacher bashing. I grew up in a family of teachers and I know how much time my late father put into his students. He was such a passionate teacher, who would show up before school to coach anyone who wanted to progress. He also made sure that none of his students went hungry.
It’s those often cruel, offhand remarks made to us when we’re at our most vulnerable by someone in authority, which we remember all through our lives.
But before the guidelines kicked in, many teachers used their power to humiliate rather than to celebrate their students’ differences.
My saviour in junior school turned out to be none other than the headmistress of the school. She stepped in when I least expected it after my form teacher became so exasperated by my attempt at embroidering a laundry bag that she made me take the walk of shame all the way up the headmistress’s office in the senior school to show her the hot mess I’d produced. I remember trudging up the hill, pathetically clutching the offending item. With every step, I was sure I would either be expelled from school or going to detention for the rest of the term.
The headmistress, an early feminist, seemed surprised to see me and barely glanced at my work. Instead, she quietly explained that some people can sew while others just can’t. She kindly enquired about what I’d like to do instead.
By the time I returned to class, my teacher was positively salivating at the prospect of my fate. However, her face fell when informed of the headmistress’s reaction, which was closely followed by fear because she understood that now she would be the one in trouble for humiliating her students.
I learnt a valuable lesson that day about not dwelling on my limitations but spending my time developing any talents that I had. And there was something more for me - that it’s okay not to be the same as everyone else.
By the time I left that school, the lolly hurling teacher had also been dispatched, as her episodes became increasingly manic and violent. Sadly for her, the institution was all the better for her departure. And hopefully, some of the discriminatory behaviour she championed is a thing of the past.
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