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#TheVulnerabilityChallenge: A lesson unlearned from primary school bullying (Day 2)

nine year old self

#TheVulnerabilityChallenge – Day 2

I’m a chubby, ginger, red-faced, nine-year-old and I’m being bullied by a girl in my class. She’s one year older than me. We’re such a small primary school that we have three years in the same class. It’s very upsetting. My sister and I have been moved to this school because I was bullied in my last school too. I guess my quiet nature and inability to stick up for myself made me an easy target for bullying.

After a while, my mum takes me to the headteacher about this, who also taught my class. Well, we didn’t get the response we’d hoped for. You know what he said about the girl with the cruel words? “She is from a privileged background…” as if that’s ok!

Those words have stuck with me. And the message I received that day, I carried into adulthood. Because what those words told me was that I was ‘less than’ other people and ‘it’s ok for someone who’s more privileged and powerful than me to treat me as they choose to’. It must be wrong for me to expect more if my teacher who I looked up to would allow this.

I don’t remember ever speaking up about bullying after that. Who am I to expect help? I endured crap treatment from some of my peers, my so-called friends and colleagues, because they were ‘more than’ me. In fact, everyone was ‘more than’ me in my eyes. I could barely even recognise the hurtful words, laughter, shoving and tripping as bullying or wrong. I just felt it was true and I deserved it because I wasn’t good enough. I kept quiet and small, hoping to minimise it.

Youve come a long way from primary school...Fast forward to more recent times and I’m updating my career history on my LinkedIn profile when this message pops up from my old headteacher: “Well done Hayley! You’ve come a long way!”

I immediately feel sick to my stomach. It’s like I’m taken back to being that frightened little girl desperate for kindness. And then I feel anger bubbling inside me. I’m confused about how I’m feeling; he was congratulating me for my achievements after all.

Perhaps it was that I sensed a surprised undertone of ‘Wow, I thought you’d never amount to much’ in his words. It doesn’t sit well with me to belittle my nine-year-old self. To talk about her as though she is ‘less than’. She’s doing the best she can with what she knows and has.

Yes, it is true that I have come a long way. I have climbed out of a deep, dark hole to get to where I am today. I am grateful to have met some truly wonderful souls in my time who have reached down into that hole, whispering words of encouragement as they passed me tools and took my hand, guiding me towards the light. Others have started to fill that hole with rocks and mud, knocking me to the floor and burying me alive.

My headteacher threw mud at me. I’d like to extend the most generous interpretation of his behaviour and say he didn’t do this intentionally or understand the impact his words and decision to not intervene would have. Even so, that mud stuck. I’m still scraping muddy messages from my skin today.

As a wiser me, I realise the significance of the missed opportunity he had to send me a different message. It was not my nine-year-old self’s job to teach herself that she was worthy, good enough and of equal value to her peers, regardless of their status or hers. That was the job of the respected adults in her life. For these important life lessons left untaught, this became my job as an adult. This wisdom left unlearned would have kept me distressed, deep down in that dreadful hole.

Of course, I appreciate recognition of my career achievements but I do not want congratulating for an apparent ‘transformation’ of self. What I appreciate more is recognition of the slow and painful growth into the light and I respect acknowledgement of the part individuals have played. Every achievement in my life has only been possible because I unravelled the unkind messages and unlearned the flawed beliefs I carried with me, replacing them with lessons of personal value, worthiness and self-compassion.

I believe this is the most incredible achievement for any adult. This is what should be celebrated.

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