Mon, Mar
3
2003

Bullying

Mon, Mar 3, 2003

Rebecca's recent blog post, as with so many others, made me think. In it (and the one beforehand), Rebecca talks about the taunting she experienced in school, and the fact that she was shunned for being an outsider, being smart, and not being smart enough to hide it. It's a refrain that many understand, as witnessed by reading the comments on her blog post.

I guess I was lucky in high school. It was pretty universally accepted that I was _weird_. Consider this exchange, which was typical:

ME: (to teacher) "I'm going on an excursion."
Fellow Student: "An excursion?! People go on trips. You go on excursions.

Despite being weird, I still managed to find a circle of friends who accepted me just as I was. There were still some teases, and some arguments, and one or two fights, but my life was far from miserable. One reason, I think, was that Harbord Collegiate was a diverse school in a diverse neighbourhood, in a diverse city that, by and large, shunned the informal segregation of ethnic groups and took pride in its diversity. My circle of friends was a diverse group of people itself, so who really was normal enough to have the right to tease people for being weird?

There was Walter Stoddard, black, tall, knew all about explosives, and occassionally carried some (for his model rocketry club). There was Eric Lork, a short chap with a nasal laugh, that had all of these ideas for short films (and, as far as I know, pursued them into a television career). There was Tosh Cooey, my nemesis, who was scrawny, sarcastic, and the only person who really knew how to get under my skin. And then there was Benson Lam, who scored the highest averages in the school, became our class valedictorian, and received a standing ovation from me and my fellow students for his efforts. Harbord Collegiate, though a public school, was a school with a reputation of academic excellence. I was lucky enough to land in a high school run by geeks, for geeks.

A completely different story was Lord Lansdowne public school, which I attended for grades 7 and 8, before moving on to Harbord Collegiate. This school, while decent enough, was not known for its academic excellence. And me, coming in from a smaller neighbourhood school (Orde Street), stood out like a sore thumb. I was targeted, even after I left it by some of my fellow students. I once had a chestnut whiz past my ear on College Street thanks to a gang of these kids, who encountered me just before they matured into decent people. (I know they matured into decent people; I met some afterwards, and they were friendly and modestly successful)

I am not proud of my Lord Lansdowne years because my reaction when confronted with this hostility was to duck and cover. In terms of academic performance, grade 7 was one of my worst years. Looking back, I see that this was deliberate on my part: the taunts were such that I tried to make myself less of a target. I dumbed myself down, I shut myself up, I tried to blend in with the crowd. By then, of course, it was too late. When you're marked, you're marked for life... or until the next grade. In at least one case, I sold out entirely, buying friendship by allowing a couple of students copy my answers on a test.

Ironically, one of these people turned out to be a real friend in the end. He was a bit of an outsider himself, a full foot shorter than the other kids in class. His sarcastic wit was clearly his self-defense mechanism. The teasing eased in grade 8 as the students hunkered down and got serious about their high school admissions. And there were others, on the fringes of being normal, who built up friendships with me over time.

Near the end of grade 8, one of those friends (Simon) turned to me and said, "you know, people say that you're weird, but really, you're a great guy." It made my year. And for high school I resolved that I would lie low, but I would not sell out. I may not have had to do this, but the years got better regardless.

Lots of people suffer from bullying in school. There is no easy way to stop it, or to teach students to respond to it. For me, not reacting proved to be the best solution -- but only because there were others around me who reacted worse, and so were good lightning rods. (Other nerds were, up to grade 8, a major source of the teasing I experienced. Kids, very early on, realize that they don't have to outrun the bear, they just have to outrun _you_) However, I do suspect that my patience and my calm under pressure was developed by the times I had to face down bullies, and NOT cry.

If you can face that down, you can face down prying accountants, demanding customers, internet trolls and wingnuts. So, maybe my years at Lord Lansdowne were worth something after all. Pity I couldn't trade them in for a gift certificate...


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