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Tom Bennett: I was a victim of bullying

The government's behaviour tsar writes for TES about his own schoolboy experience with bullying, and what it taught him

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Thirty years ago, I was bullied at school. It lasted for years and the teachers never knew a thing. The odd thing was, neither did I. I don’t mean drubbings in the tuck cupboard, or roastings, or anything so gaudy. It was far more discreet.

I was an anxious, awkward adolescent, studious and often solitary. I liked disco and role-playing and computers and drawing comics and, frankly, even I’m amazed that I ever managed to get married. I went to a good school where bad behaviour was rare, but because I was a goofy eccentric, a certain category of inmate (some boys, some girls, spread throughout classes so escape was rare) decided I was going to be the punchbag in their little theatre of cruelty.

The bullying took a variety of forms. The most common was name-calling and intimidation: slurs and slights about anything that occurred to their limited repertoire. My being a “poofter” was a common theme, as was my fondness for study being a latent form of extreme perversion. It was perfectly usual to sit in a lesson and be passed notes telling me what a wanker I was. Some corridors I avoided because I knew they would be gauntlets.

Then there was what I would call passive torture: hair pulling (I sported an Adam Faith-style barnet of some luxury – google him), ear twisting and, most memorably, being spat on every now and again, usually full in the face. Never was I actually punched in the head or anything. I think that’s why I never spotted the clues.

You see, this was a routine occurrence for me. Since starting secondary school, I had never known anything but this; I had become completely immunised to the concept that this was anything other than the order of things. It lasted until late in my school career, when I started to push back, or simply tell my antagonists to go to hell.

The bullies possessed such a persuasive sense of justification. They frequently explained to me why they acted as they did: I was “rude” because I “wouldn’t talk to them”, or I was “weird” because I wanted to read Hardy and solve trig problems more than bunk off. I was, of course, bringing it on myself.

Years later – decades in fact – it sank in that what I went through was routine, low-level abuse. None of my teachers knew about it. Why would they? I was barely aware of it myself.

I was lucky in that I still loved school – the abuse wasn’t sufficient to dent my love of learning, and it wasn’t so absolute that I wept at night about it. But it was a valuable lesson, on several levels.

First, it taught me that bullies usually think they are in the right, however tenuous their justification: cruelty and victimisation are OK as long as you have defined why the other person deserves it.

Second, it taught me that bullying can take place right under the noses of adults, and that sometimes children have to be helped to discuss what “bullying” even means.

And last but by no means least, it taught me to push back.

  • You can read Tom Bennett's column in TES every week. To make sure you don't miss out, subscribe to TES now.​

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