My Experiences of Bullying and Education
I am always unsure about sharing my own experiences of being bullied, these experiences had a long term impact on me, but I am happy to say they were overcome and packaged away years ago. My own experiences of bullying inform my work, but they do not drive it by any means. The needs of the children in our schools today and in the future is what motivates me. Feedback from events where I have shared my experiences however, has shown that for some people my experiences prove powerful in making them understand what come children go through and to this end some of my experiences are included.
I was born in February 1968 on Portland Bill. At an early age my family moved to Stowe School in Buckinghamshire and we lived in a garden designed by Capability Brown, complete with ornamental 'haha' and temple. Ironically, many years later I would get to play Capability Brown as an actor. Growing up in such a beautiful place was very exciting to me, highlights included very snowy winters, swarming frogs, annual game fairs in the garden and the use of the house as a base for the filming of 'Love and Mr Lewisham.' These were magical and happy times for me. (Stowe School is now a National Trust concern and well worth a visit).
In 1972 my family moved to Maids Moreton, a small village just outside Buckingham. My memories of primary school are very clear, the smell of socks drying on the wired heater in the middle of the class-room, the frozen cream protruding from the milk bottles in the winter. I recall being a voracious reader, being slapped around the face by my teacher for getting my sums wrong and wanting to join country dancing club, much to the amusement of the rest of my class. I also recall other mums looking at me and saying 'isn't she pretty?' You see by the age of 4 I knew I was 'different'-I had no words, no concrete explanation as to why I felt different, but, to put it simply and honestly I knew I preferred Mr Biebrach to Miss Jones! Somehow I was already beginning to wonder if I had accidentally been dropped in from another planet. Being branded a 'softie' or a 'benny' (the local pejorative word for gay back then) was already becoming a regular occurrence.
At Page Hill Middle School I made the fundamental mistake early on of openly stating my love for Abba, Eurovision and a desire to do country dancing rather than sport. PE I hated with a passion. I felt awkward, ungainly and was constantly out of breath. But in my school, if you were not good at football, you were a loser or a 'poof'. There were books and activities for girls or for boys at school, but sometimes I wanted to do a bit of both; this seemed to cause anxiety for my parents, peers and teachers and so I struggled to deny some of the everyday things I enjoyed, such as cooking, poems and Abba! I went through puberty very early, it began around the age of nine. By the time I was at Middle School I was aware of tragically presented gay or stereotypical characters on the television and began joining the dots, the last of which connected to me. The word queer suddenly became a mantra in my head, a scary word that people only seemed to utter in mockery or disgust. Before I left Page Hill, one key thing happened that changed the course of my life; assembly featured a visit from an actor who talked about his career in inspirational terms. The next week I took a part in my first school play -suddenly I had something to aim for.
In late 1978 I transferred from the rural town of Buckingham to the larger more suburban town of Lutterworth. I was an instant outsider and the serious bullying began on the first day in the form of homophobic language and threats of violence. I never considered myself overtly camp or feminine, in fact I made conscious choices to be more masculine in the way I walked and sat; perhaps it was just a random put down that first day the 'effing queer' taunt, but to me who knew what I was, the taunt cut deep and made me fearful that somehow my secret was shining out of me and laying me open to more bullying.
Secondary school was, quite simply the worst experience of my life. My signing up for drama as an option made me an easy target and not a walk to school, a school day, or a walk home would pass by without some taunt from another pupil. Much of the bullying was written on fences, walls and bus shelters around the town, in very public places. I would often sneak out with a marker pen and attempt to rub out the comments about me before my parents saw them and began to question my preferences themselves. I can not emphasise enough the dread I felt in my heart that my parents would find out that actually there was truth to the graffiti. The fact that I was popular with the girls and had a string of 'girlfriends' who were just that, friends, confused my parents and seemed to make some of the other kids bully me even more.
The bullying and homophobic language was not confined to my peers either, I can clearly recall breaking my ankle during a football match at the local playing field. 'Mr B' the PE teacher refused to believe me when I told him my ankle had snapped, he merely kicked my ankle and said 'Get up you bloody fairy' and had me walk the third of a mile back to school alone.
The early 1980s were an exciting time, the creativity and excitement of the New Romantic movement rippled into our town via Top of the Pops and Smash Hits magazine. With this came an attraction to Adam Ant, The Human League and other flamboyant acts. With my girl friends we experimented with fashion and eyeliner at the school disco, inevitably leading to threats of violence, actual violence and even someone coming to my home to threaten me on my doorstep whilst my parents sat watching television. The fear that my parents would discover my secret was very acute by this point and I made a decision that the best thing I could do was to conform. On the telly I could find no role models, the only gay characters were John Inman and Larry Grayson, overtly stereotypical characters who made me question my identify even further and led to the development of a particular kind of internalised homophobia within myself, which took years to overcome.
Out went New Romantic and in came the Mod Revival. The Jam and The Who were the order of the day, Quadrophenia and running around the housing estate shouting 'we are the mods'; all of this seemed to offer a masculine acceptance, a chance for me to be 'one of the boys'. In fact quite the opposite happened, the bullying intensified, to the point where walking to and from school made me physically sick. I can recall being egged and floured leaving a New Year disco, taunts of 'queer' and 'poser' echoing in my head.
By 1986 I was in 6th form and I had met a student who was openly gay - we are completely unsuited, but for me this was hugely significant, I was convinced he was the only gay person I would ever meet and so we started 'going out'. Around this time a news report was shown on the lunchtime news, which stated that gay men in America were dying of a new cancer called Gay Related Immune Deficiency- later to be called AIDS and claim the life of millions. AIDS became the new weapon in the arsenal of the bully and so my 'boyfriend' and I became the target of AIDS related bullying - being likened to Rock Hudson and being told we were going to die. The scary thing was, we did not know that we or other newly found gay friends were not going to die and every sneeze and every sore throat became the most frightening thing in the world. Listening to the church, the news and kids at school, maybe AIDS really was a punishment for me being born different. I kept wondering if I had lived before, in another life, and done something so terrible that I had been born gay as a punishment, one which AIDS would complete.
By 1987 and midway through my A Levels my parents found out through a rather convoluted sequence of events that I was gay. What followed was several days of virtual interrogation, suggestions of electro-convulsion therapy, psychiatric treatment, incorrect suggestions that I had been abused by a teacher or a relative and finally a year long ban from leaving the house unaccompanied. I hold no blame for my parents, they were acting in accordance with the information and values they held, informed by a complex web of generational, social and religious attitudes and prejudices.
I attempted to act in accordance with my parents wishes, I cut all ties with my 'boyfriend' and attempted to work towards my A'levels. Over the coming months I began to slide into depression, considering self harm and regularly hurling homophobic abuse at myself in the bathroom mirror. My motivation for life and for education began to slide away from under me and I began to opt of lessons, preferring to shut myself away from what I considered to be the wrong world for me to live in.
Then one day, in May 1987, I was called to the Head of 6th Form's Office to be taken to task for my absence from key lessons. Faced with having to explain myself I started to make up an excuse, but then something clicked in my head and I stated simply 'Sir I am gay and I am having a difficult time'. With that Sir's face reddened, he looked down embarrassed and I offered him a way out - 'Shall I leave Sir?' to which he said 'That might be best'.
And so in May 1987, I walked out of education for good- or so I thought...
1971-77 Maids Moreton Church School, Buckingham
1977-1978 Page Hill Middle School, Buckingham
1979-1982 Lutterworth High
1983-1987 Lutterworth Grammar School
1992-1996 Leicester University
2008-2009 National College for School Leadership
B Ed (Hons) NPQH
Employment In Education
1996-1997 Goldings Middle School, Northampton
1997-2001 Over 40 schools in Leicestershire, Northampton, London and Warwickshire short and long term supply in variety of rural and inner city contexts
2001-present Alfred Salter Primary School (Y6 Class-teacher, Key Stage Two Manager, Literacy Coordinator, Continuing Professional Development Co-ordinator, Equalities Co-ordinator, Deputy Headteacher
2006-2009 Part time seconded literacy/ISP consultant for Southwark Children's Services