I was bullied, so I'm only too happy to speak out against cruelty

In his weekly column Michael Pattwell recalls school days where he was subjected to bullying
I was bullied, so I'm only too happy to speak out against cruelty

VICTIM: Schools may be safer from bullies these days, but social media has given the more opportunity. Posed by model

‘CRUELTY’ is defined as: behaviour which causes physical or mental harm to another.

‘Bullying’ is defined as: using superior strength or influence to intimidate and cause mental harm to someone.

There isn’t much difference between the two, is there?

We often read of court cases involving cruelty and bullying which are so shocking that it is difficult to understand.

Why are we so shocked? We have certainly heard of it before and we most certainly have seen it before, especially if we have come through the education system in this country up to a few years ago.

I went through National School, beginning in 1949, right through to 1958 and I both observed it being used against others and I was the subject of it myself.

All that came back to mind recently when I received an email from one of my readers of this page. He wants his identity withheld so I have omitted a small number of the facts he gave me. He was responding to my article of a few weeks ago about the Battle of Clontarf and the killing of Brian Boru by Brodir.

He wrote: “I really enjoyed your article about Brian Boru. It brought back memories to me of when I was a child in the late ‘50s going to school. One teacher in particular beat me nearly on a daily basis as she also did to my siblings when they were in her class.

“Years later, as an adult, I met her and challenged her as to the cruelty she had shown to me and I was astonished at her reply. She said my ancestors had killed Brian Boru. My name, translated from the English, was O’Bruadair.

“For the life of me I can’t imagine how a supposedly educated person could think like that. She just walked away.

“A few years later I met another teacher from the same school and mentioned this to her. She just replied ‘I never hit a child in the school’. Well, my answer to her was I felt she was as bad as the other teacher for knowing it happened and doing nothing about it. All I could think of was the old ‘Nuremburg Defence’ - ‘I was only following orders’. Anyway, apart from the history, I am proud of my name.”

Wasn’t that just the essence of stupidity on the part of the teacher?

In my own case, I had the dubious pleasure of spending two years with one particular teacher. He’s dead now this many a year and I truly hope he has managed to purge himself of any harm he might have done.

Unfortunately, I was afflicted at the time with a very bad stammer. It had, of course, what I considered then to be an advantage because I was rarely asked to recite my homework orally. Consequently, I always paid a lot of attention to my written work, but as for learning stuff off by heart, I just didn’t bother because I knew I wouldn’t be asked.

That didn’t save me, however, from being a victim of a cruel and thoughtless teacher. The word ‘moron’ came to mind but I decided against using it. He was also big into nicknames.

This particular ‘educated’ gentleman liked to tell jokes to the class and clearly delighted in the sound of 25 or 30 little boys laughing. The lines from Goldsmith’s poem, The Deserted Village come readily to mind:

Full well they laugh’d with counterfeited glee,

At all his jokes, for many a joke had he:

This ‘lovely’ man used to regularly tell jokes about stammering. When he had delivered the punch-line he would then suggest some element of the joke as a nickname for me. Luckily, I was popular enough with my peers and got on very well with my classmates so the vast majority of them never took up the suggestion and I managed to get through school without one of his hurtful monikers.

Only one student ever tried to call me by one of the suggested nicknames and to tell the truth that never bothered me too much because he himself wasn’t that bright.

Later on in life, I did have a nickname but I thought it was cleverly thought of and it amused me.

That teacher’s school-room was at the back of the building. The desks were orientated in an east-west formation but there were four or five along the wall, facing the windows on the south side of the school. Through those windows could be seen the old Clonakilty Brewery. Some of the boys who were not too academically inclined were put into those desks and the teacher liked to refer to them as ‘The Gentlemen of the Brewery’. It was to those individuals he went, however, if he needed a bucket of coal brought in or some other chore done, or if he needed somebody to run an errand down town.

A couple of years later, one of my younger brothers found himself in that teacher’s class and his experiences were somewhat similar to my own. That particular teacher considered himself to be a real patriot and taught history in a very one-sided way. It was in that class at the age of 11 or 12 that I first heard the old Economic War mantra, “Burn everything English except their coal.” We certainly left that class as raging Republicans bordering on black hatred for Britain.

Sometimes, in my brother’s class, the teacher would go through the surnames of the pupils and extol the virtues of anybody who had a native Irish name. O’Driscolls, O’Donovans, Murphys, McCarthys, and O’Neills would have their histories traced and analyzed but when it came to ‘Pattwell’ he would declaim that that name must have come from Outer Mongolia or some such place. My poor brother felt demeaned, insulted and diminished.

When, however, my third and youngest brother got to that class he had no complaints about the said teacher but then that brother was a handy footballer and footballers and hurlers had a special status.

Even today, I wonder how well teachers are trained to deal with bullying. I am aware of one case that happened in a secondary school in Cork in the direct aftermath of the 9/11 atrocity. One student had a Middle-Eastern background and a classmate managed to steal his school identity card that had his photograph on it. The photograph was photo-copied, enlarged and then placed onto a ‘wanted’ poster for Osama Bin Laden that had been copied from a newspaper.

The doctored poster was photo-copied many times and posted all over the school and caused much distress to the young student. When it finally got to the attention of the principal his way of dealing with it was to bring one of the culprits, along with the boy who had been offended, to his office and to get the two boys to shake hands. That was the end of the matter as far as the school was concerned. It seems the principal was much more interested in protecting the reputation of the school rather than supporting the victim.

To this day, the young man who had been the victim does not feel he was vindicated or supported in any way by the school. Whilst most of us carry good memories of school days that young man does not. It didn’t, however, hold him back in any way and he is enjoying quite a successful career in his chosen field.

Even though we are very much aware of the evil of bullying now, with the development of the internet and social media the problem has not gone away but has even gotten worse. We owe it to ourselves to become more and more aware of what is going on and to stand up and speak out against it.

Maya Angelou, the poet and Civil Rights activist, has said: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

The actress, comedian and TV host Ellen De Generes is quoted as saying: “We focus so much on our differences, and that is creating, I think, a lot of chaos and negativity and bullying in the world.” She added that she would prefer if “everybody focused on what we all have in common – which is – we all want to be happy”.

Michael J. Fox has, however, a more positive message: “One’s dignity may be assaulted, vandalized and cruelly mocked, but it can never be taken away unless it is surrendered."

Contact Michael at pattwellsverdict@eircom.net

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