If you can't beat the bullies, outwit them

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The Independent Online
SATURDAY's paper carried a short item about Matthew Saxon, an 11-year- old who hanged himself after being bullied. Such reports crop up regularly. The child concerned can be as young as seven. Grown-ups forget the dread that bullies create in their victims, and children are unable to convey it.

My daily walk home from school at the age of about eight was turned into a nightmare by a gang of bullies who used to lie in wait for me. They were led by a short, thickset boy with tussocky black hair and hard, mean eyes, who was fawned upon by other boys bigger and stupider than himself, but who acted as his obedient henchmen. I suspect they were just thugs, but their ringleader was a thoroughly nasty piece of work.

They would rush out the moment the bell rang to get ahead of me and find a hiding place. Not too close to school, where a teacher might have spotted them, nor in the park, where a grown-up might have intervened - they usually chose the stretch of road between the park and my house, which took about six minutes to walk; or three if I ran flat out with thundering heart.

This section of the road was bordered by high hedges, from behind which the gang would pounce on me. Memory is blurred about what exactly they did. I don't remember being assaulted physically; I think they just stood round and mocked me to tears. I never knew why they singled me out, though at the time I believed it was because my mother made me wear green gym knickers and everyone else's were navy or white. Or it may have been my spectacles; somehow I can't remember anyone else in my class who wore them. Whatever the reason, my journey home was an ordeal.

One day I persuaded my mother to follow secretly a dozen or so yards behind me. How smug I felt, knowing my tormentors were about to be routed] I'm surprised they couldn't tell from the spring in my step that something was wrong. They didn't, for they pounced, and retribution followed swiftly in the all- powerful, righteously avenging form of my mother. Did the gang return with greater vengeance a week later, or leave me in peace thereafter? Memory blurs again.

More than 20 years later my son (brave, but small for his age) set off for school each morning white-faced, a tic in his cheek, resolutely silent about who was oppressing him. It is one of the most painful things possible to watch someone you love becoming the target for bullies. Being a boy, he would not let me use my mother's solution.

The way to deal with bullies, as I tried to say, is not to allow yourself to be intimidated. How easy it is to be an adult, fluent, fair and rational] A child knows you cannot appeal to other children's reason or sense of justice, for they have none. What bullies enjoy is brutal, physical superiority. They are often inadequate in some way: if not fat, spotty or stupid, they may come from unhappy homes. But to me as a child, one against half a dozen, their motive seemed simple: they found my terror and futile pleading funny. I amused them. I could run, but only they could hide. I could beg, but only they could decide: was it to be mercy this time?

Johnnie got the better of them in the end by developing - like so many others - a wonderful wit. He became the school joker, the teller of good stories and funny anecdotes, the clown, the mimic. He quite literally outwitted the bigger, stronger, tougher boys who had terrorised him and stolen his bus money or his lunch box.

This has to be the only effective way to deal with bullies: you cannot defeat them by using their own tactics, for this means descending to their crude level. Never was the advice, 'If you can't beat 'em, join 'em' more misplaced. If you join them, they have won.

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