It feels like everyone around me is talking about school admissions at the moment. The Boy is still a year off – it’ll be this time next year when we’re anxiously awaiting the news of whether he got in to our number-one choice or not. But I’m already worried.
Before you say it, yes, I know everyone does it. I know everyone sends their kid off to school and he’ll be fine and he’ll love it and so will I. I know all of that.
But I’m still worried.
When I think about school, I have very mixed feelings. The second part of my school career – from about 11 and right the way through GCSEs and A-levels – was, in the most part, brilliant. I was lucky. I quite liked exams, I enjoyed most subjects (apart from maths), I loved after-school clubs, and I found a great group of friends. The early years were good, too, from what I can remember. I have vague memories of playing kiss-chase in the playground and, well, that’s about all really. So it can’t have been all bad.
But there was a chunk in between – just over a year – that I hated. I was bullied by a girl who, in some weird way, was both my friend and my enemy. My frenemy. I would find any excuse not to go to school, I’d wait at the bus stop stifling tears, and once I got there I’d spend most of my time conjuring up a way to get out of class. That girl made my life a misery and I can still remember that feeling of dread, even now, right in the pit of my stomach.
I was very, very lucky to have an open-minded and proactive mum who did exactly the right thing at this point. She took me out of the school I was in and moved me into another. Simple. It could have backfired – it could have been even worse, after all. But it wasn’t. Instead, I got a new start – albeit a scary one – and a new school, and some new friends who I still count as best friends now, 20 years later.
I don’t know how it would work these days. I don’t know if it’s as easy to simply leave a school and move to another. I also don’t know how she made that call – how she just knew it would work out, despite the risks.
And that’s what scares me. If one of my kids is bullied, what will I do? At the moment, the thought of that happening to my children fills me with a kind of fierce maternal anger that would have me striding up to the school gates with a baseball bat in-hand. I’m pretty sure that’s not allowed, but that’s beside the point. I can’t bear the thought of being powerless to do anything – of sending my eldest off next year and hoping for the best.
Preschool has gone some way towards preparing us both for it, which I guess is the idea. Lately we’ve been having conversations about other boys who won’t share toys. In one sentence I’m simultaneously trying to tell him to always share and be kind to others, and to stand up for himself and speak his mind. It’s not always a success. The other day when he said a boy kept pushing him, I told him he needed to push him back. I still can’t work out if that was the right thing to say. He wasn’t keen on the idea, but we settled on an agreement that, if he’d already asked him to stop once and he did it again, it was OK to then push him back. I’m embarrassed to say the negotiating mostly came from him.
Did I do the right thing? I’ve got absolutely no idea. Probably not. I probably should have told him to tell the teacher. Or taught him some important lesson about right and wrong. But I’m still figuring this whole thing out, and I want him to be able to stand up for himself when I’m not around, so I responded instinctively. Sometimes that’s the best I can do.
And how much of that instinct is down to my own experience? A lot, probably. When I got to my new school I went in with a different mindset from the start. Within the first couple of weeks at the new place I got sent out of class for the first time in my life for messing around, and sent home with instructions to come back the next day with ‘my own’ hair (I’d dyed a huge streak of it green the night before. The Sister at my new, more traditional Catholic school, was unimpressed).
It was silly, minor stuff, and the dust soon settled. But I was different with people, too – and it’s only now that I can see that. I’d love to say being bullied gave me a sense of empathy for other people. It didn’t. At the ripe old age of about 12, all I knew was that I didn’t want to be bullied again. So if someone was being singled out, I’d quickly make sure I was on the winning team – even if that meant verging on bullying behaviour myself.
There’s a whole discussion to be had at this point of course, about bullies and why they do it. It’s not a question I’m qualified to answer, so I won’t even try. Who knows why my own bully decided she didn’t like me? Perhaps someone had done it to her. Perhaps not. All I do know is that, currently, I have no idea what I’d do if my son turned around and told me he was being bullied.
I guess it’s a good job we’ve still got a year to go.