Note: In this co-written piece, the sections in square brackets are by Saul Stavanger; the non-bracketed sections are by David Stavanger.
‘Our school rejects that all forms of bullying behaviours exist’
We spend up to three years of our lives in the toilet. I was thirteen when I first started regularly hiding in them. I would make sure no one saw me enter and then pick the stall furthest from the door as long as it was clean (or clean enough), drawing my feet up on the closed seat, tucked tight so no teachers could sight legs during a sweeping check.
Toilets offer solace in ways some people find in an emptied church – a chorused silence, the metaphysical self disrobed, prayers formed from necessity and pursuit. By this stage the bullying had reached a level that led me to disappear regularly, in flux between the domestic tensions of home and the hypervigilance of school, unsure as to what lay halfway but also knowing it was safer to be nowhere than either.
Bully*: third-person present.
Bully*: noun; corned beef.
Bully*: harasser of the weak; harasser of the week.
*If you write the word bully three times during this recollection, they will reappear in your bathroom mirror.
[Physically hiding is my first form of hiding: things like bathrooms, cubicles, outside of PE block are the kinds of places I can sit away from everyone else. Talking to teachers to avoid going out to lunch, taking different routes getting home to avoid certain people and situations. I first started hiding in Year 3, when I was eight. I used to hide up in the library. It was the only place in the school that had air-con.]
[My first mental hiding was books – fantasy books. I read a lot of books. That worked for a while until kids saw I had books on me, which worsened the bullying. Books in breaks solidified that I was a weirdo, an outsider.]
[I began world-building little towns, then cities, then made a country – the map was pretty terrible. Any free time I would dedicate to daydreaming or writing down any little or important events and timelines from this fictional universe when I couldn’t talk to many people in my class. Created my first world – it had the illusion of a real world where I could hide. I didn’t exist in these worlds, I just watched over them and decided what happened. School was a place where I couldn’t be me.]
We are still not sure if we will take things further with the police. Unfortunately, outside of CCTV footage, there are no witnesses to the events.
I want to say how terribly sorry I am that this has happened to Saul.
I have every confidence that the school will deal with these boys seriously once they have been identified. However, I do think you should consider xxxxxx's suggestion that this be taken further with the police.
Which books did he lose?
Does he have any friends?
I hope this does not cause his social development to regress and his anxiety to increase.
I – and now my son Saul – have attended multiple schools due to bullying. We are both experts at hiding, though his is more refined than mine. Perhaps it’s conditioned learning or perhaps the education system hasn’t really changed that much in thirty years. I read in the local paper that his previous high school has recently been part of a trial of school ‘wellness’ workshops where boys paint each other’s fingernails while being taught about toxic masculinity, discussing suicide and what it means to be a man. I think of the way my son bit his nails down to the skin while he was at that school, eating himself in front of me. The aim is for young blokes to see it’s just paint. The same way we tell young kids it’s just blood. Some parents have apparently slammed it as nutty and weird. I see them painting their children into a corner, and once cornered those kids see red instead of stop.
[Sometimes I would go and watch a bird’s nest in the grounds. I would go there to both hide and read – and I liked the birds. One day some kids tried to smash the bird’s eggs and I tried to stop them and my opinion didn’t really matter to them at all. My opinion never mattered.]
I look up reviews of Saul’s last school on Google. Someone with the handle ‘Jesus Sparklez’ has written, ‘If you wish the unhappiest education for your child. This is the place to go.’ A better motto than the trinity of text nailed to the school’s front gate: RESPECT × RESPONSIBILTY × INTEGRITY. It’s a conceptual commitment at best. When my son was surrounded by dozens of students, being called a faggot after his ‘friend’ announced to the whole cohort that Saul identified as pansexual, the new guidance counsellor spoke at length about the school’s supportive culture for queer kids and avoided the F-word in case saying it would manifest a faggot before him. Like to see that guidance councillor de-escalate a fist at the point it regrades a face. Like to know the last time someone reduced him to a noun.
[First time I was physically in danger.
I was walking home and one of my main bullies
started tailing me on his bike.]
[When we got back my bag it was turned
and my stuff was all over a field.]
When Saul was assaulted walking to the station and on the train getting home from one school, the learning support team suggested he arrive and leave before the bells as they couldn’t guarantee his safety. They don’t even have bells anymore (whoever created the end-of-days mix tape, with its overreliance on Alice Cooper, needs to know that school’s never out for many kids.) We were told to go to the police; we were told he was sensitive and provocative. Adjectives are positioned to undermine victims (even the term ‘victim’ has an unspoken narrative of responsibility in schools, as if children assign themselves that role.)
Saul started arriving at different times and entering the grounds covertly from a back path, his actions the result of education as a public institution minimising harm to itself. One morning he turned up to walk this path and smelt decay nearby, turned to see the carcass of a juvenile whale rotting on the rocks of the beach at the end of his school’s street. Onlookers gathered, keen to see the shark feeding frenzy. It’s one of the first memories that springs to mind whenever we pass by his former school gate.
We withdrew Saul from that school the following month, towing him out into deeper water so he could float, leaving all the detritus of that year in the shallows.
Saul and I watch High Fidelity and the next morning, knowing his love of lists and rating things, I ask for his Top Five* bullies:
- xxxxxo. Would attack me on the train. Spreading rumours. YR8
- xxxn. What didn’t she do. Told me to kill myself multiple times. YR8
- xax. Punched me in the face and started the homophobia stuff. YR7
- xxcxxx. Chased me home on a bike. YR5
- xxxb. The taser person. YR3
[*hard as there are quite a few, I can’t remember all their names] I hear this as ‘games’.
[The school counsellor advised me to ignore the name calling and it would go away; they were just nicknames. Sitting in a white room, low chromatic, at a wooden desk with a black chair. She didn’t really listen – there is a certain way they speak that tells you they’re not listening, offering the same advice as last time.]
Hesitation marks appeared in the margins of my son’s learning. He began to doubt words, even when they were written down or bolded in emails or on his own lips, shedding trust in language and that adults are licensed to name things as solid or known. Every adult, from year advisors to learning units to teachers to relatives to his parents, became unreliable when they opened their mouths. Often I felt I had nothing concrete to offer beyond our shared doubt.
[I moved interstate. There was no bullying at my new school at first. I thought things were going to be great. Once my one friend left, it felt like no one wanted to be associated with me at all. Playing a game of tag, I was hiding behind a tree because I’m not a fast runner. These kids from the year above started making fun of me being socially awkward (the teacher’s phrase) and I cried. They grabbed my bag and took it into the toilets and threw it in the urinal. All my work was in it. Class work, books, my world-building. Drenched. Ruined. Went and found a teacher and I got detention.]
I bump into a friend while taking my dog (and my doubts that I have anything meaningful to write about bullying) for a walk. She says ‘Perfect – doubt is what bullying is all about.’ All the ways it centres and amplifies doubt. Doubt of your child’s take, their muscle memory and their written account. Doubt about encouraging your child to be empathic towards the bully, doubt that the bully truly exists. Doubt that the school has it under control, doubt that they’re taking it seriously, doubt that they have the mechanisms to manage what’s happening out of their sight. Questioning where responsibility lies, who’s telling the truth, the possibility that your child is somehow soft or you’re not hard enough or you’re both too sensitive – the ‘s’ word again, lodging itself in your subconscious as various non-parents recommend self-esteem tutorials or martial arts classes. For both of you.
One day, one of Saul’s main antagonists said he had a taser his bag and was going to use it on Saul. The school’s response was to doubt that there was a taser or that the word ‘taser’ had been used. I wanted to obtain a stun gun after this. And use it on the other kid’s parents. Who are probably full of another form of the same misplaced rage as I am. Not many parents talk about the violent fantasises that can play out after your own child is directly threatened or harmed. Stunning to look into the light of your child and see yourself burning.
[Year 6 was really bad socially: isolating and kids making bad rumours about me, special rules for me to not be able to play handball, pushing me out the back. It was my only way to hang with other kids. I was very depressed. I felt suicidal, holding myself hostage under a desk with a knife to my wrist.]
[The most significant out of all the things people don’t tell you about bullying is that being resilient doesn’t solve the problem. When you’re told that you’re super resilient, it has the same effect as being told to ignore it and it’ll go away. No matter how emotionally strong you are, having every aspect of your identity mauled by your peers will hurt.]
You know there is no good–bad binary here: one of Saul’s long-term bullies turned out to have a mother dying of cancer, another was experiencing regular beatings at home. In some ways their victims were the most reliable intimacy they had in their lives, often one in which they had a sense of agency and control. The word ‘bully’ likely evolved in the mid-sixteenth century from the Middle Dutch word boele, which loosely translates as ‘lover’. A term of endearment, a familiar form of address to an intimate friend. Often the first people we are pursued by, the first people to make meaningful physical contact, the first to give us pet names, the first to fixate and to seek us out in times of shared confusion and doubt.
[Bullying is a sea of faces, morphing and changing. Its only desire to consume lest it devour itself. Although it is always in a state of flux, it hates change, even more so difference, covering them with the oozing sludge of its toxicity. It is infectious and can transform even those who don’t want to be consumed by it, while the fate of those who refuse to give in isn’t much better: the sea of faces inspects every part of them and tears each one to pieces. The monster cannot be destroyed, as its faces are always changing.]
My son’s advisor called me as I missed parent–teacher night. Fortunately his latest school is a move away from ‘appointment learning’. Their motto is One student at a time, in a community of learners. Teachers are advisors, parents are peripheral planets, students are agents of their own making. I still have a vigilance around school calls, built up through years of Saul being bullied or retaliating to bullying or being attacked and preparing myself to legally represent him. But this call was to tell me how Saul is thriving, how he leads the class discussions, how the world-building project he’s working on is blowing minds, how he spends his time beta-testing friends’ game designs and playing Catan in beanbags, that there is funding to support all the autism spectrum disorder kids in ways that can be defined by the kids themselves.
He hasn’t been called a faggot or a retard this year. Hasn’t been hit or kicked or spat on or told to kill himself. No bags emptied or books stolen. Catches public transport again. Wants to stay at his mum’s on school nights so he can catch even more trains. New records. The faces don’t appear so much in his sleep now*, the night terrors have finally stopped and there are soft reports his dreams are slowly becoming his own.
[Among the sea of people I spot the amorphous creature again. A colossal tide of echoing laughter washes over me, knowing it has already gotten the best of me.]
In the lead-up to Christmas I take Saul to a foragers’ market in the same suburb as his previous high school to find some final gifts. Saul’s hesitant to go, given the geographic association and the potential hypervigilance he may need to negotiate. I reassure him that all that was twelve months ago and he is safe with me. He isn’t safe with me. While looking at handmade soap, I don’t see Saul stiffen, face stripped of its natural colour. He comes up close, whispering in an agitated state that the bullies are over there but I’m not to look, please don’t look. I look.
[I anticipate something happening and in fact hope for it so that this burning tension droning on in my brain will stop.]
Standing in a small, broken circle are Saul’s past tormentors, openly mocking him across the stalls. Spoilt coal-coast kids, cruel mouths full of sweets. I hold the bath bomb in my hand tighter and stare back, as if a stare can dissolve their essential nature. Saul wants to leave but I keep staring, fixed on a target that’s not on my back. I buy a pomegranate bath bomb. Nothing explodes. We leave together and we walk away alone, unsure how to transcend this.
[I do not remember the time it took or how long he said it would take, I just remember it being an eternity to me.]