A moving account of how bullying led one family to home education
Trouble with school started the first day that my scared little nine-year-old daughter went to middle school. That first day, a girl asked her if she had nits. (She did not). The repeated questions about nits and hair and whether she had them and what she was doing about it bothered her because she does not like being asked questions all the time.
My eldest daughter, G, is a quiet, sensitive, interested and well-motivated child with an overwhelming desire to learn and an avid curiosity about most things. She was left alone at playtime. Most of the other children had friends from their first school, and G’s best friend had gone to another school. Nevertheless, taking all her courage in both hands, my shy and gentle girl approached a few children and formed a bond with them. Unfortunately, they were not in her class.
Early on it became apparent that three girls who went around together were whispering about G. You do not have to hear nastiness distinctly to know that it is going on around you. Then things were done – mean things that I will not go into here. My daughter was plainly a bullies’ target.
I approached her form teacher to have her tell these children that their behaviour was unacceptable. Year Five became a nightmare. Nearly every day I went in to speak to the teacher about problems with these three girls. G was able to get through the year with the help of her friends in another class and also because she loved her form teacher who was a caring and lovely woman but ineffectual against the bullies.
Towards the middle of the following year, the bullies were made school librarians. Although they were not in G’s class, children meet in other places. They said things in the hallways, in assemblies and, particularly, in that hotbed of torture, the playground wherein no adult ever noticed G’s struggles just to be free and unnoticed by these kids. My neighbour’s daughter (herself bullied for a few years) – older than my daughter by a year – approached the bullies to speak to them about their activities which they, of course, denied.
The situation escalated almost daily until I asked for a meeting with the head of Year 6. This woman was insulting, rude, mean and intolerable. She stated that my daughter should have a learning mentor, that she brought it all on herself, that she was too quiet and anti-social. I was utterly shocked by her venom at this time. My daughter’s form teacher then joined the savaging saying that G ‘scuttled along the hallways’ and ‘couldn’t be away from her friends.’ They threw anything and everything at me that they could think of to say that would put a bad light on my clever child who never missed doing her homework and did everything to the best of her ability which is considerable. Her teacher in first school, with the wisdom of thirty years experience, had told me that he had seldom seen a child with such a good work ethic and that she was bound to succeed because she had such a powerful concentration. He thought the world of her.
Since it was obvious that nothing would be done to alleviate my daughter’s distress, and upset and wounded by the betrayal of these people who were supposed to cherish and support my daughter, we wrote a letter of complaint to the headteacher. We never received an answer from this man, but his deputy head (DH) called my daughter into his office. He asked her what the problem was. She gave quite a good account of herself considering that it was difficult for her to communicate about these matters and she is wary of speaking to people. About the whispering, he told her to ignore it and gave her various other pieces of facile and idiotic advice. (I would like to see him planted in a classroom and ignore people whispering about his funny bald head, for example. He might take these matters more seriously then). Then he found out that my daughter was taking music lessons. She played the piano. So he requested that she play for him which she refused to do. Then he asked if she would ‘take the music that she was learning in for him to see.’ Finding this a reasonable request, G complied. Or tried to. She repeatedly visited the man’s office but he was never around. Eventually, she left the score on his desk with a note.
At around this time, the DH decided to follow her around the school from class to class. He singled her out, treating her in a jocular but invasive way which, I’m sure, added to the merriment that the bullies got from tormenting my child. It is a testament to G’s strength, tenacity and intelligence that she was able to pass her SATS exams with excellent marks at this time. Sadly, however, because she received so much homework she had to give up her piano studies.
Following the SATS, one of my daughter’s friends turned on her and became hostile. The others were neutral but unsupportive and G was left without support in the playground. I told the teaching staff of her difficulties, and she was ‘given jobs to do for the teachers’ which enabled her to stay inside at breaks and lunchtimes. In class, my daughter was left out of groups, on the sidelines of activities, ignored when she tried to talk, and, subtly, subjected to much nastiness.
My child came out of school every day looking thinner and paler. She was starting to resemble the poor souls who crawled out of the Belsen camp after the second world war. I asked her for the millionth time if she would like to change schools, and she showed an interest in the idea.
We visited another, smaller school, nearby whose head teacher was in his own terms ‘very hard on bullying’ and G made it clear that she was ready to transfer to this new school (MS2). She went there the next day.
During the second year, another girl transferred from the old school. My daughter found out from her that this girl (C) had suffered bullying at the hands of those creatures who had also tormented my child. They had an interesting time comparing notes about these children. C said that her mother had gone in and, in a state of total frustration, had proceeded to scream at the teachers for their lack of action in helping her daughter. We were unsurprised but sorry to hear that the first middle school had not learned anything from my daughter’s sad and preventable experiences.
Meanwhile, my child’s confidence had sunk almost without trace. She was skittish and fearful of speaking in class, and found it difficult to communicate even casually and individually to teachers. The initial short report I received was unflattering and negative. She must talk more; she never contributed to class discussions… I pointed out that she had been severely debilitated by two years of emotional abuse, but this was dismissed. The implication was that there was something wrong with my daughter. (If some people beat you over the head almost every day, then is it not normal to be wary and avoid people in case others should repeat the behaviour? I think it only sensible and a normal human reaction to try to avoid pain).
The children at MS2 seemed friendly enough at first. One girl stepped forward (apparently she had fallen out with her gang of pals) to ask if she could befriend my daughter. My daughter said of course. That friendship lasted a few weeks until the girl ingratiated herself with another child, then dropped her, and another… She repeated the same pattern many times. Meanwhile, a girl transferred from a school about ten miles away. Apparently a pleasant girl at first, this S proved to be malicious and a catalyst for other nasty females to join her. S stirred up trouble for my child, grabbing her in the cloakroom and forcing her, with the help of another, against the wall. (I should have contacted the police and had her charged with assault). Foolishly, I believed that the school would stop this kind of aggression. It was not to be. I was told that S ‘had problems at home’ and I, being weary and disgusted by the attitude that bullies are to be feather-bedded, forgiven all their sins, and ‘understood,’ told the teacher that ‘I have troubles at home, we all have troubles at home, but I don’t take them out on other, innocent people, nor do you.’ He agreed, and would ‘talk’ to the group of bullies yet again.
The head teacher became ill and left within a month. The school suffered an immediate change with an incompetent deputy headteacher becoming acting head. The bullying continued: I spoke to the acting head about it, and all she could suggest was to keep my daughter inside the school at breaks and lunch. G said that it wasn’t fair. The bullies got to have their normal breaks outside in the fresh air without being punished while she was cooped up inside the school. I agreed.
By this time, my younger daughter, N, was at the MS2 and preparing for her Year 6 SATS. The teachers sent a note to say that, since she was good at English and Science, they wished her to stay for extra classes after school. I refused. Both my girls were coming home exhausted and having to face piles of homework which I often had to finish for them to allow them to have time to relax before the next round of school the following day. My baby emerged from school looking grim and serious – a sharp contrast to the laughing, happy child I had known.
A short time later, we all fell ill with a pernicious virus. During this time, we received a letter warning us that my children were missing so much school that we would be referred to the LA and the Education Welfare people would become involved.
For many years my husband had said that we should keep them at home and educate the children ourselves. We are both graduates of University: we are also professional freelance writers.
I had just finished a Law GCSE at the local evening class. Why should we not pass on our love and joy in learning to our own children?
I contacted the Home Education charity Education Otherwise and received counsel and support from them. I looked around at the hundreds of books on all subjects (readily available from varied sources), the masses of magazines, the tv schedule, the radio, the internet and thought of museums, nature reserves, the beach within a two-block walk, the world outside and the wisdom within and I saw no reason to leave my girls in a place which sucked the love of learning from their very souls.
If there is anything they wish to learn that I cannot teach I will find a way for them to learn it. If there are experiences that they want to experience (good experiences like taking pictures at the local nature park where N and my husband frequently walk) I will help them to undergo these experiences. The world is literally at their feet. They are not limited by someone’s myopic idea of what they should learn. They learn everything. They take joy in the learning. I know their strengths ( I can help them grow) and I know their weaknesses (I can help them mimimise those). Their welfare is my deepest concern and my dearest wish is for them to love learning and to use it for their own good and for the good of others.
My children experienced the worst of human nature in school. I show them the best, now, in our home, in our home educating friends, in the people they meet outside, in the folks who take the evening courses that G and I attend. Gradually, I hope that they will lose their fear of their own peers. The fear that false and negative socialisation has given them. They will learn that there are loving and kind souls all around them of all ages, colours, creeds, appearance and sizes. This is something I deeply regret that school has no capacity to teach.
And so my daughter now goes to her piano lessons again. She can play Für Elise by Beethoven so beautifully that it squeezes my heart. Not a lesson she could have taken at school; they don’t offer piano at the schools she attended. In my opinion, they don’t offer much at all.
Diane is a home educator and freelance writer based in the north east of England.