School bullies – should they be forgiven?
The internet is responsible for many strange things that could not have happened before its invention. Back in the mid-1970s and aged 12, I was bullied at school. It was co-educational, unusual back then in Holy Mother Ireland. By the standards of the day this was an expensive private boarding school, but bullying is no respecter of such things. A posse of boys indulged in a range of bullying antics and having poor eyesight, I was an easy target. The bullying took various forms. They chucked me in the deep end of the school pool, fully clothed. Waterlogged and no great swimmer, I sank like a stone. Luckily someone fished me off the bottom, just in time. I have avoided swimming ever since. On the hockey pitch, one of these lovely lads would zoom in on my blind side and slam the ball hard, so it bounced up and whacked me in the face. Their other game was to lie in wait as I returned to the dormitory at night. There was a pond and it was dark, and they thought it hilarious to push me in. Any attempts to stand up to them were laughed off as my having no sense of humour. Reporting them was out of the question: all pupils observed a strict “no-sneaking” culture. They had carte blanche and they knew it.
When I finally told my parents, they suggested the local convent as an alternative and when I jumped at the chance, they realised it wasn’t just home sickness. They complained to the head master, but I doubt anything happened.
Wind the clock forwards. More than 30 years had passed; school was a dim unpleasant memory. Into my inbox dropped an email from a senior British Naval officer. He was in Hong Kong and had found me on the internet. Did I remember him? He was a bit ashamed to admit he was “one of those boys who teased you and gave you a bit of a hard time at school.” He hoped I realised they were only larking about and meant no harm. My blood ran cold when I saw his name. I remembered Matron picking bits of hockey pitch grit out of my cheek with tweezers after it had been sliced by that hockey ball. I remembered running the gauntlet of these little thugs as I passed the pond each night. I remembered him very well indeed.
It was an upbeat, chatty email. He was quite boastful, proudly recounting his successful Navy career. Would I like to have dinner with him, he wondered. His conscience was clearly pricking him, even after so many years. My first reaction was to think OK, I should accept his olive branch. Then I toughened up and thought, wait, why should I? He has had more than 30 years to say sorry. He caused me considerable pain and frankly, his email fell well short of an apology. It was all about him. I wrote back that if I ever heard from him again in this lifetime, it would be too soon.
Another one emerges
Fast forward again, to before Christmas just gone. I wrote about the problem of underage drinking and drug-taking in Discovery Bay. Many people commented. To my surprise, one of them admitted he was another member of that select group who had such fun picking on me at school in Ireland. He said he had lived in Hong Kong for years and often read my stuff. He had not contacted me before, but now wanted to share his views on parenting. I was speechless. It was now 40 years after the event, and he was not exactly apologising either – rather just acknowledging his role. As I recall, he was not the actual instigator of my torment, but I don’t remember him trying to stop it, either.
His letter felt more creepy than the one from Mr Navy Bigshot. I don’t know what he wanted from me – forgiveness for his guilt pangs? Call me mean-spirited, but it’s taken him nearly 40 years to get in touch. I’m not sure I really feel in a forgiving mood, since neither of them actually said sorry. Not yet, anyway. But without the internet, I doubt I would ever have heard from them.