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Thursday, May 12, 2022

My experience with school bullies


Years ago, when my son was in Standard One, he returned home one day looking disturbed. He told me that a few senior boys were bullying him in school.

The following day, I went to the school during recess and he pointed out four Malay boys. I walked up to them and gently asked what standard they were in and, with some trepidation, they said Standard Four.

Asking them to see my son as a younger friend, I told them that as schoolmates they should stand up for each other. I also said they should set a good example for those younger than them. They listened and nodded and when I suggested that they shake hands with my son, they all did.

That was the last time they bullied my son. In fact, my son told me that from that day, they appeared to keep watch over him, greeting him with a smile whenever they saw him. Sometimes they would ask him how he was and even tell him to inform them if he had any problem.

I was glad because I had been uncertain how to deal with it. Initially, I weighed the option of meeting the headmaster or the discipline teacher but decided against it as I didn’t want the students to be punished. I knew these were young boys who probably didn’t realise the consequences of their actions.

So I decided to see if I could resolve it by talking to them. I suppose they saw, from my demeanor, and that of my son, that we meant them no harm.

In secondary school, there was one Indian boy in Form Five who was always surrounded by a group of boys and who was feared by many students. However, he never bothered my son. Once, in the corridor, one of the boys in this group moved as if to block my son’s way. As my son drew near, he overheard the “leader” telling this boy to let him pass, saying something about my son being a school debater.

I was surprised to learn this. Here was a bully who appreciated those who were contributing to the school’s image.

That made me think that perhaps not all bullies were bad or that they worked within their own set of rules or principles.

One day my son pointed out the boy, who was heavily-built, to me. I wondered what I would have done if at all my son had been bullied. Would I have been able to talk sense to teenage bullies? Certainly, they would not have felt intimidated by me.

I was fortunate, I guess. But there are many parents who are not fortunate and who have to bear the pain of seeing their children being bullied and who have to meet the school heads or teachers to try to resolve the problem.

I shudder to think about the distress victims of bullying go through. Some suffer injuries and some carry the trauma with them for years. Their performance in school is the first to suffer. A few even take their own lives because they can no longer face the bullying.

Bullying happened even during my school days but it was probably not as frequent as in the past few decades.

I was fortunate in that I was never bullied by anyone in school.

This could be because teachers were tough in those days and were empowered to use the cane. Students not only had high respect for their teachers, they also feared some of them.

Those of my generation can tell tales about being pinched, slapped, hit on the back, struck with the blackboard duster, knocked on the head by the teacher’s knuckles, hit with the feather duster and caned while in both primary and secondary school. Some would have been caned in public.

And, unlike today, if you were to return home and tell your father that your teacher had caned or beaten you, he’d smack you – and if you were very unfortunate his belt would start singing – just so you get the message that you have to behave and play by the rules.

I think one major factor is that school dynamics and parents’ attitudes have changed. In those days, there were more men teachers and their presence helped create an atmosphere where students – especially boys – tended to behave. And teachers were well respected.

Today, women teachers outnumber men everywhere. How many Form Four or Form Five boys would be afraid of women teachers?

Teachers tell me that they fear reprisals from students. One said if advice didn’t work, they’d just leave the student alone so long as he didn’t disturb the rest of the class. Teachers are concerned that any punishment meted out would invite the wrath of the parents or get them into trouble.

Parents today are overprotective and many rush to the school to defend their child if the child is punished.

Another teacher said the safest thing for them (teachers) to do was to leave bullying incidents to the school head to handle. But she agreed that school heads tended to settle such issues as quietly as possible so as not to attract public attention, especially media reports.

Talking about caning, many a wayward student in my alma mater King Edward VII Secondary School were put on the right path by the canes that principal Mr Long Heng Hua wielded with such aplomb and conversance. Some of those whose buttocks had a conversation with Mr Long’s canes will attest to the fact that they are better individuals today because of that caning.

Pak Long, as he was popularly known, would try to channel the energies of his students into sports and cocurricular activities. Each student was expected to play at least one game or be a member of one school club or association, although we were encouraged to be involved in as many games and societies as we wished.

Distilled to its essence, what is bullying but an act of aggression. Mr Long knew that if you channel all the aggressive tendencies and extra energies of students – especially teenagers – onto the playing field, you are less likely to have bullying in school.

Why does a bully pick on others? It’s because he gets “likes” from some of his peers; there’s a social benefit. He attains a higher position in the schoolboy hierarchy – never mind that it’s because of fear. If you look at it closely, you’d see that bullies do have some leadership qualities.

Educators should consider how to turn the craving for popularity and the leadership qualities of such bullies into useful channels so that both they and the school benefit.

But bullying doesn’t just happen in school, it happens at home and at work too, as seen by the outcry over the latest death of a houseman suspected to be due to overwork and bullying. - FMT

The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of MMKtT.

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