‘I’m still very angry’

2008-10-08 00:00

After a Krugersdorp boy killed a fellow pupil last month, media reports suggested that computer games and heavy metal music may be to blame for school and college killings in South Africa and elsewhere. A Pietermaritzburg woman and mother believes differently.

The Witness recently carried a letter suggesting that a factor common to school killings is that the perpetrators are victims of bullying. The anonymous letter writer went on to say: “I am not a psychologist but a parent of a sensitive child who went to one of Pietermaritzburg’s leading schools and suffered enormous anguish at the hands of bullies for many years …” It suggested that “bullying is rife in our schools” and said the psychologist the boy saw confirmed this.

The Witness contacted the letter writer to find out more. Her son, Joe*, was bullied throughout his high school career. This is Joe’s story.

“Joe was bullied from the moment he walked into the school in Grade 7. He had a learning disability so had attended a specialised school and was also slightly built. These things made him ‘different’. Boys teased him because of his learning problem and he also endured physical bullying. For example, he was grabbed and roughed up so that the buttons were ripped off his shirt. He came home one day with a huge ‘roastie’ and bruises on his face from landing face first on a concrete floor. One boy had held his hands behind his back while another had tripped him. A matric boy wrote on his jersey in ballpoint pen, which was hard to clean off. They also used to break his stationery.

“He wasn’t the only one who was bullied. There was a whole group of them in his class — the boys who were not good at sport. The intelligent boys were seen as nerds by the macho sporting culture of the school. The boys who were good at sport were like demi-gods, especially the first-team rugby players. The headmaster was an absolute rugby fanatic. He made it very clear in speeches and newsletters over the years that he was unsympathetic to mothers ‘trying to wrap their sons in cotton wool’.

“Joe wanted me to stay out of it and not complain to the school because that just made the bullying worse. It often intensified immediately after I went to complain, but I still did sometimes. The first time was when he was in Grade 9 and the head of department (HOD) took it seriously, but nothing changed. Over the years, I talked to different HODs but it made no difference. Other parents moved their sons to co-ed schools where bullying seems to be less of a problem.

“We looked at moving Joe to another school and discussed it at length. As he had a learning problem we needed small classes which ruled out a lot of schools, and we didn’t want him to board. He didn’t like the heavy religious emphasis of one day school that was an option, so we found no real alternative.

“By the time he was in Grade 11 he was obviously depressed so I took him to see a psychologist. She said she had seen many children from different schools, but it was a problem at my son’s school particularly. She had approached the school authorities on several occasions. The counselling helped Joe. He even confronted one of the boys by phone. That boy had himself been bullied extensively, so took his frustration out on others. He felt that ‘either you are a bully or you are bullied’. He stopped bullying Joe, who was able to cope better after that.

“So much of what is written about bullying concentrates on the victims, but it’s actually the perpetrators who need help. There’s a conspiracy of silence that operates in which the school authorities and parents are complicit. My husband, who is an old boy of the school, and I felt powerless to help our son. And Joe did too.

“I can see why bullying leads teenagers to the extreme behaviour we have seen recently. I believe it explains it. Victims of bullying feel angry, depressed and isolated. More than anything they want to be respected. People blame heavy metal music and computer games for school killings, but no one thinks to blame rugby and the macho culture of sport in our society. Young people identify with heavy metal because they are already angry and depressed because of the circumstances at school.”

Joe matriculated in 2003 and is now a student at a tertiary institution but still “very angry” about what happened to him. “Bullying victims keep quiet about it as nobody seems to do anything constructive about it. Victims do nothing to try to stop it as they feel nothing helps, nobody listens and they end up feeling powerless and ignored. Heavy metal music is soothing to angry victims and acts like a pressure valve. It’s definitely not an incentive to violence.”

Joe’s mother’s advice to parents is to listen to their children and be aware of what is going on in their lives. “Work at having good communication with your children and keeping in touch with them. Contrary to male culture that reveres hard-drinking and hard-fighting men, encourage your sons to express their emotions. Teach them that it is okay for men to have feelings and verbalise them.

“Parents should also teach their children not to be bullies and that violence is never the right way to sort out their problems. Parents of bullies need to find out why their child feels it necessary to behave in this way.”

* Not his real name.

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