The tragedy of realising too late that you had been a bully

Who can say what takes people to that point of no return?
Who can say what takes people to that point of no return? Photo: Getty Images

 We all know someone who's been bullied. Growing up, some of you suffered barbs or were ostracised by kids in the neighbourhood or at school. Others have been intimidated at work by a colleague or the boss.

Some of you know what it's like to be the bully. Or, if not the author of misery, you've contributed a sentence or two to a painful chapter in someone's life.

Like a lot of you, I empathise across the gamut: I've been bullied myself and I know people who've suffered it - because I was one of the people who dished it out to them.

I never considered myself a real bully mind you: I'm not inclined to single out others for torment. I've proudly said I could no sooner engage in sustained teasing than fly to the moon (more on that later).

As an adult I've tried - and mostly succeeded - to live by the edict drummed into me as a child: "Do unto others ..."

But sometimes I think back to childhood and when I do, I sometimes remember Margaret and Glynn.

Margaret lived in my street. Four or five years my senior, I didn't know her but I'd tuned into the vibe among neighbourhood kids that she was to be treated as an outsider; a target.

A heavy girl who was always looking at her feet, Margaret only ventured outside her house walking to and from the school bus stop.

I was nine or 10 when she shuffled past my house one afternoon. "Don'tcha know tanks aren't allowed on the road?" piped up my neighbour Scotty, the kid I'd been kicking a football with on the nature strip.


"Yeah! No tanks on the road!" I chimed in, emboldened by pack mentality but also surprised that I'd just said something nasty for no reason. It was the first time I'd done that.

Margaret just trudged past, eyes focused on her school shoes. By the time I hit high school a few years later, Margaret was gone. She'd hanged herself.

The thought that my nasty jibe years before had been even a drop in the collective ocean of scorn poured on her - until it tragically swept her under - horrified me at the time. It still haunts me from time to time.

Then there was Glynn. He arrived at our school in Year 12.

By then, five years of teenage frisson and friction had forged the social circles of 120 or so 17 and 18-year-olds into iron rings.

I was in an impenetrable gang of 15 or so "popular" boys who thought it was enormously funny to chant, in unison, rhyming slurs about each other and any other kid we could poke fun at. We'd done it for years. So maybe I really could fly to the moon!

We didn't have a chant for Glynn. Maybe we thought it would validate him. Instead he was deemed an outsider. The playground's coldest moon.

I didn't tease Glynn personally at school: I ignored him instead -- textbook passive-aggressive treatment that actually screamed "Get lost loser!"

But one day I found myself alone at the back of a bus during the holidays when he climbed aboard with a girl. She could have been his sister, girlfriend, a cousin or a girl he'd just met for all I knew.

I hate to admit this but an instinct to belittle him overtook me. I issued a smart-mouthed put down and turned my back on Glynn and the girl for the 20-minute trip to my stop.

The whole time I sat there thinking, "Why on earth did you say that? Turn around and apologise now!" But I didn't.

Two years later I was a cadet reporter when the chief of staff told me to follow up a report of a fatal shooting near to where I grew up.

A detective told me on the phone it was a 20-year-old man who'd committed suicide in the backyard.

We didn't report on suicides so I moved onto the next story.

A week later a mate asked me if I'd heard about "that Glynn kid".

He'd killed himself in his parents' backyard in the suburb near to where we grew up.

The feeling of horror and shame I had about Margaret hit me again, perhaps a bit harder.

Did I play a bit-part in this tragedy, too?

Over the years whenever bullying hit the news I've considered writing about Margaret and Glynn but figured it too abstract to unravel.

After all who can say what takes people to that point of no return?

Was it mental illness? Were their motives unrelated to being teased? To me? I'd honestly never meant to hurt anyone.

Then last week my six-year-old revealed some boys had told her "You look like Donald Trump!"

She was unfazed and just mentioned it in passing. I thought it was hilarious (Donald Trump!) and mentioned it on Facebook.

A woman whose name I didn't recognise added a comment encouraging me to tell my little girl she was beautiful ... and to remember how I had teased her and made her high school years "a living hell" because "words can cut deep".

My initial response was to defend myself. I told her - truthfully - I didn't even remember her name, let alone constantly teasing her.

After some thought - mainly about the chanting my pals and I used to think was such a scream - I figured she must have been maligned with a daft, nasty nickname shouted by a bunch of boys. I was right.

I wrote her a long note apologising for my part in the hurt she'd clearly carried for more than 30 years.

We ended up having a lovely, warm exchange. We talked about bullying and how stupid and nasty kids can be.

"Don't be too hard on yourself," she said.

I wanted to tell her about Glynn and Margaret but it didn't feel right. Instead I promised to dedicate a newspaper column to my long-avoided topic of bullying.

So here it is Christine.

Thanks for the forgiveness.

And I encourage anyone who knows if someone is being bullied to step in and stop it.

And yes, I will tell my little girl that she is beautiful.

Craig Henderson is an Australian journalist.

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