It’s been 30 years since the Mentone Girls’ High School Class of 1987 walked into our final exams for VCE. Wow. I can’t believe it’s been that long. And yet it also feels like a life time ago. For me, at least, it is another life ago.
As we celebrate and commemorate thirty years since our years at High School ended, it’s natural to think about the times spent and shared at MGHS; Friendships forged, lessons learned, mistakes made, and life paths set out ahead of us. Many girls started Year 7 with friendships from primary school, while others of us found ourselves at the corner of Balcombe & Charman Roads further into our educational journey.
I enrolled at Mentone Girls High School at the beginning of Year 10, as Sue, having moved from a co-ed school and another state. Going from a P-12 country school to a suburban single-gendered school was quite confronting. And it wasn’t an easy time being the new kid, and I guess, a “different” one at that. Some of my peers made my first year incredibly difficult. Between the verbal taunts, teasing, intimidation, and occasional physical altercation, 1985 was a year I barely survived emotionally and psychologically. Being a teenager, coping with puberty, dealing with parents, exploring sexuality, juggling school and social life; these are all normal things that make being a fifteen year old difficult. But being the target of bullying and social exclusion, makes life inside and outside school close to unbearable.
I could write for a long time about the Phys Ed classes I skipped to avoid being victimised, or the lunch times spent in sick bay in tears or crippled with anxiety and fear. But I’m writing this not for myself, but for all the Class of ‘87 victims of bullying at MGHS. The many who were targeted because they looked “different”, because of their culture, because they were smart or model students, because they were quiet, or just because they were new.
When I reconnected with many of the students at the 25th Anniversary event and through social media, I was heartbroken to hear of the girls who experienced a life of Hell as victims of bullying.
In 2012, when I tried to address my own experience of being bullied, two extraordinary things happened. Firstly, and most positively, out of the blue one class-mate approached me and apologised. With authenticity and a real sense of personal insight, she said she was sorry if she’d been a bitch to me. I acknowledged her apology, and told her I was intimidated by the social group she was part of, but that I never felt that she was a “bitch” to me. Despite the fact I didn’t feel personally bullied by her, I appreciated that she took time out to make amends.
The second thing that happened was that I was told by fellow alumni not to confront my bullies about the abuse. I never intended to make a scene or stir up trouble at the reunion, but what I did want — after 25 years of feeling helpless and voiceless — was to tell those girls what they did, and how it scarred me. “No”, I was told, “They’ve had a tough time lately”; relationships had apparently been damaged or broken, and other troubles in their lives had tested them. And so I was silenced, again.
In those brief moments of justification and excuse making, just like all those years ago, the bullies were protected, while the victims — once more — were ignored, and our feelings and experiences minimised.
Being a victim of bullying still carries a huge social stigma. Those of us who have survived don’t want to admit that we went through depression, self harm, and even suicidal thoughts and attempts. We haven’t felt able to voice these experiences because of the very culture of deflection, minimisation, and denial by bullies and their accomplices. Being bullied is not only traumatic and stressful at the time, but it changes who we are, who we become, and the relationship we have with and in the world.
We defend the bullies because life goes on, and they deal with their own troubles and trials. Sometimes school bullies grow up and become amazing, beautiful, and caring people. And other times their toxic behaviour continues on through their life, and they never really understand that what they did was wrong, or accept any accountability.
We can all still reminisce about the good and fun times and friendships at MGHS, and look back on the rollercoaster ride of high school that we (mostly) managed to survive. It was a time that shaped our teenage years, but the women (and one man) that we are now, have also been defined by our lives since our graduation year. But for some of us, the prospect of a 30 year reunion brings up feelings of anxiety, fear, and trauma.
So how can we celebrate 30 years when there is still hurt and harm felt among us? Is it ever too late for a community to stand up for the most vulnerable? Will we have the courage as a community and individuals to say it was wrong then, and it’s wrong now?
Sometimes, as with the culture of sexual harassment and abuse uncovered in Hollywood recently, it takes someone to speak out and give voice to the ugly truth. I hope, by my speaking out, that others feel safe and supported enough to tell their own story.
I would like to see, in 2017, the acknowledgment of harm done by the bullies in the class of ’87, and a willingness — by all of us — to make amends. Then, and only then, can we turn the page on this chapter of abuse, and feel truly heard as victims and survivors.