Monday, 9 June 2014

I should have stood up for Kylie Smith

Stare. Stare. Stare. Stare. Stare. Stare. Stare. It was a chant, almost tribal in its nature, from the boys in my class as the wide circle they had made around Kylie's desk got smaller and smaller. With each word they got a step closer until they were so close that she could have touched them. There were three boys in the class not participating, myself and my two best friends. 

* * * * *

As it was for a lot of people, early high school was very hard for me. Suddenly thrown into a school 5 times the size of my primary school, with no friends to help support me though it. 

I did have friends at the school but there had been a mix up. On our orientation day I found that I was in a different 'mini' (what they called the year 7 class groups at my school) to my group of friends which I had from primary school. I was in 4a, they'd all be put into 3b. There was room to move though so I put in a request to be moved to 3b for the start of high school the next year. This request was granted. 

So I showed up on high school day one, found my friends, looked up (or was told somehow) where we needed to be and which class we were in. Sure enough, I'd been moved to 3b. My 3 best friends had been moved to 1a. I was devastated and essentially alone. I made my way to 3b home group to be confronted by a sea of faces who all clearly knew each other but clearly didn't know me. I was able to spot two familiar faces in the crowd (one of them went on to represent Australia at the Olympics). They were sitting up the front of the room at a desk. They weren't friends as such, but kids I knew well enough to talk to, so I went and knelt beside them. 

For the record, this is what our school desks looked like back in the day: 

Our high school class rooms had these spread throughout (unless it was science, arts, or materials such as woodwork, or metal work). In home group many of the 'tough' kids would just sit along the ledge which was created by the cupboards at the back of the room. 

I can't remember what kind of acknowledgement I got from the two kids I recognised but I do remember they were in 3a, not 3b so once we broke up to go to class, I really was on my own. 

I don't remember if it was that morning or the next day but a short time after I wasn't sure where I had to go for my next class. I was standing in a hallway looking at the school class timetable, unable to understand it. I was lost, on the verge or tears (I was a sensitive young fella) and totally confused about where I was meant to be. 

A teacher, Sue Fraser I later learnt, walked past  so I got her attention, told her which class I was in but wasn't sure where I was meant to be. She said '3b? You're in here with me'. A lucky break in walking in finding out where I had to be. Not so lucky walking into class with the teacher. 

I was overweight in those days. (I've spent a couple of weeks here and there being not overweight since) so I endured a week of torment and abuse because of it. Not only was I overweight, but I had no one there to help stick up for me either. I've never been sure since if there was anything else about me that earned me the title of 'person to be bullied' but my weight was the obvious one. 

In one class, I can't remember which, we were stood in a circle of 5 or 6 students and we had to introduce ourselves by name and tell everyone something we liked. I was struggling for ideas as I desperately wanted to think of something that wouldn't be ridiculed. The ring leader of the bullies happened to be in the group I was in. It was frightening. 

I had received a model train set for Christmas the year before so I thought that must be okay. 

'My name's Donovan, and I like trains', is what I said. It was only later that I found out that alpha-bully was a Collingwood fan. Had I revealed at this moment that I too was a Collingwood fan, I might have become accepted, or at least the bullying might have eased off. Who knows? 

As some point, someone lied about what I had said, and how I said it. They all started making fun of me because they were convinced I'd said 'My name's Donovan, and I'm a train.' Not only were the words changed but they were also convinced it wasn't said normally but was in a long, drawn out drawl as though I had a severe speech impediment. Everywhere I walked 'My name's Donovan and I'm a train' would be said, mocking me. That was when they were feeling a little more adventurous than just calling me fat. 

So my first week of high school was hell for me. It really was. I don't remember a day not being in tears from the bullying. I talked to teachers, desperate to get out of that class and to join my friends. I remember one recess where I was sitting in the spot my friends and I always did (I'm thankful that we were at least able to spend breaks together). I was there first so for a minute or two was on my own when some girls I didn't even know walked past. One of them said 'haven't his friends arrived yet?' I guess people had heard about me. 

On the Friday morning of the first week a teacher came around to each class to check on how things were going and to ask if everyone was happy. I raised my hand. She came to my desk (I was sitting by myself of course) and asked my name. "Donovan". "Ah, I've heard about you". She said. I'm not sure what words my thought consisted of at that moment, but I know today's equivalent would be 'Then why the fuck haven't you done something about it before now?'

She told me that I'd be moved class from next week on. I got her to confirm twice that it would be 1b where my friends where. It was. She then said that maybe I should try to sit with people instead of on my own. Maybe I should try a bit harder to be friends with them. She had no idea that through no fault of my own, they hated me. 

So the Monday of the second week arrived, I was in 1b and things instantly improved dramatically. They weren't perfect. I still had a few classes with that old group so there was still a bit of bullying going on. I remember one Graphics class with the old group 3b group, not the 1b group. I guess reorganising the schedule completely was a bit too hard. 

A table of boys nearby me started talking about me, but not too me. Though they were loud enough for me to hear, and that was their intention. I don't remember the details of what they were saying, and really it doesn't matter. They were picking on me, that's what matters. I was in tears, unable to deal with it. I was trying to get my work done hoping my tears went unnoticed, but they didn't. Except by the teacher. 

The teacher stepped out for whatever reason teachers step out. A girl whose name I can't remember decided to take this opportunity to whip me on the back with a set of keys she had on the end of a long string. I don't know why she thought I should be whipped. She said a lot of things while she did it. My guess would be she hit me 10 to 12 times. The one thing I remember her saying was 'My heart bleeds for you Donovan. My heart bleeds.' To this day I've no idea what I did to deserve this from this girl. I'm not sure I'd ever even spoken to her. As far as I could tell, I was just the kid who got picked on. 

I ignored her and she eventually went and sat down. They table of boys was still abusing me so I got up and punched or shoved one of them. I can't remember which I did. 

Over the next few years the bullying decreased until it was non-existent. I eventually drifted away from the friends I'd been so desperate to be with in the first week of school and started hanging out with two other guys. With my original friends, even though I wasn't bullied as such, I was still the butt of jokes, still the laughed at kid, the odd one out. With these two new friends I was one of them. Accepted as me, never picked on for anything. 

I even became friends with alpha-bully to some extent. That I was a Collingwood fan became known and earned me some respect. My two friends and I became Metallica fans and were very excited to go see them at Melbourne's Festival Hall in 1989. May 4th. Section 9. Row E. Seat 36. Metallica were a little different in those days. They were scary. They were loud. They were dangerous. I remember when alpha-bully found out we were going. He too was a Metallica fan but wasn't brave enough to go. He kept saying we were 'gonna get knifed.' It was significant. The three geeks were going but the big tough kid wasn't. Like being a Collingwood fan, it earned respect. 

So it was with these two friends that I was sitting when a kid, Joe, came up to us. Someone at some point, somehow had decided that Kylie Smith didn't blink enough (fucking kids). And a few months prior she'd unfortunately earned herself the nickname 'stare-bear'. 

Joe whispered to us that the boys were going to form a circle around Kylie's desk and chant 'stare' at her. He asked if we wanted in. We all said no. 

Stare. Stare. Stare. Stare. Stare. Stare. Stare. They chanted it as they got closer and closer. My two friends and I didn't participate. It was a horrible thing to do and I couldn't be part of it. 

So I sat there and watched. 

This commercial is currently airing on Australian TV: 

I thought about that incident with Kylie a few times since that day - about 27 years ago and this commercial makes me think about it even more. 

I sat there and watched because the focus wasn't on me. I wasn't the one being bullied. Had I said something I'm sure I would have been accused of being in love with Kylie and would have been picked on for that. I don't remember my exact thought but it would have been something like 'this is just so wrong...but at least it's not me.'

I don't know what happened to Kylie since high school. I remember a biology teacher once saying orgasm instead of organism. Kylie was the only person who laughed. She knew something we didn't. But after that? No idea. I heard that alpha-bully became a police officer. I'm not sure if that's true, but if so, I hope he's matured somewhat since those days. I don't see my two friends any more but still interact occasionally on social media. 

I think about that moment, how I just sat there and did nothing. Sure, I refused to participate, but I didn't do anything to stop it either. Every time I think back on that day I think to myself 'I should have stood up for Kylie Smith.'