WHY CAN’T BOYS ADMIT THEY’RE BEING BULLIED?
‘But why can’t boys tell if they’re being bullied?’
This was the question a teacher asked during a recent class discussion of my novel: ‘Traitor.’ The boys all looked at each other before answering, then one said quietly: ‘Just too shaming.’
Another added. ‘If he’d been punched in the face he could say something: but not if someone had just been nasty to him.’
In ‘Traitor,’ Tom is regularly intimidated and picked on by a gang on the way home from school. Even worse it’s a gang of girls, so he cannot bring himself to tell anyone. The overwhelming majority of boys agreed they wouldn’t either.
In ‘Avenger’ I’ve written about psychological bullying, or, as boys dub it, ‘trying to get inside your head.'
Of course, the myth is that only girls go in for this sort of thing. Boys will settle their disputes with a swift punch. But that really isn’t true.
Certainly the boys I interviewed while researching ‘Avenger’ had many stories to tell me of ‘mind games.’ For instance, how people spread false rumours and stories about you. Everything from saying you’ve got fleas, to making up ‘nasty stuff about your mum.’ Others told me of how they’d been deliberately excluded from playing football at lunchtime, or from a party, or from an outing with a group of mates.
We tend to think of girls’ friendships as being emotionally charged, while boys’ relationships with each other are much more casual. But if you look more closely it isn’t really true. Boys also have a much keener sense of who their ‘best mates’ are than might be commonly supposed. And a number spoke of attempts to ‘break up’ a friendship by ‘making up stuff I’d never even actually said.’ This aroused especial passion with one boy, declaring. ‘I swear on my life I never rubbished my mates like he said I did.’
Then there is the silent treatment. This actually happened to me when I started at a new school. A small group of boys decided I was ‘big-headed’ and all the boys in my year ‘sent me to Coventry.’ Even boys I’d been quite friendly with had to join in.
Yet, I didn’t tell anyone. I just put on a mask and acted as if I wasn’t the least bit bothered. But inside I seethed with hurt and bitterness. So much has changed since I was at school. However, I believe boys still feel they have to suffer in silence and cannot open up about emotional problems.
In ‘Avenger,’ Gareth upsets the charismatic new-boy, Jake. He tells Gareth: ‘This is war now,’ and set about playing a series of vicious mind games on him. Nevertheless, his form teacher never notices any of it. As Gareth writes. ‘It was all smuggled past her. But every day more invisible blows rained down on me. There was never any let-up.’
In the end Gareth barricades himself inside his bedroom. In a ‘blaze of frustration’ he started pounding his fist against the wall as hard as he could. ‘But my anger didn’t subside. It grew stronger. It was like some great tornado, whirling and raging about inside me which just had to be released.’
Later he slips under the covers of his bed. ‘All I wanted now was to live in this bed forever. My anger was at last ebbing away but I didn’t feel calm and peaceful – only totally, totally defeated.’ Or, as one boy put it: ‘You just want to hide away in your bedroom and never come out again.’
A few boys I interviewed did have a close mate they could ‘completely trust.’ But the most common person who boys seemed able to confide in was a grandparent.
In ‘Avenger,’ Gareth’s grandfather becomes his only confidant. Each night Gareth tells his grandfather what has happened. Only his grandfather is dead. But Gareth still feels he is close-by and says. ‘Please come back properly. I need to talk to you urgently. You’re my only hope …’
I’ve had some interesting discussions in schools about Gareth’s feeling of total isolation. ‘It’s sad,’ said one boy, ‘that he thinks he can only talk to a ghost about what’s happened.’
We also talked about Jake and his behaviour. One boy comments: ‘People don’t act the way he does unless they’re feeling bad themselves.’
The really great thing about stories is they enable us to make connections with the characters. And we discover we’re not on our own and share much more than we realise.
Can stories also change the culture?
I believe they can. And I’d like to think ‘Avenger’ and ‘Traitor’ will play a part in challenging the view that boys – if they are to keep their cred – must act as if they’re detached from all human emotion. As one boy wrote to me. ‘The worst thing of all was not telling anyone how I felt. So the pain inside me just grew and grew.’