The year was 2010, Rihanna was the “Only Girl (In The World)” and at the age of 16, I was just starting a brand-new chapter in my life.
I spent the majority of my childhood at an underperforming London state comprehensive school but after my GCSEs I was awarded a place at a better-performing sixth form in what BBC News once described as “leafy, affluent Ealing”.
All through secondary school I was mocked mercilessly for what the other kids deemed my unnecessary use of “long words”. Looking back, I realise it was bullying. I was bookish but only because I was seeking escapism in the pages of my favourite novels.
One summer before I started sixth form, I set myself the gruelling (and nigh on impossible) task of reading all the classics. That’s the kind of kid I was. It was also that summer that I was invited to a summer school for “gifted and talented children from underprivileged backgrounds”. To me, at that time, this was a huge privilege.
The summer school was at the University of Cambridge, where it had been my dream to study since the age of 10. Both of my parents were refugees from Somalia; they didn’t get the chance to go to university. I really can’t express the pride I felt just setting foot inside a Cambridge college.
To commemorate our four-day stay at the university, everyone at the summer school was given a navy blue hoodie emblazoned with “University of Cambridge” branding in huge white letters across the front.
I loved mine, cherished it. I seized every opportunity to wear it over the remaining long summer days once I got home. It was a reminder that one day I might be able to study there myself. Then September rolled around and I started my new, shiny sixth form. I wasn’t at all nervous but rather excited by the prospect of meeting new friends and getting one step closer to my goal: the University of Cambridge.
On the first day, all of the students – around 100 of us – were taken into the middle of a forest where we were forced – sorry, I mean encouraged – to bond with our new classmates.
It was a rainy, overcast autumn day and I pulled my hoodie over my head to protect me from the drizzly sort of British wind that manages to get you soaked as you try to go about your business.
At around midday, when we were busy learning how to scale a makeshift wall, a boy who I had not properly met – let’s call him James – took one look at me and turned away in disgust.
“You should take that off,” snarled James in a tweaked accent, the sort you only get from living in a house where you’re taught to “talk properly” from day dot.
“Why?” I asked, not understanding what he could possibly be on about.
He mansplained to me that because his mother had gone to Oxford and his father had gone to Cambridge, he had a much better chance of securing a place at Oxbridge and that I should “just give up”.
It’s important to note that this individual was white, male and middle class, and so yes – he was right – it was statistically more likely that he would study at Oxbridge. It has long been the birthright of men like him.
Seeking apologies or opening up dialogues with childhood bullies can be a sign that you are looking for closure.
Dr Victoria Khromova
Just as his taunts and jibes did not subside over the next two years, the words he spoke that day stayed with me. They made me want to fight harder for my achievements. Thankfully we parted ways when I went off to study history at…the University of Cambridge.
Fast-forward a few years to my early 20s. I am on a date with a guy at a trendy bar in Oxford (spoiler alert: it doesn’t work out) and, finding out where I went to school, he asks me: “Oh! Do you know James?” The man who was courting me, it turned out, was living with none other than my school bully. I felt the same sense of shame that I had felt on that rainy day when James made me feel exposed and mortified in front of our classmates before I even knew them.
I couldn’t stop thinking about it and reliving it over the course of the next few days and so I messaged James on Facebook.
I wrote that he had underestimated me and I had indeed made it to Cambridge and graduated with a history degree. You hear stories of people’s bullies apologising to them, of redemption and emotional resolution. That wasn’t what I got. On reflection, I don’t know what I was looking for from this man who had deliberately made me feel small but I was met with no remorse. All I got was a sarcastic “oh well done”.
I was looking for an explanation so I spoke to Dr Victoria Khromova, a child and adolescent psychiatrist. She explains that a person’s ability to feel remorse for their past actions depends on where that person is in their life. And, she adds, for me to have received the apology I was perhaps seeking (even if I didn’t realise it), my school bully would have had to think that his actions were unacceptable. This would have required him to reflect on his behaviour. Dr Khromova says: “Seeking apologies or opening up dialogues with childhood bullies can be a sign that you are looking for closure.”
In stark contrast to myself, 32-year-old Claudia Colvin encountered her childhood bully later in life purely by chance. Claudia is English/Italian and completed part of her education in Italy. At that time, and in her own words, “Italy was not very diverse”. With her paler skin and ginger hair, she attracted a lot of unwanted attention.
One particular boy constantly undermined her and her school achievements to the point where she internalised his comments and would downplay herself. One day, he stole her lunch money – a €5 banknote. Because of these experiences, Claudia says she spent a lot of her teenage years feeling like the “odd one out” and that she was too “different”.
This all changed in her adult years as she grew in confidence and learned to embrace the things that make her unique.
Claudia says: “I’m really proud of how far I’ve come. Being bullied was awful but it gave me the inspiration and motivation to start my own silent disco company that inspires people to unapologetically, unashamedly be themselves through dance and I wouldn’t change that for anything in the world.”
In 2017 she had just started this company alongside her job and was in a café with her mother, having coffee. She looked up at their waiter and realised it was the same boy – now man – who had bullied her in middle school. He recognised her and Claudia greeted him cordially but did not bring up the fraught relationship they shared in their early teens.
Claudia says that she had moved on at this point; she was happy with the direction her life had taken and she didn’t feel the need for any sort of apology. Instead, as she was leaving, she tipped the waiter €5 as a way of saying: “You stole from me when I didn’t have much money and now I am in a position to tip you the same amount back.”
Our memories only hold as much power over us as we allow. Seeking apologies and retribution can be a cosmetic solution to the deeper healing we need to do ourselves.
Dr Khromova says: “One way of moving on is giving yourself the closure instead of seeking it from others.”
Claudia has given herself closure – this is one way of dealing with the unresolved trauma we carry from childhood bullies. Through the processing that Claudia had done, she didn’t need to seek anything at all from her former bully. Dr Khromova also points out that the comments from our childhood bullies which hurt us the most are the ones that we secretly believe ourselves.
I had been constantly undermined and underestimated throughout my childhood. As an immigrant, working class woman of colour, many people didn’t think I would get very far. To an extent, I think I internalised that. Throughout the majority of life I had been consumed with a sense of proving myself to everyone; as I got older, I realised the only person left who I had to prove anything to was myself.
To move on and truly heal, though, Dr Khromova says that you have to “update your belief system and change the way you see yourself. Which can be scary, because you may feel like you are losing a part of yourself in the process.”
I didn’t get an apology from the guy who bullied me at school. Hell, I barely got an acknowledgment. But what I have learned is that our memories only hold as much power over us as we allow. Seeking apologies and retribution can be a cosmetic solution to the deeper healing we need to do ourselves.
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