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Sticks and Stones…

“…may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” Whoever wrote that was wrong. There is no Superhero with the power not to be hurt by incessant name-calling.

I was bullied relentlessly during almost my entire school life. I can’t remember when it started but I know it ended when I left school for University in 1979. At first it was only name calling: Bugs Bunny and What’s Up, Doc because of my protruding front teeth; Land of the Giants because I was significantly taller than everyone else in my year; Snob because…because I was different. I had no desire to be like the other kids who ran about in gangs, swearing and fighting and breaking windows. Something inside me knew it was better to pronounce my ts, to pay attention in school and to read. All I ever heard from my peers was how ugly and worthless I was. Why would I want to be anything like them? But I listened and I heard what they said and, sadly, I believed them. I felt ugly for years. I knew that no one would ever want me, love me, marry me… And because of this, I would never have a child.

The only piece of self-respect they didn’t take from me was about what went on between my ears. I knew I was bright; I had the gold stars on my school bookmarks which kept place in a reading book at least two in front of the rest of the class; I was always first in every subject – and this earned me yet another name: Teacher’s Pet. I worked hard and read as much as I could because I knew the only thing I had that was worth anything was my brain.

The bullying progressed from name calling, of course. I was punched and kicked, the back of my head slapped so I wouldn’t see the culprit. In Primary 5 or 6 my coat was removed from its peg, the buttons and faux fur decorating the hood cut off and what was left thrown into the boys’ toilets where it was urinated on and flushed.

Because of this, my coat had to be kept in the staffroom just in case it happened again. As you can imagine, this didn’t help my popularity. I didn’t have many friends at school and the one girl I was closest to, a girl who had just moved to the area, abandoned me too lest she be targeted next. It was a lonely time and I turned to books.

Secondary school was a little better and the bullying decreased a little. There was the time they set fire to my schoolbag, though. While it was over my shoulder. I found some friends there and I joined the school brass band which opened up a new life for me. I was the only kid from my school to join the Glasgow Schools’ Concert Band and I began my reinvention. Here I was a confident, friendly teenager who would introduce herself to strangers and try to be their friend. But I lived in constant fear that my true identity would be discovered and would have nightmares where they would realise what I was really like and shun me the way I had been in school. I still believed I was ugly and unlovable and resigned myself to a life of spinsterhood and cats.

Then, in my mid-twenties and fed up with my protruding teeth, I went to the dentist to ask for another try at braces to fix my overbite. He referred me to Glasgow Dental Hospital where I was told that braces alone would do nothing. I had a congenital problem and they sent me to Canniesburn Hospital for evaluation by the Maxillofacial Surgical Unit. It seems that my jaw hadn’t formed properly in the womb. The top jaw was too long vertically and the bottom jaw was too short from back to front. They proposed trimming off some of the top jaw and lengthening the bottom by cutting it in two places and sliding the bits forward to create length and a proper chin. It was agreed that I would wear fixed braces top and bottom for twelve months or so to realign my teeth so that they would fit together after surgery.

I was in shock for a while. I mean, it was one thing to believe yourself that you were ugly and quite another to be told you were so hideous it would take eight hours of surgery to put right. In these days they didn’t offer any counselling so I was left to get on with the process the best I could.

I rallied and just got on with things but a curious thing happened: I accepted the wisdom of Popeye (I am whats I am) and started to live. I made friends, went out and enjoyed myself and wearing the braces made me realise that the people who seemed to like me liked me, and for the first time I didn’t feel I was being judged on my looks – or lack of them.

I had the surgery, it was hell for several months afterwards but it all went well. It has left me with a numb chin and bottom lip and no feeling in half of my tongue, but I feel normal now. I met the man who was to become my husband and we had our daughter.

And name-calling? That bounces off my Cape of Confidence. Well, most days it does.


Writer, photographer, creative fantasist.

29 thoughts on “Sticks and Stones…

  1. My eldest daughter went through a similar experience (strangely, she too had maxillofacial surgery, to correct an undersized lower jaw). She is about to leave home for university, but she is still cautious and doesn’t make friends easily. I can only hope that she will be as brave and self-aware as you, and work to overcome the fears and uncertanties that bullying causes.

    Sticks and stones may not break bones, but they can damage self-esteem past the point of no repair.

  2. Ah, Nettie. What is it with teachers, administrators, etc. who don’t step in and stop the horrific bullying at their schools. Felt so sad – and angry – at how your childhood was filled with all that unnecessary anxiety and sorrow.

    But, thankfully through your own hard work, look at you now! Wonderful, accomplished, and confident. Good for you.

  3. Nettie, what a brave post and what a brave lady you are. And how cruel children can be. I was bullied as a child, but not as badly as you. In my case, also because I was ‘different’ (and tall too). Now, of course, I am still ‘different’ but I like it that way. I think we got the last laugh …

  4. Bloody hell. That was awful.
    I got bullied too. It still hurts.
    But you’re an amazing lady now(as you always were)
    I can’t help hoping that people who bully one day understand PERSONALLY the harm they caused.

  5. Like people in previous comments I also identify with this topic after moving from Devon to a big city.

    Like you I used books as a wonderful means of escape from a world I didn’t really understand. I could never write about it so eloquently though. Thank you Nettie 🙂

  6. never have i wanted to hug you so much as now. i’m sat here in tears, nodding my head in recognition of the f**king c**ts that populated my school. there’s a reason i lost touch with everyone…*everyone*…that i went to school with. christ – i didn’t realise it was still so raw…
    however… i didn’t have it nearly as bad as you, Nettie – darling, wonderful, corageous girl/woman. thank you, once again, for sharing. you give me hope. you are a truly remarkable woman.

  7. Hi Nettie,

    I’m so glad that you wrote this piece and I’m so glad I was fortunate enough to read it.
    I was bullied at school too. I suppose I was an obvious victim: super-thin, glasses, bucked teeth (teeth out and braces including an odd leather contraption on my head), nose always in a book, clever, non-conformist and I moved from school to school so I was often the new girl with the funny accent.
    Plus I was also being bullied at home. So I had no self-confidence whatsoever.

    I dreaded breaks. I dreaded the teacher leaving the classroom. I dreaded going home…

    Then one day I just exploded. Right there in the classroom. It wasn’t even the worst day. That was probably when they caused me to be burned in science class. But I guess I had just had enough. I yelled at the other kids and then ran out of the classroom, slamming the door. I later learned that the closed door was the giveaway to the teacher. Then she spotted that I was missing and came and found me crying in the toilets.
    She called my mum, who did nothing, (didn’t even come to pick me up). But a couple of the nicer teachers did look out for me after that and I think a few of the pupils were a little more cautious around me.

    Being bullied as a child taught me a lot. It taught me not to go with the flow, but to think about my decisions and how they effect others. It taught me to be sensitve. It taught me how to be strong. It taught me to trust my own instincts, stand my ground and to stand up for myself. It left me with a temper, of which I’m not always proud, but has at times served me well and I have learned through the years to say sorry if I overreact or am oversensitive. It taught me to be proud of who I am and what I achieve. It taught me to appreciate the love that I’m shown and not to take that love for granted.

    Reading your article, I think you feel similarly. But Nettie, wouldn’t it have been nicer, to learn these things in a different way?

    Sarah x

  8. What a wonderful and moving post, Nettie. I think the fact that so many people can identify with it goes a little way to demonstrating the profound effect bullying has on children. However, from reading how you coped and from my own experience, I think those who survive are much stronger people. My own bullies chased me into books to find some comfort and for that I will always be grateful x

  9. What a brave post, Nettie, and how brave you are to have gone through all of that and come out the other side the wonderful writer and obviously compassionate person you are.

  10. What a wonderful and brave post, Nettie, from a wonderful and brave lady. I hope that kind of name calling doesn’t bounce off, but sinks in. And I’m so pleased you found your happy ever after xxx

  11. Hi Nettie, Im not going to say too much other than you are obviously a wonderful person who has been lucky enough to handle this situation well. Unfortunately I am unable to say the same for myself as I allowed those who bullied me to take me to the dark side, in saying this not to the worst extreme but I did hit back and liked it, this is what I resent the most. After a recent incident in my workplace much of this has came back into my life and once again I am trying to deal with a lot of crap, you are my inspiration and thank you for your story.

  12. What a fantastic post, Nettie, congratulations. I had no idea you’d had such an awful experience, both with bullying and with facial surgery – it certainly puts my chronic underbite, which was corrected just with braces, to shame!

    I do like to remember the old adage “The geek shall inherit the Earth” – where are your old tormentors now, eh? 🙂

  13. Gawd, I hope your surgery was just for YOU and not because of some thoughtless name-callers, although I do understand the sometimes very intense misery of the school playground. The worst thing anyone ever said to me (as I joined a new school) was, ‘Enjoy your school years, they’re the best years of your life’. I wish I’d known then that the best days of your life can come at any time and are spent with people who love and respect you — often a joy found later with mature friends and family.
    Martha/Titch/Shrimp/Swot (etc…)

  14. What a very moving piece, Nettie. Words can be so painful and you’ve put this across beautifully. Someone said, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and I’m sure it does. You’ve been strong enough to share this and, I’m sure, help so many people. Thanks.

  15. Hi Nettie
    What an incredibly honest and touching account. I hope the hidious bullies lie awake at night, with their own children in the next bedroom, and feel ashamed of their past antics as they lay in the silent darkness.

    My youngest son, Jack, was bullied – with a knife/words/spitting etc. He finally told us after many months because he was told that if he didn’t sell cannabis for them, they’d find me and r**e me! (I hate that word) He felt he had to tell to protect me! What terrible days and nights he/you/children have at the hands of bullies. We took him out of school at 14 and home-schooled him. The bully remained at school and the head, teachers, governors said they didn’t have bullying in their school. We prosecuted the bully after Jack had his lip split for telling. In court the bully admitted having a knife and assaulting Jack to get a more lenient sentence. He was found guilty and has a criminal record and had to do many hours community service and go to anger mangagement. We had an interview on tv and in the paper. The school was more cross with us than the bully!!!!

    Remember, your friends KNOW you are lovely inside and out!

    Love Ange xxx

  16. This moved me to tears. Both my daughter and I had ‘difficult’ school days, but nothing as bad as you described here. Jess, my daughter, was always made to feel odd and ‘different’ and called ‘Jeff’ at school because she is tall (always was) &, as you describe, bright & etc. I felt all mychildhood I was ‘ugly & unloveable’ – it was interesting how you used those self same words I have used to describe myself; I had few friends & the classic ‘best friend’ who loves telling stories about you behind your back. It impacts upon your self-esteem at the most fundamental level. Yet my God look how you survived and grew and what value you have made of yourself and your life! What courage to prevail through such protracted torment and later, through such challenges as the surgery.
    So often you find that the ‘populars’ at school (‘in-crowd’, whatever you want to call them) wind up doing little or nothing. But the one thing they can do is instinctively recognise beauty & worth and do their utmost to trash it. Fantastic & very humbling/insiring story. I am emailing the link for my daughter to read!

  17. Like the others here, I experienced terrible bullying at school also. Reading your post made me feel for you and with you, if that makes sense.

    I thought I was ‘over it’ until a few weeks ago I started writing a YA novel about a girl with similar experiences to mine. It has been both traumatic and therapeutic.

    I’m so glad you spoke up. Have you seen Our expeirences seem to be a common thread amongst writers.

    I’ve decided that’s because we’re all so awesome.

    ‘Nuff said.

  18. well done for making a life – I too was bullied – I had dyspraxia but when I was at school no one had ever heard of it (60yrs ago) it leaves one clumsy and unable to articulate what one knows , affects social graces, disliking being touched, not reading body language properly – my stigma was I was ‘stupid’, even the teachers beleived this, I did also for years. I couldnt disguise cluminess – I ‘knew’ I was stupid, hadn’t the bullies constantly told me, until my 40’s when I took myself of to university and gained a BSc then a Masters – I have, since I left school and the bullies behind, made a very contented life for myself – but one never really leave the taunts behind!

  19. Kids can be as mean as grown ups. I’m so sorry you had to go through this all Nettie. The only consolation is that it made you the wonderful woman you are today.

  20. Nettie – I found your words and subsequent posts so astonishingly moving. I reply with my ‘teacher’ hat on (though many other hats are lurking not too far behind: mother of a bullied 9 year old, recipient of bullying – I can’t use the term ‘victim’).
    I think my decision to teach was in part attributed to the experiences I had with an insignificant few in my otherwise pleasant schooling. My decision to learn a marital art and push my sporting skills were the things which created my own personal ‘turning point’.

    I used your link in my tutorial this week – I have a group of 18 lads aged 17 & 18 – and as I read out your words I swear they could hear my own heart beats, it was that silent…. the subsequent discussion proved that your words had had the desired effect and I could not have been more proud. I have a young man in my group who has been bullied by others in recent months… while I recognised the resignation in his eyes when I walked into the room and he had been the butt of the joke, it has taken 7 months to get him to admit to himself that this is what is happening… 7 long months of careful conversations and confidence building tutorial sessions… 7 long months of fostering a support network in the group and eliminating that awful teenage excuse for bullying: ‘Banter’… But we’re winning….

    I want to reassure your readers and contributors that for every teacher and head who denies the existence of bullying in their schools, for every parent who calls this ‘character building’, for every coach who labels it ‘banter’… There are many passionate, caring and vigilant teachers who would walk to the ends of the earth to protect their charges. I am a biological mother of two – but I am mum to another 18 spirited, plucky, cheeky, spiteful, trainee adults! My job is to send them into the world aware of their actions and aware of their potential to do good (and what effect it will have if they do harm) – I can’t say we always get it right – but your words have certainly struck a chord this week and I hope it has made this particular group just a little more self aware… On their behalf, I thank you xx

  21. It seems to me that school bullies never go on to achieve anything, and that’s your true ‘revenge’. Awful at the time, but look what you’ve gone on to.

    And I think you should go into mass production with that Cape. Lots of people would buy it!

  22. Sticks and Stones. I found your article on growing up and bullying both sad and very inspiring Nettie. Having watched you grow up I never knew what you or your parents went through. I did however see my eldest son go through what you went through but not over such a prolonged period. Being different is never easy but should always be allowed. Of all the people in our school you were the one that was most different but even then you had that someting special that most of the kids in our area did’nt have. You wer willing to work hard and sadlt paid the price early on for that. But now that I see how you have turned out. As they say in the shampoo ads ‘you’re worth it’. Your insightful style and delivery are inspirational and I’m sure people reading your experiences will draw strength from them and know that the light at the end of the tunnel is always there it just takes time to see it. Great work once more Nettie. From one of your new fans. Albeit 40 years late.

  23. Pingback: Depression and Me

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