WHOEVER dreamed up the old proverb ''sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me'' was either in denial or had never experienced relentless teasing or harassment.
The school playground is a battlefield.
It always has been and always will be. Children can be cruel, spiteful, and merciless. They always have been and always will be. And there is little doubt that, in the vast majority of cases, emotional scars run much deeper and last a lot longer than any physical wounds.
The death of Nicola Raphael, the latest in a long line of high-profile children's suicides attributed to bullying, will send a shiver of fear through every parent. It will also evoke deeply buried and unwelcome memories in hundreds of other children, and adults, who will be able to understand, at least partly, the utter despair that drove Nicola to commit such an extreme act.
According to the most comprehensive survey, which was carried out in 1996 and involved 11,000 secondary-school pupils, up to a third of those asked said they feared going to school because of bullying. The study, conducted by the schools' health education unit at Exeter University, also found that10% of all child suicides are attributed directly to bullying, with many more young people attempting to take their lives after being singled out as ''fatso'', ''four-eyes'', ''swot'', or one of a hundred other hurtful nicknames.
Bullying is rarely about grand gestures or large-scale crimes. It is about little things, tiny comments that seem to mean nothing, so small that they pass unnoticed by all but the one person they are directed against.
For a while, when I was at secondary school, things were fine. I had a large circle of friends, and would have appeared outgoing and confident. Until, and I remember the day as if it were yesterday, a boy in my class noticed that I had a big nose.
He christened me ''Concorde'', then ''Pinocchio'', and on a daily basis hollered it across the classroom, lunchroom, and playground. He even shouted it outside my house, within earshot of my mum, which was, by far, the most agonising insult of all. Of course, it was taken up by a few other boys, and it wasn't long before my nose became the focal point, and most despised feature, of my life.
At some level I must already have been a bit self-conscious. I was aware that my grandfather and every one of my mum's four sisters and four brothers had pretty prominent noses - with one even going so far as to have cosmetic surgery after, at the age of around 40, a group of young boys taunted her in a shopping centre - so these nicknames really hit where it hurt.
I was consumed with self-hatred and disgust. At school, I would always sit at the back of the class - providing my classmates with fewer opportunities to catch a side-on profile that would inevitably trigger a torrent of abuse.
When I got home from school I would lock myself in the toilet and whack my face on the edge of ceramic sink - hoping to burst my nose, and hoping even more that the surgeons, who would undoubtedly be aghast at the size of the thing would, as a humanitarian gesture, rebuild it along the lines of a perfect little button model.
I lay in my bed, more often than not in tears, with my face squashed into a pillow, or with masking tape pulled so tightly across my nose that my face turned blue. And I even begged my big sister to punch my face as hard as she
possibly could. She never asked questions, but, with unprecedented zeal and enthusiasm, obliged every time.
In my world, having a big nose was the most malign of all disablements. If my ears had stuck-out, I told myself, I could have hidden them behind my hair; if I had been too fat, I could have gone on a diet; if I had been too skinny, I could have stuffed myself with sweets and chocolates; if I had been too clever and had been getting unacceptably high marks, I could have acted stupid and intentionally given the wrong answers, or if I had been too small I could have worn high heels. But, other than by walking about with a balaclava on, how on earth could I carry on with such an in-your-face, and seemingly irreparable, affliction? How on earth could I get the peer approval that is of paramount importance to the happiness, or at least survival, of every child?
There was not the host of anti-bullying strategies - the no-blame approach, the method of shared concern, assertiveness training, school bully courts, peer supporters, praise and reward systems, circle times, and training days and videos for teachers and pupils - which are to be found in every school, without exception, today. But even if there were, I know for certain that they would not have made one bit of difference.
I am not suggesting that the subject of bullying, as a distinct phenomenon to be analysed and academicised, is a futile exercise.
There is no doubt that, over the past 10 years, schools have responded to the issue seriously, and most of them do the very best they can. Given all the support and advice which has been made available to schools in recent times, it is reasonable to expect that all reports of bullying will be treated seriously and dealt with calmly.
But it is unreasonable and unrealistic to expect any school to be free of bullying, or to expect teachers to be able to stop every single episode of bullying as soon as it is revealed. To expect this is to fail to be a good parent.
I speak not as an expert parent or an educational psychologist, but simply as an ex-teacher
and from my own, relatively minor, experience.
Every parent worries about their children being bullied, but most parents would find it impossible even to consider that their child could be the perpetrator of such unprovoked pain.
When I was a teacher it was almost always easy to identify the bullies. Trying to deal with them was a hundred times harder, especially when you consider that, almost without exception, their parents genuinely believed that they were angels.
This is the families page and so far I have made little reference to how my misery must have affected my family. The reason is that I don't really know. I can only guess how agonising it must have been for my mum, and how frustrated and helpless she must have felt.
Children are so perceptive, and are often reluctant to tell their
parents if they are the victims of bullies because they know how much it would hurt them.
Somewhat perversely, for a child, the only thing worse than being hurt yourself, would be inflicting pain on your mum or dad. It was simply unthinkable for me to tell my mum how much I hated my nose and my self. But I knew she knew.
At times she would try to encourage me to open up - by, for instance, sitting me down and, apropos of nothing, telling me that bullies were people with problems themselves, people who usually felt inadequate or scared or insecure and used bullying as a defence mechanism. It meant nothing to me then, but I nodded my head anyway. The fact was that for me, and for thousands of other children every year, speaking out was simply not an option. It was preferable to put up with the daily torture than tell anyone that I was being called names.
Nicola Raphael's tragic death will not be the last time a teenager is driven to suicide by bullying. But, as the minister at her funeral service said last week, everyone can ask ''Why? why? why? why? why?'' But there are no simple answers.
Today, I love my nose and, even if I could afford to, I would never change it. But I realised only a few years ago just how deep the scars from name-calling ran, when I found out that the perpetrator of my own experience had become a drug addict and had died from an overdose. It is not easy to admit but my initial instinct was one of relief that he had got what he deserved.
But, on reflection, it simply confirmed what the teachers and parents have said all along - that bullies have more weaknesses and insecurities than their victims.
Help at hand
l Kidscape, 152 Buckingham Palace Road, London, SW1 9TR. Helpline for parents: 0207 730 3300
l The Samaritans, PO Box
9090, Slough SL1 1UU.
Telephone: 0345 909090;
l ChildLine, Freepost 1111, London N1 0BR. Freephone 0800 1111
l Scottish Council for Research in Education,
15 St John Street, Edinburgh EH8 8JR.