Think that the effects of bullying end when you leave school? Not always. Here, our writer recalls his personal experiences from back in secondary school...
My name is Mohammad Sufyan. Most know me as Sufyan or Yan. Colleagues call me Suf. To some folks, I go by other nicknames that started out as a joke in secondary school. I was called other names during those times too: Ah kua. Pondan. Bapok. Lembut.
Those terms are usually lobbed at boys who are perceived as “unmanly”. Unmanly, meaning behaving more feminine than masculine. Preferring to hang out with girls rather than boys. Having zero interest in “manly things” such as playing sports and making sexual (and sexist) remarks. Sure, I was all of those and more. Unlike today, those differences weren’t lauded and celebrated – instead, they were magnified and used against me…
Going way, way, back
Throughout my childhood and primary school years, nothing was out of the ordinary. Sure, there was the gentle ribbing by my male friends, but it wasn’t done out of spite. I didn’t have a problem with it and it didn’t get to me. It wasn’t until I was about nine years-old when my mother came into my room while I was doing my homework. I asked her point-blank:
“Ma, why am I not like the other boys?”
She asked me what I meant by that. I wasn’t sure if she was genuinely confused or just pretending not to understand. Regardless, I repeated my question before elaborating. Her response left much to be desired. It felt like I didn’t get the answer that I wanted to hear. Even if it were the ugly truth, it was the least that I deserved, right? She stroked my head, her feeble attempt at placating me. Our conversation ended there and then. That was the only time I confided in her. That was the only time I confided in anyone, actually.
Me against the boys
To be fair, secondary school’s a challenging time for anyone (kids, take this as a fair warning). The fast-paced education, national examinations, and hormonal changes? It can wreak havoc on even the sanest of teenagers. While they try to make sense of everything, peer pressure descends on them like the fog from a Stephen King novel. You have to be ‘normal’ to fit in – anything that makes you stand out from the crowd is a no-no. I fell into the second category.
My male classmates had a field day at my expense. They mocked me for liking Britney Spears (#FreeBritney) and pop music in general. When I told them I loved Buffy the Vampire Slayer because of how empowering the show is, they laughed at me. I used to perform in Teachers’ Day concerts; they told me they liked seeing me dance. I didn’t believe them. They hid my school bag, stationery, and textbooks on multiple occasions. Once, they jeered at me, all because my English teacher made everyone stay a little longer after class just to read out my essay. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve been called those names mentioned earlier, I would probably be a millionaire by now. I didn’t speak to anyone about any of this.
Nothing, however, beats one particular incident that I haven’t been able to delete from the recesses of my mind, no matter how hard I’ve tried…
The straw that broke this camel’s back
School had just ended. I was engrossed in conversation with some friends. Before this, the boys had been mercilessly teasing (and annoying) me. I thought I did my best to ignore them. Before I knew it, the whole lot had ambushed me. They grabbed me by my shoulders, hoisted me above their heads, and carried me out the door. They dangled me horizontally above the corridor railing outside our classroom, with my feet out and pointing three storeys down.
My heart was pounding and I was writhing in their grasps. They held me in that position for a few more seconds before carrying me over to the nearest rubbish bin and throwing me inside. I felt like a discarded banana peel.
I pulled myself out of the bin, ran straight for the washroom, locked myself in a cubicle, and cried. Sometime later, my friends came in, trying to coax me out. But I stood rooted inside the cubicle. I felt so ashamed and useless. A little while later, the perpetrators came into the toilet too. They were coaxing me to come out, albeit jokingly and, again, at my expense. I waited for a bit before pushing my way out of the cubicle, past all of them, and back to class.
I collected my things and hotfooted it out of there. I’d had enough humiliation to last me a lifetime. Famous last words though, because that incident remained with me as I grew older…
What happens in secondary school, stays there…?
You remember the saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me”? Well, that’s far from the truth, at least for me. What I went through in secondary school emotionally scarred me so much that it completely skewed my perception of masculinity… That I’m not a manly person, I’m not a man, that I’m lesser than that. Those experiences also made me shun away from making friends with boys. I would always tell myself to be “on my best behaviour” when I got acquainted with male classmates, male colleagues… basically, anyone male whom I meet for the first time.
But why? Why do I need to do such things? Why do I still allow my past experiences to hold me back from being my authentic self? One word: trauma. The trauma doesn’t haunt me all the time, but when it does rear its ugly head – that dangling incident, in particular – I get affected.
I wish I could say there’s a happy ending to all this, but there isn’t exactly. Instead, it’s still a work in progress. I was scrolling through Instagram recently and I came across a post that was meaningfully timely:
Yes, my bullying experiences happened over two decades ago. And yes, I still carry them with me. The memories have been compartmentalised and buried deep, deep, down. Writing this piece though has lifted this huge emotional boulder. I doubt I’ll forget what happened entirely, but I’m finally allowing myself to close the chapter. Perhaps going to therapy will help me properly close it. According to Noam Shpancer, emerging strong after hardship is different from becoming strong because of hardship. Hopefully, I can be one of those folks who can declare the former for myself.
In case you are wondering: have I forgiven the perpetrators after all this time? I don’t have the answer to that. But I do hope that should they have children of their own, they’ll teach and raise them to be kind and empathetic. More importantly, I have something to say to those who have gone through any type of bullying: I see you, and you’re not alone. Don’t be afraid to reach out to someone to talk about it. It’s better to do so than to suffer silently.
Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, allow me to introduce myself again. My name’s Mohammad Sufyan. Most know me as Sufyan, Yan, or Suf. I also go by a nickname that started out as a joke in secondary school. I was called many other names during that time too. But those names do not define me. Not now, not anymore.
Don’t suffer in silence. Reach out to someone if you feel that you’re being bullied. And remember that your truth, experiences and feelings are valid.