Chapel Address: Tuesday 17 November 2020   |  By: Louise North, Principal and Head of the Senior School

I am one of four children. I have two older sisters and a younger brother. I am the middle child. One of my sisters picked on me mercilessly when I was younger so I was used to having a hard time. I remember once reading my sister’s letters from her boyfriend and then laughing at her as I ran swiftly away down the driveway of our house. She got her revenge by putting my favourite rag doll’s head down the toilet and flushing it. I was a fighter at home but at school it was different.

When I was 10, I moved house with my family from Birmingham to a small village in Lancashire. I enrolled in the local primary school there and from my first day, I was picked on.

I was teased about my accent,

I was teased because I lived in a big house

I was teased because I wore my socks pulled up when everyone else wore them rolled down.

I was teased because I enjoyed sport and was competitive

I was teased because my first name was Jean

I was teased because I didn’t watch the TV programmes that everyone else talked about in the playground every morning.

I was made to feel different, an outsider, unwelcome and definitely unloved.

It was tough and all I wanted, was to be like all the other girls and boys.

I wanted to be cool.

I wanted the boys to like me.

I wanted to speak like my peers.

I wanted to talk with confidence about the tv programmes rather than pretend that I had watched them and wait to be found out.

I wanted to wear trendy clothes

I wanted to have a cool hair cut instead of the wonky fringe my mum cut for me.

I just wanted to fit in.

When I went to secondary school, the teasing continued. I was teased because I did the family shopping on the way home and carried the bags from ASDA with me on the bus, I didn’t wear make-up, I was always in a tracksuit, I never had a boyfriend.

I wish I could say that I stood up to those girls and boys from the start, that I challenged their nastiness, that I rose above it and didn’t let them upset me. That was certainly what I was told to do. But in the early years, that simply wasn’t true. I didn’t believe that I could change things, I thought that it was just the way things had to be.

This was strange given that I was brought up to believe I had the power to change things, that I could be prime minister if I wanted to be, that I could pursue my interests and that I would be supported. I grew up with the feistiest grandmother, a great role model who would have given Margaret Thatcher a run for her money.

So why didn’t I stand up to the bullies? I was frightened, that’s why. Those girls have never left my memory because they made me so unhappy. They had some kind of power, as a group, over me and I saw them as invincible and terrifying.

And then, things began to change. I suddenly found one of them needing my help, or seeking me out to go to lunch, or asking me a question in lessons. I had morphed from their target to their convenience friend – there when they had no one else.

But what they hadn’t realised was that I had found my place and as such I had found my confidence to be me. I had found my kindred spirits, girls who like me, felt that they were on the outside, that they were different because they didn’t fit the cool mould. I eventually had the courage to stand up to my bullies, because I had friends who would stand with me. And they did and in time, the bullies got bored because they no longer had an affect on me.

Gradually, I grew in confidence:  I did well in class, I found my feet on the hockey pitch, I acted in the school play and I became House Captain. I went to university, became a teacher, got married, had children, worked hard and now I am here in front of you. But through it all, I have never forgotten how those girls made me feel.

So, my first message is to those of you who recognise yourselves as the bullies:

Isn’t it silly to think that destroying someone’s confidence can build up your own. Isn’t that such a cowardly thing to do. Have the courage to stop. It’s never too late. I wonder if you know how sad, lonely, isolated and upset you are making another person feel, by your words, your actions, your thoughtlessness or worse still your deliberate behaviour. I believe that every one of us has good within us and so, if you are being unkind, have the courage to stop. It might make you seem cool and powerful in the eyes of your friends, but the reality is that these friends are only with you because they are afraid that they will be next. Have the courage to stop. Turn your nastiness into kindness, turn your scowl into a smile, use your power and influence for the good of others. Do not look to your own interests, look to the interests of others.

And to those of you, who can see what is happening, who stand by and say nothing:

Strong people stand up for themselves, the strongest stand up for others. Be brave, stand shoulder to shoulder with your friend, stand up to the bullies, challenge them, tell them to stop, tell someone who can help.

And finally, to those of you who are feeling how I felt:

Be courageous, you are not alone. Tell someone. Believe in yourself, that you have the right to be treated with respect. Seek out your kindred spirits. Believe that who you are is good enough. In the words of Dr Seuss,

Let’s make Anti-bullying week matter. We all know of someone who lacks confidence because of the unkindness of others. Let’s put our words into actions this week and make a difference to the lives of those around us.

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