Acceptance in an unaccepting world…

I met up with a friend from school who I hadn’t seen for 18 years. The wonders of Social networking got us back in touch and we decided to meet. I have to say I was very nervous and had a million questions buzzing through my mind. Would she like me? What would be talk about? Would I embarrass myself? Silly really, as I had nothing to worry about, as we had a great time. Onlookers would have thought we met up regularly on a Tuesday afternoon for a drink and a chin wag. We spoke for hours about our lives now and of course our school days. Seeing her got me reminiscing about my school days.

My Dad was in the Army and because of this I spent much of my childhood moving around. I was born in Germany and once old enough I went to the Local Kindergarten where we lived and after that I went to Service Schools. For those not in the know a Service School is a school for children whose parents are in the Armed Services.

These Service Schools were used to children starting and leaving in the middle of a school year and for us Service children it was ‘Normal.’ We were one of a kind and all in the same boat. Our parents may have been in a different service – Army, Navy or Royal Air Force, but we cared about everyone. Of course there were groups of friends and the occasional fallings out, that you get with any children but no-one was ever left out. When someone new started everyone wanted to take them under their wing and show them around. similarly when someone left there was always lots of tears and nobody wanted them to leave. The tears however were quickly quashed as the person leaving would always bring in sweets and cakes on their last day!

It seemed like there was always someone leaving and someone new starting. So there was always lots of cakes and sweets. Our Class Photos never truly reflected who was in our class by the end of the year. Like I said though that was our ‘normal’. We didn’t know any different. I moved schools approximately every three years and went to a Kindergarten and 4 different Primary schools. I moved from Germany to England and back again. Most of my friends had too. In fact some of my friends had been to far more exotic locations, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Cyprus to name a few. I joked with my Dad and asked why we hadn’t got to go to these places!

Moving wasn’t hard for me at all. I was always sad to leave my old friends, but was always excited about making new ones in my new school. I loved school and all that went with it. I was friendly and chatty and very quickly would make friends and settle in. I do remember one school remarking that I was somewhat of a ‘Chatter Box!’

I said moving wasn’t hard. The final move was tough, really tough. I was 11 and due to start Secondary School. We were moving back from Germany to Leconfield in East Yorkshire. My parents were anxious as they knew that Secondary School was very important with Sats and exams and they didn’t want to uproot me half way through my schooling. The option of Boarding School was raised and very quickly dropped. I didn’t want to go and neither did my family. I assured them it would be fine and I would cope. I always had done before.

I went shopping for my new school uniform and as always I was very excited. We bought all the uniform from Johnson’s – the official uniform shop. (This I may add was years before the supermarkets jumped on the uniform bandwagon!) I remember Mum choosing knee-length socks or Virgin Long Socks, as they were known at school. I had worn these before, as had all my friends and didn’t think anything of it. The socks still flipping haunt me to this day.

So my first day arrived. The school looked huge. It was split into two sections across a vast playing field. The schools I had been to previuosly looked diddy in comparision. I walked into meet my class and instead of the usual smiles, I was greeted with stares and sniggers. Looking out at the sea of faces and back to myself, I stuck out like an orange in an apple basket or an Everton Fan in amongst a crowd of Liverpool supporters.  My uniform was crisp, clean and ironed. My tie was nice and straight and tied the ‘normal’ way. Everyone else’s tie was smaller, thinner and wonkier than mine. Everyone else’s uniform looked more ‘casual’ than mine. The girls were wearing trousers and shoes with wedges and NOBODY was wearing Virgin Long Socks.

There wasn’t the usual show of hands to look after me and show me around, people were nominated. Thankfully the girls chosen seemed pleased with the decision. I took my seat with them and could hear my name been whispered all around the classroom. I felt uncomfortable and uneasy. I wasn’t used to this it didn’t feel normal. I didn’t feel ‘normal’.

The girls looking after me were lovely and did their best to put me at ease. I remember thinking not only did I stick out physically, (with my official unform and knee bloody length socks) but my voice did too. Everyone spoke with the same local accent, everyone but me. I didn’t have one, but to everyone else I sounded ‘posh’. I could hear mutterings of people mocking my voice. It had to be mine, no one else sounded like me. The dreaded socks were pulled down by a girl in my class, as I sat down in assembly. I could hear her behind me laughing. Saying my name in a put on posh voice. I can to this day remember the pain of my eyes stinging and me desperately fighting back the tears. I wanted to go home. I wanted to go back to my old school. I wanted my Mum.

From that day I hated school. The girls who looked after me became my friends and although I had made other lovely friends in the class, the whole idea of school had suddenly changed. It got hard and it got horrible. I was bullied. I was never punched, but I was pushed, elbowed discreetly and had rubbers thrown at me. I was mocked, chosen last and laughed at during PE. What’s that phrase – ‘ A self-fulfilling prophecy’. The once ‘chatterbox’ was relatively quiet, unless I was in the sanctity of my friends in a corner of the playground where the bullies weren’t. The girl who once loved school now hated it. I didn’t answer questions anymore for fear of being called a ‘swot’ or ‘teacher’s pet’. I absolutely hated reading out loud in class. I would try to work out what part I would be reading to make sure I knew how to say all of the words.  My favourite sound was the bell ringing for home -time, but even that signified pain, as I had the bus ride home to endure first.

It wasn’t all doom and gloom and towards the end of my school years I got stronger and braver, I had previously tried to stand up to them but got myself in a pickle and made the situation worse. Somehow though I slowly learnt to ignore them, I learnt to fight back the tears, I learnt to hold my head up, I learnt to speak out. I grew stronger and my confidence came back. I learnt to dress more casually (I only ever got the official school uniform once and the knee socks were only ever worn up once!)

With the new-found confidence and the old me shining through came a Valentine’s Card from one of the most popular boys in the year. This sent my confidence soaring and shut the bullies up. We went out briefly, but it was enough to stamp out my previous experiences and meant I left school with at least some happy memories of my friends and school life.

So I guess I learnt the hard way that life and people are very unaccepting of ‘different’. I guess that kind of gave me a head start on the journey we are on now. I am not saying it is easy by any stretch and we have had some horrible moments, sniggers, stares and general awkwardness. There have been moments where I felt like Isabella and I are the new pupils on their first day in class.  The difference is now for the most part I am able to speak out, although there have been moments when I have said nothing, more through shock than anything else. Like my time at school with each day I grow stronger.

Am I nervous about Isabella and her future and how people will accept her when I am not there to defend her?  Of course I am what parent isn’t.  I know it broke my parents hearts when they found out I was bullied. It hurts knowing that disability hate crime is at the highest that it has ever been. I just hope this Paralympic fever continues and that the majority of people become more educated and understand they could easily find themselves in a situation where they are seen as anything but ‘normal’. Then it begs the question what is ‘Normal?’ To me Isabella and our family are ‘normal’. Everyone is ‘normal’ but they appear different to everyone else.