Hamish is a 15-year-old student from Christchurch. Following the 2011 earthquakes, his school closed down and when it reopened it had merged with a few other schools.
“Everyone was nervous on the first day,” Hamish remembers, “especially the ‘new’ kids. They didn’t get that we were all new – none of us knew everybody. It was weird for everyone.”
Some of the new kids tried to make friends by tearing others down, and Hamish became a favourite target.
“I’m quite skinny, and I have really bright hair,” he says, “and they just thought I’d be easy to pick on. They called me a freak, a loser, just lots of really mean things.”
It wasn’t long before all of this began to affect the way Hamish felt about himself.
“I started to believe them. I couldn’t understand why everyone had just turned on me – even people I used to be friends with, or just knew, casually, they were laughing along or even joining in. It was really weird.”
Mum explains groupthink
Hamish’s mother is a psychologist, and she told him about groupthink.
“Groupthink is when people start acting like they’re members of a herd,” he explains. “They just want to fit in, they don’t want to stand out, so they just go along with what the loudest or strongest people are saying, even if they know it’s wrong.”
A logical person, Hamish decided that he wasn’t going to fall victim to groupthink, and he came up with an ingenious strategy to help him survive the tough time he was having at school.
“I tried to make a list in my head of all the people who still loved me, even though I was suddenly a freak at school. My brother, my sister, my neighbours, my cousins, the other kids in the clubs I belonged to – they still thought I was pretty cool,” he says.
“I repeated that list over and over again, so I never believed them when they said I was a loser, because I had heaps of people outside of school who cared about me.”
Hamish joined a local soccer team and made friends with his team.
“They didn’t think there was anything wrong with me – except I tell really, really bad jokes!” he laughs.
“I realised that the stuff that was happening at school was bad, but it wasn’t my fault.”
Eventually, Hamish told his older brother what was going on and he went with Hamish to the dean’s office.
“He didn’t say anything, actually. He just put his hand on my shoulder and sat next to me while I talked. He didn’t laugh when I cried. He crossed his arms and glared at the teacher so she knew she had to help me.”
Teachers already trying to help
Although Hamish didn’t know it, some of his teachers had noticed that he was being picked on and were quietly working to resolve the situation.
“That was nice, I guess, but it didn’t help much feeling like I was invisible,” he says. “Teachers need to make sure that consequences are known to everyone, not just so other people don’t act like that, but so that the kid who’s being bullied knows that something is being done to help them.”
Although not a fan of his school’s favoured method of dealing with bullying – peer mediation – he admits that in some ways it was helpful.
“Some of the kids who were really mean had been having a really hard time – they’d lost their homes to the earthquakes, or their families weren’t nice, or whatever,” he remembers.
“My teacher kept saying ‘see the person,’ and it helped me, too. They still shouldn’t have said those things to me, but I guess now I have a better understanding of why they did it.”
Two years on, Hamish is a different kid. Tall and strong, he has a large group of friends at school, and thinks he’s a “pretty happy” person.
“I try to stick up for other kids if I think they’re being stepped on, but it doesn’t happen as much anymore.”
He still keeps his mental list, however, and adds to it when he can.
“It can’t hurt!” he laughs.