When I wrote a column for the Herald this week, on not doing enough to help a young boy who was being bullied, I expected a reaction.

People would have their own thoughts about what they would have done in a similar situation and there would be both empathy and criticism.

What I didn't expect was an email from a woman who said when she thought of bullies, she saw my face. She wrote that I had made her life misery throughout intermediate school and that 40 years on, she still felt sick about what had happened.

I was shocked. Not because I thought I was a perfect child - far from it. But mainly because my own school years were so miserable.


I had a peripatetic upbringing. Every couple of years, Mum, Dad, my brother and I would up sticks and move to another town. Tuakau, Pukekohe, Tokoroa, Turangi, Waihi. All before I was 10.

It was hard for my parents. But it was bloody hard for my brother and me to have to start yet another school and try to make friends with a whole new group of kids who had mostly grown up together.

In Waihi, I was lucky to have a kind family who lived next door and the gorgeous daughter my own age took me under her wing. However, I never felt I belonged and when I left to go to boarding school, it got worse.

Boarding school was nothing like the Enid Blyton books I had read. There was one girl there who made my life hell - poison pen notes dropped into my school bag, the public shunning, nasty gossip - Mean Girls 101.

When I went back to Waihi for the weekend, kids there had their own lives and I felt lonely and isolated. Girls I had been to intermediate with used to follow me round when I worked in my dad's bank during the school holidays.

They'd follow me, mimicking my walk whenever I went out on errands, and threaten to beat me up when they caught me with no one around.

So to be told I was the bully and not the victim gobsmacked me. But my correspondent's anguish was real. I replied to her immediately. I apologised for making her school days so miserable and told her I'd been so wrapped up in my own concerns I couldn't even remember what sort of impact I might have had on other people.

I thanked her for her honesty and courage in writing the email, and pressed send.

The moment I did so, I was stricken. What if it revictimised her to hear from me? Coming into her world might make her feel unsafe. I spent the day on tenterhooks, cursing myself for such a kneejerk response - and then I received an email back.

She was absolutely lovely. She said she was relieved to hear from me and that a load had been lifted from her. We've exchanged several more emails since.

She thought I was the Queen Bee with a whole host of followers - I explained to her how that simply wasn't the case. She said she's seen me at public functions over the years, and for obvious reasons never approached me, but now she thinks what a waste it was - if we'd been able to speak honestly, we could have been friends.

And we probably could have. We certainly had shared experiences. Honestly, who would be young again? My correspondent told me school was so horrid that over time, perhaps that misery was narrowed down, in her memory, to me.

I have no doubt I was unpleasant to be around. I was desperately unhappy at a time when everybody else seemed to have it all going on. I tried too hard, I was seeking attention, I was wracked with self doubt and I never felt I belonged anywhere.

All the photos taken of me between 11 and 15 show a sullen, sulky teenager with a look on her face your hand itched to slap off.

Perception is a funny thing - even the mean girl at boarding school probably has a completely different version of events.

My perception of my school days was that I had it tough. It was all about me - I didn't give a thought to anyone else.

This topic has generated much discussion among my friends and colleagues. One told me that when his all-boys school had a bullying workshop, they divided the year into bullies and victims, based on the teachers' observations.

He was having a fine old time, scribbling down the names of the all the rugger buggers who'd made his life hell when suddenly a teacher came in and dragged him out and put him in with the bullies.

Further information had apparently come to light.

Another woman I spoke to said she'd had a great time at school and was horrified to find out at a school reunion that most of her year had dreadful memories of the place.

She and her friend were exclaiming over the fact they had had so much fun when realisation dawned.

'Oh God', said her friend. 'Maybe WE were the bullies!'

If your school days were the happiest days of your life, good for you. I'm glad. I certainly enjoyed my final year of school but by then I'd left the hot-house environment of boarding and I'd grown up a bit. But I only really came into my own once I'd left school far behind me.

As for my correspondent and me, we have arranged a lunch date. We will wash away the bitterness of our school days and kiss, bless and release the sadness of our past.

Kerre McIvor is on NewstalkZB Monday-Friday, noon-4pm.