As Anti-Bullying week has come to an end last Friday I remembered an older blog entry I made. I wrote the below post in May 2016 on another blog site where I mainly posted poems for/about my brother and just scratched on what I went through in Pret, without naming Pret at the time as I do now on this site. But when I was going through the mixed horror of my brother’s death added with the bullying in Pret, this particular time was like a transition period where my trauma worsened, but I didn’t realize it then.
At that time I rather felt that everything in Pret would settle for me and I could concentrate on coming to terms about my brother’s death. I always felt that my situation wasn’t dealt with properly, but I didn’t realize how much I was played and manipulated via dodgy grievance hearings. One area manager who was very slick held a grievance appeals hearing against a line manager who openly bullied me (shouting, blaming, excluding etc.) under the main catalyst who was his boss and the guidance of HR.
In the hearing she held she asked me what my “definition of bullying is”. At that time I was utterly distraught and fell for this trap to think I wasn’t bullied. In hindsight I’d answer this “question” with a question of what her definition of bullshit is! It was also the time when I applied for and received my file, but at the time I just briefly looked through it vaguely until months later when I meticulously sieved through every word on every page and went into deeper turmoil that I explain in “Not Quite a Beautiful Mind“.
Now, looking back, having been in deep darkness, confused, traumatized, holding on and trying to escape through writing, I am grateful to have given Pret the benefit of the doubt so much to be able to say, what a corrupt and toxic company behind a friendly facade and under the current leadership of Clive Schlee and HR Pret A Manger is.
May 2016 Blog post (I added the links from the old blog entry):
Definition of Bullying
Once on a school trip to the seaside of Western France, six of us girls planned to share a room in the youth hostel we were booked in. On the first night after dinner and having settled in, I found myself alone with one of the girls in the big room, while the other four girls spontaneously moved out again and into a vacant 4-bedded room together.
It didn’t take me long to understand what was happening. The girl who was “stuck” with me (or I with her) in the 6-bedded room was the typical person to not have been cool enough to share a room with. There was even talk about her already back home at a school-BBQ before the trip and how they would give her the trip of her life. She was typically uncool, by the book at that time; ginger hair, thick glasses, long front teeth, not wearing the trendiest clothes… The perfect uncool kid to be “avoided with” or not be around.
She (I’ll give her the name “Ginger”) was someone who didn’t fit into the norm, nothing more, nothing less. The usual stuff. I didn’t fit in either, not for “temperature” reasons, but because I was in a sphere of my own.
So, we just had more space and more peace. I didn’t like the situation because I wasn’t invited by the four “cool” girls, but I didn’t mind either because I never liked this kind of group dynamic. Nothing against groups as long as they are inclusive, accepting, supportive, more than just tolerant/tolerating. But tolerance would have been the bare minimum anyone could ask for if individuals in a group have neither strength nor courage for anything beyond that.
“The soul selects her own society, then shuts the door to divine majority. Present no more.”
— Emily Dickinson
Not having been particularly “cool” myself, and not really bothered if I was or not, I didn’t care to impress a group or be intimidated by a “mob” of freezers. I tend to select my own society.
The first of the five or six mornings we were there, I woke up turning around in my bed towards the door. From the sun beams that were shining through the windows, I could see something shimmering on the floor in front of the bed of my room mate. I got up, went to see what it was and saw it was a puddle of fluid, it was obvious from the stench that it was urine left there close to Ginger’s bed, with her still asleep. If she would have had to get up at night for the toilet, she most certainly would have stepped into it.
I pondered over this “pond” and was just perplexed on how it got there or worse, why someone would do this and how we both didn’t wake up noticing this invasion of our dignity. We cleaned it up later, pretending something weird spilled here somehow. I don’t know, I didn’t know what to think or say. Whatever we were thinking, not sure. To this day I don’t know why I didn’t get a teacher immediately and clean it up before she woke up. Maybe I was too perplexed, offended, embarrassed… Hopefully she thought I was the target or us both together; wishful thinking on my part. She was just always very quiet. I will never know if or what she realized was going on.
I didn’t know what to do, if I should go to a teacher or ask around why someone would do this. But going to a teacher or trying to find out who the “donor” of this mess was, might have just encouraged more of this. So I left it, assuming it was a one-off, never having seen any “pranks” like this on previous school trips.
As the days of the trip went on, we took a bus ride through the region. I was sitting in the back of the bus, one or two rows in front of the group of girls, now joined by the boys, and overheard them speak about how they want to cut Ginger’s hair at night. I remember freezing in my seat and feeling my blood disappear from my head with a tingling sensation in my face, going into panic-mode. I had two seats to myself since the bus was roughly half filled, as not the whole class went on this trip but just about two dozen of us. Everyone, except for the group and some couples, would sit generously in two seats, getting a little privacy away from the shared rooms in the hostel.
My thoughts started racing on what to do, since the “pee” situation I knew they would go through with whatever they planned. They must have felt secure that I was just a dumb bystander who’s “job” it was to console Ginger in the aftermath of whatever would happen to her. As if it was some kind of calling in life for her to be bullied and my calling was to just stroke her head, comforting her, oh well poor poor Ginger, c’est la vie.
My heart and my mind went into overdrive with the dilemma of not wanting to get into trouble with the cool crew, but also not wanting to allow something disgusting like this to happen to a girl, who’s only fault it was to not fit in.
Society-selecting time again!
Later that day before dinner time at the hostel, I couldn’t think straight, never mentioning any of this to Ginger or anyone. I was nervous before the meal, heart pouncing, thoughts pacing back and forth when I decided to speak up. I approached the room where the group always huddled together, prayed under my breath, knocked on the door and was invited in. I went straight to the ring leader girl and said sharply (with my limbs like jelly and my heart beating to my throat!) “If anything happens to Ginger, you will be the first to regret it!”. She looked perplexed, starring at me and then around the room, and laughing with the group asked if I was insane or what!? I repeated the sentence and just left the room shaking inside. I went straight to the room of one of the teachers, telling the whole story to just get this sorted. I guess some would call me a “Drama Queen”, but bullying is not just a drama, it’s a cowardly disgrace and a shame.
The next day Ginger had her birthday, and the majority of the kids congratulated her, even if half-hearted by most, including some of the cool, “strong” and marvelous group. Nothing ever happened to the uncool girl anymore. And on the eve of our return back home, Ginger and I sat outside for a smoke while there was an improvised “Disco” going on inside for our last night of the trip.
To this day it’s just a guess if Ginger knew what was going on, or if she repressed the situation to just avoid the pain of it. We never spoke about it and she never seemed at a shock, just rather quiet and speaking about nothing really. Deep down I felt of course she knows. But my pretense might have matched hers equally, just so we can make that day. We just had a good smoke and a meaningless chat, but worth our while.
Nothing further happened as the teachers had an eye on it now, after my shivering confrontation with the group’s leader. But I meant what I said, even while shaking inside my boots. And I rather took the risk of being bullied myself, suffering the consequences, than having to watch in silence how a person is being targeted just because she didn’t fit in to whatever the majority felt was the(ir) norm, or to release the burden of their own meaningless existence.
Even with the threat of any more nightly “adventures” in our room, I slept well at nights. I’d rather be bullied or be with those who are, then being cozy with a bully.
I wondered at times throughout the years, and even now, what has become of Ginger. While writing this experience down, I looked up a digitalized photo of her with some of the bullies on the France trip. I do hope this wallflower became a bouquet, no matter if it fits into anyone’s perception of cool or beauty, but whom those bullies would not recognize today, because they are too busy and messed up in their own journey to fit in.
I never thought I would write this story down and after having scanned over a thousand photos recently into my computer from all the years of my life, even before I was born, then shredding the majority of it to get rid of clutter in my flat. I never scanned in the photos of the bullies, except when “Ginger” was on them, but just threw them away without digitalizing them. Don’t know if I’d regret it one day since even the bad stuff is part of our lives, but I have no room for those bullies on my computer. No more “beds” available.
I have not been bullied as a kid, except the typical teasing we all go through. But I cannot remember ever having been bullied as a kid in school. But I never would have imagined that I would be bullied as an adult.
What was my weakness? The thought that our lives are final on this earth? The inconvenience of my grief? That I didn’t “function” at times as expected? That I didn’t kiss anyone’s association or agenda? That I looked strong, but in reality was completely broken while on autopilot? That I spoiled someone’s perception of strength? That I reminded them of their own mortality and weakness?
In hindsight, please, someone tell me?
All I know is that I have been bullied! No more formal grievances needed. If the catalyst, the main bully is in leadership above you, you have no chance unless you have the strength to see it through. I’m sorry my brother’s death got in their way. He won’t do that again!
Sometimes people are bullied not because they are uncool in the perception of a mob, but because they may come across too strong. Anything that does not fit into the “norm” of the (insecure) majority might just be the perfect target. I don’t know. People in a group, in a mob do things that they would never do when alone. But unfortunately 1 single person, who is in the position of power or leadership, can influence a group who wants to please their leader/boss, and pull the carpet from under someone else’s feet.
It takes only 1 person, 1 leader to influence their sub-ordinance to either pull that carpet or provide a safe place for an individual or minority. Everything stands and falls with leadership. If a leader won’t allow bullying to happen, it won’t! If a leader closes their eyes, or worse, is the main catalyst of bullying, then God help us.
I understood this in my late teens/early 20s already, that’s why I went straight to the leader to make clear that she is responsible to set the tone of the group. But I was too scared and got backup by the teacher, the higher “leader” of the group. If telling on others is what it takes, then that’s what it takes.
It is horrendously easy to be within a group siding against one person, than to stand up within that group, reaching out against the decision of the majority and their leader for the protection and support of that one person. If we realize it or not, we constantly “select our own society”, depending on how strong we feel towards moral issues, health, justice, principles. We constantly make our choices and will choose until our last day. I have chosen wrong and right many times myself in different situations, but if I make up my mind that one person or a minority needs to be protected, especially while going through tragedy, than I hope my mind is made up regardless of the consequences. And after a while, if I manage to make it through in one piece, I sleep well at nights.
this question might really be asking how to avoid being made corporately responsible for those who are in the group they themself represent.
It is beyond me that a powerful group of professionals still try to protect each other without realizing how “small” I am and how simple I am reached without trickery. If we “manage” by fear, that’s all we do: fear!
All I hoped for was just for someone to not be afraid of me, for someone to just have a coffee with me asking how my day was and complain about the weather or whatever. The way my former boss “Cat” did briefly before leaving too soon. I am nobody, just broken, scared, loud, angry, nothing more to be afraid of, and nothing less to be stepped upon. I would have wished for some protection. But better late than never.
Now, I like to leave each day on a positive note. Sometimes I am overwhelmed with depression, other times I’m exhausted from the day, another time just chilled and content. I don’t dare to aim for happiness, I’m not there yet. But I don’t want to end a day on a negative note. And yet I still do it so often.
A dear friend recently said to me, “Forgiveness is a powerful thing”, something I did not want to hear, but know she is right. To “for – give”, to give away an experience, a painful event, letting go, is liberating. Even if or because it takes time and pain; falling, getting up, falling again, getting up again… as if I haven’t got enough pain to work through already. But bitterness won’t be the thing I will fall asleep with. And the only shimmering puddle I will wake up to is the dew of a new day, with new chances to look out for those who need a new society to lend them a hand to heal.
One thing I often did early on after my brother died, was to walk for hours through London, especially through the busy tourist areas I would usually avoid. There I sought and saw happy faces, little kids eating ice cream and being jolly, and when they cried it was because they didn’t get their ice cream right then and there. Very valid tears for a child; I envied the reason for their tears. And after five minutes the only thing that was crying was the melting ice cream dripping down on their chin, and life was sweet again.
There were glimpses of life in the midst of loss and blackness. I sought the smiles of kids, or the naïve curiosity of tourists, or the clumsy effort of new lovers… All I did was starring at life as it kept moving on and passing by me. There was life in the midst of trauma. At least I was an observer of it, like watching a movie passively, just “existing” without living the scenes I watched, looking for meaning, never mind a happy end. There’s none.
The Trafalgar and the Leicester Square areas and the Southbank have been my home away from home in the early weeks and months of making sense of my brother’s passing. I miss him. And I keep looking for him in my walks.
Life is good I want to enjoy it when it comes around.
The smile of a child; the glance of a lover; a little dog licking your face not caring if you’re happy or sad, just caring that you’re there; the courage of your boss; the neighbour’s lending hand; the shoulder of a friend …
I worked at Pret A Manger and survived systemic workplace bullying during bereavement that involved HR, the top leadership, HQ and even the CEO Clive Schlee. I declined 4 settlement offers if I am silent about my ordeal. But I rather starve and speak out to help others. For an overview of important blog entries of my experience with Pret, please visit “My Ordeal with Pret A Manger”. The little arrow to the right next to each heading will lead directly to the post.
I also tell my story for the first time verbally in this >>> podcast interview based in California, and wrote an article in the Scottish Left Review.
Thank you for reading/listening.
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