What’s Normal Anyway? Weirdness, storytelling and being your own bully

Sometimes the world has some weird synchronicities. This morning I was thinking about a particular comment written on my school report when I was in year 5 or 6 and how much that comment has stuck with me. This afternoon I listened to two of my favourite people, Sofie Hagen and Susan Calman, in discussion on Sofie’s podcast “Made of Human” where they discussed not being popular, not fitting in and the children others perceive as “weird”. So what was the comment in that report?

“Nyika has an unusual personality, which may annoy her peers.”

Thank you, Mrs. Whiting, my one day a week teacher who I quite liked, for that damning judgment of my personality. The thing is though, she wasn’t the only one who let on that maybe my childhood and teenage self wasn’t to everyone’s liking. My brain flashes back to year 9 as I stand outside my music class as two girls I’d considered my friends told me:

“We don’t want to be friends with you anymore. You bring out the worst in us.”

I have received an apology from one person involved in this, but even prior I’d been told:

“You don’t want to give people any more reason to laugh at you.”

By the person I’d wrongly assumed was my best friend. Jump forward. Sixth form. I come to school on a non-uniform day dressed “as a hippy”, as was the particular style I was going for at the time (no, I am laying no claim to actually having been “normal”, whatever that is). My sister’s friend, in the corridor:

“Your sister cried because she was so embarrassed by what you are wearing today”

And then THREE WHOLE YEARS after I’d left the school my sister reports that she met someone from my year who asked:

“Isn’t Nyika your sister? She was really weird at school.”

So the evidence mounts up against my pre-teen and teenage self. I was weird. I wasn’t “normal.” If you fancied having a snidey comment to someone, there I was in the playground, probably running between classes to avoid you. Unsurprisingly I was bullied mercilessly throughout secondary school, and now I get to bully myself over and over with their words, with the picture they drew of me which replaced what I saw in the mirror bit by bit until I believed I was of no worth at all. That I was all wrong and pretty much everyone else was right. And that I’d never get to be like them.

Listening to Sofie Hagen and Susan Calman today I was struck by how similar my experiences were to theirs. How painful it is for me to speak about or even to think about school. There’s a particular bit where Susan says “Every time something bad happens, I go back to school in my brain.” And that’s me as well. If I think someone’s given me a funny look on the bus, that must mean I’m oozing weirdness. Someone unfollowed me on twitter? Must be my annoying personality.

For years I searched for what could be wrong with me. I mean, why couldn’t I just be “normal.” Or at least perceived as such. When I was 20 I was diagnosed with dyspraxia which went some way to explain what I’d been through at school. Although it’s only a small bit of neurodiversity, it still means I am neurodiverse. There’s been a few armchair educational psychologists who’ve decided I must actually be on the autism spectrum. And it is true that I struggle a bit with people and their intentions and sometimes societal “rules” either pass me by completely, or I assume everyone knows something I don’t. But also I’m a big picture person, I quite enjoy a party and I score within the “normal” range on the Autism Quotient quiz. Of course, these things aren’t mutually exclusive to not having ASC, but from my own point of view, that’s not the answer.

“Normal.” There’s that word again. What even is it to be normal? My own personal schema seems to think it’s having well-groomed hair, perfect eyebrows, lots of friends and feeling ok with yourself. So essentially “normal” to me is the popular kids at school, although I have no idea what their heads were like and whether they really liked themselves. A small part of me knows they probably didn’t especially. On my university course (I’m doing a Masters in Special and Inclusive Education) when we discuss children and young people with Special Educational Needs quite often my classmates will speak about the “normal children.” Which I always challenge, because who says any of us are normal? There’s a bit of a trend to say “oh we’re all a bit autistic”, which I don’t agree with because no, we’re not. But my tutor quite often says “What are special needs? We all have particular needs.” And well, that’s not untrue. Some people can’t work with any noise, other people struggle with spelling. That doesn’t mean they’re not “normal”, it just means they have a particular way of working, or a difficulty with something. And we all have challenges and barriers to our learning and our life in one way or another. And anybody who lived a charmed life with none of these things in their way? Well if we’re talking about what’s not “normal” …

Going back to the podcast, Susan Calman talks about her role presenting a CBBC quiz show, Top Class, where children are hopefully taught that it’s ok to be “clever” (although my own hang ups around that one is a completely different discussion entirely). She says

“I always pick out the one who are probably considered weird at school and I talk to them. I tell them they’re going to be fine, they just have to get through this next bit and they will be fine.”

And I agree. In principle. Because yes, I am fine, I live a life as a functional adult, I have a job and study at a Russell Group university, and I have friends. But every day, those bully’s voices become the voice in my head, and I tell myself I’m not good enough, I’m weird, I’m just not normal.

And yet the irony is, few of my best friends were particularly popular at school, and it is entirely my view that it’s the “weird” children who grow up to be the best people in life, which is mirrored by Hagen and Calman’s discussion. Susan says she always looks for the people in the room who don’t have a nice bag, as they’re the ones most worth talking to. And I fully believe that to be true. I’m sure the popular people who had loads of friends at school are very nice and all, but I’d rather talk to the girl who once picked her nose absent-mindedly in class and spent the next 5 years being called “snot girl”. Or the boy who thought football was crap but got into chess in a big way.

I guess I wish I could see myself in the people I so admire, who had similar experiences to me at school and who are now comedians or writers or just fantastic people in general. But I will always be “the weird one with the annoying personality” whatever I’m told and wherever I get to in life. Because in small ways, I still see the evidence stacking up. And one day maybe I will be able to rise up, kick those stacks over and say “Actually, I am fantastic. Didn’t you know?”

Until that time though, all I can do is tell my story and hope it helps people. I’ve got into storytelling in a big way recently. I perform regularly at a story slam in Bristol, at one point being chosen to compete for a place in a national competition. I love to hear other people’s stories, whether it’s when they’re on stage, on podcasts such as RISK! or just when I’m walking along talking to them. Stories make us human; they inform us that we’re not alone. That our quirks, our backgrounds, our histories, those are the things which make us so uniquely “us”.

And so I’m going to tell my story. And I’m going to tell the young people with SEND that I work with that they will be fine, whilst building their resilience against a world that might say otherwise. People can be mean, but we don’t have to mirror that within ourselves. And if we tell our stories, perhaps someone listening will feel that ache of recognition, and they will think to themselves “I am not alone”.