Over the past couple of days, a thread on Twitter has grown. Professor Sunny Singh has asked her followers to compete to write satirical descriptions of me, and is retweeting them with laughing and crying emojis of “lol”. The focus of the jokes has become about my grief for my parents, who died with Covid last January, but in the thread there are pornographic fantasies and passages such as “blancmange thighs trembled under the oppressive weight of white saviourism”.
I think we can agree it is a thoroughly 21st-century spectacle. It’s compelling, too. I keep peeking, looking for another reference to my thin skin or the grief mug. The mug was where this started: when Gaby Hinsliff of the Guardian came to interview me in February I had just finished emptying my parent’s house. I was drinking coffee from a mug with my mother’s face on which her pupils had made when she retired as a head teacher. It was just one of those objects I couldn’t quite bring myself to throw away – but it made a neat detail, and ended up in the piece.
The Guardian article is by the kettle. The illustration implies my 2019 memoir – Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me – is a bloodied corpse, or what I think looks more like a used sanitary towel. It’s an account of how last year I overreacted to Goodreads criticism of racist tropes in the book, and ended up with all my books de-published and no “route back”, according to the article, to mainstream publishing. I’ve rewritten my book but the shame is terrible. I’m often glad my mother didn’t live to see it. I’m not really sure why my critics decided the article was all in my favour and that I am “weaponising” my grief, but they did.
Every so often, people ring in to ask how I’m doing, and I don’t know exactly. I tell them it’s hard to take it in, and have another cup of tea. Before she was a tea mug, my mother used to tell me, as a teacher, to be sure to take care of the bullies as well as the victims when there was a row in school. As a young woman, I couldn’t understand what she meant, but perhaps I do now. Teenagers I worked with found it hard to talk about being bullies, but when they did open up, they often talked at length.
They never said they enjoyed it, or that bullying made them feel powerful. Their accounts were always of feeling out of control, of being caught up in a social mechanism beyond them, of saying things they did not intend to say or even truly know they thought, of having words come through their mouths and cruel gestures through their arms, of bad dreams, of being in this fugue state, sometimes, for months.
There was often a moment in the accounts, too, of how it all started, a time when they suddenly found themselves breaking some deep taboo – mocking another girl’s acne, or disability, or a parent’s death. After that, they couldn’t find a way back and they themselves were deeply frightened. People think taboos are silly – but taboos and rules keep us all safe: without them, the world becomes unsafe for victim and bully alike. Like Twitter, now.