Mariam Avakov, 24 years old, Tbilisi.

“I was in the 9th grade when two classes were merged in our school. I was studying in a russian school and I was a very active student. I was asking a lot of questions, getting good grades, I was studying very hard. Because of this and also, I think, because of my appearance, I was bullied at school. Some of the children didn’t want to learn or listen to the teacher and they were fighting with me instead.

Once I was sitting in class, actively participating as usual, and my classmates started throwing small paper balls at me. Of course I was pissed and threw the paper balls back at them. At this point, the teacher noticed this and punished me, even though I was innocent. This was followed by a huge dispute. Another one of my arguments some time later even resulted in a physical fight: throwing books, paper balls, mocking and cynical attitude towards me. One of my classmates shot the fight on camera and uploaded the video on social media to piss me off.

The video was distributed very widely quite soon, even Rustavi 2 discovered it while making a story on bullying. A journalist came to me for an interview, but the tone and the expression on my teacher’s face made me realize that talking to the journalist was a bad idea. Now that I think about it, I realize that I should have spoken up, but I didn’t have anyone who would support me and take my side.

The video caused a lot of noise. They started investigating who uploaded it on the internet. I didn’t have any idea who took it or uploaded it, but in the end, they accused me, saying that I was the one who did it, even though the existence of the tape made me very uncomfortable. After that, in order to protect the bullies, they even suggested expelling me from school but they could never have done it since I was a good student and the most outstanding representative of school at the national school Olympics. They were telling me that I was the reason for the whole conflict because I didn’t have a sense of humour.

The Minister of Education mentioned this case publicly. He said that these kinds of things should be taken under control. The Ministry didn’t do anything else about it. I was very stressed. There was even a time when I didn’t have any joy for life. I thought about changing schools, but the other russian school was far away from my house and it would have been difficult to get there every day.

I used to wear high heels because I was short. Each time I stood in front of the class to write something on the black board (which was quite high for me), a boy called me “heels”… I also got in a fight with him. They blamed me this time, too, they told me I didn’t get the joke. Teachers ignored the incident. Everyone could see how I was being treated, what they were doing to me, but nobody tried to do anything about it. We had only a couple of teachers who were able to even control the class. A couple of my classmates were also on my side but there was just one Azerbaijani girl who was actively taking my side and getting into trouble for it, too. When I think about it now, I realize that mocking me was a kind of fun way for my classmates to crash classes. Despite all that, I was very friendly and whenever anyone needed any help, I was always giving them a hand. As they say, I was “overcoming evil with good”.

Before the so-called resource officers were assigned to schools, no one was trying to support me or teach me how to handle these kinds of situations. But I got over it, because I was very motivated to learn. In short, I stopped caring for anyone in my class. I only went to school for education. I tried to stay away and didn’t have any sort of relationship with my classmates.

Once I ran into a resource officer in the hall and he told me to take it easy, to simply finish school and that I would achieve anything I wanted at the university – I had the skills for it. He told me he was aware of what was happening and that I should only respond by focusing on my studies. The support of this boy meant a lot to me.

The school was divided into two departments: armenian and russian. The teacher of the armenian department knew all about the quality of my education and suggested that I participate in international olympics. I passed the national and the local stages and I won. After that they took me to the international literature and culture olympics in Armenia, where I won again. I came back happy because I met kids who had completely different values from those of my classmates’. This was very motivating and it even helped me to get to know myself better.

Not every kid is a natural fighter like me and some can’t fight these problems on their own. It’s important to teach them to speak up in such situations. The reason I was silent was that I had no one, no knowledge, no information. I couldn’t think of any other way of dealing with the problem. This was my life at school. I was never invited to participate in activities or in school trips. I didn’t even go to prom. I tried, I wanted to, but they mocked me even when I was preparing for prom, saying that nobody would ever want to take me to prom. So, I decided not to go. This was my way of protesting.

When I think about it now, I realize that cases like this should used as tools for changing the environment. I also realized that the problem lies in bullys, not the victims. Being bullied means that you are strong, brave and this resource, this talent should be used to achieve success. As they say, they always target the good ones.

I graduated school and enrolled at a university. This was a big achievement for me because unlike the others I didn’t get private classes to prepare for the exam and I was even awarded a scholarship. I was very happy and I realized that I could achieve anything.

Now I’m working on different projects in international organizations. I am a young leader, a trainer in youth camps and I often share my experience with young people. I achieved everything on my own. I always wanted to spend my energy on other children and young people. That is why I became a leader of the youth initiative organization four years ago. I am also a member of the Erasmus+ youth delegation. I learned and achieved a lot in this short period of time. It’s time to use my energy and resources for things that are important for living in a healthy, peaceful environment. It’s time to speak up, to be brave and active.”

Author: Nino Gamisonia
Photo: Salome Tsopurashvili
Translation: Elene Kaikhosroshvili