Beating the bullies: from butt of joke to last laugh

STEPHEN ''Stiffy'' Cooper should have kept his hands to himself. Boy, does he know that now.

But he couldn't help himself.

In the lunchtime and recess bearpit of his high school 20 or more years ago, there was a feather-light, nerdish kid with a weird, sort-of-pommy accent called Tim Ferguson. It was as if Tim had a ''Hit me'' sign on his back for the school bullies - and ''Stiffy'' was one of them.

But Ferguson grew up to be a comedian, joined a lacerating comic trio called the Doug Anthony All Stars and got a TV show on the ABC. When he'd tell a gag it wasn't just ''a man walks into a bar …'' It was ''a man, and let's call him Stephen Cooper …''

It wasn't always Stiffy because Ferguson, a serial victim, would roster in the names of others who had made his life a misery at most of the nine schools he attended.

Years later, at a reunion, Cooper asked if he was the one being named on national TV. Told he was, he asked if Ferguson would please mind not doing it again.

''I said, 'Well Stephen, I don't know if that's going to happen. I might stop and I might not','' says Ferguson, eyes malevolently twinkling. ''And, oops, here I am talking to The Sunday Age and doing it again.

''From my end that was a kind of bullying and it was quite conscious: 'This will hurt him, this is on a level where he can't fight back'. And it was quite cruel to a guy who's actually turned out to be quite a decent bloke now. But it was revenge.''

Ferguson is one of 15 well-known Australians who open up about their experiences of being bullied at school in a new book, Don't Peak at High School: From Bullied to A-List.

It is edited by multi-talented funny woman Fiona Scott-Norman, also a bullying victim - ''the most unpopular kid at the largest mixed boarding school in Europe''.

The others include federal Finance Minister Penny Wong; AFL footballer Adam Goodes; musicians Megan Washington and Kate Miller-Heidke; TV personality Charlie Pickering; writer Marieke Hardy; TV producer Adam Boland; comedian, author and radio personality Wendy Harmer; and actors Brendan Cowell and Eddie Perfect.

Scott-Norman suggests her subjects drew strength from being bullied and it helped them to become what and who they are. ''I think if you're a creative, the chances are you were bullied,'' she says.

''I think it's how artists are made. You have to turn in on yourself to keep yourself occupied and safe, you read, you play an instrument, you write … you do your own kooky thing. Once you've left school that becomes a huge asset.''

But it's tough. Around one in six Australian students report being bullied at least once a week.

Bullying takes a range of forms, with verbal tormenting the most common and physical assault the least. It has been happening forever but, as Scott-Norman notes, cyber-bullying has added another level of complexity, although its levels and effects are yet to be well researched.

Bullying most often occurs in the last years of primary school and first years of secondary, as the tall Scott-Norman well knows.

At primary school a teacher gave her the affectionate nickname Spider, for her braids and gangly limbs. On her first day at a grammar school in England she made the mistake of revealing her unflattering moniker.

''The second I said the word I knew deep in my marrow that I'd f---ed up really badly. I was Spider for the rest of my time at school … People I didn't even know were mean to me. I was bullied by random strangers.''

Scott-Norman's father was also a shouting bully and she spent most of her teenage years walking on egg shells. She was very lonely and says the repercussions lingered into adult life.

When she learnt that so many Australian children experience bullying, Scott-Norman began thinking about how some former victims had emerged from their school-yard hell to become not only successful and talented but popular.

Her subjects jumped at the chance to tell their stories - but others she approached still found it too hard to discuss. Nevertheless, she says, the message she wants kids to take from the book is that there's no shame in being bullied, it's happened to the best; that you don't have to fail just because you're bullied; and that there's life after high school.

''I think a large part of the despair that comes from that ostracism and dislike when you're younger is your sense that this is going to be your life forever. Afterwards I kept waiting for people to realise I was unpopular … it took ages for me to realise, hey, school's over,'' Scott-Norman says.

For Tim Ferguson, the rot set in early. His father, a journalist, moved often, which meant the kids kept changing schools.

At his first school, in Singapore, Ferguson picked up a slightly plummy ''last gasp of the Raj'' accent that became shark chum for a succession of tormenters.

And he was lousy at sport, so he usually spent rugby matches carrying oranges - and talking to girls. ''It's actually far more heterosexual to sit and talk to women rather than run around trying to grapple with men's arses,'' he says in the book.

Problem was, when the game ended the girls abandoned him for the jocks, he told The Sunday Age. ''Out on the field it was always 'Don't give it to Ferg!' Which the girls all heard loud and clear because they never gave it to Ferg either.''

Eventually he found a sort of respite in being funny. ''It's the one thing that will make girls tolerate you and the one thing where if you can't catch or kick, the blokes who can will say 'He's all right. He's funny.'''

It also allowed Ferguson to turn the aggression around. The Doug Anthony All Stars were one of the cruelest acts in Australian comedy.

''When you're a comedian, even the biggest footballer in the room has no power. You've got him by the goolies,'' he says.

And how does that feel now, Stiffy Cooper?

Don't Peak at High School: From Bullied to A-List, published by Affirm Press, will be released on July 18.

Penny Wong, Federal Finance MinisterBorn in Malaysia, racially vilified at school andlater vilified for her sexuality: "I didn't becomeinsular. I've seen that happen with kids, butit wasn't my response. I just pretended to beconfident, even when I wasn't. I learnt to besteady and still, even when it felt very messyand difficult."

Wendy Harmer, comedian, author and presenterBorn with a severe bilateral palate and lip, teasedat school as "Eagle Beak": "My father never gaveme an inch, never let me feel sorry for myself. Itinstilled a level of stoicism that I don't have formy own children. If I found out my kids were beingcalled names, I bet I'd be hauling off to the schooland standing at the gate with a baseball bat."

Tim Ferguson, comedianA slight kid with a posh accent, bullied at each ofthe nine schools he attended: "I was punched atevery school I went to. Being skinny and smart,well, that's immediately daunting to the guyswith big frames. The only weapon I ever had wasmy sense of humour."