Thursday, September 11, 2014


A large throng of girls huddled tightly. Their school dresses were cut jagged and short, the fabric matted with dried blobs of red and yellow acrylic paint. They struggled to all fit together, some leaned outwards, threatening to topple off the two-foot high wooden platform. They held fast to one another, some girls held hands with their friends. Some pressed their plastic firemens' hats to the heads, others remained poised with party poppers.

I stood around awkwardly. Even in the last moments of high school, I never knew where to stand or who to be with. I never stopped envying those tiny microgestures of acceptance, a pose for a photograph, a pause for a moment's conversation. To be acknowledged meant everything to me, only because for those four years, it seemed as if I perpetually stood with some girl's back to me.

Once I received all the attention on that platform where we stood together. I had performed a scene from A Midsummer Night's Dream. I had never been offered the opportunity to perform in a play or a show, not even in the chorus. I had always been predestined for the orchestra pit. It was hugely gratifying to play Bottom, if only for those few moments. I screeched and hammed it up to excess. I died for as long as possible and everybody loved it.

The bell echoed across the courtyard. Girls screamed, arms flailed, confetti fell. Out of nowhere, Nancy suddenly hugged me tightly. She was a tough girl who boasted about hanging out with the Triads on the weekend. On Year 9 camp, she had pinned me down, straddled my mid-section and punched me repeatedly during a night time game. In Year 12, she was reprimanded for punching Amelia. Her swollen left cheek morphed from blue to purple and then black.

I never thought to ask why Nancy suddenly hugged me like that and it was funny that even during that embrace, she still couldn't bring herself to look at me. At the time I consoled myself thinking that the gesture was the apology, albeit the apology of a coward. In retrospect, I think she was just pleased that we would never have to see each other again.

In the years that have followed high school, I have spoken openly about the sadistic bullying practices of our year level. To each other, we used to joke about the widespread myth that every second year level at our school was particularly dysfunctional. It was funny that despite the heightened level of self-awareness (and lengthy group-counselling sessions), we could never get it together.

In theory, it should have all ended in that moment, as we stood in friendship and relief on that platform. In actuality, every incident from those four years seems to spin around in my head forever. The memory of it manifests itself in interesting ways, like I used to live with this insatiable desire to confront any and every bully. Even in my dreams, I wanted to embarrass and condemn those who are cruel.

In more recent times, I haven't been thinking about the cruelty, I have only been thinking about the classes. I loved almost everything that I did and I think back to how inspiring those classes were: Shakespeare in Performance, Women in History, Protest and Conflict, Journalism, Fashion, Photography. In my head, I continue to navigate those grounds, the hallways and the classrooms, but everything is empty. Everyone is gone.

When people ask what high school was like, I say: "It wasn't as bad as it was."

1 comment:

  1. It has been a long time since I crossed paths of anyone from my high school - thankfully, my parents uprooted the family the minute grade 10 was over for me, so I had a fresh start for grades 11 and 12 (the Tasmanian school system is a bit different to Vic, IIRC) and had very little reason to revisit that city again for many years. Social media put me in contact recently with a few people from high school, but apart from a few awkward exchanges, I felt too embarrassed or scared to trawl through memories from that time.

    One girl, who I was very fond of from high school and with whom I made contact a few years ago, was confused when I mentioned how dispiriting high school was, and how I was often picked on or bullied. She said "But I remember you being very popular in high school" - my turn to be confused. I started to wonder whether it was actually just my memories and perception of high school that were amplified and distorted. I didn't truly believe it (still don't), but it did make me reevaluate my experiences. I did have some good friends, some very supportive teachers, and our band performances were always memorable, if not particularly organised or good. Still, I will always remember just how much it sucked to be a sensitive, introverted kid in high school.

    I can't help but focus on your last line. Maybe my standard response to that queston should now also be: "It wasn't as bad as it was."

    Excellent post as always, El.