I was six years old and there was a serious problem. I was just starting in grade one of primary school. Today was day one. I had already been through the wrenching experience of Mum dropping me off (tearfully, I asked her to wait in the big shed across the bitumen quadrangle, but of course she couldn’t sit there all day), and I had pulled myself together, all set for the beginning of my schooling. It was a big moment. I was scared and excited, standing there in line in my grey polyester-cotton shirt and shorts, and my play-lunch safe in a bag.
This is really hard to remember. It’s all fragments and clips, a Zapruder film recollection of my first day in primary school.
I do remember Geoffrey, though. He was a big, sullen kid, or at least he seems bigger than I remember myself being at the time, and as we stood there, lined up outside our classroom, waiting for the signal to file into the room, Geoffrey and his minion Craig decided they didn’t like my face, and pushed me over. There were probably some hostile, sneering comments as well, but this is badly-spliced Super-8 footage of a memory at best, and all I remember is the push and the ignominious landing on the bitumen quadrangle, that it hurt.
I was shocked, stunned. Nothing like this had ever happened to me in kindergarten. Nothing like it ever happened at home. What on Earth was I to make of it, this attack? I’m guessing I got up and dusted myself off, and duly began my formal schooling. But it was also the beginning of my life under attack from the Geoffreys of this world. He and Craig became my enemies. There was no placating them, or asking them to leave me alone. They were the way they were, for no obvious reason. They were unstoppable, like weather, like rain.
I got rained on a lot. I had so many shortcomings as a person, it turned out. Geoffrey, Craig, and their sullen colleagues were very keen to inform me of all the ways I did not measure up as a person, and most particularly, as a man.
What I wanted, when it came to morning recess, lunch, and afternoon recess (was there an afternoon recess as well? Am not sure) was to be left alone so I could read or maybe write. I would sit on a bench outside the classroom with a book, and disappear into its pages.
This was no good. I needed to have a sound opinion about football. “What team do you barrack for?” I spent most of my short life so far in Fremantle, but we had just moved to Wembley, so my answer to this question came easily. I reported that I was a fan of South Fremantle (the local Australian Rules football team).
It was as if a loud quiz-show buzzer went off. The kids I was with, hanging around one recess near the conical lid of the school’s septic tank, laughed and jeered. This was Wembley. Everyone here supported West Perth. It also didn’t help that Souths at the time were weak and West Perth were all-powerful. These kids revelled in their borrowed power.
And not only did I support the wrong team, I was also no good with an actual football. One of the main things to do during breaks during the day was a bunch of kids kicking a football about. These were miserable, leathery “balls”, oval-shaped, and so inclined, when bouncing or rolling, to behave erratically. I hated the damned things. And it seemed they hated me back. When I tried to execute the “drop kick”, the “torpedo kick” or whatever, the ball always either went flying off sideways, or simply fell unkicked to the ground. I persisted with this, though. It was crucial that I learned how to kick the ball, bit while in time I osmotically figured out more or less what to do, I was never any good, and hated the whole experience.
Once, only once, I somehow found myself on a team playing an actual football match. I’m not sure what to make of this bit of Zapruder footage, because all I have are tiny bits, two or three frames. I’m standing on the oval on a sunny afternoon, looking off to my right, where I see the ball rolling and bouncing towards me, pursued by an angry noisy mob of kids, half of whom wanted me to pick up the ball and do something good with it like maybe run off and kick a goal, and the other half who wanted to go all Lord of the Flies on me. I did the rational thing and simply ran screaming from the whole horrible business.
But what was I doing there at all? How the hell did I wind up on any sort of football team? I have no idea. I remember it was terrifying, in part because, despite growing up in a football-mad culture, I didn’t know or understand the game. When I tried to watch them on our boxy old black and white TV, matches seemed interminable free-for-alls.
So I was suspect on football, and had a sissy tendency to sit and read books, when there were perfectly good footies to kick around. It also didn’t help that I had a “poofy” name, Adrian. I was surrounded by kids named John, Michael and David. I knew no other Adrians. Nobody anywhere knew of any other Adrians. It was so foreign a name that some people simply gave up and called me Andrew instead.
Which was better than being called and thought a poof. I didn’t even know at the time what the word meant. All I knew was that my book-reading, football-hating, weird-name self did not measure up. I did not have the stuff of Australian maleness as then understood. I was also bad at cricket, when summers came. If there is a game more tiresome than football, it is cricket, a full game of which can last five long days, at the end of which you might have a drawn result.
Team selection for cricket games was brutal. Two popular boys stood before the great unwashed mass of us boys, and they took turns picking out their mates and other kids known to have some skill with the game. I was usually last. And while I did not enjoy the game, and still would rather have been off with a book somewhere else, it stung to always, always be last. I picked a lot of dandelion flowers sitting there on the grass those days. Last, always last.
One important reason I had no cricket skills was simple: no-one ever bothered themselves to explain the game to me. I had no idea what was happening. What the terminology meant. How batting worked–how bowling worked (and how was bowling different from throwing or pitching). Scoring was a mystery for the ages. Sundries? What on Earth were Sundries? And overs? What’s an over? No-one ever said. You were simply assumed to know and understand. And I did not.
One time I somehow found myself with a cricket bat in hand, standing at the designated location (the “crease”), defending my “wicket”, and a boy came at me from the other end of the pitch, and let fly with the ball. I had grasped that I was supposed to hit the ball. And Lord knows I tried. Lord also knows I missed the ball, but hit my wicket instead, and so was “given out”. I left, as confused and upset as I had been before, the jeers and mockery of the other boys ringing in my head as I made my way back to “my” team.
I’m playing this account of my schooldays more or less for laughs, but there is a sting in this tale: nearly 50 years later, I’m still dealing with all this crap. I’m now a middle-aged man who feels deeply messed up inside about maleness and masculinity in general. Who has great difficulty expressing powerful emotions. Who feels life-threatening shame when crying in front of people.
Because it makes me feel “weak”. It makes me a “sissy”. It makes me not a proper man. I have never, ever felt comfortable as an Australian male. I do not, and have never, fit in. I have little to no interest in male pursuits or preoccupations. About the only male thing I have any interest in is sex, and even that has been a fraught matter for painful years thanks to medication bollocks. I still have a fear of very masculine-seeming men, the ones with muscles, with tattoos, with a look of competent menace about them, who look like they could handle themselves in a fight. These men freak me out. I hear them often in my head, telling me how useless I am, how unworthy, how unmanly.
I deal with all this with my psychologist. She helps me deal with these guys in my head. These guys who have been there, in one form or another, since that first day of school when I was six years old, and ran afoul of Geoffrey and Craig, and I supported the wrong footy team.