MEMOIR: HISTORY PART 2 (Updated)
I was sixteen years old and homework was killing me. I spent more hours per day on homework than I did in actual classes during the day. Each afternoon, when school was done, I had to load most of the books and files in my locker into my grey schoolbag to take home, to “help” with the homework. It was brutal, and never-ending. I was often awake into the wee hours, scribbling away, but sometimes just sitting there, staring at the matter before me, wondering what on Earth I was going to do with it.
I had colossal problems with everything. I felt as if I understood nothing, that I had no business in this “matriculation” part of high school. It was organised so that everyone first did three years of relatively painless stuff, and at the end of that, if you wished to, especially if you had no plans to go to university, you could leave and, for example, attend TAFE, do an apprenticeship, learn a trade, or whatever.
I couldn’t say I had a red-hot blazing desire, a longing, to attend university. It wasn’t really on the Bedford radar at the time. Even if I went, what on Earth would I study? I had no idea. All I did know, at the end of Year 10 (the old Third Year) was that just about all my tormentors left at once, having no interest in higher education.
I could have danced.
So I wound up staying on for the final two years, 11 and 12, for matriculation, not out of any concrete desire for this matriculation, as such, but because it would be two years of shelter away from most of my bullies and tormentors. This matriculation was a grim, harrowing process deliberately designed to prepare hapless students for the serious rigours of university-level education. It was hard by design. Brutal by intention. So hard you would find yourself wishing for a quick and merciful death sooner than you would ever imagine. I should never have been there. I still don’t know why I was there. The only answer I’ve ever come up with was simple inertia. I was there because it was the thing to do. Because it would be even harder getting a job, or going to learn a trade. I didn’t want to go that way. But I also wasn’t sure I wanted to go this way. I didn’t know what I wanted. I wanted the noise in my head to stop. I wanted to be left alone so I could think.
When I was just fourteen, my parents knew Something was Wrong with me. They saw signs in my weird behaviour (see, “Weird Kid”), the way I did things, my moodiness, my temper, and much else. They took me to a special doctor. The doctor told them there was nothing he could do, no help he could offer, until “something happened”. There had to be a crisis of some kind. There had to be, in other words, a breakdown. The doctor sent us away.
I remember this doctor visit, but I remember only my parents’ worried, lined faces. I remember nothing of what they talked about (they filled me in much later). I only remember sitting there, my scalp prickling a little, knowing I was being talked about but not understanding, as if the whole thing was in a foreign language.
I have already sketched in a little of the bullying/abuse I faced throughout my schooling. But perhaps even worse, when it came to Years 11 and 12, was the work itself, and my mounting sense of panic as I saw that I was simply not up to it. I should have quit at the end of Year 10, like my tormentors. There would have been no shame in it, and I would have avoided, most likely, what came next.
At the end of Year 10 those students who were staying on had to have a think about their future plans, and then talk to the career guidance counsellor about course selection for the final two years. My careers guidance counsellor was my Social Studies teacher, who did not like me one bit, and I was less than pleased to see her, too. She asked me about my “plans”. I said I had no plans. I didn’t. I was a doofus fifteen year old boy. I didn’t even have plans for that afternoon, or the weekend. She said, well, you like reading, don’t you? Well, of course I did. If left to my own affairs I would basically just read and write full-time. So I stupidly said yes. She made a note. Then she said, Oh, and you’re interested in science and stuff, too, right? Again, yes, of course, naturally, but–
But nothing. With these two answers she fashioned a set of classes for me. She had me down for English, Maths 2 and 3, Physics, Chemistry, and History. Despite the names, Maths 2 and 3 were the truly advanced units in mathematics. There was a lower-intensity unit, Maths 1, which was more my speed, and one lower even than that, Maths 4. But I wound up in 2 and 3, which also meant a truly terrifying teacher whom I call Mr Bastardface (not his real name), who is the subject of a whole separate essay in this book.
This set of courses was just about the most intensely difficult group she could assign. I tried to protest, to explain, that I couldn’t do these things. But to no avail. If any one single person put me in hospital after my breakdown, she would be that person. She dropped me into the pit of vipers, and just about killed me.
Getting out of school at the end of the day was meant to feel like a wonderful release, the end of your day’s labours. But for me and students like me, dropped in water much too deep for them, it was only the end of Act One. Act Two lay ahead. In which the protagonist is trapped in a maze that only grows more baffling, more frustrating, that changes configuration around you, and quite possibly has no actual exit.
I sat in classrooms for all these different subjects. I listened as hard as I could, and I wrote notes like I knew what I was doing. I attended to everything, thinking that if I just paid enough attention, if I did my job well enough, it would pay off. The “aha!” moment would condense out of the atmosphere of panic, and I would understand at last.
It never came. I was underwater. I couldn’t touch the bottom. Every night there was more homework. It never helped. I never caught up; I was always behind, and had to keep lists keeping track of what I was doing now and what could wait.
I had a teacher for Year 11 English who, at the start of the first class of the year, when I’d been thinking, well, I should at least be okay here. English had always been my thing. In lower high school I’d done extremely well with it, and imagined that would continue. I was wrong. This teacher’s first utterance, as she sat on a stool in front of her desk, addressing us, was, “Most of you will fail this class.”
It was shocking. More shocking was finding out she meant it. We’d spent three years learning various ways of looking at books and stories and so on. That was all out the window. We were now expected to engage in a new mode of literary analysis which, when she described it, sounded like dead TV static, like off-key piano music, like something circling and then falling down a drain. It sounded like doom. I never did understand what she was talking about. My very best, most sincere efforts meant nothing. It was a language I did not understand, a note I couldn’t hear.
And that was my best class.
Physics and Chemistry started off utterly incomprehensible and grew more opaque from there. Nothing made sense. The textbooks made no sense. The measurement of error. The measurement of uncertainty. The problem of measurement itself. Wave motion. The sublimation of iodine straight from solid to gas was cool. The careers guidance counsellor had been right about one thing: I really was interested in science. Ever since the Apollo 11 Moon Landing, one of the cardinal points of my life, I had had a keen interest in science (especially in any science to do with astronomy, rockets, stars, planets, etc). I wanted to understand, but everything required several blackboards’ worth of mathematics to “explain”, and mathematics teacher Mr Bastardface was too busy dreaming up ways to humiliate me in front of the class to concern himself with my lack of comprehension.
How bad was my failure to grasp maths? My parents shelled out a great deal of money to a tutoring firm that promoted heavily at the time, which promised specialised, focussed tuition in specific areas, and that the student would make huge gains. So every Saturday morning, in winter that year, wet and bitter-cold, I got the train to Midland, and made my way to a rented hall, where a bunch of beleaguered-looking kids slogged through homework as tutors who looked like they might be university students tried to “coach” them to success.
My coaching sessions, despite the huge amounts Mum and Dad paid, made no difference. Mr Bastardface still hated me, and was still determined to prove that I belonged in Maths 1 or even 4. My grades did not improve. It was a miserable, dreadful experience, on top of all the homework, including maths homework, I was already doing, or trying to do.
It was June 1979. Exams were coming like a train and I was lashed to the tracks. Panic was already here, and growing, getting louder, more intense, more urgent. I couldn’t breathe. How the hell was I going to pass these exams?
The short answer is that I didn’t pass them. The train arrived, hit, kept going, and chewed me over good and proper. I blundered my way through each one. I may have failed every one of those exams. I might have been better served writing sarcastic comedy answers to the questions. Because my honest, sincere answers were either all wrong, or mostly wrong. When I got the results, it felt like being at the bottom of a pit, then noticing that the walls are caving in on you. It felt like suffocating death.
Not long after this, towards the end of June, the mysterious “growing pains” in my abdomen I’d been complaining about for a couple of years suddenly turned out to be acute about-to-burst appendicitis. I was sent to hospital that night, and was in surgery the next day.
But it was the night after that when my life exploded like a volcano in my face, and everything began to change.
The day after my breakdown I was tired and wrung out. My parents told me they had arranged for me to leave school, effective immediately. This was the best news ever. Because even though I was stuck in a hospital for surgery, I had homework with me. I had at least one novel to read for English (AS I LAY DYING, by William Faulkner). There was a pile of stuff, and all at once, like a magic trick, it all simply went away. The burden was gone. I could stand up straight again.
I was no longer a student. I had become a patient.