MEMOIR: THE WRONG TEAM
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, and 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. It turned out I had a great many shortcomings as a person. 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.
But this was no good. I needed to have a sound opinion about football. “What team do you barrack for?” I had 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 had gone 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 for a bunch of bored kids to do during breaks during the day was 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 punt” or whatever, the ball always either went flying off sideways, or simply fell unkicked to the ground. I persisted, though. It seemed crucial that I learned how to kick the ball, that it was important. I’d still rather have been left alone to read my book, but I did my best to get along, and managed, sort of, possibly via the miracle of osmosis, of watching how other boys did it, to figure out the problem and learned to kick the damned ball.
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, when summers came, at cricket. 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. When I was sometimes given a job to do it was fielding, way, way, way out on the periphery of the ground. So far away you notice the light-sound lag between seeing tiny figures batting and a few long, sluggish seconds later when the sound arrived. Once in a great while a ball might come my way. Woo. I managed to reinforce everyone’s pre-existing views of me and was soon back picking dandelions.
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 too many 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 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 I ran afoul of Geoffrey and Craig, and I supported the wrong team.
POSTSCRIPT: Six Months Later
It’s half a year later. The Time Traveller in me has been thinking about the issues stirred up in these chapters, and this one in particular. This one, about what it means to be a man, is fundamental to who I am as a person, to the kind of person I have become, an outsider, someone always out on the fringes of things, sometimes looking inward, but also sometimes looking out.
(The old “Space Nut” in me, baked in when I was a little kid in the febrile 1960s, still loves to look up, and up, and up.)
I have never felt welcome here in this country as an Australian man. It has never occurred to me to visit a pub. It’s a large part of the reason I don’t drink.
But the Time Traveller has been thinking about other timelines. Suppose, on that first day of grade one, Geoffrey and Craig, instead of pushing me out of the line, and knocking me on my arse, had instead made friends with me? And what if, instead of giving me a hard time about going off by myself to read books, kids had just left me alone, or maybe came to join me? There were times when I did have a go at kicking footies around. Maybe I might have tried harder to get good at it if I’d felt more accepted.
And those times when I was forced to play football or cricket, but feeling all at sea? Why did it never occur to me, not even once, to actually ASK SOMEONE FOR HELP? I sat there like a glum potato, feeling all bitter, when all I had to do was just ask someone. This lapse says more about kid-me feeling superior to these idiots and their stupid game than it does about anything else. I was smug in my bitterness. It was a small, cold flame, but it was mine. The only problem was that my kid-self had no idea that sitting there on his own, feeling bitter at the world around him, would come to shape his entire character.
How would my timeline have unspooled if these changes had been made? If I’d supported the right footy team? If my name had been John or Michael. Who would I have been? How would I have turned out? Would I have still met and married Michelle?
So much of who I am is bound up in not being with everyone else, with going to the party and spending the entire time in the kitchen with the dog. Or, in fact, simply not going to the party. Or not being invited in the first place. But in the timeline where I am accepted by mainstream Oz, what happens to me then? How do I turn out? Do I still get bullied? Do I still get fat? Do I still get the bipolar?
The weight is a matter of genetic predisposition, I gather, so I’d say there’s an excellent chance it would still show up. The bipolar, too, is a genetic predisposition, and seems to run through my dad’s side of the family. So if I got fat and got the bipolar, I can definitely imagine bullying. Nobody likes a fat kid. Fat kids know this, and they eat to hide their anger and shame inside a fortress of fat. Bullies take this as a challenge. They are like medieval siege engines against these fortresses.
But I think it would be different. I think it would be expressed differently. I would most likely have more male friends. A lot would depend on whether I discovered geek interests and culture. In my own timeline, I got interested in science fiction and related things very early on. This alternate Adrian would most likely also be just as excited by Moon Landings and Doctor Who and Star Trek and so forth as I was (even if they did give me nightmares). But these interests also gave me an outlet, and later a community—a community of fellow introverts, shy people, awkward people.
Otherwise, if I didn’t become a geek, what then? It’s hard to say. I’d probably spend time at the pub. I’d fit in to Oz male culture. I might actually be interested in the big Oz sports, or at least in the nerdy sporting statistics where you can chew over pages of numbers.
I’d probably be the kind of Australian man with repressed emotional problems that the RU OK Day campaign was started up to try and reach. I’d probably eat my feelings, my rage, my bitterness, my loneliness, my inability to find a girlfriend—the feelings I couldn’t express to my mates, my wonderful, do-anything-for-ya, fabulous, best mates.
I’d probably have seriously considered suicide, and seen it as a way of doing the people around me a great favour, freeing them from a terrible burden.
Because I simply can’t picture this version of myself running into Michelle. I ran into my Michelle at a role-playing game club near where I was living with my parents in the mid-1980s after I left university. It was the purest chance that I found out about this group. It was likewise the purest chance that she was even there. The odds against stack up and up and up. And if I had little to no interest in geeky pursuits like gaming, well…
Life, Jim, but not as we know it. It’s impossible to say. I don’t know what sort of parameters to use. What sort of work? I’d almost certainly always be interested in books and writing, regardless of timelines. So that’s something, though not exactly a source of decent income. Where I’d be living, how much money, how my health might be, my mental health? How fat would I be? I have a terrible feeling I’d be the size of a car and confined to a very big wheelchair, and in very bad shape indeed. If there was no Michelle, or someone like her, in my life, I think I’d be in huge trouble, and most likely living with my aging parents still.
I would probably think about death all the time. Suicide on one hand, and death from countless chronic illness (morbid obesity-related) on the other. If I had meaningful work, books, and writing to do, I might be relatively happy, but I fear the mental illness side of this picture. The man in this scenario can barely move, barely breathe. And books are nice, but they are no Michelle.
Ye gods, I feel sorry for that poor bastard.