Friday, July 29, 2011

Once was a schoolgirl

Recently I visited my old primary school, a place of great pain. It was where I learned to sit down and shut up; where I was bullied by a teacher or two; where I was routinely humiliated in front of the other students. It's a place I still can't talk about without my voice growing strident; I was so scared and lonely there.

For months I have thought to visit and lay a few demons to rest; and one funny Saturday, it felt like time. So we trekked out to the eastern suburbs; my lovely family dropped me off and waved goodbye; and I walked the old path to school. The gates were open, and I ducked in and discovered what a little place it is.

The looming platform where the vice principal used to lecture us has shrunk to the size of a few steps, just enough room for a portly gentleman with a red face to stand as he bawled out several hundred kids. The great banks of the oval, strictly out of bounds and where I used to hide with a book, are barely big enough for a child to stretch out and be invisible from the main schoolyard. The assembly point where I was spontaneously pulled out of line and marched down the hall to a younger grade for the year, thereby losing all my friends and the chance to learn anything, has been subsumed into a new building. The classroom of my most vindictive teacher was shut up, of course; but even from the outside it was clear just how insignificant it was; it even looked cheerful.

Hard to imagine, really. That teacher loathed me, and no day was complete until she made me cry. I used to wake at dawn, sick to my stomach, and sobbed every morning before I left home. That year I broke my writing arm in the first week of third term and so for the thirteen weeks I wore a plaster cast, I was detained at recess and lunch to rule lines on scrap paper; she wouldn't let me write messily in my books. Every piece of work I carefully scratched out was returned with a rebuke; my left handed writing was unacceptable. Most wonderfully, later that same year I caught mumps then measles, and spent the entire fourth term deliriously feverish, and safe at home in bed.

In the centre of the school between two lines of classrooms stands an old eucalypt. When I was a student, lorikeets nested in its hollow and we were forbidden from going near it. Thirty years later it's still there. As I looked at it, remembering, a sudden movement caught my eye. Jutting out of the tree at hip height was a rainbow lorikeet, the great great grandson perhaps of the birds I had known, lurid green and blue and red and yellow, one beady eye fixed on me. I stood still. The bird flicked its head this way and that, assessing the risk; then shot out of the tree like a bullet. I walked over quietly and peeked into the hole; I caught the flash of a bright red beak as a nesting lorikeet turned to look at me. Our eyes met; then it ducked out of view and I let it be.

I walked around the grounds and remembered the humiliations, once so enormous; I recalled the loneliness, and the pain. The school is on a rise, and catches the wind. As I peered into windows and checked out the shelter sheds, the cars on the main road bounding the school roared past. I realised that it has always felt like a school on a cliff. The traffic sounds like the incoming tide, and over the top sings the wind. On this particular Saturday, a gale from the south and the noise of the cars rose up and swept through the school and me, scouring away hurt and leaving a quiet woman washed up on a peeling old bench, a few toy buildings dotted around, and winged rainbows darting overhead.

Once a place to constrict my heart with fear, it is finally becoming ancient history: a setting for stories, nothing more. What happened, happened; what remains are just memories; and time, the great healer, has done its work again.


  1. I am glad that you were able to revisit & view with older eyes the painful memories & ghosts of the past in context with a place you used to know so well. Send those awful memories to the lorikeets to make a nest out of it & create something useful & beautiful! Joanne Pope

  2. you have inspired me to make a pilgrimage of my own, the 2km walk to school, and to do a similar survey ... I wonder what I will find, embrace, and set aside ...

  3. I love the idea that someone else is going to do the school pilgrimage - I checked out all the old parks and trees and houses as well as the school; it really was a thought provoking and healing sort of day in all sorts of ways.

    Hope you find rainbow lorikeets or other raucous signs of hope!


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