I was 13 when I decided school was a prison. As I read my way through the classics of sci-fi – from Asimov’s ‘Foundation‘, through to Phillip K Dick’s ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?‘, wending my way through Heinlein, Herbert and Clarke, – I learned about social structures. And I learned more by finding and reading works like Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince‘, Bernard Shaw’s ‘Man and Superman‘, and even the mad absurdity of ‘Waiting for Godot’. And in my 13-year-old mind, I started to put together a theory of social conditioning.
Warning: Occasional foul language when appropriate.
Spending my time contemplating the possibilities of psychohistory was a way to pass the time. I can count the amount of learning I received in the first 11 years of school-work on one hand – and most of that was in one year in primary school. For example, I have few memories of year 7 mathematics – I slept through most of it and I do mean slept.
I’m the type of absurd book-worm that read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in one session – while looking after a newborn. Yes, you can breastfeed, change, settle and cuddle a baby with a book in hand. Trust me.
And yet – no one in the middle years of high school ever saw me reading a book. Because I was no fool. People who were seen reading books had targets painted a mile wide all over them. I never talked about books, mentioned books. Or science, philosophy, or psychology, theatre or movies, or in fact anything vaguely intellectual or geeky. And I am a major geek – I watched the first three Star Wars movies so many times that I could place the scene based on the background music – when played on a random playlist. Alas, that is a skill that has since fled, and these days I’m left relying on leitmotifs… But at school? Learning and geekiness were verboten.
When I started my second year of high school, the mass of kids struggling their way through the super-narrow corridors used to vividly remind me of the illustrations of the Inferno from Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy‘. We were the first year of co-ed after generations of the school being a boys-only, and I worked at creating the kind of persona that had no bumps – nothing for the bullies. No interests, no passions. I joined every lunch based group that was available – band and choir – that kept me out of the playground. And I made friends there who have remained some of my best friends to this day. I only stuffed up once, but that was enough. I ended up Dux in year 8 – an award with no social capital in a decidedly anti-intellectual culture like Australia. I made sure it never happened again. Like Bashir in DS9 the episode ‘Doctor Bashir, I Presume?‘, I made sure to always put in mistakes – not too many – but just enough to put me in the top 5 or so, rather than first. I worked hard at that.
Polite, inoffensive. Bright, but no genius. Does her work; makes no fuss. I wanted to go to University – I wanted a chance to learn something. And good grades were my ticket out of that school. So I couldn’t afford to do too badly at school-work. But I had years of time to do before I could have that opportunity. I did what I was required to do. But I never did a lick of work outside school. Instead of being bored and disruptive in class, I did my homework from other classes. Looking like a nerd, maybe. But it meant that my out of school time was my own. From when I left in the morning, to when I hopped off the train in the evening, I counted the minutes before I’d be able to read my books. School taught me patience.
Trying to blend in didn’t help much, and there’s not much that’s more intimidating (barring actual physical violence) than being relentlessly heckled for years by a large group of jocks when you’re small, quiet and not physically adept or fast. Not reacting was about the only strategy available – it’s not like the teachers could have done anything. Maybe they would have tried, I’ll never really know for sure. But they did nothing to stop the obvious physical bullying that went on at the school almost every day.
School was a prison, and the inmates had nothing better to do than take it out on each other. The best I felt I could do at the time was make sure I talked to the other kids who were bullied – I was nine when I started making sure I did that. I’m not a physically brave person, nor am I particularly good at keeping my cool in an argument. And against the background of relentless victimisation, support and a willingness to listen and talk was about all I felt I could do. (Yes, the bullying happened in primary school too – which was not surprising given the family situation of most of my primary school class – 2/3rd were in single parent families, and kids being pulled out to go to court-cases over custody battles was a not-uncommon experience. Trauma can breed poor behaviour. Though this was not the case in high school – it was a middle of the range private school.)
In high-school, I watched as the other kids all experimented with rebellion – and it reminded me of the scene from Life of Brian, ‘Yes, we’re all individuals‘. And to my teenager self, it too looked like more social conditioning – trust the ads and the pop music. Everyone has to rebel and learn how to binge drink and smoke. All at the same time, in the same way. It felt like the cultural conditioning of addiction. I had first-hand experience with the consequences of addiction – the uglier side. I grew up watching it destroy one of the most creative and intelligent people I have ever known. But that’s a story for another day. I have never smoked in my entire life. And I was in my twenties before I was willing to have more than one standard drink in an evening out. And like Andy Dufresne in ‘The Shawshank Redemption‘, my conscious and deliberate rebellion was to create the clean profile that would get me out of there. I got no bumps on me …
It wasn’t until senior high school that it all changed. That was when I discovered the social immunity that came with public speaking. One speech. There is nothing quite like the feeling of taking 200-300 people on a journey with the power of your voice. That moment changed my life. (In more ways than I realised at the time, as that was when my DH decided he just had to meet me).
The irony did not escape me when people who had silently watched as their friends bullied me suddenly wanted to talk to me for the first time in 4 years. I still vividly remember one of them approaching me while gushing, ‘I never knew you could do that!’ and my Vulcan-like response, ‘No, you didn’t.’ (Everyone spends hours practicing how to raise their eyebrow just like Spock, don’t they?) Perhaps unfair to him in hindsight, I don’t know his story or history, and perhaps he really was a great guy. I’ll never know. But it felt like a victory at the time. It was no longer verboten to be good at something.
It was a revelation. Suddenly it was OK to be smart. Because I could act. For the first time in my life, it was OK to like maths – and I had a teacher who taught me new material for the first time since late primary school. (An awesome nun who would wear pink fluffy slippers to every lesson.) I campaigned with fellow students to have our English teacher teach one of my favourite plays – ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead‘ (There is a movie with Tim Roth and Gary Oldman which is pretty good, but it’s a play, and it’s really best at the theatre.) She even let me teach a master-class on Lohengrin – the Wagnerian opera that forms the core of the book we studied that year, Maestro (an OK but not stellar book). And in case you’re wondering, yes I had seen Lohengrin live years before, at the Sydney Opera House … and I fell asleep! (Which I suppose is what happens when you take a primary school kid to a late night showing of a German opera in seats with no sub-titles. I love my parents. My mum woke me up for the best bits. It was still sublime.)
So, you might be wondering, why the title above? It’s from a song by Marilyn Manson, called Lunchbox* from the album ‘Portrait of an American Family‘. This song was written as a reflection on the 1972 American legislation banning metal lunch boxes in schools, and at its core is a story about a boy who finally has had enough of being bullied.
I’m going to end with an extended quote from that song.
The big bully try to stick his finger in my chest
Try to tell me, tell me, he’s the best
But I don’t really give a good goddamn cause
I got my lunchbox and I’m armed real well…
…I wanna grow up
I wanna be a big rock and roll star
I wanna grow up
I wanna be
So no one fucks with me.
Eventually, I got a chance to escape and be myself. I found the metaphorical lunchbox, the shield that let me be brave enough to face the world. And for me, that was empowering.
*This should be pretty darn obvious, but this link and really any to Marilyn Manson’s works contain explicit lyrics and language that may offend some readers. Treat it as you would treat any wild animal – calmly, gently and with caution.