‘Some rooms are like cages’

By skepticlawyer

Sonny sits by his window and thinks to himself
How it’s strange that some rooms are like cages.
Sonny’s yearbook from high school
Is down from the shelf –
And he idly thumbs through the pages.
Some have died.
Some have fled from themselves.
Or struggled from here to get there.

– Paul Simon, The Obvious Child

In my last year of high school, a fellow from the year above me — one I’d known reasonably well — wrapped his car around a tree. He enjoyed an odd posthumous fame for about six months, used by the teachers to warn us of the dangers of drink driving, and by his friends as licence to stick mawkish poetry on classroom noticeboards. At twenty years remove, I can’t even remember his name, and since I’m a ne’er do well who doesn’t settle, I can’t even emulate Sonny in Paul Simon’s lyric and go looking for him. I’ve only kept one school yearbook — the one I edited — and even it’s in Australia. The others have long since been chucked out in various moves, across the country and across the world.

His story came back to me last year when someone tracked me down on facebook and invited me to my 20 year reunion. The graphic for the facebook group was the front cover of the yearbook I edited all those years ago, before Pagemaker or Quark, on sloping backlit desks so one could stick graphics and text onto the page and keep the edges (mostly) in line. Weirdly, I got a sharp stab of nostalgia, a feeling I’ve long since learned to distrust.

See, when I left high school, I’d have cheered if someone had burnt the place down. Ten years after I resolved never to darken the door again (a promise that feels wonderful to make, but is ridiculously easy to keep), two disaffected lads shot up their high school. I wrote an email (which I still have) to a friend that managed to combine two conflicting sentiments: ‘that could have been me’ and ‘it can’t have been that bad’.

Faced with my first bout of nostalgia, I was forced to ask whether something I remembered really was better than the here and now, or whether only the memory was better. It took a while for me to realise that what was swirling around my head really was nostalgia. This post (with some beautiful comments following) over at Hoyden About Town catches the intensity of that first nostalgic ‘hit’:

Playing cricket in the dead-end street around the corner. Pride that the soles of my feet were so tough I could both walk on sensitive plant and run on the bitumen in mid-summer. Fruit tingles that really did tingle. Convincing myself that if I ran home from school without stepping on any cracks in the footpath, there’d be chocolate cake for dinner. Men at Work. Metallica. Guns n’ Roses and you will not wear that t-shirt in school! Yes, sent home for wearing a Gunners t-shirt on a ‘free clothes’ day (for which we’d had to donate two dollars to charity, too). I asked for my money back. The school refused, so I rode home and took the day off. Coming back from both England and New Zealand after long stints away (once with one parent, once with the other) with appropriate accents. Dr Who (to this day one of only two series on telly I’ve watched with any loyalty; the other was The X-Files, much later).

Never win first place
I don’t support the team
Can’t take direction
And my socks are never clean.
Teachers dated me, my parents hated me –
I was always in a fight, cos I can’t do nothin’ right

– Pink, Don’t Let Me Get Me

There was darker stuff, although the memory of that also became tinged with a warmth that sure as shit wasn’t kicking around at the time. A complete lack of interest in ‘girly stuff’: I borrowed a dress from my mother for the Formal. The thought of spending money that could go on any one of (a) music (b) cricket kit or (c) firearms on a frigging frock was utterly beyond me. To this day I’ve never opened Dolly, not even in a dentist’s waiting room. I did sometimes pinch my biker brother’s copies of Soldier of Fortune, however. 

One teacher was kind of in my corner. I think she was a feminist, but saying that now involves a major exercise in looking through the retrospectoscope. She didn’t ‘get’ me, but then no-one did, so we were square. I had a pretty good telescope and I remember taking it to her house out in the sticks so she could get a decent look at Halley’s Comet. My brother dropped me off, the telescope disassembled in the panniers of his Harley. She invited him in for a cuppa and he made lame excuses to avoid crossing the threshold. He sat outside beside his bike for the whole visit, propped up with his head resting on the tank. I remember the night was cold. Only when I left did she see him, his biker patch glittering as he helped me wrap the bits of telescope in soft cloth. She looked at me, and I knew at that moment what writers meant when they used the word ‘quizzical’. 

Not long after I’d inwardly promised to provide matches and petrol to any would be high school arsonist, I learnt she’d got the sack. Well, that says it all, really, I remember thinking. They sack the best teacher in the place. Years later — well, a few years later — she turned up at one of my book signings. I think I freaked out the rep from my publisher, because I still called her ‘Miss So-and-so’. Funny how we relate to teachers as though we’re still in netball skirts and ankle socks (complete with pom-poms — this was the 80s, afterall). 

‘Sorry you got the sack, that was pretty pissy’.

‘It’s a Christian school. That’s their rules’.

My lack of girly-vision meant that I seldom made relationship connections, and tended to view girls and their obsessing over boys with ill-concealed contempt. My parents didn’t have a relationship to speak of. My brother was always ‘chasing tail’ (I thought that was pretty poor, too). I later wrote a novel almost entirely focussed on men and war, something I grasped (and still do) intuitively. 

But even at fifteen, after the Halley’s Comet visit, I knew she was on borrowed time. The offer of tea came from another woman clearly living in the same house. I went to the loo at one point and saw photographs of the two of them on the bedside table. A boiler-plate couple picture, but two women. Her girlfriend was more interested in Halley’s Comet than she was — turned out she taught science in a different school, a state school, pretty rough, one without the well-behaved rich kids and bright scholarship kids at my school. She turned on the verandah light and came out to see if my brother needed any help packing things away. Her girlfriend stood behind her, drinking tea. There was a bill attacking the SEQEB scabs stuck to the streetlight, curling slowly at the corners. My brother stood up.

‘You two ladies want to look out for yourselves’.

‘So had you’, the girlfriend said.

‘Oh, he hates us all right, but I think he hates you lot more’.

Joh Bjelke-Petersen was still premier. What would become the Fitzgerald Inquiry was still rumour and whispered innuendo. I rode home pillion in the chill, worrying about my telescope in pieces. School got worse. My results were probably saved by my indifference to other people. ‘It’s like you went through school with your ears nailed shut,’ Miss So-and-so said after the book signing. 

Yes, it really was that bad. 

I didn’t go to the 20-Year-Reunion. Apart from my being in England, it managed to fall on the same day as my Oxford graduation, which is weirdly serendipitous in ways I can’t quite explain. Maybe if I go back – 30 years, perhaps – the spell will break. I suspect the nostalgic warmth will evaporate, and I’ll see the room for the cage it really was.

21 Comments

  1. DeusExMacintosh
    Posted November 29, 2008 at 6:55 pm | Permalink

    Since disability has been making a return to education nigh on impossible, I’ve noticed recently becoming nostalgic about the opportunity I missed at high school – but the actual experience was so traumatic I doubt I’ll ever feel nostaglic about it.

    The Roof, The Roof, The Roof is on fire
    We dont need no water
    let the mother f*cker burn,
    Burn mother f*cker, burn

    – Bloodhound Gang, The Roof is On FIre

  2. Posted November 30, 2008 at 10:29 am | Permalink

    You got sent home for wearing a Guns n Roses t-shirt!!! Jeez that was one strict school! I got hassled for wearing a Velvet Underground t-shirt but that was because I wasn’t wearing a uniform. I didn’t much. I shot it with a friend’s dad’s 303 🙂

    Comes in handy when the Mormons come a visiting.

    I knew a girl who was in Dolly. Pretty. Tried to put a cigarette out on my leg first night . You guys should be more like her. :).

  3. Posted November 30, 2008 at 10:50 am | Permalink

    the various movies which portray high school as a miserable time

    The people I really pity are those for whom high school was the best time. I pitied then even when I was in high school.

    Well no, not pity. And, I didn’t actually go that often.

  4. Posted November 30, 2008 at 11:05 am | Permalink

    The people I really pity are those for whom high school was the best time. I pitied then even when I was in high school.

    There’s a group of young people for whom school really is their finest hour, and not always in a negative way. I knew a few like that at school; their lights blazed brightly and then went out. From time to time I’ve run into them – sometimes in dead-end jobs, other times respectably middle class but utterly anodyne.

    And then there are those who can only ‘win’ at school. They’re genuinely sad.

  5. Posted November 30, 2008 at 11:22 am | Permalink

    And still goin’ to the Booval Taverna on a Fri night with the same old group. It’s very sad. There are heaps of cliques in Melbourne containing people who’ve hung out together perpetually since Lincoln got shot. You spend time with them and it’s like watching a re-run.

    I’d shoot myself.

  6. Posted November 30, 2008 at 11:23 am | Permalink

    My 20 year reunion came and went. I’d rather stick needles in my eyes. 🙂

  7. Posted November 30, 2008 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

    There’s a group of young people for whom school really is their finest hour, and not always in a negative way. I knew a few like that at school; their lights blazed brightly and then went out. From time to time I’ve run into them – sometimes in dead-end jobs, other times respectably middle class but utterly anodyne.

    A South Park episode addresses this. The theme is because they enjoyed high school so much they never learned to develop their skills sufficiently, hence became boring little tits in later life.

  8. Posted November 30, 2008 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

    The theme is because they enjoyed high school so much they never learned to develop their skills sufficiently, hence became boring little tits in later life.

    Yeah, had a lover at Uni. She was beautiful in a, well, Dolly magazine sorta way 🙂 but she was pretty vacant too. Psychiatrist mother, she never had to put up a fight, never wanted for attention. Smart, did law. When she was going for interviews to get a clerkship there was a massive glut of graduates. So her marks guaranteed nothing.

    Then asked her: We’ve got 500 people applying for this position, what’s so interesting about you that would make us want to take you on?

    Silence.

  9. Sinclair Davidson
    Posted November 30, 2008 at 5:36 pm | Permalink

    The highlight of my high school career was getting my Frankie Goes to Hollywood maxi confiscated and being told by the Brothers that the angels of heaven would tie a millstone around my neck and drop me into the deepest part of the ocean. 🙂

    I loathed the place, promised never to return, and never have.

  10. Posted November 30, 2008 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

    Well of course. Frankie was all about peace, love and teh gay agenda. How un-Christian of you.

  11. Posted December 1, 2008 at 12:34 am | Permalink

    Ironically, the Gunners t-shirt send-off was only one such incident, and actually more explicable. Another time I was sent home for turning up to sports day for wearing the wrong style of green t-shirt. Yes, you read right. We were supposed to buy ‘approved’ t-shirts from the school uniform shop. The shirts cost $12, which even in the eighties was a fair bit, and my parents baulked at that. So I just wore a generic green t-shirt, and was told to buy an appropriate shirt. I must admit this incident did lead to me saying to the (German background) teacher ‘what’s the problem, M_____, too short for the master race?’ I then went home voluntarily.

    I still like that line.

    My .22 didn’t do enough damage to justify wasting ammo on my school uniform. I burnt one (and discovered the material was suitably toxic) and borrowed one of my brother’s necked-down three-ohs to destroy the other one.

    That Frankie story takes the biscuit, Sinclair, although – in my teaching days – I did have a student tell me that God had reserved me a special burning seat in Hell for teaching ‘the satanic Darwinist theory of evolution’.

  12. Posted December 1, 2008 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

    Sinclair how could you be so insensitive. That song is painful, painful for the brothers to hear. It taunt them.
    .
    When you wanna come? Never!!! 🙂

  13. Posted December 1, 2008 at 5:48 pm | Permalink

    I did have a student tell me that God had reserved me a special burning seat in Hell for teaching ‘the satanic Darwinist theory of evolution’.

    See you there. Will we spend eternity burning school uniforms? Too short for the master race? Chuckle.

  14. Posted December 1, 2008 at 9:17 pm | Permalink

    Thank you, SL. That was lovely.

  15. Sinclair Davidson
    Posted December 2, 2008 at 4:51 am | Permalink

    LoL. I don’t know that the Brothers listened to it, as opposed to ‘observed’ the cover. 🙂

  16. pedro
    Posted December 2, 2008 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    If they were Brothers then perhaps Frankie made them feel more guilty than anything. I’m sure more than one pupil of the brothers has been told to relax, shortly before certain vows were broken with abominable acts.

  17. Posted December 2, 2008 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

    “Relax” by Br O’Flannery Flannery –

    Tense up
    Don’t do it
    When you want to get the strap out
    Tense up
    Don’t do it
    When you want to go to confession and tell Father Peters why you’re such a dirty despicable evil little….
    Tense up
    Don’t do it…
    When you wanna take a cold shower

    Etc

  18. Posted December 2, 2008 at 10:36 pm | Permalink

    Adrien, that’s deeply disturbing.

  19. Posted December 3, 2008 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

    No that’s a Christian Bros education. Producing happy campers since 1808. 🙂

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