…a drunk boung in the park, like all the others,” he roared. “I don’t know why I bother.”
He stormed over to the door and wrenched it open, screaming as he did so – spittle flying from his mouth:
We did as we were told. We got out!
I was 12 going on 13.
So were the other nine Aboriginal kids with me that day.
We hadn’t even completed a month of high school and – looking back on it now – we were receiving our first real social studies lesson in life. I found out some year’s later that this man had been going through an extremely difficult time that year. But that didn’t explain the nature of the rage he displayed that day. It also didn’t explain how in my third year of high school, upon once again having this teacher for year 10 social studies, he made us feel exactly the same way: dirty, unworthy and black.
That’s the simplest way I can possibly put it. That man had made us feel black that day and as a result of that encounter with that man, my known world flipped quietly over.
* * * * *
I have never thought of myself as being belligerent in my behaviour. A friend of mine jokes about this often and I – still, today – struggle to understand why he might say this kind of thing in jest, when he needs to rib me.
Perhaps he knows me better than I know myself.
He certainly knew of me then, back in our high school days, where we became the closest of friends and hooked into each other. Perhaps he saw me change in that first year of high school and witnessed my wearing of that change until I dropped out of that school in year ten. He was in another classroom for social studies, so he never witnessed that day’s display, but I knew – deep down inside of me – at my very core, a part of me broke clean in two that day.
You see – when that teacher had screamed those words out loud in that classroom on that day – he’d been screaming them at me.
That morning, I’d asked a question that didn’t get an answer and I didn’t get the hint. I asked it again and my doing so set that teacher off like a bomb. His outburst couldn’t have done more damage if he tried and for the first time in my life, I began to hate someone.
* * * * *
Many years later, after joining the Australian Defence Force, I returned home for my first major leave. I believed I was a grown man in my own right, with my high school experiences far behind me. My ultra-short haircut gave people a hint as to where I might have been hiding over the course of that year and if that didn’t give it away, this was quickly reinforced by my new military mannerisms. Recruit School and my first Defence Force posting had drastically changed me: I spoke differently, carried myself differently and the place I’d been brought up in, now seemed so much smaller than the place I’d been ‘growing up’ in since I’d been away.
I’d thought my home town had been left far behind; the life I’d lived, the lessons I’d learned, the friends I’d developed – bumped aside by a lifestyle so intense and intrusive – there was no room for sentimentality and the yearning for the comforts of home. Over the years in uniform, I developed the ability to not connect to Birthday’s and Christmas’s – holidays happened when operational requirements permitted them and personal celebrations existed only in the operational bubbles I occupied at the time. A personal life wasn’t something you needed in such an environment – you lived entirely for the one issued to you and it had no room for those things that connected you back to your home.
But deep down inside of me, anger still bubbled. I’d squished it down deep and had no idea it was festering away all on its own. It had added fuel to my determination when I hadn’t realised it. It had pushed me past other people’s boundaries and made me seek that spot out in a line where it made other people uncomfortable to have me there. It tipped me over the edge when I needed to succeed and top the tests I took to get my tradesman’s ticket as an electrician. All of those things I’d achieved between the time I’d had that experience at school and I’d returned home as a man – I’d been dipping into this hidden pot.
So, home on leave – relaxing – or so I thought, when one morning I simply got up, showered, shaved, dressed sharp, ate, got in my car and drove off – only to find myself parked up – outside the front of my old high school.
Out I get, following my feet, footsteps slapping out a drumbeat of determination I had no idea I was feeling at the time. They took me to the door of my old social studies classroom and lo and behold if it wasn’t that same teacher, still teaching this subject – looking somewhat older – but very much the same.
I knocked on that door and waited.
He answered it.
I smiled a very big smile which took him by surprise.
HE smiled back and I extended a hand to introduce myself – using this motion to push him into his classroom – smiling all the time.
If he felt threated then – it didn’t show. He was still smiling as I pumped his hand and looked around the classroom, where very little had changed.
“Hello Mr …..’” I said. “Do you remember me?”
I still had his hand in mine – I wouldn’t let it go – he was looking puzzled by this time – but he shook his head and told me “No”, as he tried to place me.
I looked him squarely in the eye then, smiled a much bigger smile and gripping him tighter said:
“I’m that boung that was going to die drunk in the park, just like the rest of them. I’ve been to 13 different countries this year. Where have you been?”
He paled as the blood dropped from his face right before me. He wobbled and for a moment I was convinced he was going to feint. I still had hold of his hand when I realised then, where I was and what I was doing – putting the fear of God into this man. I let him go, watching the moment dawn on him some more and – without saying another thing – spun on my heel and marched out of the classroom.
I don’t remember very much of the drive home after that. I don’t remember getting out of the car or letting myself into the house. I don’t remember if anyone was home, I don’t recall if the phone rang, or whether my dog was barking as it probably missed out on getting my attention that morning.
The first thing I remember was sitting in my room afterwards – my face in my hands – my feet planted firmly on the wooden floor. I felt ill and ashamed by what I had done and I was scared too! I’d forced myself upon a man and scared him to the point that he felt in fear for what he expected to happen next. What do you do about that?
However, competing for space amongst my feelings was also a sense of elation! Somehow, somewhere my actions – rightly or wrongly – had released some of that pressure I’d been building inside myself. I’d railed against the man who set the seed for my hatred as a child and I didn’t even realise it was going to happen! How do you process such things without an understanding of how these things exist inside a person? How do you balance such ugliness and purging? At that time then – I didn’t have a clue.
I’m not completely convinced that I know now, either.
I waited all morning for the police to come and get me. Somewhere after lunch I came out of my cave – still feeling foul but resolute that if the police came, I’d own my behaviour and accept my punishment. I spent the remainder of my leave fully expecting a knock on the door, a hand on my shoulder or a firm word in my ear. It of course, never came! My disgust in myself was fading and by the time I returned to my ship, it too joined the ugly little ball of anger, deep down in the bottom of my gut!
Did I feel the need to apologise for what I had done?
No… I did not.
I feel now that perhaps I could apologise for my actions that day, but I don’t want to. My ‘education’ around racial nastiness grew at a phenomenal rate that year. Our sitting out of the classroom each social studies lesson drew the attention of staff, students and parents. People asked questions. Assumptions were made. We all had one thing in common and it was a small country town where these kinds of behaviours weren’t all that far from the surface.
Primary school wasn’t like that. I’d had completely different experiences in my primary school days, but amongst the kids – for the main part – younger kids didn’t understand or use such things to hurt you in the ways that grown-ups did. Teenagers take these things on though and it’s the bullies that try to make more of this than kids did when we were at primary school. In those few years of high school I learned more about confronting bullies and standing up for myself, than I ever did at primary school.
I had too. We couldn’t confront those adults about us. We couldn’t ask our parents to help us. We couldn’t expect the school system to defend us – so we did what was expected of us. Some of us ran off. Some of us fought with others at the drop of a hat. Some of us became bullies and went looking for white school victims. I just got angry and – one day – I bubbled over, ambushing a bully one early morning as he rode to school and I could get him alone – away from all of his bully mates!
I learned that day that I too could be a bully. I made that boy cry and nearly wet his pants. I didn’t feel good about that either, but I was damn tired of it happening to me. Such was my experiences amongst this stuff that I really didn’t like taking it out on others and I learned to sit on it and make it disappear. I swallowed my anger and tamped it down, without even realising that this was what I was doing.
This then became the way in which I managed those things that challenged me.
I think of this time in my life, every now and again. I reflect on what might have happened if things had been different. What if one of the Deputies stuck up for us and made that teacher responsible for his actions? What if the Headmaster cared about his students? What if that damn, fool man – hadn’t of opened his mouth and screamed at us, those fateful words?
So many ‘what ifs’ and, for what? Sod all bloody clarity – that’s for sure!
Let me share this then: of that group of Aboriginal kids on that bench seat that day, nearly half of them left that school and simply never returned for their subsequent years. Of this group so many I know have succumbed to serious illness and had their lives ravaged by alcohol, cigarettes and drugs. Many went to jail. Some have been several times. Most, really haven’t had much to aspire too and, I’d be willing to bet nearly ALL of them, like me got bloody angry that day.
If enough of this type of anger builds up inside of you, it undoes any better choices you might have in your life. If you don’t have access to many of these kinds of choices in the first place, it reinforces much of the way you might undo your own worth and slowly start to destroy you. If you have nothing – you own that anger – you make it the fire in your belly and you make others pay for it.
People die young on such anger. People commit crimes. People hurt other people. People poison themselves in all manners of ways and, for the most part – like me – they don’t even realise it’s happening. Of those kids that were with me in that class that day, only a few of us are still about – taking part in a life – not expected of us then.
I’ve just turned 46.
You make of that what you will.
So should I feel bad about what I did that day?
Yes – definitely!
Am I angry still?
No – and – yes!
Am I a twisted up, worn out, knot of human contradictions?
Belongum – Out!