||[Mar. 13th, 2010|01:19 pm]
Twenty nine years ago (1981) I went through the worst year of my life so far. That's saying a lot given the horrors of 1982 (hit by a car, two broken legs, eight weeks in hospital, a year before I could run again) and 1985 (Dad died suddenly of a heart attack, my sexuality refused to go away even though attitudes to homosexuality were almost uniformly hostile in my family).
1981 was so full of bad stuff I had wrapped it up in a package and walled it off, encased in lead then concrete and buried a mile underground for good measure. This is not an unusual response for a child who has spent an entire year pushed to the limits of his emotional endurance.
I was aware of the coming storm early last year. I got fearful, depressed and anxious underneath while appearing fairly normal at the surface. Trouble was, I couldn't identify what I was so scared of except for some kind of breakdown that would be uncontrollable and devastating. But this was merely fear of the consequences of exposing the hidden bogeyman.
I sought psychological help to overcome the fright, or at least confront it and see if I could deal with it. So first we saw that I was mildly depressed, but it soon became obvious that there was an underlying anxiety. So where was it? It was expressed in feelings of dissatisfaction with work, social life, even leisure. Of nothing ever being good enough, of being exposed as a fraud in every endeavour and drummed out of town.
So we began to unravel some of the theories I had for this. I mainly focussed on the sudden traumatic losses I had suffered in those formative years - Buni, Papa, Dad, my accident, Mum's remarriage and adjusting to new authority figures. These events I needed to talk about, but they weren't crucial to the actual treatment of my anxiety. But I kept wondering, and finally, when walking across Pyrmont Bridge towards work it started to leak through. Snippets of that horrific year in 6th grade at St Aloysius that turned everything upside down.
So let me set the scene. I was a child with an older sister and divorced parents. Mum had remarried, but after a custody settlement we saw Dad every second weekend, and he regularly took us over to see his parents Buni and Papa in Double Bay. As I moved from the Eastern Suburbs to the lower North Shore, it was obvious I should change schools and I was admitted to St Aloysius College junior school after a bit of string pulling. I didn't have the conventional Catholic family and upbringing, but Mum was feeling a bit guilty about that and wanted at least pay lip service to her religion.
In this new environment with a new step father Len, a new set of rules at home and at school, a new set of friends to find, I had lots of ups and downs as you'd expect. Visiting Buni and Papa was my favourite thing in the world. It was the only thing that hadn't changed. Buni was always uncritically loving (probably to a fault, but was I going to complain?) So it was upsetting when Papa died of a heart attack in 1978, running for a bus (an inadvisable thing since he'd already survived three heart attacks). But still, every second weekend I got to see Buni and be spoilt. At school, I surprised myself by doing well and staying at or near the top of the class for the first three years. I had a succession of kind hearted female teachers, I had music lessons in and out of school, I had new step brothers and a step sister to play with on the other weekends (custodial visits every second weekend were interleaved - Len's kids came over the weekends that Sarah and I didn't go with Dad).
So late in 1980, dismay. Sarah and I hadn't seen Buni for a while, and now Dad told us she had lost two stone (28 lb) in six weeks, had been vomiting every day and was undergoing tests. The news was very bad. She had cancer in the tail of the pancreas, invariably fatal. From now on we were only going to see her in hospital. Her round happy face grew gaunt, she was frequently in pain but always tried to make us feel comfortable. I was not comfortable. I was miserable and afraid to go close. The progression was fast and painful. By March 1981 she died and my main refuge was gone.
I needed a refuge badly. In 6th grade we switched over to male teachers, a regime of compulsory sports and more emphasis on turning us into the (rather sick) ideal of Catholic manhood as dictated by Jesuits. The school year had started reasonably well, but nobody at all understood what I had just been through, at home or at school. And at school, nobody cared. The loss of a Jewish grandmother would be an embarrassment to mourn.
Buni had been a part of my life in which Mum wasn't included. Dad knew but had an even harder time at the end, not wanting to expose Sarah and I to the worst of it, internalising grief and being understandably unavailable for some time.
So what started to happen at school? Probably the worst possible response from a teacher to a child who is suffering, overwhelmed and acting out mildly. Mr Farmer had a way of making himself popular with kids. So many thought he was a "good bloke". They never got on his shit list. I got on Mr Farmer's shit list some time early in the first term. I don't even know what the breach was. The worst thing about it - there was nothing he would accept from me that could redeem me. Later that term he divided the class into and advanced group and a "backward" group and guess which one I ended up in? Not on the basis of intelligence but as a punishment. And this man was obsessed with punishment.
Here's where the story gets some help. Mum recently gave me a file on my whole school career. School reports, letters, a psychological evaluation obtained at the behest of the school and finally Mum's searing letter to them when she finally removed me from their clutches. My God, that psychological report made difficult reading. There were so many events that I had forgotten. Mr Farmer would stand students up for misbehaving and berate them. The report says I timed them at ten to twenty minutes per offence. That's ten to twenty minutes of berating and humiliation in front of the class. That's not a good use of lesson time.
He would assign homework when some students (including me) were having music lessons (as part of the school violin group) and then make sure it was erased from the chalk board by the time we returned (after 4 pm). We were punished endlessly for not completing homework. Penals (the St Aloysius version of detention) nearly every Friday. I started copping it and pretty soon grew resigned. I withdrew my cooperation entirely. From this point, I did only as much homework as I deemed reasonable. I hated him and he hated me back. There was nowhere to turn. I had such poor marks I started to believe I was stupid. I started to believe I was unpopular. I didn't fit in with the other boys anyway - no large Catholic family with married parents. No interest in sports - and that was yet another problem. For failing to participate in sports on Saturdays, I was punished with yet more penals, the strap and finally a two week period in which I was not allowed to play during recess and lunch. I was made to sit alone on a bench while everyone else was running around.
There was no pleasure in school. There was conflict at home too. There was nobody who understood until the psychologist's report came and finally we could see that instead of helping me through the hardest time of my life, the school had just tried to break me and force submission. I sat the exam to get into North Sydney Boys' High and that was the end of the St Aloysius story. Mum wrote to the head master of St Aloysius and laid out the case against Mr Farmer and the school. It was drafted three times, each draft with its own examples of the sick behaviour of this teacher. Some of them were extremely angry. The final letter was measured, calm and devastating.
"Dear Mrs. Hattersley,
"I refer to your letter of January 11th. Thank you for informing us of Nicholas' transfer to North Sydney Boys' High School. He seems to be very talented academically and I hope he does well in his new school. In your letter you make serious charges against a member of staff. In fairness to him I cannot pre-judge the issue, but it will be investigated. Thank you for sharing your views with us."
We heard no more. I wrapped it up. I buried it all. I took years to believe in myself again.