In kindergarten & year 1 I would always thrust my hand up prematurely and spurt out a wrong answer. It got to the point where the teacher made a specific point of sitting down & talking to me about ‘letting other people have a go’. In response to this perceived failure I started hanging with the wrong crowd – it consisted of one boy, the oldest boy in the class. We would stalk the boundaries of the playground in order to do things like throw handfuls of sand at trucks; or, use concrete as an abrasive to sharpen paddle-pop sticks into knives; or we might go & shout things at the kids on the senior side of the school, urging them to chase us. I think it ended when we were caught throwing wet paper all over the roof of the boy’s toilet, & when my family moved away from Melbourne.

It seems I was always an immature child. I was enrolled in school at the young end of the spectrum because I was intelligent enough but nowadays people think differently about this sort of action. I was always uncertain of how to interact with other kids, over-thinking the simplest of friendship gestures. It’s almost certainly the reason my parents vetoed a move to have me advanced a grade in year 3. I didn’t understand why. I believed it was a deserved chance to show everyone how good at things I was.

But really. At this stage, at Forest Hill School, once a week afternoon sport consisted of football. Rugby League. There was only one class at in each year level, & accordingly all the boys in my class formed the Forest Hill Rugby Team. This was the weekly sport on offer during winter. If you were a girl, you engaged in various indoor craft like activities. Girls don’t do sport in winter. It gets muddy. I was left in the middle because I wouldn’t play league. It’s a decision I stuck with. I would wander the grounds of the school like some vampire, peering around corners, constantly afraid some teacher would lambast me for ‘non-joining’. One afternoon I was made to go & join the boys. I remember it actually being not that bad. I just joined in passing the ball around a bit. More poignant is the memory of one of my classmates saying to the teacher afterwards ‘Derek came and helped out at footy today’. Obviously I was a cause for group concern.

Narratives were valued at times though; I think perhaps this was at the end of my primary time, year 6, when girls & boys started ‘going out’, & writing ‘X 4 Y’ on pencil cases etc. We would have story-writing time. You could go it alone, or you could compose something with a friend. I believe my sense of story was valued here, because I did at times have to choose which friend I would write with from a group of eager partners. One morning two of us wrote a satirical sexual romp featuring two unpopular kids in the class. This is what I had – I would write the things legibly that the other kids could only shout at each other over lunch. We had a boy wake in bed with a girl, leap out of bed, realise he was naked, get back in the bed… & so forth. We had class excursions where our teacher would be busted with pornographic magazines. You get the picture. I assume not too many of these stories were ever shared.

My scripture workbook from this period (once a week Christianity was impressed upon us) shows that I’d expressed my awkwardness in this forum too. Alongside garish cartoons of Jesus I’d written ‘Yeah, but how many people did Jesus save, & what were their names?’ The scripture teacher had used this, as well as my many disciples festooned with fake moustaches & glasses & cigars, as evidence to claim I was not taking her class seriously. Who knows if that was true or not.

One day the whole class waited across the zebra-crossing to beat up a particularly un-liked kid. Everyone waited so I waited. I didn’t like the kid. He offended pretty much every one. But I wouldn’t have done any beating. It just seemed like a thing to do to wait there for him – it positioned you as not him. There were no teachers. There was just the lollypop lady. He wouldn’t cross the highway. He waited, for what seemed like hours, looking at us & quietly talking to the lollypop lady. There were no mobile phones in these days. He looked scared. Eventually we dispersed & I have no memory of if there was any fallout.

It was somewhere near this time that someone threw a rock at me across the dirt track as I rode my bmx home. I realised later it had made an indent in my stackhat, possibly an inch deep, no doubt enough to have killed me had I not been wearing it. What could I have possibly done to deserve this? Me, potential arbiter of all things, gentle over-thinker & teller of biting un-truths?

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