Here! Have at it! (With apologies to the year six cohort of 2000).
What I Wanted
My year six teacher waged a war on uninspiring words. One afternoon, he set his sights on got, popped it in the centre of the whiteboard and compelled us to conjure alternatives.
Each synonym was transcribed and connected to got by a stroke of his marker, until the whiteboard was overwhelmed by a spider with too many legs, and we realised that we used got instead of too many words. Whether we were paying for somebody’s lunch, chatting to a supportive friend, or cornering a superhero, we said, “I’ve got you.”
We needed to expand our vocabularies.
The problem with whiteboards is their biggest perk: they wipe clean. My year six teacher wanted to erect a monument to better words, so he enlisted his most presentation-proud student to commit the synonym list to cardboard. Me. I
got started to work on the floor in the far corner of the room, carefully copying the list of synonyms onto the sheet with marker. It was all going pretty well until the final word. It’s always the final word. I misjudged the space I had to work with, left too big a gap between the early letters, so the final few were smooshed and had to curl up the edge of the sheet. I was mortified. I showed my teacher, expecting him to find the work subpar and demand I redo it. I even pointed out the error. He dismissed it and pinned the poster to the back wall.
My teacher produced more uninspiring words, the class produced more alternatives, and I produced more monuments. I went out of my way to keep the spacing of each letter in check as my designs became more intricate. I wanted that first attempt to look worse by comparison so that when I floated the idea of redoing it, my year six teacher would see reason. We couldn’t leave that inferior list up there, with its simple layout and curled final word.
Apparently we could.
Even when I suggested I do it at home, with my own sheet of cardboard, my teacher wasn’t having a bar of it. So like any reasonable tween, I plotted a false flag operation. When I next had the room to myself, I would deface my own work. I couldn’t half-arse it. It had to be so appalling that my teacher would have no choice but to take it down. And I would have to redo it.
The next recess, I struck. I forgot my hat so that when the teacher on duty chastised me, I would be sent inside to retrieve it. At this point, you’re thinking this is some Ocean’s shit, but it gets worse quickly. I returned to the classroom, seized a pen from somebody else’s case, and climbed onto the table by the wall. I probably took one disdainful last look at that curled abomination of a word in the bottom corner, raised the pen, realised I should probably write with my left hand to throw everybody off the scent, changed hands and wrote three true words:
William is gay.
In the interests of veracity, it may have been You are gay. I don’t remember. But gay was definitely there.
Kids had called me gay before. It bothered me. I understood I was different, not because of the reasons they called me gay – my campiness, my allergy to sport – but because I was probably gay. I knew it and I was afraid of it. In 2000, it was just about the worst thing you could be called, and I knew it would be potent enough to prompt the destruction and replacement of the poster.
I sighed, satisfied.
Nobody needed a synonym for quite some time, so I’d almost forgotten about it when a classmate timidly rose his hand and pointed the graffiti out. There was a flurry of action. My teacher removed the poster immediately. He hid it, rattled of a couple of awkward but stern words, and then continued the class. He asked to see me at recess, no doubt to have me redo the poster. I would act put out, then get to work.
In reality, he insisted they would get to the bottom of who defaced my work and assured me that student would be punished. I started saying it didn’t matter, but then silenced myself. Sure, I was the culprit, but I’d written what kids would call me when teachers weren’t in earshot, so if somebody else
got into trouble was held accountable …
Nothing came of it at first. I was encouraged to redo the poster. Honestly, I didn’t even act put out. The revision was a masterpiece. I’d become something of an expert at synonym posters, and I used a yellow cardboard sheet for this one, as opposed to the original’s sky blue, so it really popped. It was pinned in the other’s place. Other students stopped talking about the incident. My false flag operation was a success, until, walking from the music room back to my ordinary classroom, I spied my year six teacher sixty metres down the corridor. He was leaving the deputy headmaster’s office with a rolled-up sheet of blue cardboard and an exercise book. And not just any exercise book. One of mine.
He might have been sixty metres away, but as presentation-proud as I am, Mum is more so. When Anna (then Ane because she fell headfirst into Numerology after the divorce) covered exercise books, she did it well. Everything from her choice of the contact to her prevention and eradication of bubbles was world class. I could spot an Anna contactjob from a mile away. And I was only sixty metres away.
I put two and two together. My year six teacher and the deputy were comparing my handwriting to the culprit’s. Why they needed my book as a reference when my normal handwriting was on the poster was beyond me, but what wasn’t was, they suspected me.
It wasn’t long before I was called to see the deputy. She played it cool, sympathetic. She reiterated how horrible what that person said about me was, said they’d find out who did it. I remember her pausing for the expected confession. I gave her nothing. To coax one out of me, she applied some pressure. The entire form – three year six classes – would spend their lunch in the assembly hall until somebody confessed. I didn’t flinch. Sixty-odd year six kids spent lunch sitting a metre apart, staring at a patch of assembly hall wall. The next time I was summoned to her office, she changed tack. Warmly, but sternly, she explained that there was nothing wrong with being gay and suggested I seek counselling. Sensing circling wagons, I told Mum about it in the car. I spun the story, one correctly placed emphasis and Mum was incensed the deputy had dared urge I seek counselling. It was a temporary reprieve. I wasn’t going to weasel out of this. The deputy had me in her sights. I couldn’t imagine a way out of this that didn’t completely change my life. If I admitted to the self-sabotage, there went my pristine reputation. If I admitted to robbing the entire form of their lunchtime, I’d be hated. And if I admitted to calling myself gay, did that make me irrefutably and irreversibly gay?
But while I couldn’t imagine a way out of this, the universe could. Before the deputy coaxed a confession out of me, she and the headmaster were abruptly stood down. There were murmurs about “changes made to the curriculum” that older students widely interpreted as “they were bonking”. The interim headmaster had year six spend another grim lunchtime staring at the assembly hall wall before he gave up on finding the culprit. He had more pressing concerns.
I exhaled for the first time in forever. Life continued as if the incident never happened. I didn’t have to stare at that monstrous original poster. I didn’t have to unpack what writing William is gay (or You are gay) really meant. Had there been no “changes made to the curriculum”, I might have come to terms with myself far earlier, as soon as I knew. How different my life would have been if tween William knew he was gay, and was okay with it … All that torturous hiding, wishing I was different … simply wiped from my history.
got achieved everything I wanted.
And with two decades’ distance, I wish I hadn’t.
The memoir project was written with generous support from Create NSW, City of Sydney and City of Melbourne. If you enjoyed this, remember books make wonderful gifts for Christmas, doubly so when we buy them from local booksellers and keep them thriving into the new year.