I am three years old and at my sister’s pre-school. I am quietly reading books to myself. I am discovered to be “gifted”. The next year I cannot go to kindergarten because I started screaming when the threat of parental separation looms.
I am five years old. I am at preschool. I have special lessons with my teacher, alone, where I do advanced work. We write a story together about a bird. The attention feels good. In the playground, nobody pays attention to me. I eat orange skin and everyone reacts. My nickname for a brief period is “garbage”. Maybe just a day. I like having a nickname.
A teacher from the primary school tells my mother I will be put in a gifted program. Years later I remember my mother ruefully saying that it never happened. I get the sense she hoped they would do whatever she couldn’t think to do.
I am six years old. I tell my mother I want to be a zookeeper. Later, she brings me out in front of her friends to repeat it. She says I am wrong. I want to be a zoologist. Zookeepers just sweep up monkey poop. I don’t think I am wrong.
I am in seven years old. I am sent to the headmaster over and over again. Only decades later, as an adult, do I discover why: I am throwing a tantrum every morning, terrified of going to school. The headmaster is trying to figure out why. I do my best to describe the stress of unrelenting standards I have developed in my head, but I am six, I don’t know what that is. I feel like I am being punished.
Nobody knows what to do with me – about me. I am sent back to my regular class. The regular teacher tells me, at six years old, that “a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do”.
I am nine years old. The class is divided into people who can work without supervision and people who work the old way. Without structure, I don’t know how to work. I deliberately play up to get busted down to regular work again. It feels right. The same year I am supposed to do a project. about olympic athletes. My mother teaches me how to cut corners and pad my word count.
I am ten years old. I am so strange my parents send me to drama school. I hate it. I throw a tantrum every time it is time to go. Eventually they send my sister with me to make me go. I win the lead in every single play, without trying. I still hate it. I don’t remember the applause, I remember the girl who beat me up back stage.
I am eleven years old. I am forced to enter a fiction contest. I envision a grand story about a boy meeting a grizzly bear who treats the boy like a wounded cub and saves his life. I imagine a long, complicated story, a story that gets away from me, that lives too much in my head and becomes hard to get down by the deadline. I go to my other in tears. She berates me. I tell her my story idea. She says it is stupid and cliche and childish. She tells me to go away and write something better. I write a story about a boy and his dog. It fits the bill.
We are choosing sports. I choose life saving because my friends like it and we get to go to the pool and I love the idea of helping people. My mother berates me. She tells me I should take tennis, because tennis is what people play with each other in society. Tennis helps you Get Ahead.
I am doing scholarship exams to get into important rich schools. To prepare I am doing previous exams. One of them stresses me out so much I get a headache and start crying. My mother berates me. She says I’m being stupid and childish. She tells me to go away and grow up.
I am offered class captain. I turn it down. I am offered school captain. I turn it down.
I am twelve years old. I am at the important rich school. I have a diary where you can write a secret. I write “I HATE SCHOOL”. I tape it shut. It is the worst thing I have ever written. It is the biggest sin I have ever committed.
The school has a magazine. I don’t work on it. My parents make that face. I have embarrassed them in front of nobody – just in front of themselves.
The school magazine comes out. As I have seen in films, I ask my class to sign it. They write rude insults all over it and draw penises. My parents berate me. I am forced to buy another one. They want one they can show their friends. The two are kept on the shelf in my bedroom. The one to show to their friends. The one that is real.
The worst thing I can ever do is embarrass my mother. That makes her go cold and dark and stare at me like she hates the very idea of me.
She stares at me like that all. the. time.
I do the science and maths prize competitions. I get high distinctions. One year I only get a distinction. I tear it up. The same year I get a C in geography. I tear up the marksheet.
I don’t do the maths olympiad or the physics olympiad. Parents and teachers wonder why. I drop out of computer club. I stop doing the prize competitions.
I am told to do theatre, after all I am “artistic”, probably. I compromise and go for backstage. I end up doing nothing but putting costumes in a box after the performance. I am invisible. I never go back.
I am told to do choir. I am artistic. I go to one performance. There are hundreds of people standing around. I slip away.
I join the chess club. I am generally terrible. I am in the E level team. The pressure makes me sick. I stop playing and start organizing the tournaments. I can get a “colour” for that, a thing that goes on your blazer to show off all the School Achievements you have. I have two things on my blazer. Most people have over ten. But organizing is easy. You stand to the side and you can’t win or lose.
I don’t go to the writer in residence. I don’t go to the poet in residence. I don’t enter my fiction into the school fiction collection. Teachers cluck their tongues. There’s this particular sound I know so well that people make when they believe you are wasting potential. My parents make that noise all the time.
There is a trip to the university to learn about careers in science. I decline to go. My very kind teacher says there is extra space, I’m not taking anyone’s opportunity away, and it will be okay just to go and miss out on class.
I bring home a pamphlet covered in shiny fake people. I tear it to pieces.
I am choosing my courses for university. My mother picks the ones I will be doing. I snap and scream that maybe I just want to drive a van. Then I choose the courses.
My mother says to join a society designed solely to network with rich people, because that’s what people do in society. That’s how you Get Ahead.
I get straight 7s the whole way through. I get first degree honours. I win a gold medal and a scholarship. I am invited to go and work at the Australian Bureau of Statistics. I am given a pamphlet covered in shiny fake people. I tear it to pieces.
I spend all my time in maths class writing bad fiction and even worse RPGs. I am published – PUBLISHED! – in arcane magazine.
I don’t go to my graduation. I’m too embarrassed because I don’t feel like I’ve achieved anything or done any work.
Instead of submitting work to other magazines to be judged and found failing, I start my own magazine. Organizing is easy. You stand to the side and you can’t win or lose.
I go into a PhD. I drop out because I am spending too much time writing a webzine on RPGs.
I spend ten years trying to work in statistics and hating every single second of it, and wondering why every moment I sit at work is a living hell, an agony of hate and despair. I try to kill myself several times.
I go to GenCon and am welcomed as an equal. I go to DragonCon and James Wallis admires me writing as first class. Patrick says I am a natural journalist. For the first time in my life, praise doesn’t cut like a knife. The rain falls down after that day and I feel like I might be good at something. The child prodigy, the genius, the medal winner…
but none of that was mine. It was to please someone.
And art is tainted too, somewhat. I was SENT to drama school. I was SENT to theatre. They screamed at me to go to writers camp. (Friends berate me to write novels, write RPGs, make games, get it out, get it published. Their words are knives in my heart.)
I don’t join anything because nothing is mine.
Everything I did belonged to them.
And at the same time, art wasn’t real, even if I’d wanted it. They pushed that, even as they never understood it. Even when I was writing, when I did the magazine, I was supposed to be an accountant. You had to make money. You had to Get Ahead. Or if not, at least be SMART, for god’s sake. A zoologist, not a zookeeper. You didn’t go to ART school. You had to Get Ahead and Be Smart.
When I first tried to write a book I wrote it down in secret. I didn’t tell anyone at all. I wrote it in the secret box and taped it shut and it was the biggest sin the worst thing I had ever written.
Because when everything belongs to someone else, success at anything feels like betrayal of yourself. And wanting things is impossible. And trying is a weapon to your demons.
Very very slowly.
This month I took a dog that has never known love and taught it the world was safe. I am a zookeeper.
I am forty years old
and I think maybe I could think about going to art school. Which is something people who like art do, I am told.
And want to do.
And nobody makes them.
That can’t be right, can it?