The nail-biting thing was more than a childhood habit for me. In Year 1, I sat at the very back of the classroom and as each school day wore on, I would chew and chew and chew some more. Sometimes, fear and loathing come on so gradually that you barely notice it happen – like when someone turns up the heat one degree at a time while you’re in an enclosed car. You barely notice the discomfort creeping in, until the heat is so unbearable that you would smash a window to get some relief.
The pulling grip of this tightening rope of nervousness was religion – one of the tightest chokeholds available, conservative Catholicism. My parents had no commitment to these ideologies whatsoever – after all, my own mother had made a 1980s love child (my older half brother) to the guy that worked at the local fish and chippery, and my father had his own rap sheet of rule-breaking indiscretions. They drank and smoked their way through the good times, swore, and probably had a whole heap of dirty thoughts to boot. We most certainly were not a church-going family, except at Easter and Christmas, and my parents did not burn me with the religious acid of shame and for the normal parts of my childhood.
With that being said, my parents looooooved the status quo. Every child in my father’s family had been educated in the local Catholic diocese and we were all baptised. I was the only child out of so many cousins who had actually bitten the priest’s finger when he tried the holy water dunking. So naturally, when I turned six, I received a blue and red striped dress.
“But Mum, this dress is uncomfortable! And the shoes are rubbing my feet. How am I going to climb the playground?” I whined as we sat at the uniform fitting.
“It’s all about practice – if you wear the shoes for 15 minutes every day and walk around the house, they won’t rub anymore when you get into school.”
Sounded exactly like religion itself.
When we actually got to the school on the first day, my first classroom – my very first doorway into learning – was situated right next to a stiff doorway with peeling paint, which (as I was told) led to more classrooms on an upstairs floor with a balcony. I noticed an imposing, dark figure in that space, and I couldn’t help myself. Wandering off sneakily, I grasped the stiff door with both hands and peered into the darkness. There was a statue of Mary that stretched up to a height that was easily taller than my father at six foot three, and hanging right next to her was a post-modern painted crucifix attached to the wall with a stiff, sculpted Jesus spread across it. I took about three steps backwards, half in surprise and half in fear, until I hit a dusty box of unnamed school uniforms. It didn’t matter where I went in the stairwell, the gaze of Jesus followed me, even though the paint that made him up was faded and old as time itself.
“Becky!” my mother’s exclamation echoed off Jesus and hit me in the face.
I whipped around.
“You are supposed to be unpacking your desk, now hurry up and get inside the classroom.”
She was full of anxiety for my first day of school going well, and I had (as usual), wandered off.
I turned to walk back out but turned around at least three times to stare face to face with my cement saviour. He was still and unblinking, terrifying to a six year old. I worried if I acted out too much, then the principal would erect Cement Jesus by my bedside so I could confess myself to sleep.
My first morning at school flew by and I was rather disappointed that I hadn’t learned to write more neatly or add with bigger numbers by the time first break rolled around.
“My Jesus, my Saviour, Lord there is none like You. All of my days, I want to praise the wonders of Your mighty love….”
These pious lyrics rang out through a crackling loudspeaker and the teacher’s chair creaked as she pulled her middle-aged arse free from it, having spent the morning glued to it like a Pritt glue stick teaching us how to put our books in our desk and stay in our seats.
“Put your hands together, children, as we bless the food we eat…”
The spaces between my fingers overlapped as I squinted my eyes shut, caring more about what was in my lunchbox than the washing over of grace. In my head, I prayed for a bag of chips with a good Tazo in them, but I didn’t like my chances.
“Rebecca!” she yelled from the front of the room.
“That is NOT how you clasp your hands in prayer!”
I looked around, and everybody had flat hands pressed up together, except they had temporarily turned around and ceased, just to stare at my prayerful indiscretion. I quickly pushed my hands into the correct position and tried to ignore them looking at me, though their stares burned like the heat of the Queensland sun in mid-January.
“Come Lord Jesus be our guest, and let this food to us be blessed, amen!”
There was a pause, as we all waited for just the right moment to release our hands. I waited for everyone else before falling in line.
“You may all eat your morning tea in the area just next to the classroom.” She paused, directing her gaze over me.
“Except Rebecca. You will eat your morning tea in here and then go out to play.”
Staring anxiously at the puffed biscuits I’d pulled out of my desk didn’t make me hungry, but the beds of my nails looked a treat. Compulsively, I stuck my index finger into my mouth and chewed. Temporary relief for a minor embarrassment, but nonetheless, I was off to a terrible start, and school was long and kind of important, like a microcosm of life itself.
“My comfort, my shelter, tower of refuge and strength. Let every breath, all that I am, never cease to worship You…”
The music started up again, and my teacher stuck her head out of the classroom to say, “Off you go, children! You must come back here when you hear the music playing again!”
I stuffed the biscuits back into the desk, leaving a trail of crumbs everywhere and ran out of the room while she was still distracted. As I continued running down to the school oval, I noticed that all the children were already formed into tight knit groups of friends. How did these kids even know each other? It was the first day!
“C’mon, Gemma! Let’s go make an oven out of that tree stump!” one girl hollered to another.
“Yeah – I’m going to make bread out of these rocks!” she replied.
Now, making bread-rocks sounded fairly boring, but I did need some friends, especially considering my earlier fuck up.
“Hey, wait! Can I play too? I nearly figured out how to fly, look at me go!”
I started spinning around and around as quickly as I could and flapping my arms up and down, hoping this stunt would impress the clutch of little girls who were staring at me, clearly making a bombastic, socially awkward spectacle. The girls looked at me, then back at each other, then at me again. They huddled together, whispering like snakes.
“Nah. This is a four person game. If you join, then there’s too many.”
I looked back at them, licked my wounds dejectedly for a fraction of a second, and then saw a bustle of boys striding towards a small patch of sand next to a tree.
“Here, here! This is the perfect spot.”
I observed them coolly from about a metre away as they – aware, but unconcerned with my presence – continued to dig a hole in a perfect circle in the sand. I was impressed. As they dug synchronously, I started to pick up small branches and break them in two, still thinking I could try and build my own little thing out of sticks. On hearing the cracking of sticks, one of the boys whipped around.
“Hey! Stop breaking all our sticks!” I glared back at him. I knew his name was Jesse because his Mum knew my Mum. A-ha! Finally, I had some capital.
“Shut up, Jesse. You don’t own all the shit in this playground, INCLUDING these sticks.”
He was shocked that I knew his name, and even more shocked that I said a naughty word. His pow-wow suddenly cowered behind him, guarding their hole.
“I will crush your shitty hole anyway, what is that, a bush toilet?” I stood up taller with my hands on my uncomfortable dress and continued swearing, full of bravado, shaking a little bit as I untethered myself from the ‘acceptable playground behaviour’ dock and started to drift into the risky waters. Anything could happen now.
They were all looking around for a teacher, but the oval was big and it was the first day of school. One of the little boys nervously cracked his voice and said, “Don’t do that! Ummm…. you can just help us build our foot trap with your sticks.”
I had these little boys by the nuts and they knew it. I leaned down and made peace, pushing all of my sticks across the hole in a cross-hatch pattern for maximum pain. The idea was that nobody would see the trap when it was covered with leaves, and their foot would go straight through it. Not particularly nice, but much more fun than bread made out of rocks. I felt more at home with Jesse, Sean, Ben and Jeremy, enacting sabotage and building cool things.
As lunchtime wore on, a dark catchment of clouds drifted across the sky like black balloons. The posse of boys and I were so busy perfecting our foot trap, that we didn’t notice the spitting and the teachers rounding up all the students back to class. Their view of us was obscured by the tree, and so we were able to get away with staying out to lunch while everybody else trudged back to their classrooms for every teacher’s favourite – wet-weather-in – which would fill the remaining twenty minutes of play time with dull board games or quiet activities. Sounded like shit, to be honest.
“We should go back to class,” Jeremy said, obligingly as the spitting became a faster drizzle. Every fold always had a square, and Jeremy was it – the older and more sensible of two boys who were born 11 months apart and were basically twins.
“No, that’s boring!” his younger brother Ben hit back.
The rain poured down around us and although we had a working foot trap, we were all absolutely saturated, dripping in our even-heavier Catholic school fatigues, which were no more comfortable in the boys’ version than the girls – although they could at least climb the monkey bars without flashing their bits to all and sundry.
“Shout to the Lord all the Earth let us sing. Power and majesty, praise to the king. Mountains bow down and the seas will roar at the sound of Your name…”
We scrambled back up the bitumen hill, into the quadrangle, and then to our classroom door, where everyone was sitting playing dominoes, Ker-Plunk, and those boring wooden boards where you thread a shoelace through the outline of an animal. I was so glad to have stayed out in the rain with my boys and our foot trap because those wooden boards were anathema to me, as a clumsy knot-fingered child.
“WHERE in heavens have you children BEEN? We have called all over for you and nobody could find you? Do you have ANY idea how worried we were?” Mrs Caspersz was so furious, I thought sparks would fly from the split ends in her thick, black hair.
She glared at the boys and then looked straight at me.
“And as for you, I would expect better from a girl.”
She turned back to all of us.
“Now we’re going to need to organise dry uniforms for the rest of the day. I can’t promise they’ll fit properly or be comfortable for you.”
Ambling over to the phone, I squinted my eyes to see who she was dialing. Number 737 – a number I would become acquainted with as the front office.
“Yes, I’ve located all five of them. Yes, Rebecca was with them. Can I please get some dry uniforms? Thanks.” She hung up, then sent one of the “good” girls to collect a dry change of clothes.
When she came back with the pile of clothes, I noticed 4 identically-sized boys’ uniforms with pairs of mis-matching sports pants and socks. Underneath all of that was a tiny pink dress. Once the teacher had handed the boys their dry outfits, she screwed up the pink humiliation dress and thrust it towards me in clear frustration.
“And this,” she said, “is for you.”
I spread the dress across both my arms and guessed that it was about half the size that it needed to be.
“But Mrs Caspersz, I can’t wear this, it won’t fit me!”
The dress was clearly two sizes too small and I would have preferred to sit in my wet school dress for hours than try to squeeze into a dress made for a four year old.
“Well, you should have thought of that before you went out and behaved like a naughty little boy!”
All of the other naughty boys had gone to the toilet at once to change into their dry clothes, but I was forced to get dressed in what was called the back room – this tight cupboard that had shelves brimming with resources and probably would have fit about two year-one-sized chairs inside its entire space, if you could wedge it between all the crap that was nearly falling off the shelves.
Pulling the dress on was like trying to put a potato sack over an out-of-practice thoroughbred. I was not great at dressing myself to begin with, but as I stood there in my wet underwear, I felt the glances of my classmates through the cast-iron bars of the classroom prison. I raised my arms above my head self-consciously, letting the dress fall down to my shoulders, then sucked in my breath to create a space in my stomach, and pulled the bottom down as hard as I could. It finally scraped on, not without leaving a red mark down my ribs and underarms. I could barely move as I walked from the classroom-prison in my dress-prison, my cheeks burning and my heart fluttering in my chest.
“Haha, that dress doesn’t fit!” a girl called Gemma laughed as she saw how uncomfortable I was. I could feel my cheeks getting redder and my chest pushing against the tight threads that were clinging to me in the same way a plastic water bottle does when you do that science experiment with ice and boiling water.
“Do a twirl in it!” one of the boys hollered from across the classroom.
I turned around in place, looking backwards at an angle to see how short the dress really was. The movement hiked my dress up and exposed my rainy, wet knickers to the entire class, which were now see-through. They cackled and laughed uproariously until the teacher finally put a stop to it with the crack of a metre ruler to a standard wooden school desk. Every head in the class whipped around in a collective gasp.
“That’s enough time spent off task. Just because it’s a rainy day, doesn’t mean all school work goes out the window!” she said, voice rising into a squeak.
“We need to do some work.”
She chose Gemma, who was quickly becoming her star student, to hand out the next boring activity, a paper kangaroo where we had to cut along the lines with our fine motor skills. No way was I doing that, because I couldn’t, and it was pretty clear by this stage that I wasn’t going to get any help, either. I sunk back into my desk, not so that I wouldn’t be called on, but so that nobody would see my knickers. My uniform had been hung out to dry before and I was very hastily changed back into it, five minutes before bell time. I’d had a mere six hours in this place and already felt that I was one confession away from being cast into Hell.
“Don’t bother telling your parents about the wet uniform,” my new teacher said as I collected my bag for the end of the day.
“I already rang them and they told me that the next time I catch you staying out in the rain, you will be in even bigger trouble.”
I was sworn to silence out of the fear of getting into even more trouble once I got home. After so many indiscretions in one day, I needed refuge in my bedroom. I pulled my backpack over my shoulders and walked out to my mother’s little brown Gemini with my big brother. That was the first day of my formal schooling career, and I was so glad it was over.
“How was school?” my Mum inquired as I clambered into the back seat, genuinely interested how the day had gone.
“Um… it was good. I ate those biscuits and we made kangaroo cut outs with our scissors. The teacher read us a book on the carpet and then we played board games inside at lunch time.”
“Very good. Maybe you’ll get some homework soon and you can show me some of the things you’ve been learning.”
“Yeah,” I said, as my brother cut off the conversation edgeways to talk about long division and some kid who farted in between songs during music class.
I slunk back into the car seat, relieved that my Mum had obviously cooled off from hearing about my misbehaviour. Maybe I had kind of gotten away with it. Or maybe the God’s honest truth was worse – she had no idea about the humiliation dress.
In that moment, I knew my subjective, gendered value in the face of my saviour; less.