In the summer before I started high school, I looked at myself in the mirror. I had a haircut that was (in hindsight) terrible, and no idea how to style it to look like anything beyond a limp helmet. Make-up was the last thing on my mind. I’ve written about my experiences in primary school, and high school was very different.
I remember looking at that mirror as intensely as I could, repeating: ‘You’re going to be awesome. All these people are going to like you. Whatever it takes, I’m going to be accepted and popular’.
It felt like a pretty positive mantra at the time. High school was my fresh start. I’d be like every other year seven out there, thrown out of my comfortable (or in my case, uncomfortable) primary school environment into a jumble of anxious students trying to make their way in a new system. I was excited. Mum had said she met her best life-long friends in high school, and that’s what I hoped for myself.
I could scratch primary school from memory, I just had to do better this time around!
And then year seven began.
The school I went to was unique in a few ways. First, the ‘home group’ we were assigned to attend five minutes before the start of classes in the morning, and five minutes after lunch, wasn’t organised by year level or class groups. It was a mix of students across the 7-12 grades, all in the same house.
My home group was 25, and I was in Melba. I was absolutely shattered to find out it was red house. Red was a gross and obnoxious colour, all my life I’d been in green house. This was the luck of my draw though, and it was through the home group system that I met my very first high school friend.
She was quiet. Probably overwhelmed as I was by the older kids who gently teased us about being the ‘babies’. She had a huge pencil case full of gel pens in every colour you could imagine. We sat together because we were both year seven, and over the first few weeks I gathered up the courage to ask if I could borrow one of her pens.
Thus began one friendship I still treasure today.
The other thing about high school, was that it combined kids from a variety of primary schools. I was now back in the same environment as some of the girls I’d followed around before changing primary schools, and people I knew from the primary school I graduated from were also there.
For some reason, this didn’t make me anxious. It was exciting, a chance to mend bridges—especially now that my best friend from my graduating primary school class was willing to socialise with me in public (her other friends had gone to different high schools).
Another girl I recognised from even earlier days, when I haunted the primary school playgrounds and tried to figure out my place in it all. I distinctly remember her swinging on the monkey bars. What drew me to her was her hair–it was long. It was so incredibly long, I was in awe. I must have been about eight when I awkwardly introduced myself. She said ‘I know’ and swung away. This girl was at my high school too!
So many familiar faces and I was determined to make an effort, get known, be friends with people and generally succeed at life in a way I didn’t feel I had yet. People did it so easily in books and movies, my own little sister barely had to walk into a room before she was beloved by all–so it had to be possible for me too.
I started with my friend in home group, who we’ll call H. H and I were in different year seven classes (year seven being the only year at this school where students were in the same groups for all classes). We discovered a mutual love of gel pens, I began collecting them but I’d never match her impressive collection. She was also quirky and didn’t think it was weird when I took ideas to the extreme.
H was in the same year seven class as N, the girl with the amazing long hair. H also spent her lunch times in a group with girls that I didn’t see were appreciating her value, so once I’d established a solid friendship with her, I asked if she’d come hang out with me and my then-closest friend B.
M was a girl with extremely frizzy hair that I also remembered from primary school, and she was in my year seven class. Her passion for cars, The Beatles and North Melbourne, which she unashamedly displayed, made her intriguing to me. I can no longer remember who else was in the highly dysfunctional 7E of the year 2000–I remember we had more behaviour plans than any other year seven group in that year.
I’m pretty sure teachers still talk about us and twitch at the memory.
I wasn’t a ringleader by any standard, I was barely even a participant–but I laughed at the disruptions and played along when one of the boys jumped into a recycle bin to escape our English teacher.
Groups began forming, as they do in high school, and it became very clear very fast that there was an ‘elite’ group of popular girls and guys, and I was not destined to be in it. My attempts to attract the attention of these more popular sorts were fruitless, I was either invisible or annoying or mocked for trying, but that didn’t matter.
Through a series of mutual connections, familiar faces drifting together, we’d begun to form a hap-hazard group of our own. We weren’t misfits our outcasts, we weren’t social pariahs. Mostly, we were just a group of girls that had things in common and got along very well.
One of the most important experiences occurred for me in the first term of year seven, when I was asked to lead a group from my old primary school around on a tour. The tour took us by the music room, a place I previously hadn’t thought much of. I’d learned a bit of piano through the years, but in all honesty–I became so expert at cajoling my piano teacher to play things for me and spell everything out, that I got to high school unable to read music at all.
The intermediate band was in the band room, and they were playing the theme from Jurassic Park. It must have sounded awful to a trained ear, but to me it was all-encompassing. I lost myself so deeply in the sound that I had to be prodded by a teacher to continue the tour. From that moment, I knew I had to join the band.
I’d tested well musically, my sense of pitch was good and I had a natural affinity for rhythm. I wanted to play trumpet, I decided. My parents, understandably, felt differently about this, and suggested I focus on my studies for a year–see how I felt about the band at the beginning of year eight.
I agreed to this, and became determined to get grades so perfect there would be no reason to say I couldn’t join the band in the following year. Not long after this, I attended a church service (I honestly can’t remember why) where a woman played the most absorbing tune on a clarinet.
Once again, I was enchanted.
How about the clarinet? I suggested to Mum, and perhaps she was relieved that I no longer wanted to bring a trumpet into the house. She thought it was a good option, and I took that as permission to ask my classroom music teacher (there are many amazing people in my life, she is still one) how I might go about starting on clarinet in the following year.
She suggested I would be best off trying it out first, seeing how I felt about the instrument before I made a commitment. There was a spare rental one–would I like to take it home? I agreed readily, and once I was shown how to assemble it, I brought it home with me.
I felt guilty at the time, suddenly realising that perhaps in bringing a clarinet home I was disobeying my parent’s wishes to not start music before year eight. I think I tried to hide the instrument at first, I don’t recall–but I loved it. My parents saw how much I loved it, and caved. I joined the junior school band half-way through year seven.
Year eight brought us the ability to select our own classes, and themed classes designed to increase student engagement. I stared for hours at the subject guide, poring over it to find the absolute perfect arrangement of classes. Should I do a history class that focused on medieval times? An English class about journalism? I was definitely doing a music class, that was a given.
Year eight music was actually a concert band, with the focus on performing at the Melbourne School Band’s Festival in the second semester. I’d fought to get into the band at all, I wasn’t leaving it here.
It was my favourite class by far. H was a trumpet player, as was M. D, who was part of the group I’d been ‘friends’ with in primary school, was a clarinetist as well. She was good, and I aimed to be like her from my squeaky third row. The band allowed for socialising across the normal cliques, we all had something in common–even if it was just terrorising our poor teacher.
The class allocation system wasn’t perfect, though. Clashes meant often having to select a class you weren’t interested in, or (worse) had no friends in. The system allowed for students with particular interests to move ‘up’ or ‘down’ levels and learn with students at their ability level, even if they weren’t in the same numerical grade. I was encouraged to get into second-level (year nine) English classes as a way of giving myself a head start.
In classes where I had friends, like the ever-zany K and T who I’d not known before coming to high school (but they were in the band!), I was happiest. I did all of those things that normal students do: talked while the teacher was talking, passed notes, made inappropriate jokes and fed off their energy.
In classes where I was without those friends, whether that was by poor scheduling or by selecting classes a year above the normal level, I was almost another person entirely. Shy and withdrawn, I spoke only when called on–spent most of my time writing in a small exercise book to show the others when we all got out of class.
That was another thing. They loved my writing. We would make up characters for implausible situations, and I wrote about them. My writing was funny, and apparently addictive. At least–if H’s constant demand for more was any clue. The weird ideas and thoughts I’d had my whole life found another life of their own on paper, and were consumed by actual friends who genuinely appreciated what I wrote.
They weren’t the only ones who would have, but at this point I was terrified of anyone else reading my writing. I believed no one else would quite ‘understand’ it, that they would read into the stories as if they were code, and either begin to believe things about me that weren’t true… or discover the ‘true’ me and find her repulsive. It was never about praise or criticism, always a pure terror of being misunderstood or found out.
I think I covered more notebook pages with these stories in high school alone, than I have with actual class notes in my entire academic career.
K was the sort of girl who would turn up to a regular party in fancy dress–just because she could. She turned up to one event with a washing basket strapped to her back and claimed to be a Ninja Turtle. I admired her open eccentricity, and in a way she gave me courage to be more open and hold back less of my opinions and ideas. I could never match her level, though.
She was staying at my house one night, and we’d got our instruments out (K played the trumpet) to practice. This really just meant swapping instruments and attempting to play them for shits and giggles, and it spawned what we thought would be the most hilarious prank ever.
We would go into band class with each other’s instruments and sit down at each other’s places and begin to rehearse as though nothing was out of the ordinary. Imagine! A clarinetist trying to play trumpet, a trumpet player trying to play with the clarinets! Oh the absurd hilarity! We were sure it would give our temperamental teacher a meltdown.
Of course, it didn’t. Like all good teachers, he ignored the bad behaviour and we switched back out of boredom.
My fight to catch up to the other clarinetists somehow ended in me becoming quite a strong player, and my ability to read music was coming along even faster. I was moved up to join the front row first clarinets, and half way through the year was invited to come along to senior band practices as well–something year eights only did if they had years of instrumental experience behind them.
The trumpet still intrigued me, though. I asked about the chances of trying some lessons, and was grudgingly allowed to attend the group lessons. My brother was now a percussionist in the junior band, so rather than waiting outside and being bored–I began to play trumpet with the year sevens as well.
That year, I went to Sydney with the senior band. I had a couple of friends in the year above now, who were also in the senior band, so I didn’t feel at all alienated without my core group of friends.
So on it went.
Our group shifted and changed through the years, people drifted away–people drifted in. There was no power structure to it, no pecking order. Not everyone was treated wonderfully all of the time, but I would struggle to describe a social system much better than what we had. It was inclusive, it celebrated people for who they were, and even if it wasn’t the hugely popular clique a more naieve me had imagined to herself while staring in the mirror, I was fast coming to realise that this was much better.
I hated maths. At first, because it all seemed rather obvious. Some stuff I’d learned in primary school, other things just made sense. I got bored easily and tended to rush work, often copying down the wrong numbers and therefore getting the wrong answers. Being wrong frustrated me, so the obvious conclusion was that maths was wrong.
Maths lessons began to curiously be replaced by additional music lessons. Whether that be practice for a concert, or yet another instrument I was learning (by the end of high school I could play at least a few tunes on clarinet, trumpet, saxophone (aka clarinet easy mode), flute and trombone).
I wasn’t great with fractions. Decimals made more sense. Why express something as a fraction with a remainder, when you could have a nice decimal number? My avoidance made me reluctant to use them, or learn how they really worked. Until my sneaky instrumental teacher took it upon himself to teach me maths using what I loved: music notes. And I’d gone to all that trouble of escaping maths for music…!
I remember trying to get my head around sin, cos, and tan and their applications. I just didn’t get it, even though the teacher had explained several times all the right calculator steps to find the answer. It wouldn’t stick. I kept asking him: Why? Why does that make the answer?
I always needed to know why. Like a perpetual three year old, I understood things more from how they came to be, rather than an abstracted process to find the correct answer. Other things I just knew.
No one really taught me spelling, grammar, or how to write. I could point out every mistake in a newspaper article, but I couldn’t tell you why it was wrong. It just was. It looked funny, or it sounded funny. A teacher remarked on an essay that my writing style was almost rhythmic, that I somehow managed to sum up points like the ending of a song.
She’s not wrong. There’s a rhythm in my head, almost like writing poetry. If the words don’t conform to it, I find another way to say it. I find a way that fits this unheard rhythm.
It wasn’t until university that I was explicitly taught how grammar worked, though, which came as a shock to me (who thought I knew everything about writing).
I had my bad days, and weeks, and months. I remember being overwhelmed by things that seem so minimal now, stressed to the point of sickness over assignments. Though I had the most amazing group of friends anyone could wish for, I still did feel awkward and shut out of the ‘popular’ groups, and I could never understand why.
It was like I didn’t even speak the same language as they did.
I made another friend in the year above me, who I thought was the exception to this. She seemed to have this natural ability with other people that I clearly did not possess, and for some reason she took interest in me. We ended up working at the same supermarket. She wasn’t a big fan of my other friends, and her friends weren’t a big fan of me–so for the most part we didn’t hang out during school times.
I could never figure her out, though. She would go from fine to upset with me in a matter of seconds, and I never knew what I’d done wrong. She’d never tell me, either. Even once she’d ‘forgiven’ me, I wasn’t allowed to know how I’d overstepped into the ‘bad friend’ zone, only that I’d done it and I was lucky to be allowed another chance.
I counted her a friend, though, and I didn’t want to upset a friend–so I did anything in my power to avoid upsetting her. Later we would share a house, and I would try to fend off any insult my presence made by purchasing things I thought she would like, and leaving them on her chair–like a cat appealing to her owner.
She explicitly said that if I wanted to have my friends from high school over at the house, I would need to tell her so she could vacate. They were weird, she said, and she didn’t like them. In response, I let contact with the likes of H and N drop for far too long.
But that occurred some years after graduation. In school, I was just delighted that she thought I was worthy of her attention.
One thing I’d had drilled into me from the start of high school: to go to university, I would need to do well enough to get a scholarship.
I wanted to go to university. I wanted it more than anything. I wanted to live a fancy life in Melbourne, away from my home town, where again I would be cool and confident and have all my shit together. I imagined that, once at university, everything would really come together and I’d be a real person.
So I had to do well, and I put a lot of pressure on myself. My entire future was at stake (so I thought), this was my only chance to get out of town and live the life I’d always dreamed of!
I chose subjects poorly. Though I loved music, my theory skills were terrible beyond the basics. I picked a maths subject beyond my capabilities because I was too proud to achieve less.
Throughout my high school career, I’d started writing stories and poems that captured what had occurred on band excursions–taking things to surreal extremes–and posting them on the noticeboard. These also went in the end of year ‘Tour Book’, a hefty folder of music jokes and stories, comics, and goodness knows what else I could be bothered printing out, that was used to entertain the band during long road trips.
When I expressed to one of my music teachers that I was considering a career in music, she commented: ‘That would be a waste, you should go into writing.’
Still, I persevered with my subject choices. I dropped what little weight I had. I didn’t study where I could be seen, which cut my study time to what I could manage while my sister was occupied outside of our bedroom. I was anxious. I couldn’t sleep at night, or wake up in the morning. I’d also discovered the joys of the internet, where I was able to connect with other offbeat creatives like myself.
I began tutoring a couple of private school girls on essay writing, helping one improve her grade from a C- to a B+. I began to think about teaching as a career, and when I mentioned this to a very picky (but lovely) English teacher, was given the critical eye before a final: ‘I trust you with that’.
It turns out I can’t teach, by the way. I was given the task of correcting journal entries written by six-year-olds, and apparently you can’t be that harsh as a teacher.
I began to complain to my doctor about chest issues, where my heart felt like it was going too fast all the time. I was given a heart monitor to wear for a day, but I never went back to find out the results. I was simultaneously afraid that there was something terribly wrong with me, or that I’d used important equipment for no reason at all.
Some months later I had a fainting episode that I didn’t connect to anxiety until much later. The pressure I’d put on myself to do well had stopped me eating and sleeping properly, I’d never been wonderful at focusing (except when I became lost in things) but now focusing was near impossible.
I can point it all out now as symptomatic, but at the time I had no clue that what I felt wasn’t normal. It was unpleasant, and I didn’t want to worry anyone with my feeling unpleasant, so I never really spoke up about what I was experiencing. It was just… being me. The joys of being me.
Toward the end of year twelve, when it was clear that I had little to no chance of passing maths, my maths teacher gave me a gift. He said, he would always be there to support and teach me if that was what I chose, but he wouldn’t think less of me if I decided to give up on maths and focus on getting good scores in my other subjects.
It was the permission I didn’t know I needed. I was quite literally falling asleep in his class. Not from boredom, but pure exhaustion. The same English teacher who approved of my intent to teach English said, ‘The numbers don’t matter, but words do’ which was her way of reminding us that even if we got a terrible score in English it would still be one of the four subjects that counted to our final score.
I could let maths slide and hope it was my worst class, the one not counted. It wasn’t a cure from the constant anxious state I was in, but I knew I was allowed to forgive myself giving up on this one subject. More importantly, my teacher wouldn’t be offended or hate me for doing so.
In the end…
My score wasn’t what I hoped it would be. It was enough. I went to uni. I didn’t have a word for the distress I was feeling in my later high school years (anxiety) until I was almost 25. I learned the hard way that year twelve isn’t the end, and first year of uni isn’t the only beginning.
I’m on my third university now. I’ve been to TAFE twice. I’ve changed career plans from teaching, to just writer, to computer network technician, to technical writer, to public relations writing, and now.. to what I’m in: content marketing.
I’ll do a post on that particular journey another time. I’ve definitely taken a long way around, and I’m not even sure if I’m ‘there’ yet. There’s a lot more about myself that I need to get a handle on before I can begin to shape my environment to one that works for me.
But these bits of study have all developed skills that are useful in my target career, and will continue to be useful even if tomorrow I decide I’m going to be a firefighter (never. going. to happen).
High school was a horrible and stressful time that I have nightmares about going back to. But Mum was right–I did make some amazing friends that I will have for a life time. I had some of the most important experiences of my life to date, been influenced by some of the best people I’ve known, and developed parts of myself that I continue to be proud of.
You may not have been mentioned in this directly, there are far too many of you. But you know who you are, I hope. I would not be who I am without you.