I feel heavily conflicted all the time, because maybe it's my gemini nature or maybe it’s just that people are messy and I’m a perfect embodiment of that, but I am in equal parts fascinated and repelled by people.
Maybe repelled is too strong a word and one with really negative connotations, but when the feeling is at its strongest that’s what it feels like, a repulsion like two magnets with the same poles coming together.
It’s probably truer and much more socially acceptable to say that while I feel I have some pretty good social skills, I’m a committed introvert. My levels of introversion have waxed and waned over my life- well, that's not true, they've been constant but it's how they express themselves that have changed. I’ve gone from being a super introverted child, to being made to feel ashamed of not being gregarious and outgoing and lacking a huge multitude of friends, to trying my best to be gregarious and outgoing and having all these "friends" to finally accepting that I just prefer my own company most of the time and that five friends is enough.
This is not to say that I don’t like people, I do-I love them, but for every intense social encounter and activity I have I need the equivalent amount of time alone to recharge. While there are those that get their energy and stimulation from being amongst as many people as possible, I get mine from spending time on my own.
Having said that- I like people. A lot. I can't emphasise this enough. I like them so much I studied them at undergraduate level, you don't sit through four years of sociology and anthropology because you are disgusted by people. People are great! In fact, the first word I remember learning in English was people. As you can see, my connection with people is a messy one.
I remember looking at the word and saying it out aloud: pe- o-ple. In Spanish it would be pronounced something like pehh-oh-pleh. Funnily enough to this day whenever I write the word people anywhere, for whatever reason I spell it out in my head as pehh-oh-pleh. Sure there were probably other English words that I picked up first, like hello or goodbye or teacher but people is the first word I remember learning.
I was fascinated by how weird it sounded, it sounded like a combination of sounds that didn’t or shouldn’t belong together. The other word I remember learning is paste, I learnt that by reading the labels of Clag non-toxic adhesive paste that were ubiquitous in primary classrooms in 1989.
People and paste in my head sounded like they were sisters, or at least first cousins. I would walk about uttering those two words in my head when I could only utter those two words. I can’t remember the name of my prep teacher. She was a kindly looking lady, probably Sri-Lankan or Indian, she wasn’t anglo that much I remember. Even though she had a kind, broad face she did love her blue eye shadow which gave her nice eyes a kind of severe clownish appearance, particularly when coupled with her brown skin. She can’t be blamed for the blue eye shadow though it was the 80’s after all.
I don’t remember what kind of tricks my parents pulled to get us enrolled into a Catholic school, mid term and mid year. Maybe it wasn’t an issue at all and since education for children is compulsory in Australia then maybe the school didn’t have a choice in taking us in. Whatever the processes or the hoops my parents had to jump, if any, they enrolled me in a private Catholic School (although, definitely not an elite school by any definition of the word) and suddenly I found myself on the floor of the classroom of a kindly looking lady with questionable eyeshadow ,at least by 2015 standards, ready to listen to a story.
I felt so alien, prep in Melbourne, Australia was nothing like prep in El Salvador. In El Salvador we learnt to write, to read, we learnt the alphabet by rote and on Independence Day we paraded in the streets in perfect goosestep. Sure there was colouring in, and cutting and pasting and so on but it just felt a little more advanced, or maybe the expectations of education and what it was for were different. In El Salvador no education means no life, no opportunities whereas in Australia, well, education at least in primary is just meant to expose you to the world. I don’t remember sitting on the floor listening to our teacher tell us stories in El Salvador, yet here I was about to be told a story from a picture book, a picture book!
It might have been because I understood nothing at all or maybe it was my introversion flaring up but as all the children sat down to a story I remember crawling around the back of the room uttering under my breath: people- paste- people- paste- people- paste- people- paste and e quiero ir a la casa (I want to go home) .
I remember I crawled around the back of the room touching the books, and the toys, and the chairs. Just touching them, seeing what they felt like. It felt like a dream and if I could bring myself back to reality by making contact with physical objects then I was going to give it a shot. There was me who less than a month ago, when I was still five years old, was on the other side of the world speaking and listening to a language I could understand and now in some 30 days (give or take) my life had flipped. Now I was in a classroom on the other side of the world being told a story in a language I didn’t understand, without any friends I could speak with.
People- paste- people- paste- people-paste- people- paste.
As kids do either out of necessity or brain plasticity, I picked up the language pretty well. In no time I was yabbering away, probably incoherently. I would just parrot words I heard, things I learnt, words I learnt to read. I picked it up easily so much that I began acting as an interpreter for my parents. So easily did English come to me that in fact I only lasted in prep for two whole weeks before my teachers thought I better go to grade one and so it was.
It’s not like I was a child genius or anything, I didn’t learn English in two weeks, but I remember that my prep teacher noticed that I could write very well and I could read- or at least decipher a lot easier than the kids in her prep class so she asked whomever was responsible to transfer me to grade one. Mind you, it probably was largely because she couldn’t understand my Spanish and I could only understand basic English and the grade one teacher I was going to was Chilean; while grade one would be more advanced, at least I was with a teacher that could understand what I was asking.
My kind prep teacher with the broad face and the clownish be eyes may have asked the school to bump me up, she may have asked my parents- although I doubt that, whoever she asked it happened and one day I just got walked to the second story of the old primary school building, where all the grade one classrooms were.
Cast your mind back to a situation where you felt like everyone towered over you, not just because you were small (which I was) but also because everyone just seemed to be so much more magnanimous. These grade one kids knew English, they looked bigger, they had a different attitude, that sort of undeserved cocky attitude that comes when a group of people metamorphose from tadpoles to frogs, which is all well and good for them but really everyone knows that they are still not the dominant animals in a pond.
Maybe no one did tell my parents they were moving me up to grade one because I came home and told them as much and they were overjoyed. They had only been in Australia some months and already, progress! If there is anything like the Australian dream then we were living it. The kids were already scaling educational walls! It probably wasn’t like that, but they made it seem to me as if I had won a Nobel prize. It was a really nice moment; every kid wants to be praised, this felt particularly important because we were all living such foreign lives that every single win needed to be celebrated.
My dad was a perfectionist, then maybe more than now, or way back then he appeared to me to be one at least. Now that I had moved up to grade one without ever really trying more was expected of me maybe? Every single child in Australia, and maybe everywhere else has had to do those writing exercises using those primary school writing workbooks where you have to write out a sentence in your own writing identically (or as close to it) as the one that is printed as an example in a workbook. Well...
I came home with my workbook and my homework for the night, complete one page of the exercises in said book and bring it back the next day. My first mistake after receiving that homework was telling my father about it. After dinner he made me bring the workbook to the table, he sat down on a chair and asked me to sit on his lap and we did this together. I would first practice writing out whatever the particular sentence I needed to write on a scrap piece of paper and then I would set on to writing it in the workbook as required.
I began writing. Not sure what it was that I was writing, maybe something innocuous like The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog. Or maybe it was just writing the alphabet, first in capitals followed by the lower case equivalents. I spent hours on it, or at least it felt like hours because I was only six and time feels different when you're six. I didn't spend so long on it because I was particularly dedicated but because every single time I did it I didn't copy the sample text EXACTLY as the printed equivalent in the workbook so my father would rub out the whole thing and make me start again.
My six year old handwriting had to be as clear and as perfect as the machine printed letters in the workbook. We sat there, first with me practicing how to write the letters I saw, then actually writing them in the workbook and my father erasing it if he did not find it to be satisfactory. We sat there, going over it again and again until I began to cry. I just wanted it to finish, I had other things to do like play with my sister or whatever it is that six year olds do when they have free time. As my protests got louder and louder my father got more and more stern. Until I just fled the table.
Because I hadn’t finished, and maybe to strengthen the idea to me and all of us that he was in charge my father went to get me from where I was hiding, he sat me on the table and tied my leg to the table, or maybe to the chair. So there I was physically tied to the furniture with a half finished writing task, tears streaming down my face with my father hovering above me erasing all the work that I had done if, god forbid, it didn’t look like the sample printed text in the workbook.
I don’t know if my family found it funny, or if they didn’t notice or care but no one did anything about it. That’s just what was expected of you- to work hard, that’s what happens to lazy boys, who don’t cooperate or do what they must- it was a lesson in ensuring you do what is required of you. Thinking back on it now it seems terrifying. Being tied to the furniture to perfect your writing because your father felt it was important. I’m sure it was terrifying at the time but the most pressing memory I have of it all is how unjust it all felt. Why did I need to be physically restrained while I gave handwriting in another language my best effort?
I finished the task and handed it in the next day. My grade one teacher looked at it and she was so incredibly suspicious. She asked me if I had someone else do my homework (I wish!) and once she was convinced that I had done it all myself, she held the exercise book up in class to show off to everyone.
She told them all that my homework was absolutely perfect and that they could all learn a lesson from me and my work ethic. I was so embarrassed, because if I had it my way I would have done an absolutely woeful job without the trauma of being tied down and forced to do and redo an exercise I didn’t fully understand.
I still took the praise however, and it made me quite proud too, particularly after I got an elephant stamp proclaiming to all and sundry that the praise I got from the teacher wasn’t just rhetoric but was backed up with the kind of currency that nerds like me value- elephant stamps.
As traumatic as that lesson was, it taught me that hard work, sacrifice and, dedication pay off.
Having said that, there are probably better ways to teach that very lesson.