Staring up my own arsehole

I was popular in my final years of primary school. I found my niche as the class clown, a deprecatory and insipid little arsehole. I suspect my name could be heard occasionally in the staff room over the click of a kettle or the snap of a stale Arnotts. Staff would shuffle their feet uncomfortably on the carpet and exchange strategies as to how to manage my behaviour.

I wasn’t a typically bad kid. I didn’t hit other kids. I didn’t interrupt the class, throw homework at girls, or hide the whiteboard eraser. My little antics had less to do with breaking the rules than undermining them. I was like Napster or Limewire. I was brand new territory and the regulatory bodies had to play catch-up.

In each class, I would evaluate the teacher’s lesson plan with a “bored-o-meter,” a little mercury thermometer with different cartoon faces in various degrees of anguish. Comments like “Clearly ripping off Term 2’s Ancient Egypt assignment, zero points for creativity,” and “VHS again. Can’t complain, TV is the best teacher,” were written alongside the tight-lipped face of my always-bored avatar.

Once I was caught fiddling with a dental plate wedged against my palate, and my teacher assumed I was chewing gum. When she stuck her hand in front of my maw and told me to spit it out, I went tight-lipped and in to saliva-production overdrive. With Jim Carrey-esque exertion, I spat my plate on to her hand. She shrieked and dropped it on the table, and I grinned the grin of a boy who had managed to disobey the teacher in a way that involved total, complete, literal obedience.

I was an 11-year old who had an intuitive understanding of exactly where the ley lines of schoolyard power began and ended. I somehow evaded ever getting in to real trouble. I was Kevin from Home Alone, I was Road Runner, I was the baby in Three Men and a Baby.

I was a fat kid, but I had a sense of humour about it. During the 1997 West Greenwood sports carnival, Josh Gatwick and I swapped divisions — he, from I (top) to IV (bottom), and me from IV to I. He came off the start line like a springbok and decimated the rotund waddlers from the other factions. Gold for Blue Faction.

My inherited race was less competition than theatre. I ran Division I’s 100m sprint with a Cheshire grin, holding two peace signs in the air in an unknowing imitation of Richard Nixon. I came last by a wide margin, but had my victory over the very idea of organised and competitive sport. The establishment narrowed its eyes at me from the sidelines. My classmates laughed and cheered. Nobody knew who won that race because I did.

Age 11, I recognised preternaturally that the purpose of school sports carnivals is not the promotion of sport and health, but the merciless importation of meritocracy. The purpose of the sports carnival was to place in our squishy little mind-folds a perfectly calibrated self-esteem meter. All self-worth was to be relative and won competitively. I liked myself too much to lose. I stuck my finger in my ear and picked at my brain; I dislodged what I’d been taught but hadn’t learned. My rabbinical little stunt let my classmates know what was being done to us.

Primary school finished with me signing my classmates’ hoodies with an image of Kenny, from South Park, being choked to death by a tetherball. In hindsight, the image was perhaps a harbinger for the darker person I was about to become. At the time, however, the kids were queuing up for my black Texta. Everything I did was with the knowing smile of the victor. I was King.

A six week break, then high school happened. Our social world became stratified, segregated, and strip-mined. Only sediments of our nuanced younger selves remained. We all played in to the high school fictions of imported U.S.A. pop culture; we were all heterogenised in to the immiscible archetypes of American Pie. Not to mix metaphors, but the Sorting Hat declared me a Nerd.

High school was more serious. The bricks were darker, the grass sharper, the sun a little closer to the earth. Six-foot tall circus freaks with patchy moustaches and gorilla gaits stared menacingly at me, the late bloomer who still looked like Fred Savage. The girls were graceful swans, they’d touch their breasts as they laugh and you’d just sit there with your budget imitation Coca-Cola and soggy Vegemite sandwich and wish wish wish.

My primary school personality was cornered, it had nowhere to go. I still had this sense that I had in primary school, that something was up, that it was all kinda bullshit. Yet I was overwhelmed by the enormity of this new project. High school had too many moving parts. It loomed, it had weight, it had feet and legs and menacing eyes. It whirred and wheezed and clanked. It tore itself from the soil, it exposed the plumbing of its underbelly. The photography lab dangled off one side, the English block was its arse, the Gym was its eyes. My clever little jokes couldn’t wrap around it. I collapsed, breathless, and all I could do was sit and hurl rocks at its underbelly as it happily munched on the souls of children.

Everyone got all chewed up. Grades suddenly mattered. We were acutely aware of where we all stood relative to one another. Stratified and numeralised, reduced like bitter caramel and burnt to the pan. We became 79s and 73s and 84s and heaven forbid 60-somethings. We had little tests all the time, then between the little tests we had the medium exams, and between the medium exams we had the big state competitions. Some of us went on TV for being smart, and came home with $19 alarm clocks and VHS tapes and proud parents.

Then you had the girls, the girls, the maddening girls, the pretty and unattainable ones, the sporty ones, the ones with access to recreational drugs, the ones with a freaky beatnik side and untamed bush, the one who Kyle claimed had said Slam my pussy you pin-dicked cunt, those exact words. All of them were fabulous and amazing, though absolutely none went anywhere near my ween.

It all got serious. Everything mattered to everyone. High school isn’t just high school. High school is University. High school is getting laid, getting married, finding the one. High school is art, self-discovery, and self-expression. High school is 24/7, round-the-clock, a teacher in the class for the day and a teacher in your head at night. It’s the girl you like in your dreams, rehearsed lines in the mirror, quiet sighs at the dinner table. It’s the past, future, and present. High school is knowing your rank. It’s wheat and chaff. Primary school is just primary school. High school is the whole world.

It was too big. I couldn’t get around it. I had psychic indigestion. I could feel the narrow drill bit quietly grinding away my bones, the insertion of hooks and the attaching of strings, their gentle pulls to test proper operation. I could hear the clicking of tape recorders, the adjustment of lapel microphones, a faint “Shh he’ll hear you. Keep quiet. Okay, Aden, now just act natural mate…”

I couldn’t understand high school the way I understood primary school. If I had run Division I as an inimical Richard Nixon in high school, a bitter hush would’ve set across the track. I would’ve heard Who’s the slow fucker? I would’ve been punched in the arm (or worse) for such a stunt, for humour at the expense of points, for ruining our shot at regionals. What changed?

Whatever was public, theatrical, and exuberant about me disappeared for the better part of high school. Under the panoptic discipline of the educational-meritocratic project, the gregarious critic and humourist in me collapsed in to breathy sardonic asides, rolled eyes, elbowed rib-cages.

I couldn’t get one-up on the teachers any more. A small handful of actual rows with actual consequences over the five years I was in school just taught me to keep my mouth shut. I couldn’t keep my cool. Once, my Maths teacher Mr. Pollock made a snarky joke about smokers deserving to die (I know, right?), and I had the opportunity to feel that joyous welling of completely righteous indignity. I took him to task, but I fumbled, I wasn’t clever. All that came out of my mouth was: Cunt. I ended up with my finger in his face outside class — totally decomposing, salty tears in my fiery pores, aware that the kids in my class could almost certainly hear my breakdown. Cunt. My mum smokes. Does my Mum deserve to die?

I wasn’t, in truth, that bothered that he implied something nasty about my Mum. I was bothered that I’d borne witness to an obvious abuse of authority and nobody had noticed. I could see an exposed purulent sore beneath the belly of the beast, I could see where Luke Skywalker may path and destroy the Death Star. Yet nobody cared — I was horrendously and imperially alone, king, jester, and peasantry of my Tiny Kingdom of Indignant Rightness. I was an exposed and wailing heretic on the precipice of truth and wetting my pants.

I found friends in pop culture. I liked Daria. I liked Rocko’s Modern Life, its hyperbolic parody of the suburban nightmare. I liked South Park, which had grown from mere vulgarity to cultural satire. I liked Fight Club once I’d read the Sparknotes about it. I liked all the movies about the end of the world: Deep Impact, Armageddon, Independence Day. What was happening in the school was happening in the world. Mother Earth was falling off her axes.

My classmates didn’t get it, they were chasing skirts and grades. I understood, though, and California understood, and Daria understood. We got it. We knew there would soon come a day where clouds would fall from the sky and explode like water balloons. We knew that some day we’d go home and our doorbells would malfunction and we’d be arrested by our own houses. We knew all the mothers would inexplicably wake up one day and forget their babies’ faces. We knew that the ocean would become a giant ice-skating rink. We understood that, sooner or later, we’d all be huddling around a fire and deciding who to eat first.

Okay. Neither me nor California nor Daria really understood. We knew shit was going down, but we didn’t know how or why. I had the vague sense it was due to conformists, soccer, and the internet. Or maybe it was Mr. Poe, Ms. Rettalack, and Sky News. Maybe it was those girls who blew up the photography lab with a discarded cigarette butt. Fuck, what if it was James Davey, Keal Byrne, and Loren Tippett? My own friends? Then again — it was probably some Da Vinci Code thing. Maybe the Universe had finished expanding and had started contracting in July 1996. Maybe it was the terrorists who blew up the twin towers, or George Bush Jr., or maybe George Bush Jr. blew up the twin towers.

School was huge and incomprehensible and the world was huge and incomprehensible. I was a bogged car, a plane driving off the end of the runway. I couldn’t put it all together. I couldn’t even tell that I couldn’t put it all together. I was a generalised aimless rage, a bubbling pool of lava in an underground cavern, an inarticulate sense of impending doom.

Everything became stupid and gay and conformist. Everything became pointless and weird and stupid. Everything became lame and idiotic and limp-dicked. Everything became moronic and faggy and worthless. Caring about anything was dumb. Sport sucked, grades sucked, girls sucked, parties sucked, cars sucked, people sucked. The world was a hungry Ouroboros and all anyone was concerned about was getting their bits fiddled with.

I was human spittle, a contemptuous exhalation of air through the nose, a narrowed stare. I was the only one that felt this way. I was the only one that knew It, It with a capital I. I wanted to get around It, understand It, and get on top of It, like I did in primary school. I couldn’t make sense of It though, everywhere I turned I confronted the limitations of my understanding. It was like a black cat in a Murakami novel — staring back at me coolly. I had an incommunicable disease of the soul.

I couldn’t get It. I declared the project a failure, I declared understanding impossible. I got mean, I got lonely. I was a wounded animal, curled up in the corner and hissing at anyone who looked at me. I conducted countless moral trials against my peers in my head. In my mental courtroom, they were sentenced for being mediocre, conformist, vain, stupid, myopic, shallow, and vapid. My enemy stopped being It, the system, the man, the invisible hand, and became instead those under its spell. My enemy became those who’d successfully learned school’s hidden curriculum, those who were invested in popularity and grades and the vain cult of hyper-competitive navel-gazing self-hood.

The irony was, of course, completely lost on me. I was falling under the spell too. I wanted the girls and to go to a good University. I started getting invited to parties. I said no, but I wanted to go, I really wanted to go, I wanted their approval. When Dave slammed the brakes and came to a perfect halt outside Warwick Train station, I quipped that his penis must be enormous. Everybody laughed. So suffused was I with the joy of acceptance that I can still remember that insignificant moment today.

They said if I go to a party, maybe an ugly girl would make out with me. They said I was a cool guy, not a nerd at all. They said they’d give me some weed, I could fall in to the spaces between the couch cushions and disappear for a while. Refusing their offers made me feel magnificent. I knew where I stood. I was above them. I was too good for them. They had their chance with me, and they blew it.

I wanted a good tertiary entrance rank. I wouldn’t accept anything less than the best University in the state. I wanted its cobblestone prestige. I used to walk along the beach, look at the big houses, and imagine how jealous all the girls would be when I lived on the beach. They’ll wish they’d touched my ween, gotten in on the ground floor.

I was the smartest, funniest, and most interesting and vivid person in the room—at the centre of our Godless universe. I knew it, I was sure of it. Once I got through the acne, maybe hit the gym, the whole world would be mine.

I was slipping in. School had me, nearly. It took five years. Five years of patient brooding. Five years of decalcified, brittle me under the enormous weight of school. I was in critical condition, on life support. All that was good about me had mutated in to something ugly. I was going, I was going, I’d be gone soon. Soon, I’d go to University, I’d get in to business, I’d find a hot girl and I’d marry her…

I was in deep —

— and then in 2003, it was over.

In 2011, I went back to visit High School. I was invited in to the staff room, and Mr. Pollock— with whom I’d had that fabulous, teary row — was there. He was clearly tired. He made some gendered quip that nobody acknowledged. I felt sorry for him. I told him the few things I could remember liking about his teaching. The bricks sighed. The carpet peeled at the corner. The loudest sound in the room was the click of a kettle. High school still devoured the souls of children. It never got me though, not quite, I got out before the work was done. I got out whilst there was still something of me left.

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