Over the past few weeks, I have been doing some work for my old primary school. It’s a rather bizarre experience to go back to one’s primary school, walk the halls and experience those same halls as an adult. The building that once seemed so huge is now so cramped and small. The furniture that once accommodated me as a kid now makes me feel like a giant, towering over tiny chairs and tables that could not possibly serve any purpose to me anymore.
For many people, revisiting their primary school would not even register on their radar. For me, it has brought back many memories, many or even most have not been happy memories.
When I was in primary school, I didn’t have many friends, I did not play team sports, I did not socialise much outside of school, and almost never slept over at friends houses. I generally kept to myself in the school yard, or occasionally played with kids in younger classes than my own, ensuring a level of anonymity, as apart from recess and lunch, I would not see those kids in a classroom or outside school. I loathed to be called on in class, rarely answered questions unless pressured or forced to by the teacher, and did not actively engage with class activities more than the bare minimum. As a result of my distancing from the others in my class, I was rarely invited over to play or to stay the night, never attended activities outside of school such as discos, parties, movies etc. I certainly never had friends come over to our house, much less sleep over.
I even went as far as acting out in class to avoid having to participate. I couldn’t be a part of a class activity if I was sitting outside the principal’s office. It was all very logical and strategic in my mind at the time.
You see, at home, life was not so great. My father was verbally, emotionally, and on occasion, physically abusive. I feared him, and I feared his judgement of any friends I considered socialising with.
At the time, I did not realise what was happening, or even that it was not a normal environment. I was a kid, what would I know? I did know not to upset or go against him. The old saying ‘Don’t poke the sleeping bear’ definitely had relevance.
Looking back, I threw out so many warning signs, almost like a subtle call for help. Only one teacher took notice. These days there would be intervention almost immediately, but back then, not so much. The one teacher who noticed was my only male teacher in Primary School. I remember it well. I had been my usual silent and distant self in class, participating a little then retracting. He had thrown a few looks in my direction through the morning class, and when the lunch bell sounded he dismissed us, but kept me back. He asked me if I was ok. I answered yes. I lied. He pointed out that I had not been involved in the class as much as usual (which was still barely at all) and asked again if I was okay. I was silent for a few moments, trying to think of a convincing lie. I burst into tears. Uncontrollable tears. I tried telling him some pathetic story in between sobs, but I knew that he was not buying it, so I stopped talking. He said that he was always there if I needed to talk, but did not push things. This was the first adult outside of my family that had ever spoken to me as if I was more than just a kid. He was treating me as an adult, allowing me to decide when to approach him and talk. He was also the ONLY teacher throughout my early school life that had ever offered any sign of help.
Every other teacher throughout my primary education had punished me, sent me to the principal’s office, suspended me or even expelled me. None had asked me if I was ok.
Although I lied, and he didn’t push, and I never actively went to him to explain, or ask him for help, that moment was a catalyst for change. It was the moment I realised that everything was NOT okay. It was the moment I realised that life at home was not the normal home life that most or all of my classmates were experiencing.
Looking over my old school photos, I feel a level of sadness. Not that I miss those days, quite the opposite. What I do feel is regret. Regret that I missed out on so many opportunities for friendships, parties, sleep-overs and happiness. I have recently started to try to connect with some people from my school days, but many still see me as the recluse weirdo that acted out and caused trouble. I don’t blame them, I would probably be thinking the same if the tables were turned. I guess no one really knows someone’s story until it is told.
That kid that does not attend a disco or a party might not have been invited, or has poor social skills because they have never been to one before.
That kid that doesn’t play or participate in team sport might fear getting changed in the locker room and exposing bruises.
That strange kid in the playground could be lacking in social skills because they are pushing people away, avoiding confrontation and friendship to mask trouble at home.
That kid that doesn’t want to share their lunch might be struggling with an eating disorder, or has a severe allergy.
Everyone has a story, and a person is no more or no less a person for keeping it to themselves, or for sharing it in their own time.
I wish that kids at school were taught this, as it might actually help a classmate, a friend or even that ‘weird kid’ in the school yard. Kids don’t just act out for no reason. There is always an underlying reason, but sometimes it takes hard work to get to the root cause.
Other times it just takes a caring person to ask “Are you OK?”