Saturday, September 22, 2012

Why I don't write about school

I'm getting ready to take up work on one of my novels about anthropomorphic animals again.

Every so often someone suggests that I should write something set in a school, because "that sells".
I don't really want to. My school memories don't make a story. They make the opposite of a story, images of a place where nothing follows from anything, and nothing ever changes.

Here are some of my clearer memories:

In primary school I get desperate about the shrieking and yelling that happens every time the teacher leaves the room for a minute.
This is year one.
I think about the years still ahead and feel something needs to be done. I can't tell them to shut up, but maybe I can bribe them...
I make a list of everyone and start crossing out the names of the noisy kids, planning to give the quiet ones that are left at the end of the day presents, whatever I have. I go through my belongings in my head and wonder what I can spare. Not my pencil case. Maybe I can draw them something?
Some days later I notice that no one has spoken to me for ages. I don't have friends yet, so it takes me a while to become aware of it. I speak to some classmates and they just turn away. It's bizarre and frightening.
When I collapse in a puddle of tears and my mother phones the school to ask what happened, it turns out that the whole class has decreed me an outcast and informer because I "write down names for the teacher". - I did manage to silence them, after all. I have to apologise to my classmates, and they graciously agree to talk to me again as long as I behave. But I don't think they ever quite forget that I'm a spy.

For the first couple of years, I am just about the smallest child in school, and I have no idea how to communicate with all these people. They don't like my drawings and they don't care for my stories, except the teacher who always reads out my homework to the class.
I get beaten up so much that it makes me late for lessons. I hide in the classroom so I don't have to go to recess, which doesn't work out. Once I get thrown down the stairs to the boys' toilet. I tell a teacher and she only says: "What were you doing by the boys' toilet?"
Then I get punished for telling.

One day a girl squeezes my pack of orange juice so it squirts into my face. A teacher sees it and grabs both of us. She forces me to spray the rest of the juice onto the offending girl, then walks off.
I cry because I am really thirsty. Why did I have to lose all the juice? I would have just ignored that girl as usual. Everyone gets stuff sprayed in their face after all, and it wasn't even ink.

The worst thing I get beaten with is a stick of climbing roses. I have no idea who the boys are, they just happen to be passing and they have a thorny stick to use on someone, it just happens to be me.
Another time I have to lick someone's shoes.
Eventually, there are some smaller kids than me in school. I think that will improve matters, it turns out they are exactly the right height to punch me in the stomach really hard.
I never get to eat my lunch or keep any money that I carry. The usual thing is that they punch me, take what they want and tell me to count to a hundred. I would just give them the stuff without getting punched first but it doesn't seem to be an option.

I get told that I should stand up straight and smile more to make friends.
I smile at a boy who seems nice and he throws his backpack at my head hard enough to knock me down and make me see stars. I smile at him again, get up and go home, keeping my head high.
I learn to smile at them in a way that sometimes makes them stop.

I discover that sniffing Nutella makes me sick enough to stay home for a day. I have to put my nose right into the jar and breathe really deeply as long as I can while my mother is not looking. It makes me pale and dizzy just long enough for her to put me back to bed and go to work. Then I spend the day drawing and making up stories.
Life greatly improves, except that now I get bullied by a whole new range of kids who say I am pretending to be sick, no one can be sick that often.
I don't really care.

I am standing on my table on class as a punishment. The teacher cackles and screeches and points at me, saying: "Look, look, this is what a stupid girl looks like." She makes them all laugh and point. What I said is that there is only one kind of black. She was showing us a famous painting of a man in a golden helmet that is mostly dark, and she told us to notice the different shades of black. I say that there is only one black, the colour of no light at all. The rest are just very dark colours.
"Only one kind of black!" she screeches. "Ha ha haaa!"
Black, incidentally, is my family name. That's why I forgot that you don't speak up to this teacher.

Another day a child gives her a painting of a blue bird as a present. She holds it up and says to the class: "This painting is sadly wrong on two important counts. Firstly, birds do not fly with their legs dangling down. They tuck them up. Secondly, there are no blue birds in this country."
She makes us laugh at the wrong bird.
The girl who painted it silent. I want to say that there are blue birds in other countries, but this time I remember it's a bad idea to disagree about colours here.

I want to be friends with the tiny girl who throws a pose when she is made to stand on the table. "Look at her, the smallest girl in the whole school but all the boys have noticed you already", says the teacher. "Look at that girl, boys, you will be spending a lot of time with that one." The tiny girl laughs and curtsies.
I don't know how to make friends, though.

I give up the idea that school is for learning anything at all. I have no idea why I'm here.
Somehow I managed to get the attention of the Headmaster, who calls me a witch child. I snapped at him once when he grabbed the back of my jumper while I was running past. I hate it when people touch me without warning. He made a face like he had touched a turd, and is remembering me still. When he hands out worksheets, he makes sure to throw mine in my face, making a dry spitting noise.
I'm starting to think that it is my job in this place to get beaten up.

Sometimes I fight back, especially if someone won't let me go and can't be ignored. One boy claims he needed to get a rabies jab after school because they didn't fully believe that it wasn't a dog that attacked him.

I'm not going to write any novels about school, because I don't really know what school is like. My mind was elsewhere most of the time.

These days I'm fine with it all, with distance. Life is brilliant. I am what back then I was wishing hard I could be: an adult. And that's thoroughly wonderful. Nothing has ever been as rubbish as being a small school child. Sometimes I hear of children having bad times, often much worse than I did. It makes me feel sick and angry, especially if it's parents telling me about it - strangers on the train, telling me that their badly bullied children are "gutless wimps" who will "fail". They ask me for advice on how to toughen them up, seeing that I make books for children and thus "maybe understand these things". All I want to say is "No, I don't understand YOU. My parents helped me out whenever they realised what was going on. That's why I'm able to talk to you without biting you, I think." But I am not completely sure I can, so generally I just pretend I have to leave.

I'm going to stick with fantasy stories about anthropomorphic animals, which, incidentally, is exactly what I was making up when I was small.
I have loads of great memories of that.


Emma Collins Ba (Hons) said...

The people in your school were utter shits!!! It sounds like you had an awful time! At least you are a happy adult now :)
You could write a story where you seek revenge on the nasty children...but that may be a different kind of story haha.
I remember loving school but felt awkward and found it hard to make friends...I remember when a Spanish girl came to my school and we pretended to be dragons. It was nice.

Viviane Schwarz said...

There were some teachers at that school who I would say were unpleasant people. Especially that teacher who made people stand on a table. I hated her. She always tricked us into making mistakes so we could be ridiculed, like one day asking everyone to tell the class what their lucky charm was and then saying it's all sinful in the eyes of God.
I was going to tell her what I thought of her the last day in school, but I didn't see her.
I put her in my graphic novel, except she was big with jowls and I made her skinny because big female teachers get hated on enough by kids, I felt.

But mostly it was a normal school. The kids were not bad, but the system rewarded bullying, and I was awkward and small.

I heard much worse from UK friends who were put in cupboards by the teachers or beaten, at least that kind of stuff wasn't legal in Germany.

There was a lot of racism going on as well, lots of kids who had no chance of ever getting anywhere no matter how hard they worked because our teacher would mark them down for everything.

I got bullied every now and then for being a "monkey" and a "foreign whore", the bullies were kind enough to explain that those are names for "people with brown eyes". - They don't even know what they are saying, it's the responsibility of the adults in charge to make them understand what bullying even means.

School could be a wonderful place - learning is great, and positive interaction is great, too.

Emma Collins Ba (Hons) said...

Yeah, having good teachers can really make school a great place...i'm glad you put the evil teacher in your graphic novel. I think villains look good skinny...seems to make them seem more evil somehow!
Yeah my years at school weren't the worst. I was just an odd child, people seemed much meaner when I got to high school...mainly cause I got good grades (at first) and because I like rock music...
Wow! What horrible things to say! The parents are usually as bad as the kids, which is sad.

I agree. I loved a lot of my time at school, especially when I had an enthusiastic teacher! (I had a teacher who used to bring rocks and fossils in...I loved that a teacher way...I love rocks :P )

Viviane Schwarz said...

Ah, some kids manage to get their rubbish from unrelated adults... it's just easy and full of instant rewards to be a bully, and helps massively with a wide range of vague fears and complications.

Emma Collins Ba (Hons) said...

Bullies suck.

Kathleen Jago said...

I for one am grateful and glad that you chose to write about school for your blog. Horrible experiences of being an outsider in any way are good for forming an *actual* person with something sincere and substantial to offer; blessings in disguise, especially if we can help others going through the same sort of thing. Maybe if you are ever possessed by some school idea it'd be in that spirit. Anyway, thank you.

Viviane Schwarz said...

Oh, good...
I think we all take fuel where we get it to shape our personalities, and it's lucky if you get a useful balance of positive and negative. - I got lots of support from my family early on especially regarding art, and am feeling fortunate and grateful for that.
If I could think of a book that makes some bullies reconsider what they are doing, I would, maybe one day I'll get my head around that.

Paulette said...

I am so sorry that you experienced such shocking behavior, from the students and the teachers. As I was reading your post, I was reminded of another author who was subjected to abuse at school: Roald Dahl. In his autobiography, "Boy", he names his tormentors - the sadistic teachers and head masters. It's absolutely lovely. His novel, "Matilda", is another example of the same theme.

That you were able to find a way to cope is a credit to you and your parents.

Viviane Schwarz said...

I have a very strong set of positive memories about school buildings, which are all about going in the late afternoon with my mother who at the time was a school teacher. She always had lessons to prepare, and I got to spend time in the pottery studio, the library, the science collection ... Rooms that were mostly mythical in my own school. It was silent, there were amazing things everywhere. That's what I still connect with the smell of school.
It taught me that schools were not bad places as such.
I helped designing worksheets, sometimes with pop-up elements, and learned a whole lot about interactivity that way. Most of how the cat books work comes from that time.
My first paid commission was to do some text book illustrations when my mother got a job writing and editing those...

Jackie K said...

Hi, I just found your blog via Twitter and just read this. My jaw dropped reading what you went through. And from your replies to comments here you have clearly thought long and hard about this and have such a good understanding of the things that feed bullying.
My mother had a cruel teacher in her first year of school, much like yours, who set kids up, ridiculed them and punished them severely. It affected her outlook on school and life, forever.
I have a child who is awkward and having trouble making friends, and this is one of the pages I am bookmarking to help me help her.

Swati said...

I'm here after such a long time, trying to read back to where I left. And this. Just clench my hands helplessly, for that little one.

I never had any such experience, nor did I know of anyone who did. I wonder if the kind of schools I went to made a difference, or was it just that there were mostly fewer girls and they stuck together, or the kind of families we had, or our culture, or the way we were taught... I don't know how to deal with it, how to protect my child in such a situation, how to react. It is scary.