The Last Year

1986: Perth, Australia

My last year of high school was a doozy. I triumphed, I failed, I succumbed to fear, I overcame fear, I surprised myself, I surprised others and I made it through. It was 1/17 of my life – and it was 27 years ago – but I remember it more clearly than many of the years since.

In Years 9 and 10, I suffered the wrath of the bullies.  They seemed to be everywhere I was and I fell prey to the gum in my hair, the pushing and shoving, the nasty comments, and the eggs that landed on my face and body as I walked home from school. I hated the bullies. I hated school because of the bullies. School became a daily battlefield, or rather a minefield I navigated so as to avoid the bullies. I would make strategic trips to the library where I pretended to read for the duration of recess and lunch.

At the end of Year 10, the bullies left – every one of them – and I stayed on to complete my Year 11 and 12 studies. Year 11 felt like letting out my breath after holding it for 2 years – and then it felt like I was punched in the stomach and winded all over again. Year 11 is hard in Australian schools. A’s that came easily only months before had to be earned – hard-earned. Homework and study increased ten-fold – just to stay afloat. And, there were the boys.

My friends and I hung out with the popular, older boys. They had names like Rob and Scott and Jeremy. They were cool, they were good looking and some of them were even nice. They were also a huge distraction from school and from being a normal person. As their faithful followers, we would find ourselves watching hours of basketball – they all played – which is a sport I can barely stomach now. We would hang out and talk shit and hook up with them in rotation. I wish I had the chance to remind my 16-year old self that she is smart, she is talented and she needs to stop watching so much basketball and pursue things that are more worthwhile – like acting and writing.

And then came Year 12, which was a whole different animal.

Fear – Succumbing

In 1986, my parents had somehow found the money to send me on the school’s Ski Trip. I had kicked in most (all?) of my savings, but it was a huge deal that they did that for me. I like to think that I truly appreciated it at the time, but something tells me that I felt entitled. Regardless, I got to go. It was a one-week trip and ridiculously, we spent four of the days on a coach travelling across the Nullarbor – essentially across 2/3 of the continent of Australia. We took two days to get there, then had three days on the snow before we made the return journey. It is worth noting that the next time the school did the trip, they flew.

We were skiing Mt Hotham in Victoria. It was a beautiful place, the sun was shining and I was terrified beyond belief. We did not get skiing instruction as part of the trip, so my instruction came from a patient teacher who was chaperoning the group. I made it onto the ski lift with a reasonable amount of grace, and then spent the next few minutes concentrating on how the hell to get off the ski lift. The teacher was talking me through it, but it really is the sort of thing you have to do to learn how to do it. When it was our turn, I managed okay. It wasn’t a perfect dismount by any measure, but at least they didn’t have to stop the lift.

And then came the actual skiing. On my first run, I fell about 27 times. Actually, it was more like diving into the snow. Any time I would get up speed, I would become terrified and throw myself to the snow in an attempt to stop. My teacher continued to encourage me. I was snow ploughing my bloody little heart out, but skiing and me just did not mix. I did not want to go down that mountain. But I did want to be down the mountain. Why, oh why had he made me go up it in the first place?? Finally, I made it. And somehow he managed to talk me into having another go. Good grief! At the end of my second run, I couldn’t stop properly and skied right into the line for the lifts, knocking down a dozen people. I was humiliated, and despite protestations that I was doing better, I shook off the encouragement and sulked my way back to the lodge, where I curled up with hot chocolate and a book.

The next day, I was told that because my parents had spent a lot of money on the trip, I would have to go back out onto the ski field for at least two more runs. I did as I was told, hating every terrifying moment, and again returned to the lodge and the same book. I stubbornly refused to ski the third and final day. I did not have a miserable time on the ski trip – everything other than the skiing and travelling 2/3 of the way across the continent on a bus – twice – was great. But I let fear win out.

Fear – Triumph

I was afraid. They were holding auditions for the school play – the first one that the school would produce since I had arrived in Year 9 – and I was terrified about auditioning. I shouldn’t have been. While at school in the United States (Years 5 to 9) my favourite subject was Speech and Drama. I had trophies for competing in and winning Speech and Drama tournaments. But my Australian high school didn’t have Drama. It had been years since I had auditioned or performed, and even though the itch inside me was palpable, I stood against the wall of the gym and watched a dozen girls give a mediocre rendition of Nancy from Oliver, one after the other in quick succession. The voice inside my head started screaming at me. Get out there. You can do this. You’re better than all of them. I stayed put.

At the end of lunchtime I made my way over to the director – one of the Science teachers and a seemingly frustrated Thespian. “Excuse me, Miss.” She smiled at me questioningly. “I would like to audition for Nancy. I know I should have put my hand up before, but…” She stopped me. Perhaps she could see how excruciating the request was for me.  “Come back after school. I will meet you here.” I guess she hadn’t seen a Nancy amongst the lunch-time auditioners either.

I showed up the minute after the final siren. It was just the two of us. We read the scene where Bill Sykes threatens Nancy. My stiff acting muscles started to feel supple as I unfolded into the role; she was both strong and fragile. When we finished the scene, I looked over at the teacher and she was beaming at me. “Can you sing?” she asked. “I guess so.”  Did singing in the church choir count, I wondered. “Sing me something.” My mind went blank, and then a line popped into my head. “Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens…” I sang the first verse of “Favourite Things” and stopped. I looked at her expectantly. She smiled. “I think you’ll make a wonderful Nancy,” she said. Tears sprung to my eyes and I ran over to hug her. Then I ran all the way home so I could tell my family.

I am told that I was a good Nancy; I certainly loved playing her.

In 1986 I also had a bout of Glandular Fever (a.k.a. Mono). The doctor told me I would be in bed for three months. I knew that I didn’t have that kind of time to lay around doing nothing more than convalescing – I was in Year 12! Hello??!! – so I was well and back at school within three weeks.

That was also the year that I moved four times. My sister and I moved from my dad and step-mum’s house to live with our mum. However, the first rental property didn’t work out for us as planned, so we lived in one house, had to move, but didn’t have a new place yet, so lived with my aunt and uncle for a while, and then found a more permanent rental. After all that it was decided that I would go back to living with my dad and step-mum, and that my sister would stay with my mum. That was a lot of packing and unpacking.

Overall, Year 12 was a refreshing change from everything that had gone before. Despite the challenges with my living situation and my health, I hit my stride in my classes, the popular, older boys were gone (along with the distraction), and the year group formed a tight-knit unit. We collaborated, we took full advantage of our own common room, we bonded over crappy teachers – and good ones – and we supported each other through an intense year of study and all the other things that you take on in Year 12. I am proud to say that I am still friends with people I was friends with in Year 12.  (I am also proud to say that I am still friends with one of the girls who didn’t like me so much in Years 9 and 10. I ‘converted’ her, but that is another story…)

When I look back on seventeen-year-old Sandy, I am mostly impressed by her. She was resilient, she worked hard, she was a good friend and a good student. She discovered new talents (she came first in Accounting), dusted off a beloved one, and honoured her writing talent by coming second in English.

She could have been a more understanding and loving daughter and sister, but she was just seventeen and she didn’t know that then. She does well with that now, though.



One thought on “The Last Year

  • wow flashbacks, memories of things and a time that are in many ways faded and others crystal clear. reading your recollections and thoughts in some ways is a revelation as even though I was through many of those times I don’t think I really knew what made you happy or sad and these times in particular. But then I wonder if any of us did or could? Ok all melancholy now. I know that when you first came to the school most of us bullied you with no awareness of the implications of that or what we were doing. I had no idea you sought refuge in the library. As an avid campaigner against bullying now and seeking to bring awareness to stop it, I wonder what incited us and what might have meant we never did it? The answers to these questions may be able to shed further insights into bullying and maybe offer new ways to address it…. My thoughts are that almost seemed a cultural thing or a belief that there needed to be someone that was a target of bullying for no other reason and any excuse was valid? We never had talks back then about bullying and if we did would we have been kinder or just become more sneaky how we did it? I also know one of our teachers is now a high profile anti-bullying educator and did her time at our school (she only ever taught there) show her what she didn’t want to see? I’m pleased that I am one of those that did become friends by the end of year 9 and still are today but still whatever part I played prior is not right and ignorance is no excuse. Sorry
    And yes you did play a great Nancy and you were then as you are now a great writer 😀

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