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.



back on the horse

Road to Whistler

On Saturday, April 4th, Ben and I made the drive from Vancouver to Whistler in good time, despite the copious roadworks. Our accommodation in Whistler was ready for us at 9am – 7 hours before check in – which suited us perfectly, because we could change for the slopes in our apartment rather than the car park. The sun was warm, and the day would yield blue skies, which was stark contrast from the -12C weather I’d experienced my first time there in 2007. We had prepaid our rentals and ski passes, so were geared up and ready to ski by 10:30am. Not bad for leaving Vancouver at 7:30.

The only thing tainting a perfect morning was my nerves. I always get a little nervous before skiing, because I am relatively new to it, but these nerves were making it hard to concentrate on anything other than the steep runs of Whistler Mountain. I haven’t skied many places, but when I skied Whistler in 2007, I felt liked it kicked my butt. The green runs were steeper than I had experienced before and the bottom half of the mountain was icy, which means a novice spends more time slipping and sliding than skiing.

“Are you okay,” asked Ben, noticing my apprehension.

“I feel like I did right before we went sky diving.” I wasn’t kidding, and no matter how hard I tried, I could not talk myself out of that fear.

We rode the gondola to the top of Whistler and Ben had already said that he would ski part the way down with me on the green runs ‘to warm up’. I was happy with that, and by the time I was actually standing on my skis and could see the powdery snow, I was feeling more calm. The run started well, mostly because I have had quite a few more hours on skis since my first time at Whistler. Add to that the gorgeous weather, powdery snow, and a grinning boyfriend skiing next to me, and my nerves dissipated. “I can do this,” I thought as I handled slopes that would have scared me not too long ago.

first run

Then it happened: I started having fun.

I let myself pick up speed. I tried more parallel turns (nearly there), and I took bigger chances than I usually would. I was loving it, and even laughed off a clumsy fall, which happened when I overturned and headed down the mountain backwards. I also managed a terrific parallel stop which amazed me. I didn’t know I could do that!

Ben skied off in between trees, because he can, and was pulling off a spectacular cross-country maneuver when the edge of my uphill ski clipped something hard, crossed over my other ski and I fell face forward down the slope. I put my arms out to break my fall, and ‘pop’ went my right shoulder, which is a horrible sound to hear when you fall. More horrible was the pain that shot from my shoulder to my neck and down the length of my arm. I rolled onto my back, and lay there, swearing. The swearing part was involuntary, because it was the kind of pain that makes you feel a bit nauseous.

Ben came back and helped me to my feet. He retrieved my wayward ski and helped me back onto it. He wiped off the outside – and inside – of my goggles, and I reassured him that I was okay to keep going. I cursed my clumsiness, and we got back to the business of skiing down the mountain.

The thing was, we had skied most of the soft, powdery snow. Fairly soon after my fall we hit the mid-mountain runs which were icy and more steep than those at the top. And not only did my shoulder hurt, I also started to feel the after effects of the fall. Physically, the adrenaline was wearing off, and I became shaky and weak. Mentally, I lost my ‘mojo’. All confidence was gone, and when we turned on to trails I previously would have attacked (in my clumsy, novice way), I was scared again.

We got to a major junction where Ben could get on a ski lift to more challenging parts of the mountain. I kind of begged him to ‘go on without me’. I wasn’t being dramatic. I just didn’t want to completely fall apart in front of him. He seemed disappointed, and I wasn’t sure at the time whether it was ‘for me’ or ‘in me’, but perhaps it was a little of both. He got in line for the lift, and grateful to be on my own, I continued on my way down the mountain. ‘Snowplough’ featured heavily on my descent, even though I have been beyond that for some time now.

I skied 2/3 of the way down, and came upon a gondola station where I could ride the rest of the way to Whistler Village. As I leaned against the bench in the gondola I let my tears of frustration fall. I had a stern ‘get back on the horse’ talk with myself, and I knew that if Ben was disappointed in me – even if only a little – it could not compare to how annoyed I was at myself.

At the bottom of the mountain I splashed water on my face, looked hard at myself in the mirror and shook off my feelings of self-derision. I killed time before lunch with Ben by mooching about shops, and when I entered l’Occitane, I was greeted by three Aussie accents. I spent about half an hour having a chat with lovely young ex-pats who were good company, and let me try lots of different products. When I left for lunch I was feeling – and smelling – better.

Over lunch, Ben and I decided that we would start the next day by riding the Peak to Peak gondola that runs from the top of Whistler to the top of Blackcomb Mountain. There were green runs from there all the way down Blackcomb, so I could rest up for the rest of the day and then start fresh in the morning. I was committed to getting back on the horse. I spent the afternoon alone, but not lonely, nursing my aching shoulder. We then spent a lovely evening which included the resort’s hot tub, drinks by the fireplace of a wine bar, and a gourmet Japanese dinner.

I slept carefully, mostly on my left side, keeping my right arm close to me like an injured wing. When I woke on Sunday and tried to do something simple, like pushing the covers off me, I knew I wouldn’t be skiing that day either. My should and upper arm hurt worse, and showering, drying myself and especially getting into a turtleneck all presented challenges and required help from Ben. To put myself, a relative novice, on skis for the day would be irresponsible. Damn it!

I thought of wasted money and wasted opportunities – to ski again with Ben, to improve my turns, to ski under blue skies. I so desperately want to get past the part where skiing is somewhat challenging and even a little scary and onto loving it. It did occur to me to stay in our lovely apartment and read, but that thought did not last long.

I suited up for a day in the snow, and rode to gondola to the top of Whistler with Ben. We then boarded the Peak to Peak gondola, which holds the record for the longest span between towers (3 kms).


The ride gave us incredible views, including those from the window in the floor of the cabin.

(a)cross the river

selves portrait

almost straight down

Once on top of Blackcomb, I took a few shots and Ben kissed me goodbye before skiing off.

On top of the world

I headed indoors for a hot cuppa. I wrote most of this post in a notebook while I sipped a hot mocha and looked out at a breathtaking view.

Top of Blackcomb

When the table next to mine filled with three families who shared a total of seven children under six, I made a beeline for the door. (I knew I could not listen to much more whining about who got the most M&M’s.)


cable car

The ride back across the Peak to Peak was just as enjoyable, and I met a lovely Mexican couple who put me onto Arnica (a natural remedy) for my shoulder. I sought it out when I got to the base of the mountain, but two days later am still achy and sore. More rest, some anti-inflammatory pills, and keeping up with the Arnica will hopefully have me back to boxing class next week.

The rest of our time away was wonderful. We had evening drinks outdoors because the weather was so mild –

Apres Ski

and took a morning walk along a trail through the woods before we left.

Frozen Lake

Early morning walk

I got over the disappointment of not skiing, and am keen to hit the slopes again soon – mostly likely in Washington, if we can make time before the end of the season. My turns are coming along, and I really want to get better. I will ski Whistler again some day, but for now she remains the victor. She is beautiful, but she kicked my butt again.