Growing up in the Shire was easy for me but I had a few things on my side. I wrote this piece for a non-fiction writing competition I entered last year. The competition has closed and I didn’t win a cracker! However I still think it’s a pretty good story. The theme of the competition was growing up in Australia. It’s a true story. It may be a tad too parochial for places beyond Australia. Some of the cultural references may not land right. The original piece did not have subheadings. They are there for the SEO!
Growing up in the Shire.
I grew up in “The Shire” in the 1960s and 70s. Back then it wasn’t THE Shire, just plain old Sutherland Shire at the arse-end of Sydney. Captain Cook’s Landing Place and hence the Birthplace of the Nation.
Cronulla was only famous for its sandhills and beaches not riots. The refinery at Kurnell was still pumping out petrol and the Royal National Park caught on fire at infrequent intervals.
It was a place where meat and three veg appeared on the table every night, except Friday night when the Dads stayed at the pub even later than they did every other night and the Mums would wait (im)patiently at home. The Dads’ dinners waited too, on top of a saucepan of boiling water turning into a dried-up biscuit of tough meat and grey vegetables. Microwaves were yet to be invented. The only way to serve spaghetti was out of a tin and mashed potato wrapped up in devon was the height of culinary sophistication.
The only restaurants in my home town were two Chinese cafes, a swanky Swiss fondue place and a milk bar owned by the Wogs that (allegedly) sold Pal burgers. Mind you, it was a progressive town! When Pizza Hut opened in the early 70s the line up to get in extended down the street for weeks. It was especially long on “All-you-can-eat Tuesdays”. We’d take turns to sniff the spew-cheese in the shaker bottles and congratulate ourselves for trying pepperoni.
You get the picture?
Anglo and middle-class.
Sexist, racist, able-ist
As we walked to school on opposite sides of the street, the public school kids chanted “Catholics! Catholics! Make me sick! Call the doctor quick! quick! QUICK!” A similar refrain was hurled back across the road by the Catholic school kids.
Girls skipped and played elastics while the boys played marbles or dug holes in the dirt patch. Only the girls did sewing and cooking and only the boys did woodwork.
You’ve got the idea?
Anglo, middle-class, Protestant and sexist.
There weren’t any gay people at my school. Not one! I’m sure. We never saw a poofter, not once! Although it did turn out one of our teachers was a paedo!
And then there was that spastic kid who had no ears because his mother had used thalidomide. The boys would twang the piece of elastic that held his glasses in place. And we’d laugh.
Anglo, middle-class, Protestant, sexist and intolerant.
I can’t imagine how it must have been if you were “different”. Lucky for me, I was white, middle-class, agnostic and female. My ancestors came from Germany but let’s not mention that. I was smart and cute, so that helped make up for the female bit. I could wangle things to get my own way most of the time. My life was easy.
It was another story for the two Georges in my year group, they didn’t have it so easy.
There was a George that nobody liked because he flapped, and a George nobody liked because he was Aboriginal. Flapping George was there from Kinder right through to Year 12. Naughty George turned up one day in Year 3 and I’m not sure when he disappeared, but it was sometime around Year 9.
I can still visualize Flapping George’s curly sandy hair crowning his pale freckled face. The face that was twisted with frustration and despair. The mouth that tried to squeeze out words. What words, I’m not sure but probably ‘get lost’ or ‘leave me ALONE’. We’d crowd around him, and if we played it right, George would jump up and down on his skinny, even more, freckled legs, and screw up his little face tighter and tighter. Then, at the zenith of the taunting, his hands would begin to flap like windscreen wipers and everyone would laugh and run away squealing with delight, and flapping their arms in unison having achieved the group’s goal. We had tipped George into a screaming rage.
Satisfied with our handiwork, we’d move on to harass the other George. The Naughty George. The George who always got into fights.The one with the fat lips and black skin. The George that everyone was a little bit scared of but not so scared it prevented us from teasing him. The one, later in high school, we would call Lamington. This George just turned up at school one day, all of a sudden and without warning. He was dropped headfirst into the lives of a “kind normal family who were being so generous to take him in”.
As an adult, I look back now and see the obvious truths not known or contemplated as a child. Flapping George was autistic and Naughty George, a member of the Stolen Generation. And I was in cahoots with the bullies. Where were the teachers telling us to stop? Where were the adults telling us to be kind?
As Flapping George grew up, he was able to control his flapping and although he was still bullied he “learned” to cope. His autism affected us less and hence stopped being a problem (for us). No doubt he went home from school each day, exhausted from his efforts to mask his autism and appear “normal”.
As I said, I don’t know what happened to Naughty George. We ‘jokingly’ said he’d gone on walkabout.
My future-self shamed by my past-self.
My 2021-self is ashamed of the 1970-self. I strongly admonish my child-self. I was a cruel and perverse bully. At the very best, I would describe myself as a bystander. A person who stood by and watched evil happen.
Part of me wants to protest that I didn’t know any better. That everyone did it and I was part of a society whose intolerance for diversity was accepted, expected and widespread. Deep down I knew it was wrong, even back then, to be so mean. But if I didn’t join in it could be me that suffered the wrath of the “typicals”. That’s how bullying works. In Year 10 I cowered under the desk in Tech Drawing class while the boys threw little pin darts at me because “girls weren’t meant to do Tech Drawing”. The teachers did nothing, despite my complaints. I apparently got what I deserved.
While bullies still exist in schools and the wider world, things have improved, a little. We are more tolerant, yes, but there is still a very long way to go. As a society, Australians are still, racist, sexist, ageist, able-ist, homophobic, and intolerant of any variation from the hegemonic norm.
Will we ever live in a world where we are free to be ourselves? As diverse as our genes and desires are capable of expressing? Where sexuality and gender will be viewed in the same light as height, as a non-binary continuum? Where your skin colour does not define whether you live or die in the hands of the law. Can we do it? I hope so. How much longer will it take?
A late apology
I fervently hope that the two Georges are safe and well and will accept my adult apology for my childhood behaviour. I am sorry George(s) for my part in your suffering.