(The image shows a painting of Florence Nightingale holding a lamp.)
When I was in year 12 I wrote a ‘quote of the day’ in my school diary. Sometimes the quotes were from famous people like Oscar Wilde (he was terribly witty and sometimes it feels good to copy that stuff down with a pen). Sometimes the quote was something a friend had said.
The majority of my quotes of the day came from my maths teacher, Fletch.
27 January 1999: “It’s us against the rest of the state…up the front.”
On the first day of Year 12 Specialist Maths we sat at the back of the classroom (we were all maths nerds so it was our one chance). When Fletch came in he made us move to the front tables then gave us a motivational speech. He said the only way we country state school students could compete against the fancy private schools was to work together. We rolled our eyes and acted like it was stupid, but as the year went on we developed some top quality academic camaraderie, and just quietly, we did okay.
4 Febuary 1999: “We haven’t multiplied vectors yet. Shut up Rod.”
Fletch was a self-reflective teacher and kept up a running commentary on his performance as he taught. When he felt he’d made a wrong turn he told himself to shut up. Every time, I wrote it down.
10 March 1999: “I just thought I’d better tell you; I’m in Florence Nightingale mode.”
Fletch told us that when tackling a difficult maths problem you should be like Florence Nightingale holding her lantern. You can’t always see the whole path, but you can see where to take the next step. He returned to this analogy often and would sometimes mime holding a lantern while doing a difficult problem at the board.
The Florence Nightingale technique doesn’t just work for maths. I have found his advice useful in writing, life and drinking wine.
10 May 1999: “Aw bum, I mean sugar.”
Cute! He’d probably made a sign error.
16 August: “Go mg sin theta!”
Fletch told us he would shout “Go mg sin theta” as he rode his bike downhill during his school days. The best maths teachers are born, not made.
13 October 1999: “I just want to vomit. Not for you, but for the injustices of the world.”
When he said this to our class, Fletch was talking about inconsistencies in maths symbolism. No, not East Timor. Maths symbols.
I’m not sure if we appreciated Fletch enough at the time. I remember rolling my eyes at his daggy anecdotes. One time no-one in the class would examine the interesting way the light from the window was hitting the chalk on the blackboard, even when Fletch repeatedly peered at it, told us how interesting it was, and invited us to come and look. Sometimes when he asked almost rhetorically, ‘What’s the square root of 16?’ Someone would answer, ‘Four’ just to see him go apoplectic, ‘PLUS OR MINUS FOUR!’
Far and away the best maths teacher I’ve ever had.
At the end of year 12 we gave him a lantern.
Diary 10 November 2000
Rainy Day. Went to uni to get HPL exam. Crap mark. Apparently my essay suffered because I don’t understand deconstruction.
I started work at the bacon factory at the end of my first year at uni. The year hadn’t gone super well possibly because I had made a ridiculous course choice.
I was pleasantly shocked by my VCE results at the end of Year 12 and, realising I could do any course I wanted, I changed my preferences to a course I had never wanted to do. That’s how I ended up doing a law degree with no intention of ever being a lawyer.
I grew up in the country and moved to Melbourne for university, as did almost all of my friends. First-year law at Melbourne University was dominated by private school students who all seemed to know each other. They were friendly enough, but I felt out of place and insecure. Sometimes, they were patronising. One guy asked me where I went to school. When I told him he said, ‘You’ve done well to get here’. That condescending remark filled me with politely suppressed rage.
In retrospect I felt separate from my classmates primarily because I was a judgmental snob too. I believed that I was accepted into the course on merit, as opposed to the spoon-fed elite private school kids. (In reality I was actually as privileged as they were, it just wasn’t as obvious.) My secret sense of superiority was very fragile and was not enough to provide useful confidence, particularly since it became obvious that some of my fellow law students simply were a lot smarter than me. There was one girl in my first year History and Philosophy of Law class who was dazzlingly intelligent. No-one else in the class could keep up with her arguments, except our lecturer who would take notes.
Even so, I got the work done. I learned how to use the law library, I completed chemistry pracs, handed in essays and passed exams but I was not shining. I went from being a great school student to being a mediocre university one.
And I wasn’t compensated with an exciting social life either.
I took a long time to make good friends in Melbourne. Everyone told me to ‘join a club’ at uni but I had no hobbies and I was too scared to join a club that was openly about drinking. I thought long and longingly back to Year 12 when I’d worked together in a team of students united in our goal to get good marks and go to university. Now I was at university, I wasn’t sure if I’d ever have that feeling again.
Meanwhile, my school friends who had moved to Melbourne were successfully getting a life and making new friends. I felt left out and like I wasn’t coping as well as everyone else. So in some ways I was happy to escape Melbourne after my first-year exams were over, to return home for some soothingly mindless factory work. But would I fit in any better at the Pig? Spoiler: No.
Next time at the Pig: How to clean bacon (it’s easy!) and other things I didn’t learn
I’ve just remembered the 1+1 game.
I invented this game in high school. It involved pressing ‘1+1’ on a graphing calculator (mine was a TI83) for 60 seconds and then pressing equals to get the score at the end. Any mistakes (for example entering ++ or 11) were fixed after the time elapsed and 10 points deducted.
I played this game a lot and convinced other people to play as well.
I was in Year 12 and so 18 years old when this brilliant idea came to me.
Then, in celebration of 9 September 1999 I held the 9+9 challenge where I convinced more than a dozen of my classmates to press 9+9 on their calculators for 60 seconds (should have made it 99 but hindsight is 20/20).
There’s something very special about being that bored.
The picture below shows the scorecard, which I have kept through nostalgia and the desire to have as much paper as possible in my cupboards.
Anne is my favourite member of the Famous Five because she gets to make all the sandwiches.
If I could be anyone in Little Women, I’d be Meg because she gets married really young and has twins.
Everyone in the Secret Seven has a really important role in solving the mysteries; nobody is there just to make up the numbers.
I completely understand why the Malory Towers girls are always sneaking out to cook sausages, I’d be the same.
The first two chapters of the Baby-Sitters Club books are the best bits and I learn something new about the club and characters every time.
Black Beauty: what a whinger.
I hope Roald Dahl is right about the witches and I get to meet one.
Aslan is not my real Dad.
I wish Anne of Green Gables had fewer bits with Gilbert in it.
All the funny people at my school were girls. I regularly laughed so hard at netball training that I thought I would collapse. Eating lunch was perilous as there was a high probability that someone would say something hilarious and I would spit out my sandwich. Two of my best friends once put me in the bin and I nearly wet my pants I was laughing so hard.
On the other hand, the boys were not so funny. I can only remember a handful of funny occasions. Once in Year 8 some boys did an hilarious parody of a Life Be In It ad where they changed the last line from ‘They were exercising’ to ‘They were trespassing’.
But I could name the incidents where a boy made me laugh hysterically on one hand, whereas I’d need to take my socks off just to get through the top shelf netball japes.
From this, I conclude that girls are funnier than boys and by extension women are funnier than men.
Couple of things. Almost all my friends at school were girls. I sat with girls at lunch time and in class. After school I did extra-curricular activities with girls. 90% of my conversations were with girls. So it’s possible that the boys were actually hilarious I just didn’t know it because I spoke to them a lot less often, and when I did talk to them I had other things on my mind like the fact that I didn’t know how to talk to boys.
With maturity has come a greater understanding that people with different genitals are people too. You can just talk to them like you would with any other person. And by actually speaking to them and listening to what they have to say I have come to realise that some men actually are quite funny. Try it, you might be surprised.
31/3/1993 Boy time flies. Tomorrow we have netball. Today the Life Education van came. It was really good. I can’t wait for Friday. We are leaving school early to go to Melbourne. Then on Sunday I’m going to Emma’s party. I made a really nice broach in art yesterday.
The fact that I mentioned at least five unconnected topics in the same paragraph, of which the Life Education van was only one belies its importance to me. I’ve forgotten the broach, trip to Melbourne and most of Emma’s party but the Life Education van is clear in my mind.
What I remember is that the Life Education van’s visit came as a complete surprise to me and the rest of my Grade 5/6 class. We thought we were in for an afternoon of Maths when suddenly we were ushered up the steps of the most exciting van you could imagine (think mobile library, but better).
I remember that it was terribly exciting but the only bit of the presentation that I clearly recall is a hand puppet called Harold singing a song that went:
If you smoke you’re gonna choke
And if you drink you’re gonna feel real blue
Then a chorus of chipmunks said ‘Come on Harold, let’s go behind the dunnies for a smoke.’
Harold, you’ve got to make a decision
I think there must have been more to the Life Education van than that because the program made a big impression on me and my classmates. We all pledged to never try smoking. We were told there would be peer pressure at high school but it was hard to imagine giving in to it given the horrors of smoking and the fact that it was clearly a completely stupid thing to do.
When I got home that night I told my older sister, who was in Year 7, about the Life Education van and that no-one in my class would ever smoke. ‘Everyone says that,’ she said. ‘But it’s different in high school.’
I knew she was wrong.
I’ve been reflecting a lot recently on my dream to be an Olympic athlete.
It started when I was in Grade 5 and the Olympics were in Barcelona. It was a great Olympics. The theme song by Andrew Lloyd Weber Amigos Para Siempre was even more moving than Memory, Kieren Perkins smashed his own world record in the 1500m freestyle final, and I became determined to march into an Olympic stadium as an athlete.
I wrote in my Grade 5 diary:
“I have a dream to get to the Olympics not as a spectator but as a competitor. And God Dam it if I don’t. I am turning 11 next week. My days of being ten are numbered.”
The only problem was that I wasn’t at all sure which sport I would excel in. I wasn’t worried though. I assumed it would only be a matter of time before I discovered it.
It hasn’t happened. Instead, one by one I have gotten too old for all the sports. It started with gymnastics. By the age of 13, when I should have been reaching my gymnastical peak I couldn’t touch my toes. Then I realised I couldn’t swim fast, then I realised I couldn’t run fast. Then I realised I was hopelessly uncoordinated, ruling out all ball sports and anything with a stick.
Fortunately, in my primary school diaries I also said I wanted to be an actor, a great debator, travel around the world without using aeroplanes like Michael Palin, and (this was implied) become a nun. So still, lots of options. But oh! The Olympics would have been great.
PS I also used to want to be one of the cats in Cats but that’s not happening either.
I grew up in Central Victoria. I’ve now lived in Melbourne for almost as long as I lived in the country but the feeling of being a bit rural has never left me. Below are some things that country kids do when they hit the big smoke.
(I’m going to act like I speak for all country kids and that is not true. In fact I may be alone in these experiences but I feel that there’s more dignity in generalising them.)
1 You lose your mind when you go on an escalator
Some country kids say they were scared of escalators but not me. I loved them. The thrill of stepping on and watching the department store slide by gave me an almost unmatchable sense of joie de vive.
2 Actually, stationary stairs are pretty exciting too
There’s a lot more space in the country so houses tend to be one level. I associated stairs with my glamorous city cousins who lived in the beating heart of Melbourne (in Mentone) and had a wonderful carpeted staircase with little glowing safety lights like orbs of orange promise. When I moved into my first sharehouse with stairs I felt like I’d made it. I now live in a house with stairs and I am pretty up myself about it.
3 You think you have to know where everything is or people will laugh in your face
When I was in first year uni I arranged to meet a friend at a café. He said ‘Let’s just go to Mario’s’. Instead of saying ‘Where’s that?’ I went home and looked it up in the phone book (long time ago – no internet at home) and then I did a reconnaissance mission the day before just to check I could get there. Google Maps is probably saving country kids a lot of time these days.
4 You think that memorising the city grid will make everything in your life okay
I studied the city grid almost as intensely as Specialist Maths. I’m less likely to ever forget ‘Spring, Exhibition, Russell, Swanston, Elizabeth, Queen, William, King, Spencer’ than the name of my first dog. I thought learning the names of the streets would hide my impostering self with the cloak of knowledge. Years after moving to Melbourne a friend gave me a lift into the city and I realised HE DID NOT KNOW all the street names AND HE WASN’T EVEN EMBARRASSED. I realised that real locals often don’t use street names. They say things like ‘Opposite the library’ and ‘the fish and chips corner’.
When I go back to the town where I grew up I drive my partner mad with the way I give directions. We once had a terribly confusing conversation when I said, ‘You follow the road past Bronwyn’s house’. He insisted that was wrong and I couldn’t understand what his problem was. In the end I realised he was confused by the term ‘Bronwyn’s house’ which he took to mean the house where my friend Bronwyn lives now.
‘No, no, that’s not ‘Bronwyn’s house’, I said. ‘That’s ‘Bronwyn and Simon’s house’. Bronwyn’s house is the one she hasn’t lived in for ten years near the pub.’ That’s local.
For many people their first trip to Nerd Camp is an emotional life experience slightly more intense than the birth of a child. It is not surprising that school camps are highly charged occasions as they involve teenagers living in close quarters trying to touch each other with mixed results. This happens at Nerd Camp too, but it does not quite explain its full impact.
My definition of Nerd Camp is a multi-day gathering of adolescents from different schools with the purpose of participating in educational activities for which they have a shared passion and talent. And it can’t be sport. This definition leads to band camp being included under the Nerd Camp umbrella – but only if the band camp requires an audition. I don’t count my attempts to play the clarinet in a tin shed at Lake Eppalock as a Nerd Camp. We weren’t good enough and we didn’t care enough – there was no shared passion and talent unless you count perfecting Strip the Willow on bush dance night.
That is the key to Nerd Camp. A group of teenagers suddenly find that, rather than marking them out as a freak, their avid interest in telescopes, oboe reeds or Fourier transforms is suddenly the norm. Add a bucket of hormones and it’s magic.
In 1997 I attended the International Student Project Conference. I have always thought this was a Nerd Camp, but perhaps that is questionable according to my own definition above. It was a humanities/social issues camp. I remember there was a lot of simplistic discussion about the Middle East and cloning (Dolly the sheep was very big at the time). Therefore the participants perhaps lacked a true shared passion. Secondly, I failed to do or say anything intelligent all week and snorty giggled whenever someone with an accent said anything. So, did I really go to Nerd Camp or was it just a school camp?
As an extreme and glorious example of someone who most definitely went to Nerd Camp I think of my friend John. Not only was he an active participant at Space Camp during the day, but he was conducting relationships incompetently at night. John and Jane progressed as far as holding hands on a bunk bed. It seemed inevitable that they would pash. On the last night of camp Jane invited John outside to look at the stars. They went outside. Just the two of them. They looked at the stars. They came back inside. That was it.
Despite failing to pash in the world’s most pashable circumstances, John and Jane wrote to each other for years after Space Camp. Their emails, are fascinating, almost poetry.
He writes: You’re so smart.
She writes: No, you’re really smart. I can’t believe you think I’m smart.
He replies: No, it’s true! You are smart. Do you really think I’m smart?
In this exchange we see the hopes, sexual tension and the manic desire to be considered intelligent that is typical of Nerd Campers. The mix of brainpower and hormones coupled with insecurity makes Nerd Camp potent.
Almost twenty years after the International Student Project Conference I often think of excuses to wallow in the memories again, and writing this is just the latest. Ten years ago I wrote and performed an entire comedy show about a girl going on Maths Camp. This led me to discuss with many people their Nerd Camp experiences, which was wonderful. I remember particularly a group of women who came to the show. They had met at Maths Camp thirty years ago, discovered that other girls liked maths too, and stayed friends ever since.
After one performance I was approached by a normal looking young man. Once he started to speak it was clear that he was in the grip of powerful Nerd Camp nostalgia. He was excited and agitated. He looked like someone who’d just solved a difficult maths problem and was desperate to explain it to someone who couldn’t do it.
He said. ‘I went to Maths Camp too. It was just like in your show!’ Then he added with pride, ‘Except we stayed up later.’
I found a 22 year old was bragging about his late bedtime from seven years ago slightly odd, but I was also delighted. It’s not just me whose reminisces about Nerd Camp to the point where others take a step back to regain their personal space.
Many of us never get over Nerd Camp. Although we may claim to look back and laugh indulgently at our younger Nerd Camp selves and mock our unbounded enthusiasm, if we could, we’d go back there in an instant. It wasn’t actually the most fun I’ve ever had, but it showed me how much fun life could be. As it says in Winnie the Pooh, ‘although Eating Honey was a very good thing to do, there was a moment just before you began to eat it which was better.’ For me, the International Student Project Conference was that moment.
If you tell someone that they will never know the full richness of life because they missed out on Nerd Camp, they tend to resent it. They feel that, although they may not have been to a Nerd Camp, their generic school camp to Queenscliff was just as good.
They are wrong. Nerd Camps are special. The International Student Project Conference was special. And that is how I really know that I have been to Nerd Camp, because it makes me feel superior to other people.
I read an article about bullying today that I really liked.
“The world isn’t neatly divided into bullies and the bullied; all victims conceal sins, and all villains carry sorrows and scars.”
I try to write about characters who sometimes do genuinely crap things because I have done crap things that I regret. I was a nerd at school, and people were mean to me. But equally, I was mean to other people. And at other times I did nothing while things I didn’t agree with unfolded.
I was lucky. I was never physically hurt and on the whole I enjoyed school and had good friends. But there were still some experiences that are hard for me to think about now.
Looking back on my time at school, I’d say I need to forgive and be forgiven in about equal measure. Below is a selection of incidents I remember but there were many, many more.
Bad things I did
- In Year 8 I told a boy with long hair he had to cut his hair or he couldn’t keep sitting with our group. People were teasing him for being different and I didn’t want that to reflect on me. Luckily, he didn’t listen to me. He didn’t cut his hair, he kept sitting with our group. I have apologised to him.
- In Year 7 I told girl we didn’t like her and we didn’t want her to sit with our group. I felt bad when I saw I’d hurt her feelings but I convinced myself that being ‘honest’ was actually a noble thing to do. She left our group. She is a hilarious and clever person who I realised too late would have been an amazing friend to have.
Bad things done to me
- On the bus to school a girl and a boy regularly sat behind me and shook the seat while discussing how ugly I was. It was very hard to keep reading Middlemarch while this went on.
- Another girl threatened to bash me up every day for a month. I knew she had a horrible family life and pretty grim prospects for the future. Feeling sorry for her made it a little easier to deal with, but I was still terrified. She never touched me.
- On multiple occasions I was kicked out of a group. In Year 7, three of my friends ran away from me. Literally ran away. They might have had their reasons, but I refused to let them escape. I chased them. When I caught up with them it was a little awkward because they wouldn’t acknowledge they’d been trying to drop me. We all panted for a bit until we got our breath then they’d bolt off again with me in close pursuit. Ultimately, I was too quick for them and stayed in the group.
There were times when I wasn’t the victim or the bully.
Times when I did nothing
- A girl at our school was sexually assaulted. I overheard two boys discussing it on the bus. One of them said, ‘It must have been dark’, and they both laughed. I was furious. I wanted to turn around and yell at them. I said nothing.
- In Year 8 people would routinely taunt one of the unpopular boys until he snapped and got angry and violent. I felt uncomfortable but I watched and laughed and did nothing to stop it.
Something I’m proud of
- In Year 9 some girls started teasing me about being a lesbian. I refused to respond, which initially made it worse. A friend said, ‘Why don’t you just say it’s not true?’ I said, ‘Because if I deny it, I’m saying there’s something wrong with being gay.’
That’s character. Shame it came with the other stuff.