‘You are not paying attention, are you, you awful child!’
Even though it has been many decades since she screamed those words at me, they still resound clearly in my memory, and I can still hear that hoarse screech that was in her voice whenever she lost her temper. And it seemed, in that long, frightening year in third grade, that she was always angry, always disappointed in me. What infuriated her most was my constant shifting and shuffling in my seat. I could not keep still. This impatience was a trait that seemed innate and impossible to change.
On summer’s evenings, after dinner, our family would take a walk along the back streets of Richmond. If it were a particularly warm night, we would cross Church Street and Punt Road and stroll in the park in East Melbourne. My brother would keep in leisurely step with my mother and father, but I would always find myself walking ahead, lost in my delicious daydreams. Until I would hear my name called and I would quickly turn around to see my family looking so tiny in the distance. I’d rush back and my father would often say, ‘They will punish you, Christo, when you become a soldier, you don’t have any patience.’ There were times, when he and I were walking alone together, to go to the Bridge Street shops or to the hardware store on Victoria Street, where he would patiently try and teach me to march in step. For a minute, if I were lucky maybe two, I would dutifully watch his feet, make sure that mine were following his – left then right, left then right – but very quickly I’d become muddled and I’d be stamping the ground with my right foot just as his left foot was coming down. ‘You’re not going to make a good soldier.’ But his teasing was mild, and always accompanied by a tender gesture. His big hand on my shoulder, or his fingers rustling my hair. ‘Go, on,’ he’d laugh, ‘Run off.’ And I would run to the nearest lights, then wait, impatiently, rocking from foot to foot, for my father to reach me.
My third-grade teacher wasn’t gentle, she was cruel, and she devised a wicked punishment to try and make me stay still. If she caught me fidgeting, she would call me up to the front of the class. Those days, the teacher’s desk often sat on a raised platform. I would be trembling as I stepped up to the dais. She’d order me to face the blackboard, my back to the class, and demand I stand absolutely still. The rest of the class were to keep watch. If I moved at all, they were to call out immediately. And then she would take her metre-long flat wooden ruler, raise it high and strike the back of my legs. She would hit me with such force that often she would emit a coarse moan as she was doing it. I came to hate that hideous lowing almost as much as I did the smash of the wood against my calves. I tried to stand absolutely still, to focus on the spectral traces of chalk on the dark board; I would order my arms to stay straight against my side. But a fly would buzz over my face, or a treacherous yawn would just have to be released, or there would be an itch that was impossible not to scratch: I would jerk, shake. I’d clench my eyes tight hoping that none of the children had noticed. And mostly—it is important to recall this—the other students did not betray me. But there are always bullies. Or the teacher herself noticed my transgression. She’d jump up from her chair and grab the ruler. Once, hearing the whisper of the air as she raised it high, anticipating the violence of the whacking, I felt a shameful heat in my belly, and then the even more shameful wetness of my piss running down my legs. ‘You dreadful, dreadful child,’ she screamed, and this time the ruler swept across my back. None of the children laughed. The only sound I recall in that dreadful silence was my reprehensible bawling.
Even at that age I was a good student and I had tried to keep my punishment secret from my parents. But I couldn’t disguise the red welts on my legs, and there was nothing I could do to hide my urine-soaked trousers. Blubbering that night, I confessed it all to my parents. I had never seen my father so angry. The next day, before heading to the factory for his afternoon shift, he came to the school and demanded that he see the teacher. I have no idea what he said to her, but I was never punished in that way again.
Often, through the years, I have recounted this story whenever the topic of corporal punishment arose. I have used it to scare or tease my nieces and nephews, the children of my friends, elaborating and embellishing the memory to contrast the hideous bad old-days with the child-focused experiences of their own schooling. In time, as always, the harshness of the experience has faded, and for a long time I have not thought of that teacher at all.
Recently, however, in the lockdowns occasioned by the COVID-19 crisis, I have begun sketching stories of my childhood. At the moment, they are mere blueprints, the first part of a process of trying to mould and shape memory and recollection into fiction. The past seems much more certain than the present for the pandemic has made the writing of the contemporary difficult. None of us really know what the immediate future will be.
It is through writing that I have learned patience. It is a prerequisite to mining the past. I turn off all the screens, I go for long walks, or I sit on the chair and try to focus my attention. I’m trying to remember the stink of the asphalt in the inner-city in the scorching summer heat; the odours and the stench of the circus grounds by Burnley Oval, where my cousins and I were allowed to roam between the carnies’ tents. The hue of my mother’s lipstick when she was preparing to go out to the cinema or to a dance. The sheen of my father’s good black suit. For a writer, memory is not only the province of sight, not merely a silent projected film. It is also the remembrance of sound, of smell and taste and touch. I need to be still, to be patient, to wait for the past to emerge from the netherworld.
And so, I have been thinking of my teacher. I have been lucky with teachers; three in particular have guided me to literature and to writing, and I have tried to pay homage to them in dedications, and in essays I have written. But when it comes to that teacher that despised me, that hit me, I have barely thought about her at all. Yet now, sitting in the stillness of this pandemic, I recall that though she had the most prosaic of Anglo-Saxon surnames, her skin was not quite white. One of my friends had asked her once, ‘Miss, are you Greek?’ Her outrage was magnificent. But even though we were children, we glimpsed something of humiliation underneath her fury. Now I find myself wondering about the fact that she was indeed a Miss and not a Mrs. Every adult seems old when one is a child, but this teacher was not young. There was grey in her hair and her face was lined and weary. That was our revenge on her: when we spoke about her at recess or lunchtime, she was always the hag, always the witch.
I am taking from memory and sculpting fiction. I can make her whoever I want her to be. But there is no pleasure and no challenge in making her ruthlessly mean. I wonder, was she a lesbian? And if so, what was the burden of that life in the 1970s? Or was she looking after an invalid parent, eking out a living teaching in an inner-city school, trying to discipline the children of migrants from faraway places, from cultures that intimidated her and that she did not understand, who abused her and mocked her, and every night returning to a demented mother or a choleric father who was slowly dying? Did she drink? Did she love music and wish she could dance? What were her dreams? What had she lost in life?
I think fiction is treacherous. It betrays the certainties required by politics and morality, the neat division of the world into the righteous and the wicked, the salt of the earth and the one per cent. Man and woman. Black and white. Gay and straight. In lockdown, I have found it hard to read contemporary novels for it seems that COVID-19 has dated them immediately. I have been returning to books I loved as a younger man. I reread Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, a book I last read three decades ago. It is astonishing how modern the sensibilities of that novel are, how intricate and spellbinding its construction. Catherine and Heathcliff are terrible people. Heathcliff’s violent abuse of his wife is unconscionable as is Catherine’s egoism and masochistic destructiveness, yet they are wonderfully alive. Bronte makes me share in Heathcliff’s rage and complicit in Catherine’s selfishness. The other week I reread Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children and was reminded how shockingly base the parents are in that book. Yet how vivid they are. I can see them, hear them, I think I know their scents. Henny Politt’s vanity and snobbishness are pitiful, and Sam’s self-righteousness and self-delusion are repulsive; yet I finished the book, closed it shut, and thought: fuck, I love these characters, I know these characters.
I think there is a reason why so much of our writing now is memoir and non-fiction. Non-fiction speaks to forthright and definitive truths: for example, my teacher had no right to beat me. There are many truths long silenced or ignored that need to be declared. But the sincerity of truth is not enough for fiction, not if a writer is really to pay attention. In returning to my childhood memories, I realise I was not only a victim. A fiction writer has no time for that chimera, the innocence of childhood. There was something heroic in my defiance, in not ever totally succumbing to my teacher’s will. I pissed myself from fear, but in the end I won. I’ve never stopped being a fidget and I have never made a good soldier.
It is the ‘lying poet’ that Plato wished to exile from his republic. For it is the lie in fiction that upsets the ideologue and the moralist and the utopian. Plato wished the poet to only sing the good, the just and the righteous, and he thought all odes and stories that turned our attention away from such ideals were corrupting and poisoning. It is an austere and authoritarian notion of what art must be. Banishing the lie from fiction would be rejecting the erotic, the uncertain, the contradictory and the ambiguous. It would be excising Cathy and Heathcliff, exiling Henny and Sam.
I used to think my third-grade teacher was evil. In sitting still, something she always wanted from me, in finally giving her my attention, I’ve found I feel almost tender towards her now. Is such a reconciliation blasphemous? This is a time when idealism is sweeping through the arts, demanding a reckoning and insisting on judgement. I am going to insist on my perversity, that for all the righteous and political urgency of those calls, I want to write fiction that eschews the cleaving of the world into good and evil.
If a writer is really paying attention, she cannot serve the Manichean gods. Plenty do, but it rarely makes for good fiction.
Christos Tsiolkas is the author of six novels including the international bestseller The Slap and Barracuda, shortlisted for the ALS Gold Medal and the inaugural Voss Literary Prize. The Slap and Barracuda were both adapted into celebrated television series. He is also a playwright, essayist and screenwriter, based in Melbourne. His latest novel, Damascus, was published in November 2019 to widespread acclaim, winning Best Fiction at the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards.
This piece was commissioned by Melbourne Writers Festival in 2020. Supported by Guardian Australia.