By Kaz Cooke
First published by Story, the magazine of the Queensland Performing Arts Centre, 2016.
Kids don’t need Lord of the Flies on the curriculum to know they’re living it. The CVs of political leaders bristle with schools known for an elite standard of bullying. ‘The old school tie’ may not just be emblematic of connections; it might also represent the fear of being garotted on the oval by a future Treasurer.
In my worn and torn copy of Roald Dahl’s book, ‘Matilda’, the children are besieged by a sadistic school system and baroque parental dysfunction. And yet (hurrah), Matilda and lovely Miss Honey find each other and the kids get revenge on the ghastly headmistress, Agatha Trunchbull. “You’re darn right it’s like a war,” says one child. “… the casualties are terrific. We are the crusaders, the gallant army fighting for our lives with hardly any weapons at all and The Trunchbull is the Prince of Darkness, the Foul Serpent, the Fiery Dragon with all the weapons at her command. It’s a tough life. We all try to support each other.”
When I first “met” Matilda, I felt kinship. My parents weren’t hilarious caricatures of cruelty, but they did seem a bit baffled. My Miss Trunchbull was my Year 1 teacher: Miss Pitts (yes, really), who once deposited me into the classroom rubbish bin. My crime was reading the hand-out book too quickly. “You little liar, you can’t possibly have finished it,” she said.
We gave our daughter the middle-name Matilda in case she turned out to love reading, or needed a badge of courage. (Had I known my clairvoyancy in the naming biz, I’d have called her Pippi Longstocking so I could watch her carry a horse around on the verandah.)
She did love books and stories. One Sunday morning, when aged 10, she slid on fluffy socks out of her bedroom doing a massive air-guitar solo and singing “Bleak Houzzz, der ner ner ner ner”. She’d been listening to a Charles Dickens audio book. Her Trunchbull was the Year 6 teacher, who called her a liar for the hereditary crime of reading a book too quickly. She was quizzed on the plot in front of the class and when she proved she’d read it, the teacher sneered, “Well haven’t we got a little genius here”. That’s progress: the bin to brow-beaten in just under 40 years.
In the books I read as a girl, unusual heroines were thin (and wan) on the ground. George of Enid Blyton’s ‘Famous Five’ had short hair (ahem), and bolshie Jo March from ‘Little Women’ ended up with an old biffer and had four sons; good grief. Poor Rizzo from the movie ‘Grease’, had her admirable moxie punished with a pregnancy scare and the sealing of an awful fate (impending marriage to a dill) on a Ferris wheel. At 15, in a secondhand bookshop, I found the St Trinian’s drawings by cartoonist Ronald Searle: girls in school uniform, armed with cigars, explosives, poker cards, lipstick and cunning criminal plans. Bliss. And ne’er a comeuppance in sight.
Kids’ books now present a gerzillion ways to subvert the vanilla offerings of yesteryear. Enid Blyton’s characters were never paranormal, part-rabbit, trapped in a 15th century steampunk dystopia, or Muslim. Not unless they were being attacked with an oar by Uncle Quentin. But still, “you’re weird” has survived as the all-purpose schoolyard sneer. I tell kids that “You’re weird,” really means “I’m too stupid to understand you” or “You’re more interesting than I am”. But it’s still hard for them to cop.
About 4000 girls aged between 12 and 18 wrote to me when I was researching my book ‘Girl Stuff’. I was a bit shaken to find the younger ones wanted to be told what to do –how much to weigh, what to look like, how to pretend they knew how to kiss or have sex. But something satisfying emerged in many of the older girls – they asked how to feel okay about being their own true selves. They loved or hated make-up for reasons that had nothing to do with boys. They recommended independence to each other.
For a lot of girls, being active, creative, or audible are all rebellious acts. Some boys must still rebel against narrow ideas of ‘manliness’ and sport. Survival can depend on being camouflaged or invisible, fitting in. Kids take refuge in the chrysalis of their bedroom, inside books or online.
Leaders tend to bang on about innovation, invention and outstanding individuals, while the systems they maintain encourage conformity and compromise. Our best ‘odd’ folk – creative coders, musicians, writers, artists, thinkers, dancers, euphonium players, activists and dreamy wanderers – are never head of the school “popular” group. Chief bullies are so busy policing everyone else’s behavior they don’t have time to be interesting themselves.
In the face of the harsh realities of the local and global schoolyards, the survival of every weirdo is a triumph. As that kid in ‘Matilda’ says (it was Hortensia), “the casualties are terrific”. There are so many to save: the kid who hangs out in the library, or loves show tunes, every big boy who’s gentle, every girl who cares more about smart than pretty, or uses the words ‘akimbo’, ‘ineluctable’ and ‘snickersneeze’ in one sentence.
For every Kardashian ‘role model’ we need the counterpoints: Lady Gaga, Pink, the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Prince, Hermione Grainger, Megan Washington, David Bowie and Lisa Simpson. For every NRL match, a Billy Elliott. For every “good kid”, a ratbag shouting about the emperor being in the nuddy. For every boy showing “leadership qualities”, a quiet kid in the corner making mysterious little sculptures out of sticks and leaves.
I’d like to take them all to ‘Matilda’, the musical with lyrics by Tim Minchin, a mouthy man with long hair and a dash of eyeliner who looks like a Quentin Blake drawing. I want to sit with them as they hear a riot of kids sweetly belt out, “Sometimes you have to be a little bit naughty …”. Go, you glorious weirdos, go.