An open letter to my Year 7 English teacher and all the educators that raised us
TW: Bullying and suicidal ideation
I don’t like thinking about Year 7. In fact, Year 7 is a black hole in my adolescence. Whether you call it repressed trauma or wilful amnesia, I have almost completely erased my 12-year-old self from conscious existence.
High school is a gnarly time for a lot of people. You’re growing in ways you never expected. Hair is sprouting in strange places and your skin has lost the baby-smoothness of childhood. Your friends are changing and all you want is to be as undifferent as possible. Your hormones are a bloody beating heart under the floorboards, tempting you to lash out at your parents and slam doors.
With the tenuous friendships of primary school hanging ever so delicately in the balance, I entered Year 7. It was a big change. New campus, new locker. New teachers, new expectations. New uniform that did not quite hide my baby fat. New school shoes that were not quite as cool as the popular girl’s artfully unbuckled T-bars. New world.
Almost immediately, it was terrible. My fears were realised – I did not ‘fit in’. I was nerdy; I liked to read, liked to sing show tunes, took pride in my marks. I was not skinny and I did not have chunky 2008-era highlights in my hair. I was a teacher’s pet and loved learning. I had never kissed a boy, let alone been asked out by one. I was decidedly uncool.
At my new high school, all the Year 7s crowded into a single locker room. Older grades would traipse by and laugh at how small we were. Walking through the gates of high school as a timid pre-teen in an ill-fitting blazer felt like walking to meet Cerberus each and every morning. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.
The girls were unkind, the boys were mean, and I spent many car rides home fighting back tears – asking my mother what was wrong with me. At 12, barely even a person, I truly believed I was broken. This feeling still lingers, even now, and I can’t pass a group of high school girls without clamming up. Friendship was an elusive thing, confidence even moreso. School, once a haven of playground laughter and poster boards, was now a fight to stay above the water.
The popular girls at school took it upon themselves to make my life miserable. They carved my name into the school desks, trying to frame me for vandalism. It backfired, because they couldn’t even manage to spell my last name correctly. When I got stuck with a bottom locker, the girl above me delighted in dropping her heavy metal lock on my skull. When I convinced my mother to let me get highlights in my hair, they laughed in class and told me I looked like Rogue from X-Men; racoon stripes and all.
Even worse than the bullying, though, was the isolation. I had few friends. I tried, of course, but something had snapped inside me. My confidence was in the negatives. I was just a small, silly, wanting thing with hunched shoulders and an aching skull.
I tried a new approach: if I did not fit into the mould of the girls who bullied me, I would embrace my difference. In the era of skinny jeans and lengthy Lovisa necklaces, I wore a vintage sunflower dress over ripped black tights and neon green Converse with pink laces to school on a free dress day. My mother begged me not to, for she must have known the reaction this would have, but I ignored her. The whole ride to school, I convinced myself that this would solidify my status as a bonafide cool girl.
The moment I stepped out of the car, I realised my mistake. The girls pointed and laughed as I stumbled to class, ‘freak’ echoing loud and clear on a eucalyptus wind. Worse, I was part of the choir and had to stand up in front of the entire assembly in my wannabe manic pixie dream girl ensemble. Humiliation is too kind a description.
I haven’t even fully come to terms with this myself, but at the tender age of 12, I was already having thoughts of suicide. I remember tying a belt around my neck and wishing I had the courage to hang myself from the closet rail, knowing I could never leave my sister alone in the world. I slept on her floor for months, cushioned by a thin foam camping mattress, because I was so terrified to be alone at night. She was one of my only friends; someone who kept the nightmares at bay, who wouldn’t – couldn’t – run away.
In Maths class, a teacher once overheard a girl say something nasty to me. He flipped. He shut the textbook and told us a story of how, at his previous school, two girls had hung themselves from a tree on campus because they were so terribly bullied. Two girls, as young as me. Now I realise they could have been me.
The only bright spot in my world was English class. I have always loved reading, loved writing, but in the secretive and intense way one loves something they think they shouldn’t. I read obsessively, taking home boxes of library books and devouring them in a single week. I journaled and wrote poetry for no one to see. I escaped into a world of fantastical places, of brave heroines with brown hair who rose above it all. In reading, I forgot myself. I found myself.
In the end, a humble English teacher saved my life. Mr. Galvin, who got so excited about literature that he would practically bounce around the classroom, eyes alight with the fire of Wuthering Heights and Shakespeare. Mr. Galvin, who made us read out our poems in class one day and, when I meekly said mine was no good, would not let me keep the words to myself. Who smiled when I finished and told me it was good, was great even. Mr. Galvin, who solidified my dreams of authorhood, who made me believe my words were worthy of being heard.
For many years, I believed I could only consume the work of others. I shied away from writing for lack of confidence and direction. Now, 12 years later, I have written a novel of my own and have so many more stories within me. I have articles and poems published in magazines. I’m studying my craft and only cringe a little when I call myself a writer. I love the words, yes, but I also live them. I create as much as I consume.
So to every English teacher who doubts whether their class is really listening to them, who sometimes shudders at the attitudes of moody preteens forced to read, know that there is always one quiet, bullied, bedraggled girl in a vintage sunflower dress listening with baited breath. Know that with your words and kindness, you help the next generation of writers blossom from fearful secretive children into proud powerful creators. To every Mr. Galvin, to every passionate educator, please know you saved me.
I hope I can repay you one day.
Written by Claudia Weiskopf
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