My early schooling was a cacophony of whispers.
I was an irregular child. In the playground, I had friends one day and none the next. I was socially awkward (who isn’t at 5?), but very competitive. I was feisty. But I was also shy. I was teased because I had a short fuse. I slapped a girl in 2nd grade out of frustration because I had a short fuse. Then teased again because. I had a short fuse. Little girls whisper. They whisper because you are wearing the wrong shoes. They whisper because you have red hair. They whisper because your name starts with an X. They whisper just because.
But most kids (girls at least) go through it. Being the subject of taunting, whispering behind cupped hands, exclusion – it’s one of those fucked up pieces of interpersonal debris that we all rummage through in childhood so that we can get to the good shit afterward. Some of us never escape its grasp. Most of us manage.
But it was in the classroom that the whispers were at their most acute. Let me preface this by stating that my kindy teacher was a bitch. A passive aggressive, relentless bitch. One day in class, I was called out to “perform” my small part in a play that the kids were doing. I stood at the front dutifully, not sure what was going on. When it came my turn to say my lines, I looked up emptily. Confused. I had no idea what was going on. My (passive aggressive relentless bitch of a) teacher ranted for a good 5 minutes about how I didn’t listen, how I was vague and STUPID. I reckon I could probably have seen the adrenalin surging through her temples as she diatribed all over me (note: this is a little like vomiting all over someone, but the stink lasts much longer).
The truth was I hadn’t learnt my lines as I hadn’t heard her. I hadn’t heard her ask me to learn some godforsaken lines for a shitty in-front-of-the-class “play”. I was embarrassed. Ashamed. I knew I wasn’t stupid (quite the opposite) but I felt it in that moment.
So then the whispers started in the principal’s office. Concerns that I was “different”, a daydreamer, perhaps there was something a bit NQR about me. In class, I gazed out the window and daydreamed. But I could concentrate on something to the exclusion of everything else if I wanted to. The difficulties I was having in class were compounded by the mercilessness of the playground chatter. School and it’s social absorption clearly weren’t working for me at the start. In the 70s, an Aspergers diagnosis was rare. There were labels of “difference” but it wasn’t really talked about back then. It was a vague, nebulous condition that no-one really had much understanding of, but looking back at it, I suspect there were probably some loose labels being applied to me at the time.
Then mum had a brainwave. She took me for a hearing test. It seems so simple in retrospect, but these tests weren’t routine back then. Not even for the children of parents with hearing loss.
I was profoundly deaf in my left ear. I wasn’t listening to my teacher [because she was a passive aggressive relentless bitch] because she was standing on my wrong side and I literally couldn’t hear her. Her voice had been a vague faraway whisper (except of course, when she was shouting at me. I could hear that. Deaf or not).
No-one has ever been able to cure me of my deaf ear and to tell the truth I wouldn’t want them to [just ask me this again when my child is yelling in the middle of the night and the right side of my face is buried in a pillow]. But once people knew why I wasn’t responding to them – in the playground, in the classroom, at work, wherever – and realised I wasn’t being a snobby princess if I ignored them, things got a shitload better for me. I remained pretty shy until I found theatre, drama – getting lost in the enormity and wonder of another character – when I was in my early teens. Now when I tell people I used to be the kind of Painfully Shy that curls your toes, they don’t believe me.
The erratic whispers in the playground never stopped, not really. But then no kid (or adult) is completely immune to them. It’s a human life. But understanding what’s going on inside of you makes them easier to plough through.