I could only answer one question on the history exam paper. It said something like, ‘Describe a day in the life of…’ I don’t remember the rest of the question. But the first seven words inspired my creative juices, and a story began to build.
I was only eleven. I had joined my new school six weeks before the end of first year, right in the middle of their exams. I wasn’t expected to be able to answer any of the questions, but I was told to have a go anyway. I guess they didn’t know what else to do with me.
I have been both a writer, and a student of history, probably from as long ago as when I learned to read and to write. To this day, I can’t figure out why I am so drawn to the peoples of the past.
My father loved reading and history, but he played such a small part in my life, that I don’t feel I can credit him as my inspiration. I lived on the island of Cyprus for a while during my childhood, where I was surrounded by crumbling ancient sites in the process of being lovingly restored by archaeologists, but my interest was already formed long before we moved there; I remember asking for history books one Christmas when we still lived in Kuwait, and that was before I had ever set foot in a Greek burial chamber or Roman amphitheatre. I would have been about seven or eight at the time.
So what did I write about? I imagined myself as a child of the Iron Age; I described the house I lived in, the food I ate for breakfast, that I did not go to school but had work to do, how I made myself a doll which I wove from straw stolen from the roof of my hut, how my brother whittled a sword from a stick of wood, what my village looked like, how I went to bed as soon as it got dark… it was a complete flight of fancy based on the history books I had read. Nothing at all to do with the school curriculum.
Imagine my surprise a week later when the history teacher read out my story in class. I remember squirming in my seat whilst the heat of a blush burned in my cheeks. A covert glance around the room informed me that my fellow students were not amused or entertained by my story. Their stony faces and glaring eyes confused me, but it wasn’t long before I learned what that meant.
I was instantly branded a teacher’s pet, a know-it-all, a goody-two-shoes, a swat. I wore very thick glasses, which proved a great source for torment. They changed my surname from ‘Isaac’ to ‘one-eye’s-(h)igher-than-the-other’. I didn’t talk like them, so they called me a snob. Those who did not bully me did not befriend me either. I was a stranger, an outsider, and together they colluded in making me feel like one.
If I had known how my story was to influence the way my fellow students saw me, I would have left the page blank. I never imagined then, that a few words on a page could hold so much power. Not that it was totally to blame, but it was the catalyst for my rough treatment.
Around this time, my parents split up. My dad had always worked away from home for extended periods of time, sometimes for so long that I didn’t recognise him when he came home, so his not being around made little difference. But there were other family issues, too, which made life difficult.
And it was hard to adjust to living in this cold, wet, grey country with its unwelcoming people when the only life I had ever known had been filled with the warmth of the climate and the people around me. My bedroom window back in Cyprus didn’t even have glass in it, just a wooden shutter.
The bullying carried on into third year, after which it fizzled out. During that time, I settled in, got to know people, and made some friends. My school years, though, were never really a happy time for me, even though I did quite well, and won the school prize for English five years in a row.
When I left school I worked in an office for a couple of years until I was old enough to run away and join the Royal Air Force. Out of the frying pan and into the fire? Well, that’s another story…
And the moral… every story has to have a moral, right? Ok then, here goes: Always be true to who you are. Don’t let other people push you around, be confident and stand up for yourself. Never run away from things, they’ll only catch up with you in the end. I should know; I ran away from school, and now I’ve ended up back there, and it’s much harder at this stage. I seem to be one of those people who always does everything the wrong way round!
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