This is my school.
There is the oval where I developed my first girl-on-girl crush and where I saw my first girl-on-girl fight. Where one girl scratched the face of another, ripped her hair, and tore her shirt off, exposing her bra. And I was so horrified I stood rooted to the spot and suffered bystander guilt for the next two years.
That is the swimming pool, where every week so many girls profess to have their period in order to avoid changing into their cossies in front of their classmates, that the nuns insist on notes from our mothers verifying the status of our cycles. Where the dux of my class, and perennial teacher’s pet, looked up half way through a race to see that she was trailing behind the other swimmers and let out an involuntary, ‘Shit!’ And a deep space vacuum was created by the collective intake of the breath of 120 spectators, most of whom had never heard a swear word uttered by a real-life person before.
There is the outdoor assembly area where I faint so often during summer that my mother sends permission notes excusing me from school on the grounds of it being ‘forecast to be hot’. Where once, during assembly, a gardener mowing the lawns removed his shirt and was spotted by some girls in the back row who let out a few delighted squeals. In a textbook example of mass hysteria, half the school ran screaming towards him, the majority of us not knowing what we were screaming about or what we were running towards. The nuns will make sure we never see him again – we are saving ourselves for God.
This is the south wing, on the second floor of which is a classroom run by the most feared nun of all, who punishes girls by making them spend the lesson kneeling on dried corncobs and peas. Where someone broke in after hours and snapped all the heads off the nativity scene figurines and glued them back in indiscriminate order – Mary’s head on a Wise Man and a sheep’s head on Baby Jesus – an act considered so diabolically evil that no-one was ever punished for fear of it being acknowledged. Perhaps it was to spare our souls from the fires of hell, but more likely they feared a spate of copycat crimes.
And here is the stairwell leading down to the ground floor. It’s cool in here and the cement walls are painted pale blue. It smells of institution food and that strange smell at the dentist that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up and your throat constrict. It is here that I come some lunch times, place my foot between the metal rungs on the banister and twist my foot violently to the side in an attempt to sprain my ankle. It never works because self-preservation is a powerful instinct and I guess I just don’t want it enough. I believe I am punishing myself. But perhaps I do it for the same reason I will later go home and drop hot candle wax on the veins in my wrist.
Nothing serious enough to draw unwanted attention to any injury, but enough to make me sore. So that for just a few short minutes I can believe that this is where I hurt. This is the source of my pain.