Look out for the kids who are different

I was a shy little thing at school – a fact of which I am yet to be successful in convincing anyone these days – but it’s true. I was…

Gareth-FarrI was a shy little thing at school – a fact of which I am yet to be successful in convincing anyone these days – but it’s true. I was happy keeping to myself, and having just a couple of friends. As an adult, I’ve discovered that being different works distinctly to my advantage, but it just didn’t seem to work out like that at school.

On my very first day at school at the age of five, I instinctively lined up with the girls when it was time to go into the classroom. Well, all my friends were girls and I wanted to stand with them – and why on earth would I want to stand with the boys? They smelled bad.

The teacher didn’t cope with this at all well, and had words with my mother after school. “He stood in the GIRLS line!” she wailed. My mother took it in her wonderfully open-minded stride.

Instantly disliked

I hated sport, and used to hide behind the classrooms for the entire afternoon on ‘sports days’ – but despite the fact that the boys thought it was weird that I didn’t like rugby, and generally ignored me, nobody was particularly bothered by the quiet boy who pottered around at lunch-times making ‘flying machines’ out of hibiscus leaves and sticks.

Then everything changed when I hit intermediate school, and encountered the horror of the bullies.
I was instantly disliked by almost every boy in my class, and even many of the girls sided with the boys – boys suddenly being of great interest to them. It seemed the boys’ main purpose in life was to make my life a bit of a misery for two years.

The school was a typical one of the late 70s. We all wore uniforms spirit-breaking grey for us boys (I understand the argument for uniforms as a socio-economic leveler – but please – NO-ONE looks good in grey). We sang the Lord’s Prayer every morning (despite your cultural background), and trouble-makers still got the strap at the headmaster’s office. In retrospect, I’m not at all surprised that many boys’ instinctive way of dealing with anything they didn’t understand was violence.

Tackled my shyness

I was terrified of the prospect of high school. If intermediate was that bad, what was the next level up going to be like? I looked through the pamphlet my parents gave me with a sick feeling in my stomach – like the one you wake up with on the morning of an exam you haven’t studied for, but with the knowledge that the exam was going to last five years. I finally summoned up the courage to tell my parents that I didn’t want to go, and they said I didn’t have to.

They had heard about this alternative college in Mount Eden, and had been thinking about moving into the city anyway (we lived on the North Shore) and would I like have a look.

I’ll never forget my first impression of Metro. There were kids sitting outside in the sun chatting casually to each other; there were two kids throwing chess pieces at each other in the common room; there was a meeting of the whole school, where with simultaneous horror and delight I heard a teacher use the word˜shit’ – and there was in general a feeling of relaxation, friendliness and above all, happiness.

I went home with my head swimming. That can’t be high school – it actually looked like a nice place to be! My parents signed me up the next day (of course, basing their decision on the school’s innovative educational methods – rather than chess pieces or expletives!

At Metro, I tackled my shyness by learning in public at school meetings; I related to my teachers as fellow human beings on a first name basis; I was allowed to express my individuality by dressing how I wanted (yikes – it was the 80s!), and I graduated from there a very different boy than the one who enrolled.

Look out for the kids who are slightly different from the pack – they just need a little extra support from time to time.