Mr Not-So-Nice’s* year 2 classroom was yellow. It had pale textured walls with scribbled artworks hanging from the wires above our heads and a computer at the back of the classroom. The room smelled of a mixture of glue, boogers and texter. I sat on the left side of the classroom, next to a girl who would let me copy her maths work sometimes.
I don’t remember what work we were doing that day. Mr Not-So-Nice was sitting at his desk to the right side of the class next to the whiteboard, I imagine marking student’s work. The kids were quiet, busy doing schoolwork, but I needed to go to the bathroom.
I need to go to the bathroom.
I need to go to the bathroom.
I raised my hand.
I need to go to the bathroom.
“I-I n-need to go go to the toilet,” I stuttered through my words. The girl next to me looked at me. I felt even more flustered when his piercing blue eyes looked at me. He was tall, even when sitting down. He had bushy eyebrows and a sharp face.
The room fell silent.
Mr Not-So-Nice was looking at me, I hated looking into his eyes. Heat flushed upon my cheeks. I could feel my face grow hot.
“Come to my desk,” he said. Everyone looked up from their work to look at us. I felt my stomach drop to my feet. I pushed myself away from the desk and got up. Their eyes followed me as I stood in front of his desk. I looked down at my school shoes, the carpet was grey.
Mr Not-so-nice opened the drawer of his desk. He pulled out a red card. I felt tears prick the edges of my eyes. Don’t cry, please don’t cry in front of everyone. Embarrassment filled my chest. My twin sister, Hannah watched me from the back of the classroom.
The primary school we went to had a system where there were yellow, orange and red cards. Red cards meant that you had to go to the principal’s office to get suspended. It meant you were in big trouble. It meant mum would be angry at me and I would have to sit outside the principal’s office to wait for her to pick me up.
He turned the card over and scribbled on it. I was confused. I tried to see what he wrote, his hand covered it. He handed the card to me once he was done.
It said in ugly cursive, May I please go to the bathroom.
Now I felt like crying.
I looked at him. His eyes pierced mine. It was really hard not to burst into tears.
“Now ask again.”
I took a breath, my throat tightened, “M-May I p-please go to the bathroom?”
After he said yes, I rushed out the door needing to pee so badly. Tears in my eyes. I practiced that line over a hundred times in primary school, just so that I could correctly say that I needed to go to the bathroom.
The only way to describe my childhood was that it was pink. My bedroom was pink. The walls were pink. The bed was covered with a pink doona and pink sheets. I dressed pink. My toys were pink. I promised to myself when I was a kid to never throw out my pink dragon. I looked into its faded eyes. I called her Puff. I would feel guilty if I threw her away. She sits now in the wardrobe of my new room downstairs. I had a pink Nintendo.
The room next to mine was blue. That was Hannah’s. Apparently, dad said the wall colour was meant to be purple, but it looked blue. It suited Hannah because she was more blue. She had a tired brown bear, Radcliffe. I don’t know why but I caught her tying him up a couple of times against the white bedframe at the end of her bed. I asked her. She said that he was in trouble. Hannah had a blue Nintendo until I accidentally ripped hers in half. I wanted to play Madagascar when she was. My Nintendo (given to Hannah as consequence) also died not too long after hers did because Hannah liked to use a black pen to play games.
We spent all our childhood next to each other, playing, fighting, the normal kid stuff. However, it became apparent to mum when we were the three that she and no other person could understand us. This was referenced in a Speech Pathologists’ report as ‘twin talk.’ This was punished with countless hours of speech therapy, spelling tests, reading out loud and playing speaking games with mum. I was worse than Hannah. I could not speak to anyone but close family. I would jumble through sentences and words that I desperately wanted to say. I couldn’t meet the eyes of strangers because I felt anxious when I had to ask them for anything. I didn’t know that I was different.
Every afternoon, mum would sit us down at the kitchen table, still in our school uniforms. She had short chemically straightened black hair that greyed at its roots. Mum has olive skin, brown eyes, and wears glasses. We would read through a pile of yellow laminated syllables from a pink container and do spelling tests. It was boring. I would draw on the table when she wasn’t looking. We enjoyed the grocery shopping word game, word snap and lining the words on the fridge to say aloud. Afterwards we would play in the backyard with the chickens. The mother was a fluffy white chicken named Henny Penny. At the time I did not know, or forgot, that there’s a roast chicken chain called Henny Penny’s. I named her to rhyme with the frangipani tree which grows against the fence in our backyard. Dad would sometimes buy me fried chicken legs after a shopping trip.
At night I sat on the velvet green straight-backed chair upstairs in the study and read Fox in Socks by Dr Seuss out loud. I wanted to get each sentence perfect. I needed to read every twist in its rhymes correctly and with pace. I struggled through the first sentence for a long time.
“F-Fox…S-Socks,” I paused, nodding my head, “F-B-Box…Sk-Knoxx.”
I struggled through each time.
Mum would say practice again. I tried and tried again.
The Not-so-nice teacher sent a group of us to what all the other kids called the ‘Special Class.’ It was the class which all the ‘dummies’ like my sister and I who had trouble reading, speaking or writing had to go to.
This time it was for maths.
We stood in a line at the back of the classroom ready to go out. He stopped us. The rest of the class was sitting at the front watching us leave.
“Wait. Does any of you know what division is?” he said.
My mind blanked. I knew my answer wasn’t going to be what he wanted. I looked at Hannah for an answer, she shrugged. It wasn’t something that we had learned yet.
As each student answered, I guessed. “Minus?”
The girl next to me guessed the same. He shook his head and turned towards the board. We left to go to the Special Class together through the dark green door.
The Special Class that day was convened in one of the staff break rooms. It was a small room with only the four of us sitting at a circular table.
I would never forget how small it made me feel going to this separate class.
The winter holidays in year 3 was a special time for me. This was felt by Hannah too because we spent a lot of time together and we were finally out of Mr Not-so-nice’s classroom.
We drove up to Nan and Pa’s place in Taree. A two-hour drive that I spent laying my legs across Hannah’s lap on my stomach, listening to music on my little square pink Nano. Like I said, everything that I owned had to be pink.
Hannah and I slept in the spare room. The room was small, and the single beds took most of the space. Mine was on the left and I would launch myself on it calling dibs. I drew sections with my finger in the air, the left side was mine, the middle was the little hallway (I pretended was shared) and the right was hers. I opened my pink dotted suitcase and pulled out Puff, Hannah pulled out Radcliffe.
That holidays we spent playing in the big backyard Nan and Pa had. One of our favourite games was ‘Taxicab.’ This meant that we took turns pushing each other in Pa’s plastic wheelbarrow. Hannah would push me around, dropping me every so often and we would switch once she got tired. We played this game for hours, I pretended we were one of those yellow taxi cabs in New York. Hannah would finally drop the handles onto the cold grass and turn inside when the sky was orange, and our feet were caked in mud. We would read out loud to Nan in the screened verandah facing the backyard once we washed our feet in the yellow bathtub. Thankfully that was our only speaking homework.
Another day we played ‘Spaceship’ in Pa’s old boat next to the garage. I would steer the ship into space with the wheel. I am sure Hannah controlled the engine of the boat so that it would blast us into space. We both gripped the edges of the boat because it was of course a rocky lift off.
“Blast off!” I giggled.
The day was hot. The sky was the perfect blue with not a cloud in sight. I jerked the wheel roughly left and right avoiding all asteroids, until it got dark outside.
I was disappointed I had to go back to school so soon. I was secretly excited though because I knew that Mrs Round* (she was in fact quite round and had fat cheeks) would make the year 3 class write a recount of our holidays as part of our assessment. She did this every time we came back from holidays.
We filed into class. I was always nervous for this assessment and would go over what I did during the holidays through my head.
I remember pencilling in the assessment, everything had to be in order otherwise it would be wrong. Dad dropped us off and kissed me goodbye. I read to Nan. I didn’t write that I saw Pa’s teeth in a cup. I looked away from it when I brushed my teeth before bed. Nan took us shopping and we had doughnuts and went to the movies. I didn’t write about ‘Spaceship’ or ‘Taxicab’.
When I got the assessment back, I was surprised. I skipped my eyes down to the bottom of the paper to the red A I got. This was the first time I got an A for something that I wrote, usually just scraping a C. I beamed at the smiling star sticker at the top corner of the paper. I felt proud, Mrs Round wrote A fantastic recount, Bronte! With four ticks! I smiled more and read through what I wrote again, excited to finally show mum my great account.
Not too long after that we were pulled from the Special Class. We both got better and better at speaking, and soon enough writing.
The kids at school liked to draw comparisons between us.
Who’s the fastest?
Who’s the smartest?
This confused me because we were totally different.
Hannah liked maths and science. I liked art and then turns out English. I didn’t understand how people confused us, we even looked completely different. I scrunched my nose up when they called me Hannah. I hated when family bought us the same presents, like we were the same kids.
Who’s the tallest?
Who’s the prettiest?
I remember sitting in a white room. It had fluorescent lights. The lady would read out words on the computer screen, I would nod, and try return the sounds back. She would watch me. I would feel nervous. When we were first diagnosed, she quietly told mum that we had severe and profound receptive and expressive language delays. The rug had been pulled underneath her.
A kid in class asked me, “Why do you ask to go to the toilet like that?” she laughed afterwards. I cringed. The red card flashed in my mind.
I trace my finger across the kitchen table. It has thousands of marks on it. If you look close, you can see some of the words pencilled from the homework and the spelling tests we did. There are the jagged marks from the pencil I drew and then the pen I used when I had a tutor.
I wanted to be a million things when I was growing up. The earliest I remember was a magician when I was eight. Then when I used to sit in the front seat and watched, fascinated, at how Dennis (the school bus-driver) used all the buttons and the knobs to drive the bus from and back home, then I wanted to be a bus driver. I was twelve and had a combination of people I wanted to be: a singer, house designer, clothes designer or an astronaut. My dream then was to be a crazy sports person too because I would apparently juggle hobbies in tennis, running, netball and swimming.
It’s 2021 and I’m twenty. I decided this afternoon to sit at the kitchen table and finish off this memoir assignment. I usually close myself in my room, go to online class and write. Hannah moved out about ten months ago. She left a lot of her stuff here, most of it packed in her old suitcase. I don’t see her that much anymore, she’s in her second year of architecture. Mum sits at the study nearby. Her work calls go through her two phones and laptop which short circuits my brain when it happens. An enemies to lovers, I decided last year to study Bachelor of Communications and major in Creative Writing. Basically, marrying myself to reading and writing.
I almost listened to that tiny, insecure voice that said Why would you do this, you won’t even make money from writing. Are you crazy? The voice that said I wasn’t good enough to be a writer. You have nothing to say, it told me. I wrote a pros and cons list. There was a lot of cons. Then I thought, well I want to do this because of the little girl who was scared to ask to go to the bathroom, or to talk to the teachers and the grown-ups. I’m here because I felt so anxious and stressed about talking for so long and now I can. I’m here because it took me so long to get Dr Seuss’ Fox in Socks lines correct. I’m here because I sounded out each word, in every sentence, of every book I read, for such a long time. I’m here because I did spelling tests and speaking games every day and god knows how many hours of speech therapy.
I realised when I was about thirteen, oh wait I can be like one of the people who write the books that I like! I haven’t been able to get that thought out of my head. It is surreal studying something that I didn’t realise I’ve wanted to do for so long.
It is so very special to me.
(*Names have been changed for privacy reasons)