I look back upon myself as a kid and see someone with an independent mind who at times would become stubborn and wilful. Without thinking about it much I formed an attitude towards the world about me that was questioning and curious. Even when still young it seems I was unprepared to accept what I was told on face value. There are many complex reasons for that which I won’t go into here except to say that while those reasons feel unique to me it’s a journey every youth goes on, buffeted from one perspective to the other by the forces and the personalities about them.
It was at school that my scepticism was given expression most. I remember it was perhaps year 11 and in an English class we were discussing the plays of Sophocles. I piped up with a comment about one of the plays to which the teacher took a mild exception. Without really knowing why I found myself responding forcefully. Words came from my mouth I had no recollection of actually thinking, though they flowed from me fluently and with sense. I put a rhetorical question to him: isn’t the point of studying the Greek plays not about taking a knowledge of ancient Thebes into the world beyond, but rather an exercise in getting us to analyse and think for ourselves?
I’m surprised I had the sense to make such an astute observation, but the teacher, a bearded, mud-brick type, didn’t take it so well. Perhaps it was my manner. More likely he didn’t like being challenged in his own classroom. In any case he spoke sarcastically in response, suggesting that if I knew better then perhaps I would like to take my English classes alone? Naturally I took him up on that. I sat out the next few English lessons until I was ordered back in.
It’s a story that suggests that I was a rebel*, but I think that’s inaccurate. Even as a boy I was my own man. I was capable of rebellious acts, but overall I was a well-mannered kid. I was neither popular or unpopular. I played footy, and other sport, was friends with a range of people from the most popular to the least, and like most boys at that age was coming to terms with who I was. I was certainly not an extrovert. I was sensitive, lazy with schoolwork, and outside those moments was undirected.
In the local neighbourhood it was a slightly different story. In my street there must have been 20 odd kids. As I was one of the eldest I assumed a role of leadership along with two others. That came easily and was something I enjoyed. I had a charmed childhood in that regard, better I would think than most of my contemporaries, and better than any child growing up today.
I was active, sporty, and had many grand adventures, but I was also bookish, and was said to be sensitive. My mum would claim I was shy, and I never presumed anything different to that simply because I never thought about it much.
Looking back now I tend to think I was more thoughtful than shy. I was an introvert in many ways, but as time unfolded showed a lot more than that. In my twenties I would say to people I was shy and they would laugh as if it was nonsense. I understood why. They didn’t see the sensitive inside parts of me. For the most part they saw someone who was witty and smart and seemingly fully of confidence. In fact through my early to mid-twenties I was often the life of the party, more so than ever since. I was told I should be on radio or TV with my own show. It seems very strange in hindsight how that happened, but the truth was that I delighted in language and it came easily to me. It was performance.
What I developed was confidence, which is something that can move mountains. I had suffered from a lack of it straight from school, but out in the work place I found it in the way people responded to me, and more particularly when I discovered I was good at what I did. Whether introvert or extrovert, if you have confidence it’s like carbon-fibre for a spine. It keeps you straight and strong.
So let’s fast forward many years to today. It’s been an interesting road from there to here with lots of ups and downs, and episodes in between fascinating sometimes and sometimes challenging. As you do I’ve developed in parallel with that. I think it’s fair to say that I’ve become a strong character and personality. Only I know that sometimes I still feel shy; to the world I’m a man of steel.
I’ve had cause to consider this and put these words together because last week I attended a class in my new course. Classes like these are a sort of microcosm of the differing professional types. You don’t often get the opportunity to see such a slice of professional life displayed so obviously. It’s a fascinating view of anthropology if nothing else.
Over recent years I’ve attended things like this in an ad hoc manner. I’ve discerned my place in these gatherings and over time have learned to modify myself to fit in better.
Because of who I have become and what I’ve done I discover myself to be a forceful presence. I always think I’m quite happy to let others take the lead. Back when I was in school I attended a years worth of economics class without asking, or answering, a single question in class. It started out as shyness I guess, but later became a strange streak I sought to maintain. The teacher even made mention of it one day in his class.
Well, you know, I still think I’m that person, but the reality is that I’m not. I answer questions regularly. I’ll often interrupt to ask questions. I’ve tried to pull back from that in recent years because I don’t want to be too prominent. I found teachers and instructors would begin to look to me too much. For the most part it was with favour: do you agree with that H? What’s your experience of that H? I would be used as a sounding board, or to confirm a point. It became a little embarrassing.
The other side of that are teachers who don’t like being queried, and maybe fair enough. If I ask a question it’s because I want clarification, and there are times I won’t be satisfied with the answer given. That’s the case with the world, the theoretical is not always true in practice. So I’m generally either one, the teachers favourite, or their least.
All this means is that in a classroom situation I try to blend into the background more, though not altogether successfully. I’d rather be somewhere in the middle.
This is what I have realised. For much of the preceding 20 years I’ve been someone striving and outwardly confident and eager to know. That still applies, but overlaid on that is something very recent. I’m the sum of my life experiences, professional and personal. That’s always in a state of flux. You never ‘get’ somewhere, you’re always on your way. That said I think the term that best describes me now is seasoned.
I’ve seen so much, endured so much, done so much, that now everything I say or do is steeped in that. I’m rock solid. Not much scares me anymore. I don’t get intimidated. None of it is a conscious thing, it’s just a process that has ticked over. Even 12 months ago I could not have said this. Is it wisdom? Maybe, of a sort, and very incomplete.
I think now when I open my mouth in the classroom all of that can be heard in my voice. I think it intimidates some. Some dislike it, and I think me, almost automatically. Others though are drawn to it. You’ll find support in the classroom, and people coming up to you in breaks to discuss something you said. In my experience these are the people confident in themselves and so feel nothing more than respect.
It seems so far from the boy I was, but really I’m just the boy grown up and developed. The authority I possess now is natural, not assumed. This is the man I’ve become because of the life I’ve lived, and perhaps because of what I have learnt from it.
* I was a ratbag too. I used to hate maths. We had one of those absent-minded maths teachers. Once I was so bored in class that I opened the window I sat beside, packed up my books and climbed out of it to walk home while the teacher scribbled some formula on the blackboard.