Final judgments

One night, lying in bed, not falling asleep, I was thinking about Shakespeare and about Macbeth specifically. I’d read some commentary on the eponymous character, which I thought too simplistic. Macbeth is a fascinating character, but to say he’s all about gaining power is to discount the complex psychology of the man.

It’s the sort of conversation I’d very happily conduct over a glass of red, but it’s not what I want to kept awake by.

As these things do in the murky depths of night, that passing thought morphed into a distant memory. The sort of obscure memory I probably haven’t been exposed to since the time it was created – over 40 years ago.

I find it strange it can be so long ago because so much of it remains fresh. I remember myself then very well, though I was still just a boy.

I was at school in Sydney. Turramurra High School. It was year 10, I think. We’d moved from Melbourne to Sydney after term one of school because dad, the managing director of a plastics company, was transferred up.

It was an English class I remembered. Miss Betts was the teacher, quite young, not yet 30, I would have thought.

I’m trying to remember the books we did that year. Was A Catcher in the Rye one of them? I had the habit then of reading these books in my own time, which was quite often after we were examined on them. I was a great reader and had no problem with the task; it was just that I didn’t like to be forced.

I got by mainly on the strength of classroom discussions and picking up the key details. It rarely had a significant impact on my exam results. Later that year I would read catcher and love it, but there were other books I liked less well – The Chosen, I remember, by Chaim Potok and The Inheritors by William Golding. Off the top of my head, I can’t remember the other books, though there would have been many. We did the Greek plays by Sophocles in my final year, back in Melbourne, and Richard III in Miss Betts’s class.

We performed the play in class. By that, I don’t mean we got up on stage and acted. We sat at our desk and read the role assigned to us when our part came up.

I can imagine it probably made for some motley performances. I doubt I was any better – I was no thespian. Nonetheless, I was given the central role, that of Richard.

I wondered why I was made Richard. I had the sense at the time that Ms Betts favoured me. Was it because I was new to the class and from Melbourne? Or was it because she saw something different in me? I’m sure she would have approved less of me had she known about my habit of not reading prescribed texts until after I should have (I was actually quite proud of this).

Before entering the NSW education system I had to complete some pretty extensive testing to assess where I was up to and how intelligent I was. I’m sure I’ve written of this before. Until that point I had no real awareness of my intelligence, or lack of it. I’d occasionally blitz tests with near-perfect scores, but it was erratic, and I didn’t wonder at it one way or another. I was a kid and had other priorities.

Something changed after I took those tests. I remember my parents being taken aside and being told that I was of “well above average intelligence”. Of course, they shared it with me, no doubt wondering why I hadn’t shown it on a more consistent basis. I can only say I was a rebellious kid.

For me, suddenly I was aware of something I hadn’t thought twice about previously. In a way it felt like a burden, like something I had to live up to. But in another way I was chuffed. I certainly didn’t want to be average, and the thought that I was smarter than the rest of the kids appealed.

When I look back, it was one of two seminal moments of discovery in my school days. I lost my innocence a bit. From that day forward I’ve been aware of the advantage gifted to me.

I think Miss Betts saw that in me. For all I knew, maybe there was a report on me that she’d seen. Perhaps I stood out in the class I’d been allocated. I seem to think that English classes were graded, and, despite my results, I’d been put in one of the lower graded classes. THS were one of the best schools in the state, and perhaps they thought they knew better.

Lying in bed unable to sleep, I remembered all that. I remembered the play. It was the first time I’d been exposed to Shakespeare, and it sparked a lifelong love for his genius. I was proud to play Richard, but I was also fascinated by the dark convolutions of the play.

I was 15. There’s a lot going on at that age. I was the newcomer and relative stranger. I remember copping some low-level grief at being a ‘Mexican’and about ‘aerial ping-pong’, as they liked to describe Aussie rules footy. I made friends soon enough, though, one of whom is still very close. I’d had my lusts before – I was precocious in that regard – but look back with special fondness at some of the ripe attractions I felt in that year.

Here I am now. I realised the other day that I’m at the page, possibly exacerbated by recent events, when you look back and wish you could ‘redo’ some moments. More keenly, you wish you understood better back before, and appreciated the wonderful moments more keenly rather than brushing them off. When you’re young, there’s always more. Whatever you’ve had, there’ll be more to come. And for a long time, it’s true, just as it’s true now – just that the more is less than what it was before. And the decisions you’ve made before now dictate what is to come. Or maybe not.

I know that probably sounds a bit grim. Consider it no more than a fair appraisal. I can’t redo things. There’s so much that I wish had been different. But not to be and no point dwelling on it. I’m alive now, awake and alert. I have more time to come now and an awareness I didn’t have before. I can make a difference still.

And there, in a nutshell, is the sort of stuff that flows through my mind unimpeded as I try to sleep. It’s all there – the memory, the conjectures, the revisions, the leaping sense of wonder and flights of logic, and the final judgment.

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