Maeve: Hi, I’m Maeve Marsden, and you’re listening to Queerstories. This week, Yen-Rong Wong is a writer of non-fiction based in Meanjin, on unceded Jaggera and Turrbal land. Her work has appeared in many print and online publications, including The Guardian, Meanjin, and Griffith Review, and she is currently working on her first full length manuscript, Things Left Unsaid. She performed this story at the Brisbane Powerhouse.
Yen-Rong: I hold grudges. It’s probably not the best trait to have, but my memory is long, and while I try my best to be kind and generous and caring, there is a part of me that is cold and unforgiving. It’s true.
The oldest and most potent of these grudges hails from primary school, and it’s against the two teachers I had in grades 6 and 7. Before this incident, I loved one of these teachers. I had her in grade one, and in years past she’d written me Christmas cards and even given me a gift of a miniature magnetic chess set. She gave big, comforting hugs, and I thought she’d always be on my side. I don’t know what changed.
I’d always been a quiet kid, though. I was one of those children who always had her head stuck in a book – I’d even mastered the art of reading while walking at a young age. I was also what other kids considered a nerd, and it didn’t help that I fell into a pool of stereotypes attributed to “Asians”: I was good at and I really liked maths, I played a string instrument, I went to North Shore for a couple of years, and I generally liked school, and learning stuff. I’d been bullied a few times, so I knew how cruel other kids (and on occasion, parents) could be, but I had an implicit trust in my teachers. After all, they were supposed to be there for us, to guide us and teach us.
In any case, the non-human stars of this grudge are a can of deodorant and a copy of Heinemann’s atlas, which first appeared on our mandated book lists in grade 4.
This was also about the time I fell in love with glittery gel pens. I’d use them for everything, imprinting my name on all my books in differing shades of purple and green and blue and gold. I loved these pens and I loved my atlas, which contained burgeoning buds of a love for geography I’m sure I inherited from my dad.
We didn’t use the atlases much, but they stayed in our tidy trays (remember those), just in case. And one day, Kate – one of my bullies, and a girl who just happened to also sit opposite me at this time – announced she’d lost her atlas. That same day, I was asked to stay behind while my classmates ran laps around the oval as part of our daily exercise routine.
I was their main suspect because few weeks prior, I’d stolen a can of deodorant from another girl’s bag. My parents (being Asian) wouldn’t buy me my own, and I’d been convinced that smelling like Impulse was the “in” thing for girls my age (I was ten at the time). So based on this behaviour, they determined I’d also stolen Kate’s atlas.
They sat me between their twin desks and tried to glare kindly at me, as if what they were doing was for my own benefit, my own good. They grilled me, asked me why I would want to steal something as innocuous and rarely used as an atlas. I maintained my innocence – I hadn’t done it! – but they kept pushing.
I showed them my atlas, and they snatched it from my hands, eager to prove me wrong. They found their evidence within the first few pages; my name, in cursive, in gold.
You wouldn’t have had a gold gel pen when you were in grade 4, they scoffed. But I remembered the excitement of writing my name in the atlas with gold gel pen, and the annoyance I felt at myself when I opened it the next day to see a smudge on the opposite page – I’d closed it while the ink was still wet. I know they wouldn’t believe me, and there was no rebuttal to this other than a “but I did have a gold gel pen!” so I stayed quiet. In hindsight, it was a strange thing to hinge their entire argument on. In any case, they claimed I’d taken Kate’s atlas, taken it home, written my name in it with the class I was in at the time, before returning it to my tidy tray the next day. An interesting hypothesis, but an incorrect one nonetheless.
I knew there was nothing I could say to convince them of my innocence; that, coupled with a cultural conditioning to avoid conflict at all costs, meant lengthy periods of silence, which I presume they took for an admission of guilt.
During one of these silences, one of the teachers rummaged around in the pile of books to her right, and it was then she spied another atlas. She pulled it out – and lo and behold, it was Kate’s. Vindication!, I thought. But they just looked at each other, then to me, and told me to go back outside to join my classmates.
I never got an apology.
I did, however, retain the feeling that they thought of me as lesser than, that they didn’t really respect me. I started to wonder if the grade one teacher who had been so kind to me in the past was really kind at all. I started to distrust adults, with the conclusion that the only person who would look out for me was me. I also got an invite to a parent-teacher meeting, where among other things, I was told I was socially inept, and this was a contributing factor to my being bullied. These days, we’d call that victim blaming, but back then, there was no widely known term for it. All I know for sure is that ten-year-old took their words to heart, and that she spent the rest of her schooling years breaking herself apart to fix something that wasn’t even broken in the first place.
I wanted to ask for an apology – to demand one – but ten-year-old me didn’t know how to ask for the things she wanted, or even the things she was owed. I’d been scared into submission so many times that I didn’t even know I was allowed to ask for these things. And that’s before we go into the power dynamic inherent in an Asian girl trying to confront two middle aged white women who already hold a position of power in her life.
This is the first time I’ve ever told this story in its entirety. I guess I’ve been waiting for the right time. I still remember their names, their faces, how after that meeting they continued to smile at me like they’d done nothing wrong. I often found myself wondering how they were allowed to be teachers – I didn’t want what happened to me to happen to any other kid.
I’ve dreamed of looking them in the eye, of telling them how their words and actions took years of therapy to reverse. I want them to see how I have prevailed, that I am more than they ever thought I could be. I want to tell them they were wrong.
I want an apology.
It’s been sixteen years, and a part of me knows it’s silly to hold onto this wish – I know I’ll never get the apology I deserve. I want to try to set this grudge free, but it feels like it’s etched into the very fibre of my being. Maybe, by telling this story out loud for the first time, I can start to let a little bit of it go.
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