I had heard about Martians from the TV show, My Favourite Martian. The main character lived with a human who spent all his waking life trying to hide the Martian’s existence from others. Although I thought the show was funny, I didn’t quite understand why this level of anonymity was necessary — until I went to school.
On my first day, no one spoke to me. I was excruciatingly shy — a personality trait that may have been inherent but I now believe was most likely due to environmental factors. I sat cross-legged on the floor with the other children and did my best to understand what the teacher was saying but she spoke too fast and did not attempt to assist my comprehension, although she was aware of my language barrier. For their part, none of the other children were mean — they simply ignored me. They all seemed to know one another and to my mind, appeared to be members of a secret club, as they all sang the same songs and knew the rules for, well … everything.
After a couple of hours of singing and playing games I did not recognise, it was “Milk Time”. As soon as this was announced, two boys with identical looks of self-importance jumped out of their seats. One of them did so with such gusto that his chair toppled over. They ran out of the room at break-neck speed, returning swiftly with a large crate filled with identical, small, glass milk bottles. They then pierced the shiny metal tops with a biro and placed green-striped paper straws in all the bottles. An air of excitement filled the room.
The teacher announced everyone had to line up to receive a bottle. I was not thirsty and I was not partial to plain milk so I did not rise. Miss Shearer* shot me a piercing look: “You too”. She paused, and when I did not stand up, sounded out my name, exaggerating each syllable, as though it were a complex medical term: “Vi-oh-le-tarr”** — the last bit was given a questioning inflection, followed by a firm nod towards the crate.
In my best English I replied, “No, thank you, Miss Shearer”. This seemed to infuriate Miss Shearer for reasons I could not fathom. I had practiced polite answers in English with my father (he was fluent) and I thought I had done quite well. She began shouting instructions. Although I had trouble deciphering the words, their meaning was clear: I was expected to drink the milk.
At the same time, half a dozen hands shot up as children cried, “Can I have another one?” I repeated my earlier comment but also added, “Thank you very much”, for extra politeness. This did not amuse Miss Shearer who was, by now, red in the face and glaring at me so hard it caused her left eye to twitch slightly. She demanded I stand up. I did so.
She smacked me hard around the legs half a dozen times, leaving welts from the force of her slaps, and dragged me by the arm to the corner. There was a chair already there and a cone-shaped hat I had to wear. The hat was labeled, ‘DUNCE’. I had learned the alphabet before attending school and although I did not know what this meant, I knew it was not good.
The remainder of that sweltering first day, I sat trying to prevent the hot tears rolling down my face, my legs stinging and red, holding on to the drink Miss Shearer was so intent I finish. But it was just so foul. It was hot and sour with thick skin on top and it made me gag. I decided I would not drink it.
Once I made my decision, I sat with a straight back in that chair all day, holding on to both the warm milk bottle and a new, growing feeling of martyrdom. Ironically, I felt a distinct sense of power in my decision. She could hit me and ridicule me but I would not drink it; and I did not.
When my mother came to collect me at the end of the day, I announced I would not be returning to school and went to my room without further explanation. Eventually, my father was able to coax the day’s events from me. His fury made Miss Shearer look like an amateur. I should explain: my father was a cultured, well-mannered man who did not resort to violence. However, his confident carriage and ability to look fearful and formidable when called for, was unparalleled.
The next day, my father called work and informed them he would be late. We marched up to the school together — well, he marched and I tagged along behind. I watched Miss Shearer reduced from a convincing bully to a placating, apologetic girl. Her shoulders hunched and she seemed close to tears as she informed my father that she had had no idea he did not wish me to be forced into consuming hot, sour cow’s milk and no, she did not want my father to make a formal, written complaint to the principal. I felt sorry for her.
Once she had convinced my father not to take the issue further, Miss Shearer transformed once again — this time, into a coquettish flirt for, apart from my father’s air of authority, immaculately dressed in his business suit and tie, he always had a strange effect on women.
I should add that my father believed in discipline and we were not indulged children. I was expected to behave well at all times, follow the rules, respect authority and cop any punishment as necessary — as were my older siblings. In our house, manners held utmost importance and we (mostly) did as we were told. However, my father was appalled that my first day of school was spent on the Dunce Chair simply because I wasn’t thirsty.
I never drank milk at school and Miss Shearer never smacked me again; no cross words were ever uttered in my direction. Of course, neither did I misbehave. The extent to which she treated me differently, however, did not change. Miss Shearer developed an overall indifference towards me. This suited me as I was not publicly humiliated again but it was further evidence of my alien status. I was a Martian.
I have always thought of my acclimatisation to the Australian way of life as a normal process of socialisation and a sign of my natural inclination to our chosen lifestyle. I consider myself to be Australian, of Greek heritage. However, it has recently occurred to me, the way a warm day can develop without warning, that my fondness for and seeming predisposition towards all things Australian, may have been a survival technique rather than an actual preference. Indeed, to my five-year-old brain, what choices were apparent to me?
The remainder of my first year of school was somewhat tragic as I had an almost permanent case of (diagnosed) tonsillitis, for which I was constantly off school. Our doctor, in an unusual move for that time, did not recommend the removal of my tonsils and was always prescribing penicillin — which I went to great lengths to avoid taking.
Now, although I have no medical basis for it, I am convinced that my fear of school somehow managed to manifest this condition. In any case, I spent the greater part of that year at home, educating myself with television shows such as Romper Room and Humphrey B Bear and playing with two kids of kinder age in our street. This hiatus from school had the dual benefit of helping me master the English language and allowing me the opportunity for friendship.
I remember little about these two children with whom I played, except that they were happy to play with me and they taught me a few songs and games they had learned at kinder. By the time grade one came around, I was fluent in English and could hold my own in renditions of ‘Twinkle Twinkle’ or ‘Humpty Dumpty’, which I was prone to do quite often. I also made a friend called Wendy and I loved her with the fervour of a religious zealot. Thanks to Wendy, from whom I learned about unwritten rules, customs and other necessary playground artillery, I could blend in at school — to me, this was akin to attaining the Holy Grail.
Unfortunately, Wendy moved away towards the end of grade two and I only saw her again once or twice. Her mother was married to an abusive man (Wendy’s step-father) and they ran away from him. I remember this clearly as they visited our house late one night and left Wendy with us while her mother and older sister made arrangements to flee. Blissfully unaware of the reasons for the sleepover, Wendy and I spent the night playing shadow figures on the wall, giggling and trying to stay awake.
My transformation from Martian to honorary Australian (my dark features mean I have never been thought of as “naturally” Australian) was not complete until much later, after the usual adolescent rites of passage, an acquired taste for Vegemite and an interest (albeit half-hearted) in Aussie Rules football. But there have been many times when I felt as though everything I considered to be true about myself was actually acquired from others. I don’t mean that I was false or affected but only that the things I chose to like or do were all part of my inner, subconscious quest to be a non-Martian — a quest which began with warm milk.
* Miss Shearer was not her actual name
** Violeta is the author’s original Christian name but is no longer in use