On the duckbilled platypus

I have subscribed to The Tobolowsky Files podcasts, but it hasn’t been updated in months. So as I was looking through my downloaded podcasts today at work, I squeaked with excitement that there was one waiting for me to listen to. Stephen talking about education and how one action by a teacher can have a ripple effect across the pond of your life that lasts for years.

Here’s an example of a seemingly innocuous action by a teacher. This wandered into my mind over the weekend as we had watched a natural history program where they managed to catch a duckbilled platypus in the wild, then the podcast this morning again decided for me that I needed to share it with you all. In my last year of infant school we were given an A3 piece of paper to complete a project on a bird and then again later in the year, an animal. I chose the swallow and then wanted to do the duckbilled platypus. My teacher told me that I couldn’t, as I wouldn’t find enough information on them. Never mind that I’d been reading about them in a book at home from the library, so could have easily have completed the project. I got given the giant panda to do instead. Then a few days later; Beth Greenaway produced a booklet on the duckbilled platypus, that was so good, the head teacher came to the classroom to compliment her.

I was seven years old, and the pain of being lied to stung, (and would still if I let it). Why she didn’t say to me, ‘I’m sorry Madeline, that animal has been chosen already’. I don’t know. Being a teacher, and after being told to respect my elders and people in authority, I said nothing. But I quietly did a picture of the animal for Beth, and handed it to her when the teacher was watching. However, that was the beginning of the end of my education, before it had even really started. Because I had lost respect for someone who was supposed to inspire me to greater things, and from there, that lack of respect grew as I moved into junior school. For the first year, I had a nice teacher, then an awful teacher, another awful teacher, then a teacher that just simply put the fear of god into me.

Knowing what I know now, that education takes you places, that it doesn’t matter what your teacher tells you, you can take from it what you make of it, and that children all over the world would give their lives to have the opportunity frittered away by children in the western world with our educational structure – I now wish I could reach back in time and encourage me on to better things. My senior school career was a nightmare from start to finish. My reading age when I arrived was over 16 years old, I was put into the top set for English, taught by the head of English, he gave us a spelling test to see what level we were at. The hardest word on the test was ‘sometimes’ I can remember that day so clearly. I’d already had a run in with another teacher who’d told me off for not helping someone find their way, not believing me that it was my first day too. I was 5’10” at 12, so just shy of that in September 1986 and eleven years old.

Through the five long years I was there, I was bullied mercilessly, with again, being so tall apparently making me immune from people calling me names; ruining my schoolwork when they should have been peer-reviewing or marking it; laughing at me and my clumsiness, the size of my feet and so on. I know I wasn’t the easiest of children, I am fully aware of that, my foibles are writ large all over me. But to belittle me in front of the class because I misheard something so did it wrong because you wouldn’t answer my raised hand; to shout at me because I couldn’t understand trigonometry (which I’ve never sodding used anyway); to write in my final report that ‘it was a shame she didn’t turn up for her science exam’ despite me having permission from the headmaster to attend my grandmother’s funeral and to take the test a day or so later.

I remember the first time I saw a duckbilled platypus, I couldn’t believe how small it was, although they do grow to be bigger than the ones we saw that day. Hubs had taken me to Healesville Sanctuary, after allowing my eyes to adjust to the darkness, to finally see the animal that I’d been thinking about since I was seven years old, moved me to tears. Much happier tears than the hot, bitter tears than the same animal caused nearly 30 years before.

One thought on “On the duckbilled platypus

  1. I so get what you are saying Maddie. Your supposedly “informative” years leave such a huge mark in your life. Some fair better than others, but I like you spent my whole school life being bullied ( but when reported to the head, ” I must have provoked them”, or not so and so she’s a lovely girl, you must have misunderstood”).
    What schools, teachers, bullies don’t realise is what happens in school NEVER leaves you, that sick feeling in the pit of your stomach, not wanting to even pick up a phone to call a stranger, feeling people are laughing at you behind your back even as an adult. Yup! My chip is firmly rooted on my shoulder even at 50 and I know it will never leave. X


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