Every time I wash my kitchen windows, a memory comes back to me, of an unhappy, self-conscious 13 year old girl, washing windows in a classroom. Of course that teenage girl was me, and the window-washing in question took place decades ago.
At the all-girls Catholic secondary college I attended, the well-worn tradition of dividing students up into “Houses” lived on. Divide and conquer, so they say.
Unlike more famous schools – like, say, Hogwarts – our “Houses” did not determine our class groupings, or our lodgings, or really much at all. They remained largely symbolic, a reminder of their namesakes, who were all women, probably nuns, who had founded schools for girls, or done commendable charity works in poverty-stricken countries. (As a side note, one of the few good things about that Catholic education was a strong social justice message combined with a powerful message that women could lead all sorts of things, including social change. That seeped into my consciousness without me realising it at the time.)
As far as I can recall, the main, and almost only, time our division into Houses came into play was in the lead up to, and on the day of, the annual sporting carnival, where they achieved their main function: to harness our natural sense of competitiveness and focus it into fierce loyalty for our respective teams.
The only exception to this is that in my first year of high school, students were assigned classroom duties on a rotating weekly basis, broken up into small teams based on Houses. I assume that we must have got points for our House for doing all tasks satisfactorily. So, for example, when it was the week for our House – let’s call it Gryffindor – the next three girls on the class roll, who were from Gryffindor, were nominated as responsible. We would then work out between us who was going to clean the blackboard, dust the shelves, water the plants, wash the windows, etc.
Actually, to be honest, I just made up most of those tasks. I don’t remember ever seeing shelves in our starkly boring 1980s classrooms, which still had blackboards at the front, and nor can I recall any plants, not just in the classroom, but within the entire grounds of my Year 7-8 campus, which, in my memory at least, was constructed entirely of asphalt. The only variation in the asphalt landscape was that part of it was underneath the school building, filled with lockers, and as an area to hang around in, it had all the ambiance of a dingy underground carpark you wouldn’t want to be stuck in after dark. The remainder was just one big open space, where, in the warmer weather, the sun’s hot rays could reflect off the shiny, dark asphalt and burn you a second time. Which was a bonus for the many hopefully optimistic 13 and 14-year-old girls, who would lie flat out on the asphalt at lunch time, their dresses hitched up as high as they could get away with, their legs smeared in coconut oil, in the hope that this would assist them to burn faster and turn an attractive shade of brown.
Of course, in this endeavour I was unable to join them for very long, as, with my white, freckled skin, all I would gain from time spent in the sun, coconut oil or not, would be a painful, bright red sunburn. I would have to leave the enticing surrounds of the hot asphalt yard, and retire with the other fair-skinned social outcasts, to the shaded, gloomy, undercover locker area, or alternatively, naturally, to every lonely teenager’s haven, the library.
But to get back on track, the only task that I’m certain we were allocated is the one that sticks in my memory all these years later. Yes, I remember washing the windows.
What I remember about washing the class room windows is how I felt when I was doing it. I felt ashamed and incompetent – feelings that were a common experience for me back then.
What strength of feeling I must have had, to have etched such a mundane moment into my brain for so long! Even now, 30 or so years later, I can still see myself at the window. It was a warm Friday afternoon, and I was scrubbing away at the glass, choking back my rising dismay as I tried vainly to get rid of the smears I’d made. It seemed as if the glass looked worse than when I started.
The background to this memory can be filled in from what I know about myself back then. I know that I was a timid, anxious girl, who, when forced to take part in any kind of “team” discussion, would allow the others to do the talking, and make all the decisions. I would have let the other two girls, both confident, assertive types, decide who did what, and allocate me to cleaning the windows if they so chose. I know that I had a severe lack of confidence in executing any task that others could see me do, and that lack of confidence was multiplied if it was a task I was unfamiliar with. I know, therefore, that I would have approached cleaning the windows with the same level of dread that a normal adult might approach the task of climbing down onto a railway track in front of a crowd to retrieve an object, in full knowledge that a train was shortly due to arrive.
It’s significant that this sense of complete incompetence applied to physical tasks that others could see me do. There was an area of life in which I was confident, and that was in my abilities to do my school work. I was “bright”, and got mostly As and Bs all through school in all academic subjects – and in drawing or painting, which I was also good at, and received constant compliments for. What I liked about school work, or art, was that much of the “work” was done in my head as I drew, or wrote, so even the action of putting pen to paper was the second step in the process – and even that step could be executed on a piece of paper in private, without others’ scrutinising my work as it developed. In that zone I was comfortable, whereas I was highly uncomfortable undertaking a physical task that meant exposing the entire process to others’ scrutiny. Subjects I did not do well in at school (though perhaps for other reasons as well) ranged from sewing to sport, and any subject where a team project or a presentation was a large component of the assessment – and both were a major part of the assessment in my final year of English, unfortunately for me.
As an adult, I’m not the most confident person around, but compared to my poor, pitiable teen self, I’m doing fine. I’m still not fond of tasks that people can see me doing, particularly anything that requires me to know the right steps to take and the right order to do them in. For example, I don’t like cooking in the kitchen with dinner guests standing around talking to me, so I always plan meals that can be ready to go when guests arrive.
It is so often the case, when you expect to do something badly, that invariably, you will do it just about as badly as envisioned. Particularly, of course, if someone else is watching you do it.
And that is what happened in when I washed those classroom windows. I’d probably never been asked to clean glass before, and had no idea how to tackle it. No-one gave me any advice on the method for cleaning glass. And when it became obvious that it wasn’t going well, I assumed, as always, that the rest of the world knew how to clean glass properly and I was the weird misfit who obviously did not, or was too incompetent to get it right instinctively.
So there I am, at 13, despairing as to why the glass is all streaky. My cheeks are burning with a familiar sense of shame, because yet again, I’m unable to do a task that, to my mind, anyone and everyone else can do. Shame because I’m letting down my House. I’m not just a failure, I’m a liability. It’s just another reason to feel like a social outcast – what team would want a quiet, fair-skinned, non-sporty girl who can’t even clean glass properly? I look anxiously around to see if anyone is witnessing my incompetence. Sure enough, I see the other 2 girls on my team watching me and talking in low voices to the teacher.
I knew what they were saying.