I find it's also good to draw out and expand upon memories. These days I will sometimes remember something from decades ago, something that I had not thought of for a long time but that was a big deal at the time and influential in my personal development.
One of those such things is my ninth grade in high school. It was an interesting time. I was thirteen going on fourteen. We had a new teacher to the school - an international boys private school run by Canadian Christian Brothers called St. Mary's in Tokyo - and his name was Brother Robert Scripko. He was in his mid twenties, rotund and powerful. He came in an took over, revolutionised, the English and Drama departments. And he also happened to be our homeroom and English teacher. Everything he did was by the rules - his rules. One thing that was clear to everyone, very soon, was that he didn't take shit. He had a huge physical presence - tall and rotund- and the booming voice of an orator or a fish market spruiker. On the upside, he had plenty of positive energy mixed in with his dictator-like character and a great passion for both english and drama.
One of the best things he did was give us each a journal and demanded that we write a page - about anything - every Tuesday and Thursday. On top of that we would fill it with longer, specified assigments, once a week. When we were first told of this, there was a lot of resistance. Filling a whole page without guidance or direction at that age seemed challenging. But after not long, most kids got in the swing of things. We had to hand them in every few weeks and Brother Robert would write comments. He would grade the assigments but not the journal pages. He was sometimes harsh but also encouraging.
I grew to love my journal. I found a great pleasure and freedom in making up stories. As a big reader of comics and magazines, and, more and more, books - it was a revelation to me that you could create fiction of your own devising. It was like a game. A fun game with very broad parameters and unlimited options. One evening, about two thirds of the way through the year, I shared my journal, proudly, with my parents. I waited in my room while they perused it, anticipating high praise or at least positive acknowledgement. Finally, they called me into their chamber.
"We notice that you write a lot about death. A lot of your stories are about death..."
They seemed concerned and slightly perturbed. It was not the encouragement I had been looking for. I didn't really have an answer for them. But looking back, since then, I put it down to a few things.
Death is drama.
Life is death.
Death is the ultimate mystery.
Death is extreme and elicits an emotional response.
Writing about death is a way of coming to terms not only with it's eventuality but also a way of frame-working life.
Death is powerful and confronting. Writing about it is challenging and brave.
Of course, I knew none of this consciously back then. And I had no satisfying response to their concern. So, I slunked away back into my room. They don't get me. It was clear.
By that age I had two near death experiences already. One at age nine when I was bitten by the most venomous of spiders, the Funnelweb. I was rushed to hospital and released after a short stay and observation. Having been bitten on the toe, not too much poison entered by bloodstream. It made me unwell briefly but I survived.
My second encounter with death was when I was eleven. I was in a Japanese hospital for an operation. Being a foreigner there, the doctors and staff were a unused to someone of my age being bigger than expected. I wasn't easy to put out and actually punched the anaesthetist as I was going out. He overcompensated with far too much drugs and I woke up post op, on the verge of an overdose. I was fully tripping out and could feel myself very close to leaving this earthly plane, hanging on by a thread of consciousness. It was an incredibly disturbing and powerful experience - one that left me with easy access to out-of-body perception and an existential world view.
Aahhh.. but enough of death. Let's get back to life. And the ninth grade. As well as my story writing, I was mostly known for my joke making. Practical jokes, impractical jokes, written jokes, comics, surreal and obtuse poetry... l loved to laugh and make others laugh, too. One thing about school - although I really did not like being a prisoner and being bossed around by a group of, for the most part, mentally imbalanced adults - I did enjoy sharing time and company with my classmates. Any chance for a bit of fun and I'd be in. Fun loving. That sums it up. And I find it hard to imagine that Brother Robert was not well aware of this.
So when it came time for drama tryouts I was keen as mustard - knowing that there was to be a comedy piece (I forget now what it was) in the mix. I recall running to the notice board to see who had been cast in what and was deeply perplexed to see my name as the lead in..... 'The Winslow Boy'. Huh? This is a very heavy, somber play by Terence Rattigan set in the Edwardian era - about a young lad being accused of and interrogated about a petty theft at the Royal Naval College. It had no laughs in it at all! And no death!
It made no sense to me. So many lines to learn! (Not my forte - not then, not now.) So much seriousness and angst and drama! This was not me. But sadly, by the time I realised what was happening I could not pull out. The boss would not allow it. It was the miscasting of the century and a most mystifying occurrence. I hated every moment of the whole experience - from rehearsals to performance. I was so afraid of making a mistake during the live show that I had a full out-of-body experience for most of it.
The pressure on me was intense because during dress rehearsals I ad libbed and got the other actor to laugh uncontrollably. This made me start laughing and throwing in more funny lines. Soon everybody around us, viewing, behind the scenes and in the flanks joined in with laughter. For a brief moment I was in heaven - making more and more mischievous asides and cracking up the crowd.
But then - BOOM, BOOM, BOOM! - Brother Robert, in a wild rampage, had made his way down from the bleechers and had crashed his way onto the stage. His face was red and sweaty and full of rage. He was foaming at the mouth.
"If you screw up my show, you foolish little punk, you will be MUD! MUD!" His voice was booming. It quashed any remaining giggles and only amplified more by the surrounding silence of fear and astonishment from the thirty of forty people present. Bar none, I guarantee you that every soul in that room was thinking - 'I am sure glad I am not him right now!' I was him - and it wasn't good.
Scripko dug his index finger hard into my solar plexus more than once to accentuate his threat and magnify his horrifying presence. I was determined not to cry, not there, not in front of everyone and I didn't. But I was literally shaking in my shoes. I was very afraid. Not just in that moment but until I muttered the last word of the last line on the final day of performance. It was the most intensely unpleasant experience I had had since the near deaths.
Like I said at the beginning of this piece - sometimes this forum enables me to revisit and recall moments from my development that have been filed far up the back of the internal cabinet. This was one of them. I've never been able to work out why it happened - why I was even put in that position in the first place. Just weird.
Fucking Winslow Boy bullshit! I was Neil Simon material, dammnit. I just wanted to laugh. And make others laugh. Oh, and write about death. Is that so hard to understand?!