A personal essay on rescue
We were sitting cross-legged on her green duvet, rain pattering through leaves outside, fairy lights twinkling through the gauze of her bed’s canopy. She was writing an essay about women in 20th Century Russia. I was thinking about Albert Wendt and Darko Suvin; the types of cognitive estrangement that were enacted in the novel Dark Rainbow, and how fascinating it was to be studying Wendt in Pacific Studies and English Lit at the same time.
“I just think,” I said, cracking my knuckles, then my neck, then my shoulders, “I just think this is a really good place to run away to.”
“This country. This city, particularly. Te-Whanganui-a-Tara.” I leaned into the sound of the words, once foreign-seeming and fumbled, now familiar and a sign of my privilege and slowly blossoming belonging.
And she said, “Oh yeah. I always forget you’re not from here.”
When people ask me why I chose to leave Australia and study in Wellington, I’m never quite sure how to answer.
It’s not like I couldn’t do an English Literature/History double major at a dozen unis across my country of citizenship. I’ve got no family here (apart from some homeopathic-beekeeping second cousins up in Whanganui, who I’ve never met). And, much as I love this country, it’s not exactly the Big Smoke.
But I wanted to think about indigeneity, and Australia as part of the Pacific, and how culture and storytelling and history run into each other, making things knotty and nuanced and real. And I wanted to get out.
I couldn’t bear the thought of going to uni with anyone from high-school—not because they were necessarily unpleasant, but because it was too much to transform myself in front of people I had known for years. I needed a fresh start, a blank page on which to write and edit my own story, outside the blandly cheerful panopticon gaze of our Old Girls Association.
So, I ran away to Aotearoa, changed my name and my pronouns, and tried to forget the fact that I used to wake up at 5:30AM to attend a “school designed to educate young women to take a leading role in society.”
Let me backtrack a bit.
My name is Gilbert Ostini, and I grew up in a humid wee town in south-east Queensland. My siblings and I all went through the tiny local primary school, before heading to high school in Brisbane—the City.
In primary school, there had been four kids in my grade, and I had been the smartest, the most well-off, mercilessly mocked for the hint of British in my accent. At my new school, I was much farther down the socio-economic status ladder, and people found my accent cultured and interesting. I still thought I was the smartest, but alas, I was not.
Picture me on my first day at Real School: thirteen years old and about ten kilos underweight, my bony frame drowning in swathes of lime green fabric that I would ‘grow into’. Mum still cut my hair. Adele’s 21 was my favourite album. I’d prepared by reading and re-reading Enid Blyton’s Mallory Towers, and my backpack was the shiny, stiff green that said I was a first-generation Somerville Girl.
Also, I had miraculously missed hearing the word ‘transgender’ for my entire childhood, and I had no idea how much pain the epithet ‘Somerville Girl’ would come to cause me.
I can talk about Somerville with adoration and bitterness, and both are real, neither eclipsing the other. It’s just… complicated; like that thing with the chaplain.
See, in Grade 12, I was Chapel Prefect; in charge of the Chapel portfolio, as we said. As a staunch, if slightly odd, Christian, I was pretty keen. So, I organised breakfasts, carried the Bible at Assembly and occasionally got to deliver the ‘Chaplain’s Address’, expounding my amateur theological takes to the largely-impassive student body.
The school chaplain herself was a hell of a character. A tall, curly-haired woman in her sixties, her Aussie nasal twang and a predilection toward striped button-downs reminded me uncomfortably of Murray the Red Wiggle. She wore thin rectangular glasses that she always peered over, and her smile was lovely. I’m genuinely interested in you, that smile seemed to say.
Her name was not Ms Murphy, but I’m going to call her that anyway.
It’s a funny position to be in: for much of high school, I felt that I had no power—playing the game was the only way to survive. Now, though, I’m the writer, the graduate, the expat. Now, I can say what I want.
I find that I want to tell the truth, but also be careful, caring; responsible.
Anyway, even typing her pseudonym makes my throat tighten. When you spend years turning a woman into a spectre, a symbol of everything that makes you feel tiny and powerless and aberrant, it takes a while to stop twitching.
In my final year at high-school, Ms Murphy taught my Christian Education class, oversaw my prefect portfolio and ran the Bible study group I was in. In short, we saw a lot of each other.
And now, the flashpoint: our school Formal, an occasion of much angst, especially for me and my equally socially-incompetent boyfriend at the time. He and I wore tuxedos; his tie matched my pocket square and vice versa. We were very cute. People aww-ed.
Ms Murphy met my eye, frowned, and pretended not to hear when I said hello.
And that was that: the music started bad and got worse, people swigged vodka in the toilets, and rich girls got their tongues stuck when they tried to lick the ice sculptures.
A few days later, I got an email from Murph, asking me to come have a chat.
So, I walked past my mates on break, past the big main building and down a set of stairs overhung by fig branches. I had my ragged pin-covered satchel with me, clutched in ragged-nailed ink-covered fingers. I was 17, skinny as a matchstick, and so anxious I thought it might actually claw its way up my throat and out of my mouth like some creature with too many legs.
We sat in the room that Bible study was held in, and she asked me why I thought she’d called me in.
I knew. Obviously. I was an abomination.
I told her I wasn’t sure. Was she wanting to talk about our upcoming Chapel Week celebrations?
She wasn’t; she wanted to talk about Expectations.
And suddenly, something in me straightened that I had thought permanently stooped. I did not, I realised, have to let her browbeat me; was not obliged to accept any and all loathsome insinuations while I bobbed my head and apologised. If she had something to say, she could bloody well say it.
“Oh?” I said. “Expectations around what?”
“I was so excited to have you in this role of Chapel Prefect,” she said. “I mean, you’re such a character around school and you’ve brought such freshness to the role.”
A pause. I smiled. She was right.
“It’s just, you’re known to be quite outspoken—and that’s brilliant, we love that about you—so, I guess I’m just a bit… disappointed? Yeah, disappointed that you haven’t been more public about your Christian opinions. In this role. You’re really the face of the school’s faith environment to the broader external community—you know, at other schools and events.”
I was digging my fingernails so hard into my palms that they left crescent-shaped craters, but I smiled, forcing her to to commit.
“So, we had hoped—sort of expected—that you’d realise that you need to temper your… yourself a little. A little more than you have,” she continued. “And, you know. There’s something I—I and some others—have been concerned about for quite a while. I tried to remind you about your, uh, influence…” (She’d told me some younger students were ‘experimenting with alternate sexualities’ and wanted me to remember how much they looked up to me. Given our school mascot was everyone’s favourite amphibian, she really was accusing me of turning the freaking frogs gay).
“If this has been a long-term issue,” I smiled, “Can I ask why you’re only telling me now? With four weeks left of school?” Long pause. I decided to help her a little. “Is there anything in particular that precipitated this?”
I hadn’t realised until then how scathing alliteration could sound, and I felt a little thrill.
“Well…” It was a political minefield. “I suppose I was a little disappointed by your presentation at the Formal. Did you, uh, notice any of the other girls wearing, you know… suits?”
“Oh!” Duh. “No, I didn’t. But Charlie wore a lovely one last year, didn’t she?”
A tiny part of my brain was enjoying myself. This was what English class—The Crucible, 1984, even Jane Eyre, had prepared me for. The rest of me wanted to scratch at the walls and scream just tell me you find me disgusting, say it, say it, say it to my face.
“Charlie wore a girl’s suit,” she responded just a bit too quickly. “People might think you were, sort of, you know, promoting things.” She said ‘promoting’ like she was tipping a slug out of her mouth. “Like, uh. Obviously you weren’t, but some people might read it as a sort of commendation of… uh, cross-dressing?”
Cross-dressing? Cross-dressing? I was almost disappointed. The conversation wrapped up quickly from there—I could tell she’d come as close to straightforwardness as she was ever going to. I thanked her for her time, for bringing this to my attention, for her generosity in having given me a position like this in the first place when I was such a controversial choice. And then I ran.
I ran up the red-brick stairs, past the Chapel and the fig tree and my friends eating lunch and into the ugly 70s section of the school, and I hadn’t thought I was upset, but tears were starting to blur my eyesight and I didn’t know where I was going until I found myself at the English Department and my teachers were there and they opened the door and gave me a cup of tea and listened to it all spill from me in a retching heaving sobbing tidal wave of grief and self-disgust.
Shortly after, I delivered the Valedictorian’s address, packed my bags and moved to Aotearoa.
Someone once asked what my favourite book was, and I replied with “Catch-22.”
“Oh,” they said, “but that’s, like, Literature.”
“It’s good,” I said.
“Yeah, I know,” they responded.
“No, no, it’s good. Like, I know you know it’s worthy. But it’s actually a good story.”
And then we stared at each other in mutual incomprehension for a few minutes and the moment passed.
It’s easy to understand why I loved English in school: I liked books, I could be a bit lazy because it came naturally to me, and I was exactly the stereotype of the closeted queer who gets adopted by the English Department. Still, I didn’t really understand it as a discipline—something whose value could be in the studying, not just the stories—until I met a little-known author named Shakespeare.
I was fourteen when I first read Romeo & Juliet. My sister still thinks it’s absurd for it to be my favourite Shakespeare play, and I know Hamlet and Macbeth and whatever are objectively better texts. But nothing really compares to the emotional weight of that play.
For one, it’s really funny, and I found a a snobbish delight in knowing that when other people didn’t. The exclusivity was important; I was 14 and I felt dirty, wrong and out of place in my elite school for girls. So, Stella’s grandpa might’ve pioneered teeth-whitening and Tish might’ve gotten a coupe for her birthday, but I got to see my teacher glance up, amused and approving, when I snorted at “tis well thou art not poor-john.”
The text taught me what it was to work hard—to push through the density and difficulty of a text and feel it open up, reluctantly at first and then all in a rush.
With an intensity that was almost feral, I wanted to unzip the text and get inside. I wanted to pick things up and shake them, asking why, how, what, how is this possible? I wanted to understand what was happening to me.
I carved a space for myself with those words, and the study of English became a small home that I could always find, where I belonged by virtue of my love for words and theory and criticism. And my teachers—oh, my teachers. These teachers told me to shut up when I was talking over other students, but they never made me feel like I was taking up too much space. They told me my ideas were worthwhile, and that my enthusiasm wasn’t something to be ashamed of, and they hugged me when I wept.
It was mine. And it was ours. And it was unutterably marvellous.
October. Too hot, already. The Last Day Of School.
I walked to all my favourite buildings, running my fingers along the walls like some coming-of-age montage. I hugged younger girls goodbye and told the few queer kids I knew that they were brilliant, brave and would make it through because fuck knows, that place made us strong. I walked past Ms Murphy’s office to the Chapel’s cool, sacred gloom, where I prayed and watched the Brisbane sunlight stream through the stained glass windows.
This was the place that had nurtured my storytelling, that had made me realise that English was worth studying and that I was worthy of studying it. So many things had happened at this school, wonderful, strange and awful, so overwhelming and too much to properly process. I was ready to leave, and I was not as sad as I thought I would be.
So, I made my way to the English staff room to say my final goodbyes. To Ms Ayliffe, who taught me how to read Shakespeare. To Percy and JG, who had never made me feel small. To Ms P, who threw her arms around me and said “thank you,” which was ridiculous because I was the one whose life she had saved.
I hugged her back. The sun was hot, and the whole school smelled like summer. A train rattled by, the world was enormous, and I was loved and ready to leave.
Gilbert’s essay was commissioned by Wellington writer Rijula Das, who is curating ReadingRoom all week. Tomorrow: a personal essay about falling in love with unavailable women.