This is a chapter from Don’t Peak at High School [ed. Fiona Scott-Norman], a collection of interviews with high-profile Australians about their experiences being bullied at high school and how they have overcame such adversity. Here Paul Capsis remembers his school days in Sydney during the 1970s.
There was no bullying in the first three years. I went to a Catholic school and I was in love with the nuns. I thought the world was wonderful, people were nice, and everyone was free to sing and dance like the Elvis movies I watched on TV. But then Mum couldn’t afford to send me there anymore, and when I was eight I went to a public school in the same suburb, Surry Hills, and it was rough, with a huge mix of cultures – Lebanese, Turkish, Aboriginal, everything.
From when I arrived there were comments: ‘You sound like my sister’, ‘You sound like my mother’, ‘You’re a girl, you’re not really a boy.’ But it was a magical time. I had a wonderful teacher who’d play Beatles records and wanted us to dance and sing and perform. Because of my Greek heritage, when we’d go to parties there’d be Turkish music and belly dancing, and this teacher, my favourite, encouraged me to belly dance in front of the school at assembly.
That was … a huge mistake. She put on a track with sitar music from the Sgt. Pepper’s album, and I got up, on my own, in my school uniform – in my greys – and did this dancing. It was hideous. Terrible. Everything changed; I was picked on every day. It was so full-on.
And it went on, and on, and on. From teachers, too. I had a racist teacher in Year 6 who picked on my brother and I because we were ‘non-Australian’. So there was the wog thing, and the girly thing. I was eight when I first heard the word ‘poofter’. I didn’t know what it was, but I knew it was bad, because people hated me for it. A Greek boy said to me once, ‘If I was like you, I would want my father to kill me. You’re a disgrace to the Greeks.’
There were these brothers who used to wait for me after school finished, to hit and kick me. Sometimes just one little hit, one little kick and then walk away. They bashed my brother Manuel once, too. Not because he was a poofter. Because he had asthma. They saw us coming, basically. My father didn’t raise us, so we didn’t have that male thing, what to do in a fight. I had no idea. We weren’t brought up with any guidance about how to protect yourself in a physical way.
Manuel’s 18 months older than me, and they made his nose bleed. I became hysterical, and screamed and shouted, and they freaked and stopped hitting him. This laying-in-wait thing went on for a while, but one day I’d had enough and defended myself. I went crazy, I laid into this boy, and a woman ran across the road and told me off. She called me a bully, and shouted at me to leave him alone. I’d begun developing this behaviour where I’d take it, take it, take it, and then I’d explode. They were clever enough not to hit or kick me where they could be caught, but when I retaliated, full of fury, it would be in front of the teacher and I’d get punished.
There was a Portuguese boy who would, every day, just slap me in the face. One day I picked him up, grabbed him by the collar and threw him so hard he went f lying into chairs and tables, and then I burst into tears. We both got the cane.
I’d go into my mum’s room and look in her dressing-table mirror, and stare at myself, for ages. I thought, ‘There’s something there that everyone sees but I don’t. And if I look in the mirror I’ll find it.’ If I could find it, I thought, I could change it.
My grandmother raised me and Manuel. Mum lived nearby, more an older sister-type figure; someone I’d see every day, but she was there and gone. Discipline and leave. She was a black sheep, because of having two children and no husband. In her family, that was big. Dad was supposed to pay, but for whatever reason we wore hand-medowns, Smith Family clothes. Our clothes were mismatched and odd, and I wore jackets from different schools.
I was threatened a lot. And then, because I was still 11 at the end of the Sixth Grade, they made me repeat a year. There were about nine of us who were the wrong age for high school. With the news that I had to stay there, with that horrible teacher, at that dreadful school, I told my grandmother I wasn’t going back.
I’d heard about this other school, about five blocks away, and I went there by myself to meet the teachers, to find out if I could go there.
I was in the Surry Hills area, so they said ‘Yes’. My mother said, ‘No! You’re not going there. You’re not walking that far to school.’ But my grandmother said to let me.
I had the best six months of my school life there. It was the polar opposite of the other place. The teachers were friendly and nice. The kids were nice. Everyone sang, everyone performed, everyone got on. I couldn’t believe this place existed. I remember thinking, ‘Why didn’t I come here before?’ I was absolutely devastated on my last day. I hid under the stairs and sobbed.
My brother was already at the high school I was going to, and he’d told me, ‘All those boys are waiting for you. They told me, they’re going to get you.’ And I went to this school and it was everything my brother said. But worse.
It was a jail, built by convicts, and part of it still was a jail. The whole vibe of the school was jail. The teachers were like wardens, and the boys were out of control. The first thing I remember seeing was the woodwork teacher being chased by a class of boys across the grounds. I thought, ‘If they can do that to a teacher, I’m fucked.’ And I was.
Nothing happened for six months, so I thought it was just a threat, but then it started, and it was every day. It was a nightmare. Even the teachers, especially the sports teachers. I’d go along to sports and do everything, but each time I was violently abused, and it just escalated. By Year 9 it was absolutely out of control. Even the headmaster was mortified by me.
In all the six years I spent there, I couldn’t go into the playground. If I did I’d get water thrown on me, or kicked. I was called ‘poofter’ or ‘faggot’ every day. I was spat on. Clothes ripped. Punched. Hair pulled. By Year 9 I could only go to the toilet during class, when no one was around. But there was the odd kid who would be around. And they’d get me. This Turkish boy just came up once and punched me in the face. Said nothing. Just punched me and walked off.
I couldn’t learn because I was anxious the whole time. I just couldn’t learn. Every day was about how to get through the day. How do I survive until I get home? It was terrifying. My fantasy was, ‘How can I become invisible?’ Because there were boys who were kind of invisible. They didn’t pull any attention at all. I dreamed of that. I tried once, cutting my hair really short like the others, and dressing like them, but I still had my voice and I was still me. It didn’t work. It was still the same. So I went, ‘Oh well, fuck it.’
I didn’t have strategies, apart from not being out in the playground. I knew I couldn’t be outside. But there were teachers that were very good to me, and it helped. Over the years, as the violence got worse, some of them – my art, music and English teachers – went to great lengths to help and protect me. They’d lock me in the art room during recess. But of course, sometimes you’d go to class and the teacher wasn’t there yet. It might only be five minutes, but that’s all they needed to get me.
The worst day of my life was in Year 9. I was in art class and the teacher was late – it was funny, because she was one who protected me – but a boy hit me, or said something, and I picked up this broom handle and whacked him with it. That’s when the teacher walked in, and I got in trouble. She threw me out of the class. I lost it. I smashed the window. I wanted to jump. We were on the third f loor. I would’ve died, and I wanted to. Being hated by so many people at once, all the time; it does your head in. I got cut. There was blood and glass everywhere. I was a mess, an absolute mess. The teacher was so, so sorry. I was standing there sobbing, covered in blood. They left me alone for a little while after that. They went, ‘He’s nuts.’
Year 9 was intense. Pretty severe. I got bashed by another group of older, football-playing boys. I was doing my usual avoiding thing, going through the corridors when no one else was around, and I ran into these boys who’d just come out of class. They bashed and kicked me in the corridor. I had my first out-of-body experience. My body left me and I observed what was happening – and I felt nothing. I was completely numb.
I threw my school bag and I ran out of the school. I didn’t look; I was just running. It was on a busy street, this school, I could have been killed. My mother went and saw the principal, and because I knew some of those boys’ names, they got badly punished. They got like nine whips of the cane, and didn’t touch me again.
I wanted to leave, but my English teacher told my mother not to let me. He said, ‘You’ll have this problem wherever he goes. It will disrupt his education, and the other boys are starting to mature.’ So I stayed. I was the first one in my family to ever do Year 12. Not one single member of my family had done their HSC before. My brother had left. He hated it, he couldn’t cope, and after Year 9 he was gone.
I was determined, because I didn’t want to be a cleaner. I didn’t want to do those physical, menial jobs like my family. After Year 10 my grandmother said to me, ‘Y’know you’ve probably had enough school now. Get out of there now.’ And I said, ‘No, it’s better now’, and I stayed. Which I found bizarre even to myself.
Things had changed by Year 10. It was a bit better. A lot of the violent boys left after Year 9; my real problems, the real bad cases, they went out into the workforce. There was a different energy; I was older, and by then I had developed a very tough sort of persona. I got a reputation; if you hassled me, you’d get the tongue. You’d get a piece. I’d developed the comeback, and I’d stand my ground and give it to them. Unsparingly. I wanted them to feel what I felt. I’d attack them; their physicality, their family, I’d go all out. I publicly took on the gay thing, and had some fun with it. If someone hassled me I’d say, ‘Yeah, I am gay, but I wouldn’t suck your cock. That tiny thing! ’ They’d be, ‘You’re mad! ’ I was incredibly defiant, even though I hadn’t had sex; I hadn’t done anything with anyone.
I really rebelled, and music was a massive, massive factor. It saved me. I would go home after school, turn off the lights, and lie in my bedroom and listen to Janis Joplin. There was something in her voice that helped me, that gave me strength. The way she sang, the way she screamed, something in her voice was like an angel with big wings. She helped me from the grave.
Janis was my hero, my role model. I read about her, and she was bullied. At university they voted her ‘ugliest man on campus’, and we’re talking Texas in the late 1950s. And the more stuff they did, the more defiant and the tougher she became. She was so defiant. As my obsession with her escalated, that’s when I became very ‘Janis’ tough. Yeah. I’m gonna wear a vest, and my hair long, fuck you.
She was my armour. In all the quotes I read she said, ‘I’m gonna be myself, I don’t give a shit. I’m me. I don’t care! ’ That’s what I grabbed on to. I thought, ‘Well, they’re telling me I’m different, too. They all hate me, too. But look at her, she’s a rock star.’ She was powerful. And that’s kind of what inspired me to perform, as well. I was into any women singers who were tough. That’s what I liked. Because my grandmother was very strong and tough, and my mother. They’re ‘no shit’ women.
I remember praying a lot when I was a child. Praying for people to stop hitting me. Praying really hard. So by 17, I was like, this religion thing is bullshit. I’m gay, and I wanna have nothing to do with this hateful thing that tries to make me scared, with its heaven and hell and good and bad. Hateful.
Coming to terms with being gay was very difficult. When I was 17, and realised I was gay, I didn’t accept it. I had a lot of self-hatred going on. I was very depressed, suicidal, because I thought life was bleak. I was gay and hated. I’d try saying to myself, ‘No, no. You’re not. Really, you’re not.’ But I was. And I didn’t want to be gay. I hated it. Other kids have fun in high school, sexually experimenting. Not me. Being ‘gay’ brought so much misery, the last thing I wanted to do was engage in it. I was terrified and confused. Part of me thinks, ‘Oh, I wish I’d had some fun’, but it wasn’t safe for me.
A couple of times I was violently approached at school by older boys, one of them pushing me to the floor of a toilet cubicle and screaming ‘suck my cock! ’ He had his pants down and was frothing at the mouth. There was a bit of that. But there were also these wonderful teachers who would talk to me, and say, ‘It’s okay if you are gay.’
I was very late in learning because of all the anxiety, but in Years 10, 11 and 12, because I could finally relax, my brain started taking in information, and I was coming first in things like art, ancient history and geography. And I had teachers I looked up to, who I loved, and who loved me. I think I made it because I developed some fight, and because there was support. There were a few kind people around, and sometimes that’s all you need.
I’m glad I stayed on till Year 12. Because it did shift, it did change. And that’s why I’m talking about this now, because I’ve been hearing a lot about bullying and suicides. But even without suicide, it’s about how bullying scars you. And you’ve got to deal with that shit. You can’t have that experience and then expect for it not to impact. I look back now and realise, of course enduring abuse like that has some kind of long-term effect.
When I left high school I was very, very, very fucking angry. For years I was so angry. Then, through my twenties, I went through a forgiveness. I thought about it a lot, tried to figure out why they were so cruel, and I felt sad for those boys. Like, what were they going through to do that to someone else? They were having shit in their own lives; I think their parents were violent.
I had therapy, because I thought I’d dealt with it, but I hadn’t. I had no self-confidence, no self-esteem. I was hated for so long, why would anyone want me? And I’d just come out and started having relationships, and then it was the AIDS crisis. I thought, ‘Wow. I’m being punished.’ I was too scared to do anything with anyone. In my late twenties I started having panic attacks, and they were pretty severe. A couple of times I took myself to hospital, because I thought I was dying. So I had to do something. I started meditation, I read self-help books, and I began therapy.
But my life started after I finished high school. It’s like I was born then. Everything changed. In the years after school, gradually people became my friends, and they thought I was funny, and they liked me. And I had one friend from primary school, Mark, a tall Anglo guy, and he stayed my friend right through high school even though it meant he copped it, too. He’s the one who got me into community theatre when I left school. I joined Shopfront Theatre, and the five years I spent there was the first experience, other than the six months at that school I found for myself, where I thought maybe the world was okay.
I’m very grateful to the theatre, because it educated me. It made up for years of not being able to learn, because I was in a world where I had to absorb information, and research, and learn scripts. I also credit my grandmother’s upbringing, because she was a fiercely determined woman. She had no education. She told me, ‘You have to go to school or you’ll be like me, not able to read or write’. But she worked three jobs and she had six kids. I felt safe with her, and she raised me to work.
To be really honest, because I made it that way, school became a positive learning experience for me. It made me wary, and distrustful of people, but it toughened me, gave me a more realistic view of what humanity is about. I have a very, very low tolerance for bad behaviour or disloyalty. If people cross me, betray me, backstab me, dishonour me or whatever, it’s over. Anything dodgy in relationships, I leave. We’re not here for long, and I want to surround myself with beautiful people. And you can make that choice.
There was a lesson in it. It gave me a real sense of survival, of not giving up; I wasn’t going to allow people to stop me. That’s come in useful. Everybody said to me that I’d never make it as a performer. Because I’m a wog. Because I’m a poofter. Because I’m girly. The list went on. You’re short. You’re big nosed. Everything. I got it all. But I persisted. Because I’m incredibly stubborn and determined. I thought,
‘Y’know what? If it’s true I don’t accept it. I’m gonna do it anyway.’
It’s shaped me. Everything I’ve done as a performer has gone a long way from what I was supposed to be. I started creating my own cabaret work in my twenties, and that’s what I’m now known for. Because I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m just gonna be me. I’ve got to create my own work.’ Every artist I admire didn’t follow a pattern, they were groundbreakers. And now I see people copying me, doing bits of my stuff; I see that coming up now, which is fabulous. And I’ve had lots of young people over the years write to me – girls, boys, gay, straight, wog, Anglo. They relate.
I don’t need people’s blessing like I used to. I don’t have that incredible need to be liked. I accept that I will be un-liked, and liked. That’s the world. And I like my life now. I’ve had some difficult things to deal with, but it’s never stopped me from being who I am.
I distinctly remember thinking, after wanting to kill myself, that I was going to do the opposite. Because I’m so hated, I’m going to do everything in my power to have a good life and not self-destruct. I’m not going to do to myself what’s been done to me. That’s why I haven’t done drugs. I was clear minded about wanting to be an artist, and I wasn’t going to let addiction get in the way. I’m surprised at how determined and adamant about choices I’ve been.
I’m so glad now that I didn’t self-harm, that I didn’t kill myself. Oh my God. I would have missed out on a lot of fabulous life. A lot of incredible experiences. I’m very grateful I’ve had them, as an artist and as a person.
I’m becoming more powerful as I get older, and I hardly think about those times now. I’m not the same person I was five years ago, ten years ago. For sure. I’d have loved to have been like I am now in my twenties, or in school. It would have been very different. But what’s the point of saying that? Because all that had to happen for me to get to here.