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How Australia’s Tall Poppy Syndrome Both Helped and Hindered

At around six-years-old, not long after the first hits of Chemo, my hair started to fall out. I didn’t really care. It wasn’t until kids started questioning it that I began to wear a cap. One time, this older kid kept flicking off my hat and laughing. So the next day when I saw him approach, I decided to scream and charge at him like a mad man, pulling out chunks of my hair to throw at him. Poor little bully screamed like a baby!

After travelling to Melbourne for an appearance on Hey Hey it’s Saturday, we returned to find our entire brick fence covered in graffiti. “Aint No Hendricks”, it read. Dickheads couldn’t even spell!

Then came the first day of high school – a time when I realised everyone around me looked like full grown men! A student asked me if I was “Nathan Cavaleri” and I suspiciously confirmed it. He said he was a big fan and wanted to show me around the school. He walked me around the grounds until we got to where it’s a little more quiet, then he trips me hard onto the concrete while I wasn’t looking, pelted a tennis ball into my eye socket and attempted to sink fists into my face. I fought my way out of it and bolted.

I was an easy target at high school. The TV gave ample “paying out” material for the status hungry. Every kid is trying to find their place amongst the social zoo. It’s not an easy time for anyone and unfortunately the ones that are a little different at times are used as stepping stones. It’s nothing personal and I learnt how to deal with it. I found a tiny pocket of friends, and with martial arts being a part of my life as well as many wisdoms from my hot blooded Italian father, I never felt bullied. Alienated yes, but bullied – no way.

However, the teachers were something else. I used to love playing guitar in front of my friends at primary school – it was a fun time. But as I received increased exposure, many of the teacher’s attitude towards me shifted. It was no longer, “Nathan, you’re on detention for not doing your homework”. It was, “Nathan pay attention, you aren’t jamming with Mark Knopfler anymore.” Or “With the money you’re probably making, you should be able to afford a better program for your homework”. One high-powered teacher was even caught binning all of my student votes for school prefect. All of my school merit awards (compulsory) given out at assembly were thrown out. It wasn’t long until my friends started seeing me like the teachers did. Arguments between teachers bled out of the staff room doors where rumours were created. Years later, I found out from one of the more supportive teachers that some had a problem with the amount of attention I was receiving. Their justification was that it wasn’t fair on the other kids. So they knocked me down. My punishment didn’t come in the form of detention, it came in the form of belittlement and humiliation.

In their eyes, working in music brought me too much confidence, but in reality it made me feel even more segregated from my peers. Resistance from fellow students was tough, but having it come from the teachers made me believe that school was an accurate representation of the world – that the real world hates my guts. I’d return to school every time, wishing that I was wearing an invisible cloak. I stopped talking about my music. I stopped playing guitar in front of my friends. Thanks to Rage Against the Machine and Faith No More, I took up drums. But I didn’t realise that I was not only socially denying my accomplishments, I was denying them internally, as if they were something to be ashamed of. This mentality carried on until quite recently without me realising.

So how did it help? With time, I got pretty comfortable being me outside of the circle. You can either drown in the stormy seas of adversity or ride the waves. Through learning how to protect myself emotionally and physically, I was able to look beyond the tough facades to see that most kids were just as misunderstood as I was. Over time, I got pretty comfortable residing outside of “the clique” which kept my passions in check. With most kids it was never, “me vs them”. This allowed me to open up to many walks of life, even if it meant being burnt in the process. The best thing my parents could have done was teach me not to run as such a reflex would have bled into all areas of life. It was never about trying to change the system around me, but how best to deal with it. (Every now and then someone deserved a good thumping though). Being able to adapt to whatever surroundings without changing your own truth is a skill that I’ll use forever. Without such adversities, I wouldn’t have learnt it.

It’s obvious how it hindered me at the time, but I didn’t think that it was still holding me back. It wasn’t until I burnt out that I realised the importance of keeping a healthy mind. I had developed a consistent pattern of looking ahead, and never celebrating my achievements. I would only celebrate the ones that most people could relate to. It’s almost like I felt shame for basking in them. To me, a humble relay of a memory was seen as gloating. For this reason, I spiralled downwards more than what I would have if the true version of my past was on close recall. The negative memories would still have been outnumbered.

Getting back on the horse gave me no choice but to draw on the most amazing times I’ve had. Not only to keep things in perspective, but to remember what I’m capable of. I suppose this is one of the motivations for deciding to write about my experiences. When we are faced with a challenge, it’s so easy to forget how strong we are. Being in the habit of celebrating achievements makes it all the more easy.

Question. As super proud as I am to be Australian, do you think we have a Tall Poppy Syndrome going on here more than most countries? If so, where does it come from and how do you personally deal with it?


For those who are new to the site, hit up my introduction post and the about tab to understand what inspired this website as well as what’s to come. 

20 Comments

  1. Andrew07/11/2016

    Nathan, I know that kind of feeling, School was a place where I didn’t want to be and a place where I didn’t belong, I felt like an outsider and I felt alienated too. As a child I had a dream of being a member of the Australian Cricket Team, my obsession with Sports often angered a lot of people and would drive them around the bend. You may have guessed that by my surname I am of Irish descent, and so I had to put up with all of them and that crap they gave me, I have been a fan of KISS for the past 20 years, and I would get angry when people would say nasty and derogatory comments about KISS, and it’s on the Internet too, which is bad enough, and there’s also those type of comments towards most of current and former members of the band, I’m comforted by the nice comments towards the current and former members of KISS. The good part is that the bad days are now gone, but they have made us tougher and stronger than we were all those years ago.

    Reply
    1. Nathan Cavaleri08/11/2016

      Hey Andrew! I’m surprised that you weren’t supported with your sport passions. That if anything is something that is commonly enoucraged. Re KISS. I can relate. I went to school during the grunge era. How cool do you think I was for liking blues music!!?? haha! Thanks for the comments mate!

      Reply
      1. Andrew08/11/2016

        Very cool Mr Cavaleri, very cool, I go for Blues too, plus Hard Rock, Soft Rock, Alternative Rock, Folk Rock, Heartland Rock, Art Rock, Instrumental Rock, and Progressive Rock. And by the way, I found those McDonald’s commercials on YouTube

        Reply
  2. Andrew07/11/2016

    Did you get nervous when you appeared on TV?

    Reply
    1. Nathan Cavaleri08/11/2016

      Absolutely…. It’s such a surreal feeling but as long as you’re anchored to your purpose (in my case, playing guitar), you always rise above it. I suppose that’s why I struggled to get back up on stage over the last few years… The purpose wavered and I had other emotions to attend to.

      Reply
  3. Malcolm Gully07/11/2016

    Man, I’m gutted reading that. We are a tall Poppy country not that I’ve been a public one but if ever I looked like getting out of the mould others caste me in it was cut down time. Mind you tough neighbourhood South West Sydney, I was a Mt Druitt kid, you could get assaulted wearing the wrong shoes. Or just being in someone’s way. A cute kid with buckets of talent thats jamming with big names on tv still living in the burbs. Light the fuse and stand back. But you had support a good dad you acknowledge. But we are a tall Poppy country but there’s a universality about that across the world I’ve experienced. Then we can be such a supportive adoptive community. What happens when your little ones pick up an instrument? Do you push, or guide or bring in an outsider to avoid bias and being pushy? Only to be told by your own “you never helped me” would that be at all Poppy from within? I’m glad you have this platform to put your story and views out. You’ve got so much to contribute. Its helpful to all.

    Reply
    1. Nathan Cavaleri08/11/2016

      Yeah you’re right. We have it here but it’s in many places around the world. If only people realised that they can do anything they want. That it’s only their beliefs that get in the way. BTW, we aren’t talking about having people walking around thinking their shit don’t stink. Just proud. THanks for the props mate. Always good to hear from you.

      Reply
  4. Roddy07/11/2016

    I believe that the tall poppy syndrome can be simply called envy or jealousy.This ridiculous and dangerous behaviour is wide spread in every culture throughout the word.If you have talent others with no talent at all will start to bring you down.

    Reply
    1. Nathan Cavaleri08/11/2016

      If only everyone realised that they can truly do anything!

      Reply
  5. Mick connolly07/11/2016

    Good man, that’s an interesting set of experiences to look back on. It’s another piece of the whole NC. Not good, not bad, it just was! If you will endulge me for a moment, I met some of my “tormentors” after about 30 years away from the area. They looked broken and a chat soon reveiled a sort of “oh my god your ok” sort of sense, as if to say thank goodness I didn’t hurt you.
    I believe those who practiced tall poppy for a hat ever reason hurt more later on. Not good, no bad, it just is.

    Well done NC. You are helping lots of us with your openness and trust!

    Mick

    Reply
    1. Nathan Cavaleri08/11/2016

      Hey mate! Yeah I could see how things could pan out like that. A lot of life has been lived over 30 years. One will either break or wake up. I ran into a few a while back. Some were the same. Others I realised were just being kids. Taught by adults. I sometimes get curious as to whether some of the teachers have changed… But then I carry on living hahaha!

      Thanks so much for the comment mate. I’m so happy it translates. You never really know unless someone gives feedback.

      Reply
  6. Toddy hayes07/11/2016

    Rock on brother! Proud to hear you’ve been playing with kenny,your doing a great justice to yourself and many others that have there own struggles. All power to you man. Enjoy the ride!

    Reply
    1. Nathan Cavaleri08/11/2016

      Thanks man!! Kenny… What a legend. Right back at ya mate!

      Reply
  7. Corrine Lawrence07/11/2016

    Well done Nathan!
    I went through similar things growing up in a small outback town. You couldn’t have it all. Neither the kids, their parents or the teachers would allow it. Tall poppy hindered in the way that it unconsciously taught me to stay inside the box and that being good at the things you love is a bad thing.. it helped in a way that made me feel so isolated with my thoughts and views that I left town to pursue my dreams elsewhere – and hey – we met in the process on a show that did everything to combat tall poppy by promoting home talent. People only try to take from you what they can’t or are unwilling to achieve. It’s easier to break someone down than to rise up to them.. you’ve taken the hard road rather than the easy one, and we have them to thank for pushing on even if it affected us momentarily.. the fact that we can acknowledge and come to terms with it and move on is inscredible self awareness and internal reflection. The reason they always remain the same is because they lack those abilities too. So take a bow – you made it through xx

    Reply
    1. Nathan Cavaleri08/11/2016

      Corrine!!! Beautifully said. You put a massive smile on my face. Hey Hey was the complete opposite. It was all about being proud to be “yourself”. Showcasing the positive based on the belief that whilst fear gets people’s attention, having fun has people entertained forever. I wonder if they knew that thats how they made people feel? Where would we be if life was too comfortable right? As long as we can continuously view our challenges as opportunities, whilst expanding our knowledge on how to interpret and respond, we’ll grow. Which you’ve obviously done! Thanks so much for your comment. xx

      Reply
  8. Peter09/11/2016

    Thanks so much for sharing your experiences here like this. I had a similar thing in some ways. I started playing guitar really young and I got good quite early. When other kids started playing a few years later they’d make fun of my playing (I was doing Vai stuff when everyone wanted to play like Cobain, so I was instantly unfashionable). One kid even said “I’d be that good too if all I did was stay in my room f**king my guitar.” I even got a bit of “If you think you’re so good, why aren’t you on TV like that Nathan kid?” It took years and years for me to realise they were really talking about their own insecurities, not anything to do with my abilities. But the emotional damage from going through that carried through my early adulthood and manifested itself as social phobia for quite a few years there. I’m through the other side now and I make my living from the guitar now and have achieved a lot in my career, but I can’t help but feel that if I grew up in the States my musical abilities would have been more supported by my peers and I would have grown up confident instead of ashamed of my guitar obsession.

    Reply
    1. Nathan Cavaleri10/11/2016

      Mate I hear ya!!!! My passions for blues wasn’t the most appreciated whilst attending school during the grunge era. However, thanks to being open minded, I loved some of the bands from that time. I just didn’t enjoy playing them on guitar. Much more fun playing drums to Smells Like Teen Spirit! ha! That’s fantastic that you came out the other side… May I ask. What key epiphanies/moments were pivotal in shaking it? Thank you so much for sharing too mate!

      Reply
  9. Troy09/11/2016

    Absolutely we are a tall poppy nation, but it is all over the world too. Social Media has only made this worse with the ability to shoot people down publicly whenever someone feels like it.
    I had a relatively good schooling experience, but was aware of the crap that does go on. Whilst being accepting of people’s differences was never really discussed in my parents house, whilst I was growing up, respect definitely was.
    I love our multicultural country and wish all people living in or coming to our country, have the freedom to live how they see best. Im no saint, and have made mistakes in dealing with people that I’m not proud of, but I learnt from those. Everyone has something to offer the world, hopefully people are afforded the opportunity to find their passion.
    Thanks for sharing your blogs, I love the honesty in your writing.

    Reply
    1. Nathan Cavaleri10/11/2016

      I completely agree. Australia definitely has a strong Tall Poppy thing going on, but it’s not just us. For me personally, social media is both. Yeah, people get shot down publicly, but we also get to witness the world around us on a much larger scale. Different walks of life etc… For this reason, being proud is a little more inviting. As opposed to be under the influence of only our local environment. Definite pros and cons. Respect goes along way. A fantastic quality that is the root of many other great qualities. So happy that you’re getting something out of the blog. I’m loving the connections and reflections!

      Reply
  10. Troy Male14/11/2016

    Hey mate, great read, I shared it! Impressed that you’ve come away from the experience without bitterness and are able to look at it subjectively and take away the positives. Well done.
    I have a youtube channel Troy Male guitar, I do guitar interviews, Brett Garsed, Stuart Fraser and more. I’d like to sit down and have a chat for the channel if you’re ever in Melbourne!

    Reply

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