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?