Book review: Hard Knocks, edited by Fiona Scott-Norman

I get knocked down, I get up again: stories of bullying in schools.

Speak with anyone who was ever bullied at school, and most likely they will remember every distressing detail. The shame of walking across the playground while two towering teenage boys trod on my heels and chanted ‘tank’ to the back of my head, is an example of the kind of damage that might hide in the small corner of someone’s heart, even after 45 years have passed by.

Recalling a school reunion, editor Fiona Scott-Norman explains in her introduction to Hard Knocks, ‘They were all… physiotherapists, which is perfectly valid, but I saw where my life would have gone if I’d fitted in and not forged my own path … I realised I’d escaped’.

Interviewing and editing the stories of 22 brilliant Australians, Scott-Norman establishes that sometimes the outcast you are in high school connects to the remarkable activist, artist, politician or sportsperson you become. Why don’t we all say that out aloud once or twice? And repeat it to the children we love. 

Included among the people who gave ‘their time, the gift of trust and their stories,’ are Adam Goodes, Annie Louey, Benjamin Law, Carly Findlay, Charlie Pickering, Christos Tsiolkas, Hazem El Masri, Missy Higgins and Mo’Ju. Each piece, written in the first person, is divided from the last by a biographical note and a photograph and reflects on what it was like in adolescence to face homophobia, racism and mental health challenges.

All the interviewees belong in the public sphere, either as creatives, sportspeople or professional communicators, so the essays are heartbreakingly intimate, with phrases beautifully turned and skilfully edited. For example, YA author Holden Sheppard on his sexual awakening; ‘I’d go binge-drinking with my mates on the weekend… then go on webcams and talk about sex with older guys and see their dicks…And not a single person at school knew. Not one.’

Read: Book review: You’re Doing it Wrong, Kaz Cooke

Or disability activist Stella Young, posthumously, about the challenges of keeping up with the other kids: ‘My strategy, at all times, was to be no bother. I’d never ask anyone to go with me, because I was worried about being an imposition.’ Writer Alice Pung, ‘the product of that collision between her parent’s culture, and White Australia’s,’ discusses her breakdown in Year 11 at a ‘tough, competitive school,’ because of the pressure she felt to achieve. ‘I hadn’t done the “Asian Five” subjects – you know… two sciences or maths, English and a language… carefully calculated to Maximise your results… [And this school] was ruthless…Girls would hide books in the library… The girl who was the smartest at maths gave the wrong answers to anyone who asked for her help…’

Pung speaks for many of the contributors identifying school environments as crucial to experiences of ostracism.

Bullying is a subject discussed so frequently in Australian society that sometimes it begins to feel like conversation overdose. Perhaps people have become desensitised to the problem. In response, Scott-Norman has collected an empathetic and, as she says, ‘fierce’ group of people to remind us of our collective humanity and the essential requirement to be ourselves, because ‘staying true to yourself is what makes you exceptional in the long run.’

For a seemingly simple book, Hard Knocks is a profound and powerful read, a gift that reminds us, as Megan Washington says, that ‘being bullied makes you special. You don’t get to join in, so it makes you a very idiosyncratic human being…’ This is a generous-hearted book; one that will bring hope and comfort to many.

Hard Knocks, Outstanding Australians on Hard Lessons Learned at High School
Edited by Fiona Scott-Norman
Publisher: Affirm Press
ISBN: 9781922626875
Format: Paperback
Pages: 288
Publication date: 25 January 2022
RRP: $29.99

Susan Francis’ debut memoir, The Love that Remains was published by Allen & Unwin in February, 2020. She is currently working on her second book.