When I wore my new red, white and black striped pullover to school for my Year 3 photo, a boy in my class said, “You look like a dick-head.” I received the set of photographs a few weeks later during class and had to agree that perhaps he was right. Completely mortified, I hid the photographs in my schoolbag and wouldn’t let anyone see them. My mother wasn’t easily put off and I eventually handed them over. Of course, Mum thought I looked adorable and sent copies of the wretched thing to my grandparents in Queensland. It’s one of those copies I have now.
I had to admit Year 3 wasn’t going very well. My devotion to the sweets shop had resulted in an alarming weight gain and I was moved to the “dumb kids” Maths class, where I regularly made the teacher weep with frustration. The obvious answer to my rapidly developing self esteem issue would have been to cut down on the sweets and ride my bike more. I could also stop reading books under my desk in Maths and start paying attention in class. Well, that wasn’t going to happen! At the age of 7, I knew myself enough to realise it would take more than one bad school photo and academic demotion before I’d change my ways.
If I was going to grow up to be dick-head looking and stupid, I needed to come up with a plan. After giving the matter some thought, I decided I’d become a nun. Of course I knew I couldn’t sign on or whatever you had to do for at least a decade but it was definitely an option.
I didn’t know any nuns and had no idea what religious orders actually do in the world. The tiny bit I did know- that nuns didn’t get married and lived in a nice convent, seemed to fit my needs. Being thin and attractive enough to find a husband would no longer be an issue. Nuns get married to Christ – he apparently had no choice in the matter. Becoming a nun also meant that, in the absence of a husband, I wouldn’t have to be clever enough to get a decent job and support myself. Living in the convent meant no rent or mortgage, no utilities bills and all my clothing would be provided. As far as plans went, this was foolproof.
My sisters and I were interested in God because we were told in Sunday School that if you wanted something you could pray to God and he might give it to you, if you were good. Our concept of God was slightly confused with Santa Clause. We prayed for God to bring us a kitten (granted), puppy (granted), Barbie townhouse (granted), skateboards (granted) and a flying fox for our backyard (declined). It seemed to us the odds of getting stuff out of God were reasonably good, so we became believers. I spent the next year collecting religious pictures, cards, candles, rosary beads and statuettes in preparation for my life of piety.
The plan was progressing well (I was still eating sweets and hadn’t learned my tables) until one rainy afternoon the usual Elvis movie was replaced with The Nun’s Story, a 1959 movie staring Audrey Hepburn as Sister Luke. Suddenly being a nun didn’t seem such a great life plan. For a start, Sister Luke has to study and pass exams. Then she is sent to work in a mental hospital where she is nearly killed by one of the patients.Finally she ends up in the Congo and nearly dies of tuberculosis. While in the Congo she is spiritually tortured by her attraction to the surgeon, Dr. Fortunati, played by Peter Finch. When she reluctantly returns to Belgium, her father is killed by the Nazis and she is forced into moral compromises to survive the Nazi occupation. Eventually she leaves the order. The final shot is of her leaving the convent and walking down the empty Belgium street, carrying nothing but the tiny suitcase she arrived with some years before.
I was throughly shocked. This film was nothing like the religious life I envisioned, which mainly involved me drifting poetically around the convent sucking on sweets, looking holy and doing stuff-all.
Realising a nun’s life wasn’t the cake walk I imagined didn’t prompt me to change my lazy habits. During the next few years I searched for a Plan B – a road to career and personal success involving as little effort as possible. I never found it!
Would you share your most embarrassing school photograph with the world?