When I was told I was school captain when I was eleven years old, nobody knew that I rushed home to share my good news with my mum only to find her unconscious on the floor of our lounge room after a day of drinking. Or that this was what I came home to most days. I hid this experience in the same way I hid the bruises my dad gave me: as a shameful secret.
When I was about to start year twelve, Mum left to go to rehab in a city 700kilometres away and I decided not to go with her. We were scraping by on the sole parent’s pension so she couldn’t afford to support me. This meant at 16 I was completing year twelve without any parents, working part-time so I could afford to pay the bills and buy groceries.
Though my mum left school in year nine and my dad left school in year ten, I became the first person to make it to university. But it wasn’t the doorway to a new life I hoped it would be. For a start, I was studying biochemistry, not because I wanted to be a biochemist, but because I thought it sounded like a smart thing to do. I didn’t understand how university worked because I didn’t know people who had been there.
When other students in my course asked me what high school I had been to, I didn’t realise at first that they were trying to assess my socioeconomic status to see if I was someone worth talking to. But I figured it out and realised that somehow attending the state school in the country town I grew up in made me less than.
When they told me stories of their families getting together over Christmas, I would think of my own Christmases, which mostly slid by without acknowledgement as Mum drank alone in her room, something that would eventually result in her developing alcoholic dementia aged 52. I knew this too made me less than, so I pretended to be someone I was not.
I abandoned who I was and created a more acceptable, more middle class version of myself. I changed the way I spoke, brought the same clothes as the private school kids, and made up stories about my family so I didn’t offend anyone with the reality of my situation that didn’t have a place in polite society.
Today, I am an award-winning author and keynote speaker. My TEDx talk has had over half a million views. But I’m also the girl I used to be, who grew up too fast because there was no other choice, who was teased about her second-hand uniform, was always worried about money and who mopped floors and sold shoes and whatever else it took to get by.
Class is something we as a society don’t speak about often, and any time there is silence there is shame. I talk about my past because I felt alone in my experience for so long, and if I can help another person feel less alone by sharing, I am going to do it.