Rebecca Starford talks about a year that helped shape the rest of her life.
Young friendships are massively influential in the way we form relationships in later life. For many women, the first heartbreak they ever experience is the loss of the best girl friend – generally through conflict.
My debut memoir, Bad Behaviour, which is out this month, recounts my experiences during a year away as a fourteen-year-old at a remote outdoor-education boarding school campus in the Victorian highlands.
Here at ‘Silver Creek’, I lived with fifteen other girls in a wooden unit called Red House. The conditions were Spartan: we had no heating or cooling; no television or internet or phones. The hot water for evening showers was generated from an old-fashioned boiler. The house was also self-regulating: teachers lived away from us – out of sight, and out of earshot. Such a set-up, while laudable in its intentions, had unpleasant consequences: bullying was rife in Red House.
Each day, after our regular school program, we were made to participate in cross-country runs – up to fifteen or twenty kilometres at a time. During the summer and spring terms we hiked each weekend around the surrounding mountain ranges, or went canoeing and white-water rafting. During the winter terms, when we weren’t skiing, we were sent on community service to neighbouring farms.
I’d never lived away from home before, so Red House became like a surrogate family. Despite enjoying aspects of the school program (the hiking was particularly wonderful), I was extremely homesick.
This feeling of sadness and loneliness manifested in unexpected behaviour. I yearned deeply to fit in with the other girls around me – girls I perceived to be happier and more experienced in this boarding-school environment. They were also the most dominant girls in the house, wielding this power expertly. And I, in turn, became both a bully and – perhaps inevitably – the bullied.
It was a year that came to shape me profoundly – the effects of which I didn’t truly come to realise until I was an adult and found myself in a bullying sort of romantic relationship.
It was a very unhappy time. Despite being a fairly functional adult (I had a good job and was making in-roads with my writing), I found myself trapped by the dynamics of these relationships from childhood.
Sometimes I used to wonder if I would ever shake these feelings and these traits of behaviour. I had moved through university lonely – I found it difficult to strike up conversations with other girls and boys, crippled by shyness. Would, I often caught myself thinking, I ever be a good friend to anyone else?
You might be wondering why I am writing such a blog on International Women’s Day – a day that celebrates women and the fight for women’s equality.
But I believe that talking about the power of female friendship – and in particular its redemptive, healing qualities – enables women to work closer together in the fight for gender equality across all facets of life.
For me, it was friendship that turned my life around.
These days, I am lucky to have a wonderful group of friends – two of whom I have known since I was ten years old (one even features in Bad Behaviour). They have taught me a lot about myself. I hope I have become a much better friend as I’ve got older, especially in recent years, because I understand myself a lot better. I’m also far more intuitive about my friends’ feelings and emotions.
So while Bad Behaviour is a book about boarding school and bullying, it is also a memoir about friendship and love. And this transformation in my life happened with a little help from my friends.
It is night. They move with such stealth they could be almost floating along the road. I can’t see faces, just the outline of their movement. But when the moon drifts out from behind a cloud, bathing the road in an urgent sort of light, I see how they’re all gazing up towards me.
‘They’re coming back,’ I murmur. I turn to Kendall, and she puts her sewing aside, eyes on me. They never waiver.
It was supposed to be a place where teenagers would learn resilience, confidence and independence, where long hikes and runs in the bush would make their bodies strong and foster a connection with the natural world. Living in bare wooden huts, cut off from the outside world, the students would experience a very different kind of schooling, one intended to have a strong influence over the kind of adults they would eventually become.
Fourteen-year-old Rebecca Starford spent a year at this school in the bush. In her boarding house, sixteen girls were left largely unsupervised, a combination of the worst behaved students and some of the most socially vulnerable. As everyone tried to fit in and cope with their feelings of isolation and homesickness, Rebecca found herself joining ranks with the powerful girls, becoming both a participant – and later a victim – of various forms of bullying and aggression.
Bad Behaviour tells the story of that year, a time of friendship and joy, but also of shame and fear. It explores how those crucial experiences affected Rebecca as an adult and shaped her future relationships, and asks courageous questions about the nature of female friendship.
Moving, wise and painfully honest, this extraordinary memoir shows how bad behaviour from childhood, in all its forms, can be so often and so easily repeated throughout our adult lives.
Rebecca Starford is the co-founder and publishing-director of Kill Your Darlings and an editor at Text Publishing. She has written for Guardian, Age, Sydney Morning Herald and Australian newspapers. She was a founding member of the Stella Prize steering committee. Bad Behaviour is her first book. Rebecca lives in Melbourne.