When my mother was pregnant with me, my parents moved to a tidy brick, semi-detached home nestled in a quiet street in the southern suburbs of Sydney. There was a huge tree on the street outside our home, and the front yard had two small sections of lawn. The gardens were minimal but well maintained thanks to my father, and the backyard was a huge concrete oasis, which was fabulous when you’re six years old and you ride a bike like the wind. Not so great when you stack it, though. There were no pushbike helmets in the ‘80s, but I survived.
Honestly – and I’ve never admitted this to another soul – I was never proud to be born and raised in that suburb. It’s not that I’m ashamed. I guess the town has served a purpose in shaping my life. It’s through these contrasts that we learn what we don’t want. It’s more that I never really felt comfortable there. I got out as soon as I could, fleeing to the Gold Coast with my boyfriend when I was 21 years old because I thought life would be beautiful there. Well, it had to be better than southern Sydney, right?
Wrong. Well, maybe a little.
I have since travelled and lived in at least ten cities across Australia, yet it wasn’t until recently that I really felt comfortable where I was – and it turned out it had nothing to do with the location, and everything to do with myself.
When you’re little, you know no different than the experiences to which you are born. The truth is, I had no idea we lived on the wrong side of the tracks until I had started school. Another truth? Even the right side of the tracks in Rockdale sucks. It’s not a beautiful town, but that’s not why it sucks. It’s the energy. It’s fast and unforgiving, and everyone is out for themselves. It’s a multi-cultural hub with a rancid veil hovering over the town. It’s all about drugs, gangs and illegal gaming houses, dictated by those with the most muscle. Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating a smidgen, but you get the picture.
I’ve heard of the old times when Rockdale had some charm, but those days were long gone even when I was a child. In the old days, the world was untarnished and charm was everywhere. I guess you could say it still is – that charm, like beauty, is in the eyes of the beholder. What Rockdale lacks in charm, it makes up for with an ever-growing population. Maybe that’s where the problem lies, because people aren’t always charming. Nor are they always good.
But what is good? I hear you say.
Good is deep in your bones and ingrained in your soul. Good is empathy, and integrity, and treating others with respect and dignity. Good is your truth. It’s in your words and actions, your thoughts and feelings, and it’s the small voice whispering in your ear when confronted with choices. We can’t always be good all of the time, but good is not killing a baby bird for pleasure.
One of the first and harshest lessons involving the lack of good in humanity came when I was about five years old. Before that day, I knew not everyone was good all of the time, but I’d never witnessed cruelty firsthand. I guess that’s why this day has imprinted upon my memory like an ugly stain.
Don’t get me wrong, I was and still am no angel. I’m not always good. In fact, sometimes I like to be bad – in the best sense possible. The point is, I don’t intentionally cause pain to another living being.
The school day was just beginning and it was raining. There was a bird’s nest nestled deep along the eaves of one of the school buildings and a baby bird had fallen to the ground of the asphalt playground.
My heart had leapt from my chest at the sight of the little grey bird struggling helplessly in a puddle of rainwater, and I remember being frightened for the creature. Before I had a chance to do anything, three older boys raced towards the chick. I was relieved. They would save the bird and hand it over to a teacher who would somehow return it to safety.
I was wrong.
Those boys huddled around the bird and began to laugh. Then the unthinkable – they started to take turns at stomping on the little grey bird as if it were better amusement than a Game & Watch Donkey Kong game (which by the way, I mastered – only a Generation X would appreciate that fact).
My heart shattered and I screamed at those boys. They took no notice of me though. They just continued to stomp and laugh and I eventually had to turn away from the scene.
I’m not sure why those boys did that to the little helpless bird. I’m not saying they were or are bad people. Good people make wrong choices too. The incident played out within a matter of minutes, and it was over just as fast. Little birds turn to mush fast when stomped upon in the rain. I cried for that bird. I cried in the playground, and I cried when I got home from school, and I cried when I awoke with the nightmares that had ensued.
One small bird showed me what it was to love and feel pain for something outside of myself and my family. One small bird showed me how to empathise, and taught me that people don’t always do good things. And one small bird revealed something about myself that has remained with me all the days after – I am a bird.
You are too.