Five years ago I picked up a copy of Don't Peak at High School (now titled Bully for Them). The entire book is a brilliant read, but Bindi Cole's story stuck with me. As an educator I would often reflect on it and think "As much as I might try, I really have no idea what's happening in the worlds of my students outside of school". Here is Bindi Coles inspirational story...
I never finished high school. I got to year 11, which I ended up finishing by correspondence. I sent some stuff in, but I think they gave it to me because they felt sorry for me. It was the year my mum passed away from bone cancer, and I couldn’t face going back to school after that. My world had been turned upside down and I was essentially on my own, so I started to work instead, and earn money.
I’d ended up at a school in St Kilda, which was full of the naughty kids that had been kicked out of other schools, whose parents were at the end of their ropes essentially. You could smoke and swear, and we were put into groups that would sit around and talk about ‘values’. We had classes, too, but they felt kind of tacked on. It was more about teaching us how to function in the world, to be part of society.
I have to say, it mainly helped me to be naughty. I was naughty before, but being there really solidified it. I didn’t start off that way. My nan would tell you, when I was little all I wanted was to be a good girl, and I would try to do the right thing and be nice, but over the years I realised I could get more attention…in other ways. But, then, that school was where my mum had really wanted me to go; she’d never wanted me to go anywhere else.
I was sent there after getting kicked out of a public school that operates like a private school; it’s academically advanced. Thousands of girls and boys from all over Australia and Asia apply to get in, and they take 120 for each year. My nan wanted me to apply, and she was so proud when I got in. I lasted one year. I just didn’t fit in; I wagged classes and ended up graffitiing the school.
I was bullied there, but not by students. By a teacher, actually. I came from a home where, well, there was no nurturing of me in relation to my physical needs. Everything I needed, I did myself. We were very working-class – at that point Mum was writing and earning a little money, but before that I’d come from full-on poverty. I was 14, 15, and I was in charge of maintaining and looking after my uniform. I must have been a sight; my mum also had nine cats, so I would have been covered head to toe in cat fur. I wasn’t the most polished student, I guess.
So I’d turn up to school and the headmistress would pull me aside, regularly, and lay into me, tell me that I didn’t belong at that school, I didn’t scrub up enough, my uniform wasn’t ironed, I shouldn’t be there. It was nothing to do with how I was doing academically, it was how I looked, but there was really nothing I could do about it. At 14, who cares? I didn’t care about my uniform. I just stuck it on every day. Mostly parents care about that stuff, I suppose, but my mum didn’t care about it either.
What a horrible woman that teacher was. I’ll never forget her. She was so awful to me. It’s interesting, a case of bullying from someone older, but that’s what it was. She didn’t offer me any support, which would have been the way to go, actually, because it was never a case of me not being bright enough to be there. She didn’t bother to find out why things were the way they were, that no one was looking after me. All she did was give me a hard time.
It made me so angry, and it hurt. So I acted up. I’d wag a lot, and I’d make myself stand out more. I graffitied my school shoes with bright pink polka dots, which, no, wasn’t school regulation. And I would shorten my skirt. I don’t think, actually, that I was trying to rebel. I wanted to fit in, I just didn’t have the capability at that point to physically be what they wanted.
I was quite isolated, I think, looking back. I had friends, but they weren’t from school, they were the daughters of Mum’s friends, who were also probably junkies, people like that. I didn’t get on well with the other students. I had a lot more freedom because I didn’t have curfews. I could go out and party all night, and I didn’t have any boundaries. At all. It makes school a lot more difficult. It makes life more difficult, actually, because you have to learn them later.
My situation was pretty unique, even in primary school. Mum never made me lunch, but if she had it she’d give me $5 and I’d walk up Fitzroy Street to St Kilda Park Primary, stop at the milk bar and buy a peanut butter roll and a Big M. If she didn’t have that $5 I didn’t go to school. So I always had a lot of time off school, one or two days a week. School never seemed valuable, because if there wasn’t $5, I didn’t go. It’s difficult, too, I suppose at that early age, to make friendships if you’re not always there, and you’re the feral kid.
The problem wasn’t that I lived alone with a single mother, it was that she was a stripper and a drug addict and a prostitute. And so…she wasn’t really there, and I saw things that people probably shouldn’t see. When I wasn’t at school she’d take me to work with her. Mum danced at the Shaft Cinema for a few years, so I’d hang with her and the other women out the back. When it was Mum’s turn to dance, in between movies, to keep me safe she’d put me up in the projection booth. So, I was seven or eight, and I’d see the end of the movie, and then I’d do the spotlight for my mum while she stripped.
I remember telling the teachers at primary school, and being pulled aside, and me saying, ‘Yeah, yeah I do the spotlight for my mum, stripping on stage.’ I had counselling from then on, which I loved because I didn’t have to do maths. I remember thinking the counsellors were so dumb, because they asked me the stupidest questions. They’d ask, ‘This colour is black, what emotion does this make you think of?’, and I remember knowing I was telling them what they wanted to hear – ‘Black makes me angry, and pink makes me happy’ – and that I was manipulating them as a little girl.
I was always a bit of a loner, I was never part of the popular group. But because I was being singled out a little by the teachers because of my home life, the other girls started to gang up on me. They made up poems about me, and would come out at playtime and skip around me singing the poems, which would often end in ‘Bindi Cole the moll.’ Little kids are excellent at rhyming, aren’t they?
This went on for a while. I remember it made me upset, but mostly mad. One girl was teasing me at playtime, so I walked up and punched her in the head. And she went running to the teacher, I remember this so clearly. ‘Bindi hit me, Bindi hit me’, and the teacher said, ‘Well, you shouldn’t be teasing her’, and I was like, ‘Yeees!’ Because I really hit her hard in the head. It wasn’t the first or the last time I hit someone for being mean.
Of course, I saw a lot of violence growing up. I saw my mum being hit. People using drugs – heroin, mostly. Smoking bongs, cigarettes, that was just everyday for me, normal. You think that’s just what life is. I remember police stations when I was young, and being in dealers’ houses.
Dealers’ houses seemed like mansions to me, because they were always new and nice, and we lived in tiny one-bedroom flats in St Kilda. One time when I was, gosh, I must have been about six, sitting there in this lounge room with my mum, waiting for her to score. And Flesh Gordon was on the television. And there’s me and Mum, in this posh house, watching Flesh Gordon, and laughing at the robots with the pointy boobs.
I wasn’t invited to other people’s houses, or sleepovers, or parties – I think I was invited to one friend’s birthday party the whole time in primary school. I certainly never had anyone over to my place. I was very much on the outside at school; in hindsight I guess I really wasn’t very popular. I did know some local kids in the neighbourhood, because I spent most of my childhood just kind of hanging out by myself in the St Kilda Adventure Playground. I never strived to be part of a popular group, it never drove me, but I never understood why I wasn’t. ’Cause I just thought I was all right, you know? But I was probably a bit feral.
I still think I’m a loner. I struggle a bit reaching out to people. I’m just used to operating independently, because when I’d get home from school, I wouldn’t have friends there and Mum would be out of it. And when I’d wake up in the morning Mum wouldn’t get up. I just spent a lot of time on my own as a child.
I simply didn’t have a strong family supporting me, or any decent foundation, so I’d get into trouble. My mother was very good in a lot of ways. I knew that she loved me through all of this. I mean, even when I was growing up I loved photography, and Mum bought me cameras and a developing tank. I’d take photographs and develop them in my bedroom. She was weird like that. She couldn’t give me lunch, but at Christmas she’d spoil the crap out of me. It wasn’t that I lacked love, I don’t think, it was just that she couldn’t look after me and she couldn’t look after herself.
My experience is that it’s not intelligence, or anything else, that makes kids act up, it’s the kids who don’t have a strong family behind them. So, if you’re starting off life without that, you’re really starting off on the back foot, and you miss out on being given a sense of self-worth.
Once I didn’t go back to school at 16, I was essentially on my own. I met a boy, same age as me, and we got into a relationship for four years. I was isolated anyway, but I became totally isolated. He was very abusive, hit me, and destroyed things of my mum’s, things that I loved. We were taking drugs together and drinking, self-medicating. I was living with him and his mother, and she was kind of cold, but she helped me out. She saw me working at Hungry Jack’s, how I’d get up and go to work no matter what, and she bought me office clothes, taught me to do my make-up, and got me a job as a receptionist. By the time I left him I was working at PricewaterhouseCoopers. I don’t know where it came from, but somehow I’ve always had a good work ethic.
My next really great plan was to go overseas, isolate myself even more, and self-medicate over there. Brilliant. I had a complete meltdown in London: everything went out of control and I just…imploded. I became very, very sick, a full-blown addict. Which was interesting, because I’d thought I wasn’t like Mum at all! Because I used other drugs, never heroin, you see…
When she’d died, I’d thought, ‘I don’t want to be anything like her.’ She was creative, so I thought I’d do exactly the opposite and be a really hard worker in the corporate world. Realising I was just like her enabled me to begin to deal with things, and explore my creativity.
When I was arrested and locked up for selling drugs, I was 42 kilograms. So skinny, so sick. I’m sure I was about to die. I’d overdosed about three times. I’d isolated myself so hard, and run so hard, so fast, that I ended up locked in a tiny cell on the other side of the world at death’s door. I’d hit that rock bottom people talk about.
I was in prison for two years, long enough to change your life, and it did. From the very second I was put in that cell, a spiritual peace descended on me, and it’s never left me. I knew I was in the right place, and that things would change for the better. At my core, I wasn’t alone anymore, and that really gave me strength. The world would consider me religious, but I think there’s a difference between what I am and religion: I think I have a relationship with God. As an artist I’ve begun exploring that more, and the show I curated at the 2010 Melbourne International Arts Festival was about spirituality. We’re all searching for something.
The other important thing was watching Mum turn her life around in her last few years. That was her biggest legacy to me, to show that it’s possible to pick yourself up and make a go of it. Ultimately I had to do that too. She wrote about her experiences, and in her final years was accepted into Melbourne Uni, published in Meanjin, and became writer-in-residence with the Melbourne Workers Theatre.
I would absolutely not be the artist I am now if it weren’t for what I went through in childhood. If you can allow it, those experiences strengthen you. It makes my work richer, for sure.
Because I’ve never really felt like I belong, and spent so many years reconciling my identity, I find myself interrogating identity and belonging in my art. I always identified as being Aboriginal, and as I got older I realised that I didn’t fit the stereotypical notion of what an Aboriginal person is assumed to be. That was hard. Hilariously, I wasn’t teased at school for being Aboriginal, because I looked white. A bit of a mongrel, really, is what I think I am.
My work’s about identity because of things in the world, such as the attitude of people like Andrew Bolt, that made me uncomfortable. Rather than turning away from it, I explored it. Making that art, and as a result having Bolt attack me for not looking Aboriginal enough, and getting up in court and defending myself, has only strengthened me. I have a strong sense of who I am now; that discomfort has gone.
Going to court was very empowering. My past was disempowering, and I’m so thankful I’ve had the opportunity to stand up for myself. Another thing is I don’t have any bad feelings towards Bolt. I’m not sitting here hating on him, or resenting him. I feel a little sorry for him; I feel sad because I think he’s got something wrong with him, that he needs to walk over people. I’ve had to do a lot of forgiving in my life, and it’s given me back my power. I don’t feel like a victim, myself, at all.
Being someone who was always on the outside allows me to sit in that space as an artist very comfortably. Until I started making art I didn’t realise I saw things from the outside. I certainly didn’t realise that people would be interested in how I see things; that still blows my mind. But I realise I can look at something uncomfortable, even if it causes me discomfort, and be okay with that, and make a story out of it. Being uncomfortable, for me, is just normal.
The background I’ve had makes it easier for me to be ‘brave’ as an artist. There’s not much that I could see, or could be done to me, that could throw me these days. I don’t feel like I need to belong to the mainstream, and I don’t feel like I need to connect to things that other people might need to validate themselves.
The other good thing is I think I can live without a sense of security. As an artist that’s very valuable. I don’t need money in the bank, I don’t mind living day by day, which enables me to be freelance. I don’t need what most people need. I can take more risks, because I can go for periods where I’m struggling a bit and it’s okay. I have a very strong sense of, ‘I’ll just get through stuff, and it’ll be fine.’ It’s been a really, really hard journey, extreme actually, but now things are good.
Bring it on.
I guess I’m a bit of a late bloomer. I only really became comfortable in my skin in my late twenties. Personally, I don’t think schools are designed for people like me, where I was at in my life. School is the middle road. It’s really easy to slip through the cracks at school, and be left out, be isolated, if you don’t fit in.
But I got value out of going to university. I always wanted to go, it was my dream before Mum got sick. But all these things kept coming between me and that dream. Years later, when I really wanted to learn photography, I decided I would go to university. I applied to lots of courses, and I was knocked back from everything except one TAFE course, and I did that two-year diploma and it was really, really good. It gave me the technical base that I needed. After that I had a few exhibitions, and then I got into uni.
But now I get invited to speak at all the universities I got knocked back from, which is hilarious. And a few years ago they included one of my photographs in the Year 12 art exam; they had to write an essay on my artwork, which was also hilarious, because I never did Year 12. That’s a nice little full-circle thing.
One of the most difficult things about being bullied is the feeling that nobody else knows what it’s like.
Twenty-two of Australia’s most talented and successful people know exactly what it’s like.
In candid and entertaining interviews, leading lights from across Australian life recount how they were bullied and shunned at school just for being different. Not only did they survive the ordeal but their experiences helped shape them into the remarkable individuals they are today.
Contributors include: Missy Higgins (musician), Hazem El Masri (NRL), Christos Tsiolkas (writer), Tiffiny Hall (TV), Alice Pung (writer), Sam Bramham (paralympian), Stella Young (disability advocate), Eddie Perfect (actor), Megan Washington (musician), Brendan Cowell (actor), Marieke Hardy (writer), Adam Goodes (AFL), Adam Boland (TV), Bindi Cole (artist), Charlie Pickering (TV), Kate Miller-Heidke (musician), Tim Ferguson (comedian), Penny Wong (politician), Benjamin Law (writer), Judith Lucy (comedian), Paul Capsis (musician) and Wendy Harmer (TV).