When I was a kid a lot of adults in my life decreed that something about me meant I couldn’t do certain things. My dad wouldn’t hang out and do the same things as he did with my bother, with me, because “girls don’t do that stuff” (e.g. girls don’t play on quad bikes apparently). My nana told me my function and purpose in life had to revolve around a man and my sole purpose was to have kids. She told me repeatedly that all of my dreams were useless and I was simply wasting my time indulging in them, because “nature” would call and I would have to abandon those dreams to fulfil my “purpose” as a wife and mother (vomit). And that was just some of the shitty things my Dad’s family tried to enforce upon me. Though, school wasn’t any better. I had a teacher in form two (age twelve), who decided that my learning difficulty with spelling and grammar, and my poor handwriting meant that I was utterly stupid, that any dreams I had beyond working in low-income low-skilled jobs were useless because I was so stupid I couldn’t possibly even finish high school, let alone qualify to go to university. He even laughed at me once when I made the mistake of telling him I wanted to be an author, because stupid people can’t write books, right? He was very cruel.
In school sports I wasn’t allowed to play soccer because girls weren’t allowed to join in with the boys team (because girl’s bodies are so terribly delicate, don’t you know). The music teacher hated me, although I found out much later that in fact she didn’t hate me, she hated my step dad who was also a teacher there. She wouldn’t let me do anything I wanted to do in music. She forced me to stop piano lessons, even though I was pretty good, because she decided that you could only go past a certain level with piano if you were going to be a concert pianist, and I wasn’t ever going to be one because my hands were too small (which is a crock). So I tried other instruments, but drums were for boys only, flute and violin were only for rich people, and according to her you couldn’t have any future in music if you didn’t master music history (which I did not enjoy). She was also responsible for destroying my love of singing in public because I wasn’t naturally pitch-perfect (and apparently if you’re not perfect from your first breath you’ll never be a good singer even with training, so why bother teaching?). I still can’t sing in public because of her shitty attitude. In the end, I had to either quit music or surrender and learn to play the recorder, which I found mindbogglingly boring. I’m sure you can imagine what ten year old me decided to do given those options… and thus ended a potential career in music just because the teacher hated my step dad…
When I was older, the technical drawing teacher saw that there were no boys in his class who wanted to continue in tech drawing in the next year (which was our first certification level), so he switched the following year to Graphic Design (because he insisted that’s what girls do despite it not being a precursor for higher education). He said if there’d been one boy who wanted to become an architect then he would have kept the tech drawing class, and I said I wanted to become an architect, but because architects were only ever men (he insisted), I wasn’t worth his time teaching me.
Over and over and over again, grown ups kept telling me that the things I wanted to study, or be or do with my adult life weren’t right, because I was poor or a girl or not pretty enough or not strong enough, and almost always, I was never ever smart enough. It got so bad that it felt as if everything I wanted to be and everything I loved wasn’t allowed to exist. That everyone insisted I become that ditzy blond girl, giggling in the corner, whose only focus in life is boys, make up and clothes.
But I never wanted to be that kind of person. Ever. The shallow pretty worlds had never ever attracted me. What I wanted was to change or make a difference in the world. I wanted to be a doctor. I wanted to smuggle on board the Greenpeace boats going off to Mururoa to protest the nuclear tests in the pacific. As a twelve year old kid, I wanted to go to university to do a degree in the kind of physics that you used in space, and I wanted to be a part of creating a space program in New Zealand, and be the first kiwi to orbit Earth, or help to build the first off-world colony on the moon or Mars. As I got older my dreams shifted. I wanted to get rich and go to poor countries and make houses and dig wells and give people solar panels, and university grants to get free of their poverty trap. As a teen I wanted to write books that mattered, that would never be forgotten.
I wanted to make a positive impact on the world, but most of the adults in my life at the time kept telling me I wasn’t capable of such things. They kept telling me I was too stupid, or girls can’t do that, or you’re poor so you’ll never amount to anything.
My dreams were always too big for my “station”, and many teachers and family members punished and ridiculed me for it. Except for my mum and two teachers, Bill Mannens and Barbara Handley. They told me to go for it, fuck what the other people thought, just to be who and what I am and keep trying. But everyone else in my world told me I couldn’t, told me I had to become what they wanted me to be or suffer the consequences.
One day, I saw Stephen Hawking on TV. And here was this guy talking about the kinds of physics I wanted to learn. He couldn’t use his body, but instead of surrendering to the difficulties he faced, he just kept working towards his dreams, and by just doing it he’d become the next Einstein. And I realised that if he could do it, if he, in a wheelchair, unable to use his body, and needing a machine to talk for him, could be the modern version of Einstein, then I could be anything I wanted to be, because in comparison my limitations, if you took away the chorus of shitty people, were fairly small. I was smart, I just had trouble learning like other people, and I had severe panic attacks which often looked like the blank expression of a lack of smarts to the outside world. Those weren’t insurmountable problems.
I knew I could do it, I just needed to figure out how to get around my problems and make them work for me.
Now, they were right about a few things. Being poor and assigned female at birth, and growing up in the ninteen-ninties, meant that a lot of things just weren’t accessible to me. If I’d grown up even ten years later, my learning difficulties would have been identified, and I would have been awarded a tutor to help me study. If I’d been rich, the school I went to might have had counsellors or teachers familiar with trauma, and they would have picked up on my PTSD troubles and given me access to regular trauma therapy to help manage my ridiculous panic attacks. But none of that happened because back then they didn’t know about stuff like that, and what the education system did know about learning difficulties and PTSD, was only acted upon in rich schools, not the little country area school that I went to. And those disadvantages unfortunately had consequences that rippled through my life, and are partially responsible for the poverty in which I now live.
But the point is, that I took strength from Stephen Hawking’s story and a few others, and I decided what I wanted to do, figured out how to do it and did it. I learned tricks on how to memorise the correct spellings of things. I practised for five years to change my hand writing so it was “pretty”. I kept writing stories, regardless of what else was happening in my life (and in fact the writing saved me a lot of the time).
I never dropped my dream of being an author. I still haven’t dropped my dream of living off my writing, and I’m still, despite the poverty and health and mobility issues, working towards living off my writing and making a difference in the world. All of this hope because of people like Stephen Hawking and Helen Keller taught me that if they could do it with their challenges, I certainly can do it too. People like Maya Angelou told me that despite feeling broken by my childhood trauma, I could rise again, I could have a life that was mine, and not controlled entirely by the horrible things that happened to me or my difficult body.
Heroes are important for dreams, particularly when you have a lot of disadvantages. My heroes kept me going as a kid, and keep me going now as an adult. My heroes have even given me the courage to live as much as myself as I can, despite the risks of violence or oppression that still happen today against trans and rainbow people.
My ultimate dream has always been to impact the world in a positive way, and I try to live my life like that… and while that’s all about the kind of person I wish to be in the world (and therefore is a testament to MY persistence), that hope, that strength wouldn’t have happened without me being introduced to the people like Stephen Hawking, who lived their lives as they chose without letting their limitations or the actions of others stop them. And even as our heroes pass on to the next life, we can still look up to them… and maybe one day have people looking up to us.