Livingstone Primary School, Vermont South, Melbourne, 2003
We all have a defining, embarrassing moment from childhood that is so ridiculous you either cringe forcefully or laugh out loud every time you think about it. To understand mine completely, you need some context.
I was eleven years old in Grade Six. I guess I was ‘different’, but it was probably just that I had grown up in a house with my dad and brother, and was a huge tomboy. Apart from my school uniform, I wore only boys’ sportswear and caps backwards. At school I played football (soccer) at lunchtime with the boys and lamented that they wouldn’t tackle me with the same brutality as they would each other. You could say I was a primary-school feminist, but I think I was just a psycho with aggressive tendencies.
We listened to a pretty wide variety of music in our household, and every Sunday we would drive to my Opa’s farm in Yellingbo with a new mixed CD that I had burnt. I think our favourites were The Prodigy, Foo Fighters and Rage Against the Machine. By present standards, it’s certainly not that cool to have been yell-singing the Fooeys with my dad in the car, but I certainly thought I had much better tastes than my peers. I was a bit of a neck-bearded eleven year old girl.
Anyway, you get the point that I was already pretty awkward and uncomfortably outspoken in Grade Six.
It all came to a head when we had to give a presentation in front of the class – it was one of those things where the task is more about the public speaking aspect, and not the topic itself. So we were allowed to choose to summarise a song, a short excerpt from a TV show/movie, or a passage from a book.
Being a bookworm, writer and all-round English overachiever, it seemed implicit to my teacher, Miss Carroll, that I would talk about a book. I even remember Miss Carroll mentioning some books to me when I told her what I was summarising – gently pleading with me to consider an alternative. But I was resolute in my decision. So the day came, and I was nervous as all f–k. But I got up there in front of my class-mates, dragging the clunky Panasonic CD player in my wake. I took a deep breath. I hit play.
The first few bars – as the chords of Like A Stone reverberated around the room, and the bass dribbled in – were wrought with hesitance. I was tapping my toes, but it didn’t seem like anyone else was into it. I broke out in a slight sweat. Looking back now, I think I realised my mistake as soon as Chris Cornell’s deep drawl came in.
My original intentions were to make it through the whole song before my talk, because everybody should get a chance to experience that guitar solo, right? But I couldn’t do it. I stopped it short, before Cornell got a chance to get all gritty-baritone on this group of Sixth Graders. But the presentation couldn’t get cut short, and I had to fill in another four minutes of time. I had intended to stop after the solo and talk for a minute about the deeper meaning of the song, but I had shat the bed and couldn’t fathom starting again. I had pressed ‘eject’ instead of the more logical option of ‘pause’, and so envisaged myself awkwardly fast-forwarding through a sped up melody of silent discomfort until I reached the right point.
So I improvised. I crapped on for four minutes about the wider implications of the song and, with the lyrics for reference in my hand, proceeded to dissect them, verse by verse.
On a cob web afternoon,
In a room full of emptiness
By a freeway, I confess
I was lost in the pages of a book full of death;
Reading how we’ll die alone.
At no point in the presentation did I receive any kind of encouragement from the audience – no smiles or nods – in fact, most avoided my gaze when it came onto them. My ability to speak in front of a class of people fizzled, and I stared straight at my papers, racing through what I had to say. When I finished, Miss Carroll was relieved, I was covered in sweat, and my classmates had all learnt a lot about wanting to die (either through an exploration of the lyrics or for having had endured my presentation, I’m not sure).
Many years on, at the age of nineteen, I ran into a guy primary school at some bar. We hadn’t seen each other since Grade Six, so I had to remind him of who I was when he said, yeah, I looked familiar. The first memory he could assign to me was: “Oh, man, you’re the girl who did that talk about that Audioslave song!” F–k you, eleven year old Ali.
© Ali Schnabel.
Story first posted on this site in 2015.
Chris Cornell 20 July 1964 to 17 May 2017.