Southerly by David Haywood


Confessions of a Social Retard

I'd like to say that I don't give a toss about being a social retard. But I would be lying through my inarticulate teeth.

In reality, I'd do practically anything to be blessed with social skills. George Orwell once said that his greatest wish was to be "irresistible to women". I can certainly sympathize with this ambition. But -- for me -- the possession of even a small amount of conversational ability would come a very close second.

How I envy those silver-tongued people who can perform chit-chat with total strangers at parties. What on earth do they talk about? I literally have no idea. When I'm placed in such situations, every thought in my head abruptly vanishes. In the same way, I suppose, as happens to UFO abductees after they've been examined by alien proctologists in a flying saucer.

People always tell you that universities are a great places for the development of social skills. Not in my experience. When I started university (aged 16), I looked so young that people on campus would stop me and ask if I'd lost my mother. Apart from that, I don't think I ever managed to have a conversation with a single of my fellow students -- excepting a few people I'd known from high school.

I'd decided to major in 19th Century Literature. This choice was made on the advice of the chap at my enrolment interview -- coincidentally, a lecturer in 19th Century Literature -- who assured me that it would lead to a good job. The tutorials were populated by 19-year-olds from Diocesan School for Girls who used words like 'pedagogical'. Their parents had sent them to London for the holidays, and in six weeks they'd permanently acquired a full set of fake English vowels. They could even smoke in an English accent.

As far as I was concerned, 19th Century Literature was like a 13th century depiction of hell. Except that the demons torturing people with pitchforks had been replaced by débutantes who tossed around literary terms such as Bovarysme and Zeugma -- and a tutor who insisted that Wordsworth's 'I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud' was not about daffodils, but was, in fact, a celebration of Wordsworth's obsession with urine.

This last point, incidentally, was the only time I ever spoke in a tutorial. "A host of golden daffodils... fluttering and dancing in the breeze," my tutor intoned. "What was Wordsworth trying to convey? Does it remind anyone of the act of urination, perhaps?"

"Um..." I replied.

The dazzling sophistication of my fellow students -- who, incidentally, fully bought into this literary claptrap (or, as they would no doubt have described it, folie à plusieurs) -- only served to highlight my own plodding inferiority. I felt that my social inadequacy was emblazoned on my forehead like a huge flashing neon sign.

In an attempt to escape attention, I ate my lunch covertly in the library, where no-one would notice me. "Why are you always in the library at lunchtime?" asked a girl in my Shakespeare tutorial.

She had seen through my cunning ruse, and caught me red-handed being a social retard. "Why are you always in the library at lunchtime watching me?" I countered.

"I work there," she explained. Fair enough. I stopped going to the library, and started walking around Albert Park. "Why do you always walk around the park at lunchtimes now?" she asked after a few days.

I briefly contemplated the possibility of taking my lunch break in the student lavatory block, where at least I could be assured of privacy. But I was forced to reject this plan on the basis of my germ phobia. Sitting on a toilet seat covered with microbes would be unthinkable, and standing in a toilet cubicle for an entire hour looks so suspicious. In the end, it seemed simplest to stop attending my Shakespeare tutorials.

Years later, I worked with a woman who -- post-feminist in advance of the fashion -- described herself as a sex-obsessed amateur porn writer. In spite, or perhaps because of this, she'd experienced a few social problems. One of them being a strong urge to spend her university lunch breaks cowering in the student lavatories.

I kicked myself when I heard this. What a missed opportunity! Apart from the porn, we would've had so much in common. And I'm sure I could have learnt to enjoy porn -- you know, just in order to show a polite interest in my girlfriend's hobbies.

Eventually everyone sinks to their own level, and so I guess it was inevitable that -- in a slight sideways step from 19th Century Literature -- I would end up in Mechanical Engineering, the most socially retarded department in the most socially retarded college of the entire University. Before I knew it, I was doing a Ph.D., and was employed as a part-time lecturer.

The most enjoyable aspect of lecturing, I discovered, were the staff meetings -- which the Head of Department conducted as a sort of homage to avant-garde cinema (a genre to which he was excessively devoted). Plot and chronology had been abandoned years ago in favour of expressionist flow-charts and long, meaning-filled silences. At times, his presentations seemed to be taking place in sepia with French subtitles.

Surrounded by the most socially retarded people in a 100 kilometre radius, I experienced an exhilarating sense of eloquence. As my colleagues gazed at their laps -- carefully avoiding eye contact with anyone else and pretending to be invisible -- I found myself making erudite suggestions for the running of the department.

At one meeting, I casually dropped the word 'pedagogical' into the discussion. There was a murmur of approval around the table. At another meeting, the Head of Department asked me to assist with a party of 15-year-old school pupils who were touring the college. "You're just the sort of extroverted person who would inspire these children," he said, without apparent irony.

Alas that his recommendation provided a brutal lesson about social limitations. Two hundred school pupils were gathered in a lecture theatre to receive a speech by the vice-chancellor, who -- at the last minute -- was called away to deal with a crisis. I suddenly heard the Dean of Engineering announce that he was going to prevail upon me to give the talk instead.

My recollection of the next half-hour is hazy. I recall telling the children that the importance of school was over-rated, and that it was better for them to enjoy themselves than pass exams. I may have mentioned that a 'gap year' might be useful to some of them, so that -- in an unfortunate choice of words -- they could try out "having sex and taking drugs". I've blanked out the rest.

I do, however, have clear memories of the look in the Dean of Engineering's eyes, and that of the school-teachers who accompanied the children, as they radiated wave upon wave of hatred towards me.

In many ways, I was rather sorry when my stint as a lecturer was over. I completed my Ph.D. shortly thereafter, and was ejected into the wide world -- where there was absolutely no possibility of my being mistaken as extroverted or in possession of social skills. Indeed, in my subsequent career as a scientist, I was mistaken for a homeless person (twice), a "particularly dimwitted cleaner" (once), and an employee in a sheltered workshop (numerous times).

But still, I must say, the feeling of being socially adequate was nice while it lasted.

David Haywood is the author of the book 'The New Zealand Reserve Bank Annual 2010'.

(Click here to find out more)

His previous book 'My First Stabbing' is available here.

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