Bad Behaviour

Rebecca Starford

Bad Behaviour
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Bad Behaviour

Rebecca Starford

“It is night. They move with such stealth they could be almost floating along the road. I can’t see faces, just the outline of their movement. But when the moon drifts out from behind a cloud, bathing the road in an urgent sort of light, I see how they’re all gazing up towards me. ‘They’re coming back,’ I murmur. I turn to Kendall, and she puts her sewing aside, eyes on me. They never waiver.”

It was supposed to be a place where teenagers would learn resilience, confidence and independence, where long hikes and runs in the bush would make their bodies strong and foster a connection with the natural world. Living in bare wooden huts, cut off from the outside world, the students would experience a very different kind of schooling, one intended to have a strong influence over the kind of adults they would eventually become.

Fourteen-year-old Rebecca Starford spent a year at this school in the bush. In her boarding house sixteen girls were left largely unsupervised, a combination of the worst behaved students and some of the most socially vulnerable.  As everyone tried to fit in and cope with their feelings of isolation and homesickness, Rebecca found herself joining ranks with the powerful girls, becoming both a participant - and later a victim -  of various forms of bullying and aggression.

Bad Behaviour tells the story of that year, a time of friendship and joy, but also of shame and fear. It explores how those crucial experiences affected Rebecca as an adult and shaped her future relationships, and asks courageous questions about the nature of female friendship. Moving, wise and painfully honest, this extraordinary memoir shows how bad behaviour from childhood, in all its forms, can be so often and so easily repeated throughout our adult lives.

Review

This is one of the most anticipated Australian books of 2015. Within minutes of reading, I was hooked. Rebecca Starford writes about her experience as a fourteen-year-old at a prestigious Melbourne school’s outdoor education campus. Rebecca was a scholarship student – clever, obedient, but with wavering confidence and the feeling of being an outsider. She shared a campus house for a year with fourteen other girls, including two, Portia and Ronnie, who were rumoured to be trouble makers. Rebecca found herself drawn to Portia, who was confident, loud, and manipulative. When Portia sought out Rebecca’s friendship, Rebecca was thrilled and her behaviour changed. She talked back to teachers, broke campus rules, and was regularly in detention. Rebecca’s father was called to the campus for a meeting, and together they were told her scholarship was at risk. When the girls begin victimising another girl, Kendall, Rebecca felt uncomfortable yet powerless. The bullying was relentless, and culminates in some shocking events.

Starford weaves the drama of that school year with her post-school life. This is a brave memoir as she examines her history of being enthralled by female friends with strong personalities and how this affected her during that particular year, and later in sexual relationships. I had expected the book to feature Starford solely as a victim of bullying (and she does become a victim for a period when Portia inevitably turns on her) but she demonstrates little self-pity. This is a wonderful book, and will provide great fodder for book groups. It raises thoughtful questions about the nature of female friendships, the realities and repercussions of bullying, and the role of schools in monitoring and maintaining student wellbeing.


Annie Condon is a bookseller at Readings Hawthorn.

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