Ours was the typical nineties state high school. A cluster of buildings cowering in a clearing. Wooden desks gouged with wonky initials. A roaring canteen trade in chocolate billabongs, iced pink donuts and meat pies.
The play ground pecking order made Lord of the Flies seem like tea-party play. Among the girls, it was Looking for Alibrandi meets Hating Alison Ashley meets Puberty Blues. Not an easy place for a book-geek black girl like me. Every even girl was an Allison, Kylie, Kelly. I was Maxine.
By grade eight, the wake-up-white prayers of my childhood had been well and truly reality checked. I knew it would take an awful lot for broad-nosed, coffee-toned, b-cup, study-freak me to make the grass-greener leap. But I was still convinced there were things I could do which would bring me closer, at least, to popularity.
Towards the end of grade eight, I started campaigning my mother to chemically straighten my hair. I knew I could never have the flickable blonde masses of the more popular of my classmates, but perhaps I could get a blunt-cut Salt n Peppa style fringe, or a ponytail that hung down my back like Rudy from the Cosby show.
I hated the unruly afro-frizz which escaped from my stumpy pony tail after sport, or swimming, or unthinkingly running my hand over my head.
One day, through the sparse but highly effective black grape-vine, we heard about Greek Charlie. Greek Charlie was an up-and-coming hairdresser with his own salon in Granville. He was fast developing a reputation for being able to get black hair Chinese straight.
From the moment I heard a family friend whisper these words to my mother, I knew that Chinese straight was exactly what I needed to turn my life around. A torturous months-long pestering campaign later, it was agreed that the salon visit could function as an early birthday present.
By the time Charlie massaged the neutraliser into my hair, the damage was done. In the back middle of my newly straightened hair was a round pink patch the size of a fifty cent coin, where the chemicals had burnt clean through both hair and skin.
The birthday girl was midway up the playground pecking order, and spent every second of class desperately trying to grab the next rung. I was on her weekend tennis team. She’d made it clear when she delivered the invitation it was out of obligation. “My Mum said I’d better invite you.” But I didn’t care. I was going anyway. Before the pool party, my mother gently rubbed mascara over the pink fleshy patch to conceal the wound.
I imagined turning up for school the next day, the rumours already having spread about how I refused to go in the pool because I didn’t like to have clean hair.
I stood up, on autopilot. “Actually, I think I will go for a swim.” I kicked off my thongs, slipped out of my denim cut-offs, waded into the pool. I took a breath, and dove under the water. As I surfaced, I caught sight of the rest of the kids madly scrambling out of the pool.
“We don’t feel like being in the pool anymore,” the party girl smiled down at me, as they grabbed their towels and headed inside. I stood in the centre of the pool, staring at the decidedly frizzy ends of hair hanging wet into my eyes. “Oh my God!” the host’s Mum suddenly sprung up from her chair. “Are you okay Maxine? Did you hit your head? There’s a gash at the back of your head. Kids! Kids? I think she’s hurt herself!”