A review of Don’t Peak at High School edited by Fiona Scott-Norman

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Don’t Peak at High School
By Fiona Scott-Norman
Affirm Press
July 2011, $24.95 paperback, ISBN 978-0-9807904-5-0

I suspect that most of those strikingly original, high flying stars that we all love to copy were bullied at one point or another in their lives. It’s precisely those points of differences that make these stars trend-setters, but that kind of originality isn’t always what makes for an easy life in a place where being ‘normal’ and popular often equates with conformity. Fiona Scott-Norman’s book Don’t Peak at High School has been written specifically to encourage and help High School students who are struggling with bullying. If the statistics are anything to go by, that’s a large audience, with twenty five percent of all Australian student experiencing bullying. With two high school students in my house, that’s a worrying number, and although both of them tell me they haven’t experienced bullying, they both read the book quickly, devouring the stories before I was able to have a look in.

Once I finally got my turn, I understood why. Scott-Norman’s book provides fifteen different nuggets of wisdom from some of Australia’s most popular, dynamic and confident stars. All of them were bullied, some so badly that you have to wonder how they managed to make it through at all, much less to rise to the heights of success that they did. Scott-Norman’s thesis is that the bullying these people copped made them stronger, developing their coping skills, and confirming them in their unique vision. Of course for everyone who gets through it and thrives either in spite of, or because of their bullying, there are many more who don’t , but it’s impossibly to deny that these are inspirational stories for teens who are being bullied.

The stories vary from the fairly minor ostracising of writer and television star Marieke Hardy and Kate Miller-Heidke, whose “Caught in the Crowd” is quoted in full for the other side of bullying it shows, to the much more intense pounding that actor Paul Capsis and artist Bindi Cole took. All of the stories are heartfelt, personal, and contain specific tips on how to cope, not from the point of view of an expert but someone who has been there and gotten through it. For example, Charlie Picking reminds us that:

he thing is, high school is formative, but it’s a tiny part of your life, and every year that goes by you realise it more nad more. None of it is there forever, and it becomes a very smalll part of your life. (107)

Comedian and writer Wendy Harmer’s story is the one I found most evocative. Compared to the personal pain she had to endure during her surgery at 14, the power of her emotional strength and confience is one that any person would be inspired by:

I coped by being incrediby rational about it. I became very, very rigorous in my mental self-discipline. I’d say, ‘I’m not going to let this situation get out of conrol.’ I spent a lot of time thinking, talking to myself, saying, ‘You can’t let this get you down, you must have courage, yo must keep your head up, you must keep going.’ That took a lot of time and energy when I was a child. I just had to dust myself off, stand up every day and do it all again until normalcy became a reality for me. (48)

Scott-Norman peppers everything with characteristic humour and keeps the tone light, even when the stories get heavy, and they sometimes do. The stars are nicely varied in age, sexual orientation, genre, artistic talent, colour, race, and profession. Although the Arts definitely get a strong representation, we also have politician Penny Wong and sporting hero Adam Goodes. There’s bound to be someone that the reader will specifically relate to, and all the stories are inspirational. Don’t Peak at High School is an interesting, engaging read, but it’s the way in which it encourages teens towards the one thing young people tend to lack — perspective, that makes this an important book. The book will be valuable, not just for those who are coping with bullying and the resultant self-identity issues that go along with that, but for those who might be witnessing it or participating in it (however subtly). In other words, this is a book for all high school students and their families.

About the reviewer: Magdalena Ball runs The Compulsive Reader. She is the author of the poetry book Repulsion Thrust, the novel Sleep Before Evening, a nonfiction book, The Art of Assessment, Quark Soup, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Cherished Pulse , She Wore Emerald Then , ,Imagining the Future, and Deeper Into the Pond.