How ‘Survivor’ Helped Me Survive High School
There was a moment in the latest episode of Australian Survivor that stuck with me long after the credits rolled.
It was when actress Pia Miranda, known for her role in Looking For Alibrandi, turned to a long line of accomplished, gym-built sportsmen and defended her own strength.
When accused by Olympic gold medallist Steven Bradbury of being a weak member of the ‘Champions’ tribe due to her smaller physicality, Miranda held her own and firmly rebutted: “That’s not really true though.”
She continued: “We match up in different ways. Sure, in a wrestling match I can’t match up, but in other things I can beat you, Steven.”
For me, this line struck a chord for a number of reasons, not least because it reminded me of the uphill battle I repeatedly faced in proving myself as a young person.
The first ever season of Survivor burst onto TV screens back in 2000, just as I was preparing for my first ever year of high school. Coincidence? Probably. Still, the long-running competitive reality series soon found a place in my weekly routine, otherwise crowded with binge-listening to Vanessa Amorosi, watching Popstars and avoiding all after-school social activities.
At the time, I was incredibly anxious about starting high school. Primary school had been a real doozy, with sustained bullying from my classmates and a merry-go-round of psychiatrists struggling to diagnose my very particular brand of early-life depression. With high school, I knew what I was in for. Enrolled at a rough all-boys institution in Sydney’s western suburbs, the general forecast was that I’d join the school Rugby League team, start listening to rock music and, I dunno, take up smoking before my 14th birthday (I managed to hold off until my 16th).
Turns out, starting year seven was worse than I feared. Something about having shoulder-length hair, a limp wrist and a slight lisp meant that I’d already been bundled in with the perceived ‘losers’. I was taunted right off the bat -- branded a ‘poofter’ and beaten up by several of the school’s brutish leaders. I wasn’t like them and it was becoming increasingly clear that, in the schoolyard’s tribal council, I was on the wrong side of the numbers.
However, watching Survivor helped me recontextualise the myriad challenges of being an outcast. Having watched Richard Hatch, a flamboyantly gay (if not slightly arrogant and confronting) misfit, take out the title of Sole Survivor in season one, I knew that I too had unique strengths that could be utilised in getting ahead. This isn’t to say that high school should be treated as a game, per se -- but viewing it within the framework of a game -- where everyone is an equal threat until their fire is snuffed out -- alleviated some of the victimhood I’d been wallowing in for years.
It helped me get unstuck.
Well, I was fast. I didn’t have much muscle, but something about having endured years of bullying meant that I could run a pretty damn quick 100 meters. Making it to the District level in athletics would surely inflate my measly high school stock.
I was smart, too; smart enough to help Ben Green (who caught the same train/bus route home) with his English assessments. Ben was friends with the popular kids, so being in his good graces might move me down a rung on their ‘kids to beat up’ ladder. Also, I was funny. Not funny enough to be cool, but funny enough to make a rude quip to a substitute teacher and earn some sweet sweet social currency.
If high school was a game of survival, not just a shitty situation to endure for six years, I was more willing to step up to the plate and play.
I soon came to realise that for someone like me, high school, much like Survivor, just isn’t fair. It doesn’t really matter whether or not you’re a good person. It doesn’t matter how badly you want to be well-liked and succeed academically. What matters is the way in which you choose to navigate the challenges put before you -- how you react when backed into a proverbial corner, be it by bullies or circumstance. How you present yourself matters, whether or not it should. Your relationships matter. Backing yourself -- just like Pia Miranda did with Steven Bradbury -- matters.
Of course, this wouldn’t be the case in an ideal world. But, for 14-year-old me, alone and crying on the schoolyard in my first year of high school, a shift in perspective made all the difference.
Imagining Jeff Probst giving me a wink as I left tribal council, saying “you’re still in it”, kept me in a game the odds said I’d lose.