One pm and One am are two very different times of day.
One pm in grade five was a sunny but humid afternoon in science class. The Camphor Laurel trees were swaying in the hot wind, their branches tapping the rusted louvers of our dusty classroom. In science class, I remember we were taught these trees were weeds, introduced over a hundred years ago to the area. Now their old roots spread under the whole school, connecting each classroom to the forest and to the river.
One am in grade five was waking up in a sweat from a bad dream. While it scared me for a few seconds, I knew I could always feel safe in my own bed. I didn’t feel any eyes on me here; I felt less fear than what I experienced in school. Outside I could always feel them on my back. The piercing eyes, distant laughter. Everything I did, I did in fear of being shamed of being yelled at. Even alone, I could never shake the feeling I was being watched.
At one pm, I loved Science Class. If we weren’t playing with coloured solutions or Lego robots, we were outside in the heat. Some classes were in the pine forest, some behind the school where our teacher taught on the ground while the class sat above in the old Camphor Laurel branches. On special occasions, we visited the forest beside the school where the trees expanded in all its natural beauty.
One particular hot day, we ventured even deeper into the forest, following the river downstream. Here, the native trees outnumbered the weeds and the path disappeared under forest litter.
“Look up.” our teacher had said.
At one am I used to stare up at the ceiling. I didn’t want to sleep, because I didn’t want to wake up. I didn’t want to wake up and go to school. The oral presentation had crept up on me so quickly – I had just wanted to forget about it. But before school finished our teacher reminded us to be prepared. My stomach churned at the thought of it. To choose who was to be first, the teacher picked a name from a hat. I used to blush constantly, especially when my name was spoken out loud.
“What do you see up there?” The teacher questioned, pointing to the canopy.
“Trees and leaves?” someone beside me answered. But I remember seeing more than that. I saw rivers between the tree canopy, and the varying colours of the different species. I saw a cockatoo pick at the bark and a lorikeet nibble some berries.
“Yes, definitely leaves,” the teacher said, “Anyone else see something a little strange?” I continued to stare straight up, keeping silent. I could see something strange, but I didn’t have the words to say it out loud.
“Ok then, does everyone notice the lines between the canopy of the trees? See how the tops of the tree’s branches don’t touch each other?”
Everyone hummed a “ahh’ of realisation. That was weird, everyone agreed.
“This is called ‘Canopy Shyness’ or ‘Crown Shyness’ and no scientist has agreed to a theory on why some forest trees do this.”
“It looks like how the ground cracks in a desert.” I murmured. A few people turned back to look at me, and I blushed and looked back up at the canopy.
I don’t remember going back to sleep after one am.
“Did you get any sleep?” mum asked me in the morning.
“No, I didn’t. And I feel really sick.”
“Well you don’t look sick.”
“Mum, I really don’t want do to this.”
“You’ll be fine, it’s only five minutes. Just take deep breaths.”
But it felt like my insides had rusted and that I would fail at everything. I always felt like this when my only friend wasn’t at school, or if I accidentally made eye contact with a stranger. I could never buy anything by myself, I was too terrified to say the wrong thing, or have the wrong change. I didn’t like to ask difficult questions. I didn’t want to be yelled at. I didn’t like loud things. I didn’t like hugs.
“One theory,” Our teacher explained, his hands still pointing to the sky, “Is that the tall trees may suffer physical damage as they collide with each other during windy days or storms. To stop injury, they respond with Canopy Shyness.”
The clock ticked over to 1pm. The notes in my hands were damp from my sweaty hands.
“Ashlee!” the teacher announced, and his words vibrated in my ears. “Ready for your presentation?”
I nodded while my insides scrambled, and my face warmed. I was frightened of the eyes on me, the thoughts that could be going through my classmate’s heads. I wanted to run out of the classroom and hide, but I knew that would make me even more anxious than I was. I was frightened of failing, of disappointing.
I set up my PowerPoint.
“The Umbrella Tree” my presentation was called. To my surprise, the class was in awe of my PowerPoint. I had created colourful yet clear slides with forest sounds and non-blurry pictures. My insides unscrambled a little.
“Ready when you are, Ashlee.” the teacher said.
“The Umbrella Tree,” I stuttered, “is not considered a dangerous weed in Queensland. And in this presentation I’m going to explain why it should be.”
I read straight off my notes, not even looking up once.
But no one booed or yelled, and I think they all actually listened. Because when I mentioned that Lorikeets ate the trees’ fermenting berries and became a little drunk, everyone laughed. When I finished everyone clapped, I blushed and smiled.
I walked back to my desk still a little shaky, but feeling taller. Feeling like I had grown a little.
Sitting in my bed at One am, I feel grown. It took me ten years, but I don’t live in constant fear anymore. I have a canopy that tangles with the forest for miles, and while there’s still a little space between some leaves, I know it’ll grow as I do. Tangling with the forest where I feel I now belong.