All The Right Moves
Oscar Wilde once said that the only real tragedy in life is getting what you want. I was living proof of that adage. Everything mapped out, in the prime of my life, I pretty much had it all so far: to me the most gorgeous wife, two bright bouncing boys, a big inner suburban home fronted by a big verandah – the white picket fence and our third son would come when the time was ripe – and was getting regular gainful work. Everyday and every way, it was getting better and better. How about that! One way and another I had scored the trifecta. The pot. It doesn’t get better than this.
Ah, sweet mystery of life, at last I’d found thee.
My life was arranged, where I wanted it, the centrepiece falling into place. In the first years of the nineteen eighties, I returned to NSW public high schools, back in harness as a relief school teacher, trekking to the outer western suburbs, staging posts for a bigger deal somewhere closer. So far, so good.
It was only a matter of time before my pre-ordained moment arrived. I finally received the letter offering me the long-coveted permanent employment. My name was written all over it. Promising me professional ballast, this had to be the harbinger of the success I had been holding out hope for. Touch wood. Having slaked my unquenchable thirst for travel and my exceeding curiosity about the nature of things, jack of doing stop start this, that and the other, wound up like a spring, I jumped at this one-off chance, all-out rarin’ to go. To do my own professional thing.
Off to a fresh flying start, my slate clean, in from the cold, in top form and no end in sight, it was my turn to shine, scaling the professional heights. Having decided once and for all who I was, I planned for every possibility, leaving nothing to chance. On my part, beyond reproach. No blotted copybook. No bumbling, fumbling or stumbling, no hitches, glitches or botches. From others, no stuff and nonsense as I cleared the decks.
Famous last words.
Having a good grounding in all areas of knowledge, this steady, self-possessed, up and coming man of many parts was roped into and had a stab at the all. They had me coming and going. From Arabic to Zoology – you name it. Moving from one way-station to another, I was shuffled around like a pack of cards. At their command, I covered the map. Man Friday was up for anything. I’d have taught anything whatsoever if they’d asked me. If they’d ask me to jump, I’d have answered, ‘How high would you like this white man to jump?’ In fine form, I saw myself as something of a hot shot, all round troubleshooter, one with a wide scope of versatility, bringing together all the protean fruits of my studies and experience, tying them together in a knot
Over a period of three and a half years this pedagogic Jack of all trades never repeated the same lessons. Nonetheless my students performed on a par with others and then some. They couldn’t have done otherwise if there’d been any high jinks, slapdash or slovenliness. I felt myself and my profession indivisible. A natural fit. Never more myself than in my worthwhile metier, I got stuck into it, riding high, on the up and up, leaping gladly from bed, knowing that before me stretched a day full of promise, in which I was doing what I loved. Aiming to form young people’s lives and views, lend wisdom and knowledge, equipping them for life outside in the big wide world, commanding dignity and respect, to become a name who will stay with them for the rest of their lives. Never saw things going so right. Having found my own level, well suited to this blend of skills – instigating, facilitating and delegating. Everything else I had done had been, in a sense, practice for this. I was in my moment, a man on the come, enjoying the energy that children pass on to my heart’s content. Infused with infectious, ebullient, indomitable joy, it made me attentive to the magical propensities of life even when at its most depressing.
Nice work if you can get it. Work that carries its own reward.
No dark sarcasm in the classroom.
I had moments of absolute clarity, when silence drowned out the noise. Everything seeming so sharp, so well in the world, I could feel rather than think.
‘Never saw the sun shining so bright. Never saw things going so right.’
Surrounded by a metaphysical glow of significance, I perfectly sensed the very nature of the universe and my oneness with it.
My first appointment, no plum assignment, was to Bass Hill High, a western Sydney school, graffitied from top to bottom.
The bold statement about one girl student being a ‘mole’ greeted me when I arrived and reminded me when I left the last time. This raised a very big question. Was it a case of Art trumping Spelling – or was the latter just not held in high regard.
While exchanging pleasantries I got right down to business. While others chucked sickies, I would never have considered taking a day off. Greeting others as they arrive d, you could set your watch to it. I was often last to leave the building.
Working late I was frequently reminded by the cleaners, ‘Elvis has left the building. Don’t you have a home to go to?’
For most others the last three minutes of the school day sitting there was like a slow fuse burning. I could’ve been out the gate before the bell stopped ringing, but that wasn’t me.
I was called by some students ‘the Joker’ referring to my sense of humour which I took as a compliment. It’s also defined as an unexpected resource which I would like to think I was. Classified as a social science teacher, I taught economics and commerce. The head of department took exception to me having no background teaching geography. This was a moot point as far as I was concerned, this subject being hybrid. And not well understood as I gathered from one student in an English class I was assigned to.
‘Name the four seasons,’ I asked.
The answer: ‘Salt, pepper, mustard and vinegar.’
‘Could you name the states of Australia?’
‘I thought they’ve already got names.’
I asked his class: ‘’Where do dates grow?’’
One boy raised his hand: ’Oh I know! They grow on calendars!’
‘What is a plateau?’
‘It’s the highest form of flattery.’
When I told his class twenty Brazilian rainforests had been lost that year, he asked, ‘How many’s a Brazilian?’ I wasn’t at all surprised. The same student thought irony came from elephants. He thought Sinai was the plural of ‘sinus’.
‘Come to the staffroom at recess, ‘I told him and I’ll show you where Brazil is on the globe of the earth.’
‘That globe’s not big enough,’ he said. Do you have a life-size one?’
‘Yes, we do, but it’s currently in use.’
I set one boy an assignment to explain how coal was formed. What he lacked in strict accuracy, he made up for in imagination.
‘A great windstorm knocked down trees that God then metamorphosed ‘gradually, over a period of 3 million years so it wasn’t noticeable to the average passerby. It was all part of the scheme, but people at the time did not see it that way. People under the trees did not say, ‘Hurrah, coal in 3 million years.’ No, they said, ‘Oh, dear, oh, dear, trees falling on us — that’s the last thing we want.’
And of course, for the most of them it was the last thing they got.’
‘Let me tell you a little about myself.’ I said introducing myself to my English class. ‘It’s a reflexive pronoun that means ‘me’.’
‘You don’t walks evenly, ’replied one boy, noticing my limp from an accident.
Tall and wiry, with a rasping scowl of a voice, Antonio had a battered baby face and a mop of dark unruly curls.
I got him to conjugate the verb ‘walk’ in the present tense. He answered very slowly: ”I… walk… You… you… walk…”
I prodded him: ’Quicker than this, Antonio!” to which he answered: ‘’Well, I run, you run, he runs.’
‘Do you understand the pattern now?’
‘I dig, you dig, she digs, we dig, you dig, they dig.’
‘This pattern might not sound beautiful but linguistically it’s very deep.’
I encouraged this plodder to use a thesaurus to expand his vocabulary. I also encouraged his classmate Molly to use the dictionary to find information about words. Just as Molly found difficulty using the dictionary, so too did Antonio with the thesaurus:
‘I tried unsuccessfully to find a synonym for ‘useless’. The result was futile.’
Then it clicked with him. ‘A thesaurus is great, he exclaimed, ‘ there’s no other word for it.’
When someone nicked it, it became clear how essential it had become to Antonio. He complained to the class, ‘Whoever stole my thesaurus, he made my day bad. I hope bad things happen to him. He’s a bad person. He’s as um….as thoughtless less…..as…..um…..’
Molly said,’ I can see how distraught you are.’
Antonio responded, ‘You don’t even know the meaning of the word.’
‘Maybe not. But I know what it’s like.’
I was called on to answer some of the puzzling questions about our language.
‘Why is abbreviation such a long word?
‘Why is there a ‘d’ in fridge but not in refrigerator?’
‘Why are there five syllables in the word ‘monosyllabic’?’
‘Why isn’t phonetic spelled the way it sounds?’
‘Why do ‘fat chance’ and ‘slim chance’ mean the same thing?
‘And if ‘I’ comes before ‘E’ except after ‘C?’, how come Einstein got it wrong twice in his name?’
One girl thought she had me stumped: ‘What rhymes with orange?’
I said: ‘No it doesn’t.’
I worked to convey ideas through film taking advantage of the exciting possibilities of the video medium and the ready availability of cassettes. ‘Norma Rae’ the drama about a factory worker who becomes involved in the labour union activities at the textile factory where she works proved an excellent vehicle for bringing the topic of trade unions to life. The most common employment areas in the mainstream i.e. American films these children watched, are law enforcement, crime, medicine, the law, prostitution and bartending. Most, having no curiosity about people who drag themselves up every day to work like Trojans, are hardly ever about factory work. Showing ‘Norma Rae’, which does, didn’t come easily. The planning and paperwork involved were prohibitive. I had to apply several weeks in advance to get clearance and counter the argument it was just entertainment: ‘We’re here to educate the next generation, not amuse them, ’I was told.
Mother Nature and her Bag of Tricks.
I happily accepted English classes and those in personal development which covered the ‘birds and bees’.
Some still wanted sex education out of the schools. ‘It causes promiscuity,’ claimed one teacher.
‘Hey, I studied algebra and I’ve never used it, ’replied one of its defenders.’
The quality of sex education in schools was a postcode lottery. Some youngsters were growing up not being taught even the most basic information about their bodies, while others had no understanding about rape and sexual consent. Sometimes their parents were also uncertain about the subject being handled in schools.
I found out from one senior student the extent of his school sex education had been a video about the sperm travelling to meet the egg. The presentation was very mechanical and explained with diagrams.
‘Our last teacher told us about the different contraceptive methods. He drew a very large diaphragm on the board.’
The focus was on the cold, hard science behind it all without any mention of emotions or feelings.
In the absence of a comprehensive sex education, these youngsters were relying on myths from the playground and increasingly on pornographic magazines to fill the gaps.
‘Sir, could I have a word with you in confidence? a boy asked me.’ ‘
‘Certainly,’ I replied. ‘What is it?’ One of my friends showed me this magazine with pictures of women performing acts on each other. I thought about what you said regarding gender identity.
‘This is all part of the natural world, son. Don’t worry about it. Although Queen Victoria denied its existence, sexual and romantic desire between females has a long history.’
‘The thing is I’m not sure who I am now. I’d like to do what they were doing. I think I must be a lesbian.’
I suspected the head of department was warier than most of this area even though most of the taboos on this are lost on even small children.
Children start to ask questions about the body very early on, so the trick is to answer in a way that’s relevant to the child’s age and maturity.
No more evasive, confusing answers like babies coming from storks and gooseberry bushes.
For high school children their concerns are about the physical changes that come with puberty, the big question being, ‘Am I normal?’
One popular perennial is ‘Can a girl get pregnant from kissing?’
I believe children at that stage of development are ready enough to more fully understand their emergent sexuality.
Current guidelines recommend that all primary schools should cover the changes that happen in puberty.
The classes were very rewarding with the senior students. A forest of raised hands, these soon- to- be plumbers, beauticians, mechanics, typists, checkout cashiers, machinists, gofers, burger flippers, garbos (garbage collectors), truckies and tradies of all kinds, including brickies, sparkies (electricians), dunny divers (plumbers) and chippies (carpenters) crying ‘Me, Sir, me!’ Not that they needed to be told much about the mechanics.
It was the only subject in which they believed they should be given homework. ‘Wasn’t it you, Sir, who told us, ‘Experience is the best teacher.’
‘Sex is a part of nature. I go along with nature.’ read the quote from Marilyn Monroe I chalked up on the blackboard at the beginning of one lesson. ‘Now you readers of Cosmopolitan and students of Playboy magazines, who wrote that?’ I asked.
‘You did, Sir!’ they replied as one.
‘Man is a creation of nature, a natural being who pursues pleasure and avoids pain, ‘I declared.
Immediately, one boy raised his hand, and desperately tried to get my attention. After I ignored him, he kept his hand up, waving it up and down, and from one side to the other one. When he started making a noise with his feet I decided to acknowledge him.
Standing up he asked, ’‘If sex is such a natural thing, how come there are so many books on how to do it?
Why do we have to watch teachers telling us all about it and demonstrating how?’
‘The Meaning of Life’ had just been released with John Cleese doing just that.
My approach to these classes included at its heart a focus on consent, an understanding of what it is to be in a healthy relationship, gender roles, different sexualities and gender identity and to help people develop life skills such as communication and decision-making. The core issues I handled covered the fundamental experience of being young, of being in love, of being dumped.
After the predictable giggling and tittering, my students realised that sexuality is as much about the emotions surrounding it as the anatomy, physiology and mechanics. As much about relationships and the consequences of actions, prudent or otherwise. As early experiences in relationships often dictate later experiences, I believed it was critical to get this right from the outset. I wanted to overcome the problem of making sex ed realistic yet engaging, to help clear up misunderstandings, to help demolish the uninformed view that I was inculcated with at my parochial school. That sex was something ‘dirty’ and only to be talked about by boys through smutty, sexist jokes.
When I started having raging hard-ons, I wondered if it was normal and was happening to others. You couldn’t talk to anybody easily about it. Showing emotions was seen as a weakness. What I needed was for someone to assure me it would have been abnormal if it wasn’t happening.
The nuns and priests I knew taught us two things: One is that God loves you and you’re going to burn in hell. The other is that sex is the most awful, filthy thing on earth, and you should save it for someone you love.
I hoped now we had gone from an era of silence and shame about sexuality to one of greater openness and discussion.
One boy in my class, Harry, took me into his confidence about his first experiences of having wet dreams, ‘I wondered what was going on. I had dreams where gorgeous girls and I rub up against each other.
Then I felt this tremendous build-up coming. And suddenly, there were these explosions like a dam breaking. And suddenly, everything rushed and flowed out to sea.’
‘Time and tide tarry for no man, Harry. These are clear signs of your accelerating maturation. Just don’t get carried away.’
What’s going on, Sir?’
In a normal male the testicles are constantly manufacturing male hormones. They are also manufacturing and storing sperm cells. It just stands to reason that if they do this long enough there’s going to be an overflow problem. It happened to Clancy. It happens to all normal boys. To take care of this nature gives us a safety valve. Once in a while the stored semen lets go. You have a nocturnal emission. It can also happen in the daytime.’
‘Ev’ry morning, ev’ry evening ain’t we got fun.
In the winter, in the summer, don’t we have fun.’
‘They can still get a little messy, Harry, but they’re perfectly normal. In fact, they’re a sign of good health.’
Being free to talk about such matters, a kind of alchemy kicked in between those in my classes. We arrived at something close to extra-sensory perception where we could feel in our bones what we were going to say next. Some kids always had their hand up, even before they knew what my next question would be.
One said to me ‘Is it possible to mistake schizophrenia for telepathy, I hear you ask.’
‘I’ll see you and raise you,’ I replied, ‘How many of you here are psychic? Raise my hand!’
Holding one’s own.
Philosophy is to the real world as masturbation is to sex.
The following discussion covers the kind of contributions swirling around the classroom.
‘Sir,’ said one boy, ‘I think Mother Nature played a joke on us with puberty. For us boys, it’s like turning into the Incredible Hulk – but very, very slowly. So, you’re just noticing members of the sex: ‘Girls, girls, Ooh, ooh’. Naturally you want to look your best, and Mother Nature says ‘No! You will look the worst you’ve ever looked in your life!’ Why is this?’
‘Yes Sir,’ added another. ‘and why is it when you are starting to say goodbye to your boyhood and looking forward to your adultery, you look like this. Your voice is going deeper and your hair is growing in all sorts of places.’
‘Like on your palm.’
‘And werewolves like you can’t stop wanting to pull your pud around midnight.’
‘We’re gonna stimulate some action,’ sang one of Eric Clapton’s aficionados.
‘We’re gonna get some satisfaction.
We’re gonna find out what it is all about.
After midnight, we’re gonna let it all hang down.’
‘Or let it all pop up. Like when you boys see those girlie Playboy magazines.’
‘Those publications increase circulation-mine. My floppy disk turns into a hard drive.’
‘I keep them at arm’s length,’ said Jack, a short-sighted boy with thick glasses.
‘That’s because it’s the only way you can keep them in focus.’
I could see where this was going. That which everybody does and nobody talks about in polite society.
Which didn’t include members of the regiments of the universities of Sydney and New South Wales. These future pillars of the establishment sang about its pleasures to the tune of ‘Funiculi, Funicula’ around the campfire during our military training.
Yes, few talked about it openly in such numbers at least not until the advent of the video cassette culture and ‘Father’ Greg Sheridan.
Little did I know that in the coming months this rabid defender of public morality would bring to national public attention a matter of great concern to him: a school textbook in use which on the topic of masturbation says: ‘Masturbating is usually a very private thing, although some boys and girls get a kick out of doing it in a group. If that’s how you enjoy it there’s nothing wrong with sharing sex in that way.’
How any book condoning such crude and lewd perversion would get through the front door of any school, past the front office bin and into a classroom is beyond me. But that wouldn’t be the point as far as ‘Father’ Greg’s motives were. His misleading accounts could only be seen as the latest volley in a decades-long barrage of misinformation, smears and propaganda designed to frighten the public away from supporting sex education in schools, despite extensive evidence that the more full, frank and informative sex and relationships education we provide, the better the outcomes in terms of young people’s sexual health and safety. To mislead people about the nature and the benefits of sex and relationships education is cruel and ignorant at the best of times. To do so in such a way that it undermines efforts to protect children is downright obscene.
His simple and dishonest motive for bringing it up would be to associate all liberal minded teachers with promotion of such nonsense. His grotesque attempt to squeeze the genie back into the bottle involved taking an isolated incident and raising it to the level of a general trend. It would be part of a disturbing narrative in which he would strip out the broader context and the specificity of actions like this and weave them into his preset narrative of good and evil.
How would he have classed the good Catholic prepsters from the Jesuit-run, all-boys Georgetown Prep in Bethesda, Maryland who were practising such improper group behaviour as Father Greg was fulminating against it?’
This would all come out a generation later from fellow conservative writer Mark Judge, classmate of Trump’s nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court. Say no more.
And if that didn’t muddy the waters enough his close friend Tony Abbott would joke about wet dreams in the Parliament.
In the meantime ‘Father’ Greg in his part of the crusade against the right of teachers to belong to a professional association would soon pull it off. He continued to practise on his upcoming piece, storing up a toxic spray which he’d soon dump on the teaching profession.
As for me back at Bass, having committed myself to allowing a frank and open discussion, I aimed at lifting the tone of the conversation and to keep a sense of decorum. By talking calmly in a reassuring, non-judgemental way, I got to understand their concerns. In delivering my sermon on the mount, I wanted to church it up, shy away from anything that shocks and cop out if needs be to avoid unnecessary controversy. I wasn’t out to glorify this oldest of pastimes. Rather I tried to work my way around it.
I asked the class who would like to speak first. It was decided by a traditional method of selection-rock, paper, scissors.’
‘It’s the talk of the town,’ said one girl. ‘Ever since in Grease‘ Travolta was told by one of the chicks to ‘flog his log.’ Elvis Costello sings about ‘pumping it up’ and he’s not on about his bicycle tyre. ‘The Who’ mentioned ‘Pictures of Lily’ helping them sleep at night.’
‘Monty Python had a quiz contestant who mentioned it as being his hobby, along with golf.’
There’s not much golf played around here.’
‘Even Chuck Berry and John Lennon have talked about it openly.’
‘John did ever so briefly,’ I explained, ‘then was convinced it was more diplomatic to talk about ‘mastication’. It’s on the official lyric sheet Chewing our food thoroughly and swallowing it gently helps towards living a peaceful life. So, eat somewhat less but eat it more. Would you be hearty beyond fourscore.
And here’s another similar kind of word, you young ragers. ‘Maturation’. Keep it in mind when you broach discussion of such a matter. John was enjoying a joyful personal relationship with his loved one. The original word he used meant something of no importance except to the practitioner.’
‘You might say it’s an engagement in which no one can be hurt,’
‘except the innocent bystander,’ pointed out another.
‘Yeh, especially when the knob seen inside the car is not that on the gearstick.’
‘One of my fat cracking friends who studies keyboard says he plays the five knuckle shuffle by candlelight.’
‘It must be awkward on his birthdays.’
‘He says he cries when he does it, be it out of guilt or passion, performing solo on his organ.’
‘He’s a real tearjerker.’
‘It can happen everywhere. Some do that hand jive all over town’
‘The guy in the bathroom with a tool in his hand is not necessarily a plumber.’
‘And the guy gripping his joystick is not necessarily playing video games.’
‘I was in my older brother’s bedroom once and asked, ‘Is this where you have all the sex?’
‘That’s right,’ he said. ‘But not with another person.’
‘I came in once without knocking and caught him at it.’
‘Did he carry on or freeze?’
‘He had that ‘kangaroo caught in the headlights look.’
‘It happened in a massage parlour. The patron found out the business was self-service.’
‘It can happen in all kind of ways. Some go light, some go hard.’
‘What’s the difference?’
“The difference between light and hard is that you can sleep with a light on.
‘And it can happen to all kinds of people,’ I pointed out.
‘It happens to basketball players,’ said one such small forward, ‘first they dribble then they shoot.’
On the blackboard I wrote this ode to the dick, this famous limerick:
‘Said a potentate gross and despotic,
“My tastes are more rich than exotic.
I’ve always adored Making love in a Ford
Because I am auto-erotic.’
Sir,’ said Jack, ‘Could you write bigger?’
‘It’s your eyesight that’s bad, Jack,’ said one girl, ‘and we know what that’s caused by.’
‘Last night Jack almost had a threesome,’ added Tony, ‘but there were a couple of no shows. He only needed two more people!’
‘Or three more if he wanted foreplay.’
’You don’t sound like a guy who’s even done a onesome,’ said one girl to Tony.’
‘He has. That’s why they call him handsome. He does it to someone he loves most. You know what Narcissus here took to Lover’s Lane.’
‘A hand mirror.’
‘You know what they say? Having sex is like playing poker. If you don’t have a good partner, you’d better have a good hand,’ said Mick.
‘I’m sure it’d be more fun with another person.’
‘Or you can use thingamabobs such as electric vibrators’, someone pointed out, ‘if you use one in water, you can come and go at the same time.’
‘You sound like an authority in this art?’
‘I’m not an expert, but I hold my own.’
‘I’ve decided to stop it, since then I’ve not really felt myself.’
‘‘I was told at Sunday school it’s lustful and that I should be abstinent. I was told I’ll go blind if I practise self-abuse,’ replied Jack.
‘I’m over here, Jack,’ replied Mick, waving and directing Jack’s gaze.
Jack, you mean to say, ‘Don’t pet the sweaty things’.
‘I say, don’t sweat the petty things. They go against the laws of God’.
‘If it’s not in, then it’s not a sin.’
At which point the class broke into the Python song:
‘Every sperm is sacred,
Every sperm is great.
If a sperm is wasted,
God gets quite irate.
Let the heathen spill theirs,
On the dusty ground,
God shall make them pay for,
Each sperm that can’t be found.’
‘How does God know, Jack?’
’Our Minister assured me God sees everything. He taught me these things were not petty. They were very important. He told me, ‘Don’t justify the sin. Just defy the sin’.
‘It’s easy for him to say. For you that’s a tough call’.
‘What can I do? What can I try?’
‘It’s called life, Jack. Take a chance. Don’t hold back. It’s like a tide. Give into it. Go on, be a devil, try it sometime.’
‘It’s one thing being scared of dying, Jack. It’s a whole different matter being scared of living.’
‘Yeh, let yourself go, relax.’
‘My Minister tells me, ‘Get your kicks above the waistline, Sunshine. Self-denial of the flesh brings us closer to God. Resist any indecent desires.’
‘What baffles me is why would God bestow upon us a desire that he then wants us to resist? Is it some weird game he’s invented to alleviate the boredom of being omnipotent?’
’’Don’t waste your life, Jack. It’s one thing being scared of dying. It’s a whole different matter being scared of living It’s You’ve got yourself tied up in a knot. If you object to understanding human nature, speak now or forever hold your piece. ‘
‘In the song from ‘Hair’, they say holding it can be fun. And you don’t have to dress up for it.’
‘They say in Sunday school that sex is not the answer,’ said Jack.
‘That’s true. Sex is the question. ‘Yes’ is the answer.
‘It’s like pizza isn’t it. Even when it’s bad, it’s pretty good.’
‘I would feel guilty about it,’ said Jack, gasping and giggling, looking on in awe at his classmates’ superior wisdom .‘With my eyesight I would probably muff it.’
‘Calm down, Jack. Get a grip on yourself.’
‘I read that half the population sing in the shower and the other half practise onanism,’ someone asked Jack.’
‘Do you know what they sing?’
‘Of course not’.
‘I didn’t think you did. I rest my case.’
‘He was too busy like Billy Idol dancing with himself ’
‘They told this wallflower at Sunday School ‘You can prick your finger, but don’t finger your pr—‘
‘Whoa there, Frank,’ I said. ‘Some might be thoroughly offended at that. We have to keep in mind the sensitivities of some.’
‘‘Those suffering from a repressive libido complex, probably the product of an unhappy childhood, coupled with acute insecurity in adolescence, which has resulted in an attenuation of the libido complex.’
‘I see you know some Freud, Frank.’
I don’t know about Freud but I do know my Monty Python. How can anyone consider that word or any other indecent?’
‘Some words are ‘two-way words’ that can be considered innocent or offensive, according to context. You have to consider your audience carefully. With people of a sensitive disposition, you have to use words like ‘member’, appendage’ or ‘manhood’ when referring to the male organ.’
‘How do you genitalmen know if a guy hasn’t had his man’s hood removed?’ asked a girl.
‘When referring to the to the genitals you have to use terms like ‘nether regions’.’
‘Isn’t that where the Dutch live?’
‘Or to the ‘private parts’.’
‘It seems like they’ve gone more public these days.’
’‘I wouldn’t believe everything you read about onani’ I cautioned the class with a wink, ‘47 percent of statistics are made up.’.
‘O nani, o nani – nani – blue-o nani – blue,’ sang the class, reworking the Demis Roussos tune.
‘Hey Jack, you weren’t not singing along. You must have been playing with your ding dong.’
‘Let’s give him a standing ovulation.’
‘Watch him in the vestibule after the bell rings. Time for his afternoon delight.’
‘Look at him fidget. He can hardly wait for his sweet spot.’
‘Anticipation makes the hard-on longer.’
‘Anticipation can lead to let-down.’
Hey, Garry, are you a goer, eh? asked Frank. Know whatahmean, know whatahmean, nudge nudge, say no more?
‘I, uh, I beg your pardon?’ ‘Do you go, eh, Do you go?’ ‘I’m afraid I don’t follow you.’
‘Follow me. Follow me. That’s good, that’s good! A nod’s as good as a wink to a blind bat!’
‘You’ve been around. You’re a man of the world, Garry.’
’ ‘You could say that. I’ve been to Wagga Wagga and Woy Woy.’ ‘You’ve, uh…. You’ve ‘done it’….’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Well, I mean like,….you’ve done ‘you know what’.’
‘ I think so.’
‘What’s it like?’
‘It’s all part of God’s scheme. If he had intended us not to practise, he would have made our arms shorter.’
‘Pity those poor T-Rexes.’
‘It’s all about evolution. To free his hands for it is what motivated man to walk upright’.
‘How lucky we are that we can reach our genitals instead of that spot on our back that itches.’
’’Can shrinking that throbbing gristle be overdone? Can you end up with Portnoy’s Complaint?’’
When it comes to sexual activity, be respectful to all involved,’ I advised, ‘Do to yourself what you would do to others.’
‘I don’t know if I can wait that long. If I don’t get total tit soon, I’ll cut my throat. Sex is all I think about.’
‘Then be careful you don’t cut your hand!’
This boy was working his way towards his goal. He had so many love bites people thought he might have leprosy.
‘They say ‘Sex without love is a meaningless experience.’ ‘For me as far as meaningless experiences go, it’s sweet as.’
‘It must be hard for you boys’, replied one of the girls, ‘always poking fun at yourselves,’ said another, ‘or engaging in hand to gland combat.’
‘And so democratic, holding elections all the time. But what about us going through “the change”. You know, the mood swings, our body not being what they used to be, hair growing in places it never did. And at the age of thirteen we start to develop breasts.’
‘You beat us there. It has been scientifically proven. Girls reach the age of puberty earlier than boys. Boys develop them around the age of forty.’
‘Earlier if they use steroids.’
‘Let’s face it. We’re all changing. We can all get pimples, some more than others. My mate has so many, we grab him when we’re bored and play ‘Connect the Dots’. One day he fell asleep in the library. When he woke up, a blind man was reading his puss. He could feel something was going to happen to my mate. On his way home he was pulled over on his bike by the police. They told him it was a spot check. He admitted to two pimples and a boil.’
The topic came to when and why people have sex – “when it feels good,” offered one boy; “to get it over and done with,” countered a girl – to the impact of alcohol and, peer and partner pressure.
‘Sex must always be something you choose to do,’ I told them, ‘like everything else, it’s going to be better when you feel safe.’
‘Sir,’ said another student, ‘I read in Cosmopolitan that men reach their sexual peak at eighteen and women at thirty-five. Do you have the feeling that Mother Nature is playing another of her practical jokes? So, when we blokes are feeling frisky, confident and ready for a roll in the hay, the girls are in a valley with a headache. And when the late-blooming ladies are hitting the milestone in their thirties, us boys will prefer to go out to the pub than doin’ the deed. What’s the deal with these spikes?’
‘Conventional wisdom -and plenty of magazines- claim that men and women differ in the rates at which they mature and think about sexuality. If we are to look at hormonal levels alone, this is largely correct. In men, testosterone levels reach their apex around age 18 when they start petting and necking.’
‘Whoever named it necking was a poor judge of anatomy.’
‘On the other hand women’s estrogen -and fertility- hits a high-water mark during the mid- to late-20s. This hot and heavy stage of sexual maturity is known as the genital prime, because it’s when the body responds most quickly to arousal.’
‘So, is this when these late bloomers hit the sexual peak?’
‘Hitting a sexual peak—a common term for a period of sexual maturity, competence, and desire is actually a myth. It affects how we think about gender and sexuality. A person’s genital or hormonal peak isn’t the same as his or her sexual prime. In fact, it’s difficult if not impossible to predict or claim that a certain age comprises a sexual peak, because it’s different for every adult. Being at the top of one’s sexual game is much more complicated than the number of sperm in the tank or the ease with which one can get pregnant—sex is also psychological if you haven’t already gathered… Mental factors like body confidence, personal sexuality, feelings of intimacy and trust with a partner, libido, and knowledge of sexual preferences take time and experience to develop.
The idea that men and women have specific, but different, sexual peaks is pretty outdated. Regardless of hormonal maturity or concentrations, both men and women reach their sexual peak when they’re most comfortable with their own bodies and sexuality. And because hormones and relationships change throughout life, a so-called sexual peak can come at any time or age. Also, maintaining a healthy lifestyle can have a significant impact on sexual pleasure and performance. Regular exercise, a balanced diet, and not smoking can make psychological and physiological sexual peaks last longer.’
‘So how has this myth been kept going?’
‘You have to understand that back in the 1950s, women often weren’t considered sexual beings at all. Even in the present day, sexuality presents different social pressures and stigmas for different genders. Women may embrace their sexuality later than men because they are pressured to appear ‘innocent’ and ‘inexperienced’ in comparison to men. Think about the plot of most major romance novels. The perception that women across the board have lower sex drives than men, and that females are consequently less interested in sex, is both old-fashioned and potentially harmful. Expecting women to stay sexually inexperienced makes it difficult for them to control their own sexual development and become sexually fulfilled adults.’
‘They’re called sluts and molls if they follow their feelings, aren’t they.’
‘There’s talk about ‘bits of fluff’ who are a sure thing, easy to pick up. About one in particular. ‘Jingle Bells’. She’s looked down on just because the mood took her all the way.’
This girl of easy virtue has ‘been picked up so many times she’s starting to grow handles.’
‘She talked so slowly before she could say she wasn’t that kind of girl, she was.’
‘Elizabeth Taylor has at least done something for them. She’s built a halfway house for girls who don’t want to go all the way.’
‘Social pressures come to bear on them if they do.’
‘So this myth helps keep women down?’
‘The word ‘slut’ is used by males feeling left out. They’re just saying of a female ‘she’s chosen everyone else but me.’ Sexual stereotypes pose difficulties and pressures across the board, for men as well as women. Because men supposedly peak at age 18, many young male adults are expected to be “experienced”, which can create a culture of peer pressure for men to do the deed before they’re ready. For both men and women, buying into the idea of “sexual peaks” is a waste of time, if not outright damaging. The best way for a person of any gender to develop their sexuality, and reach that confusing “sexual peak”, is to cultivate a positive relationship with their body, their sexuality, and their partner—at any age.
Whether you call it a sexual peak, prime, or gold-star-worthy performance, everybody hits his or her stride in the bedroom department at some point. Exactly when this golden age happens is less certain—while our bodies may be more physiologically primed for baby-making at certain points in our lives, sexual peaks are more dependent on confidence and being comfortable in one’s body than on hormonal timetables.’
‘So it’s not Mother nature playing a joke on us but people’s ignorance.’
‘It’s still very difficult for many people to look at these matters rationally. It should be easy.’
After writing ‘Steroids’ on the blackboard, I asked the class,
‘What do you think about that?’
‘Remarkable,’ was one comment.
Very clever’, I replied. But I’m not talking about the blackboard. What are your thoughts on steroids?’
‘How do steroids affect the sex drive? My brother’s friend plays League. He says they can increase it as well as building extra muscle mass.’
His neck size is probably the same as his I.Q.’
‘Anabolic steroids are a synthetic version of testosterone, the male sex hormone responsible for the growth of long bones and muscle, and for masculine features such as facial hair and a deep voice. It does make the body stronger in the short run.’
‘That’s why Superman left Krypton. Earth was the only place he could get steroids.’
‘However, it is a popular misconception that taking steroids will guarantee a large physique,’ I continued. ‘Athletes do not need to resort to the use of steroids in order to get the rewards of working out. Many people obtain those rewards without ever using steroids. They keep themselves aware of new workout techniques and supplement a nutritious diet with regular exercise. Steroids simply are not a part of their diet.’
Some say steroids are addictive. Is there any truth in that?’
My brother’s friend, the League player says this is nonsense. He says he should know. He’s been taking them for years.’
He’s probably not fully aware of the long-term damage to his body. In any case it’s possible to achieve results, feel better and increase your confidence without steroids. It may take a little longer, but people who get fit without steroids feel proud of themselves and of their achievements. The muscles they build are theirs for keeps.’
‘What is the downside of steroids?’
Anabolic steroids are strong prescription drugs that have some dangerous side-effects. Some people get bad acne. Some get headaches and nosebleeds. Others have painful breast enlargement. Steroids can also stop bones from growing: If you’re a teenager, you may never grow to your full height – and there’s no second chance. Steroids affect your sex drive. For men, steroids can shrink your testicles and cause impotence (can’t get it up). Steroids affect your personality.’
‘Roid rage’ said one boy. ‘You can feel happy one minute and down the next.’
‘Right. You may become edgy, paranoid, even violent – an easy way to lose your family and your friends along with their respect.
Steroids threaten your life. Steroids can contribute to high blood pressure and high cholesterol levels – the leading causes of heart disease and the number one killer in North America. Steroids have also been linked to kidney disease and liver tumours. ‘Remember: Your body is your temple – Treat it with respect!
And like good Scouts, be prepared. Kids in the backseat cause accidents, accidents in the backseat cause kids’.
’And health problems too. What about the link between promiscuity and sexually transmitted diseases.’
‘Don’t let the little head do the thinking for the big head. About something that takes the least amount of time but can cause so much trouble. Don’t ruin your life for ten minutes of pleasure.’
‘How do you make it last ten minutes?’ asked one boy.
I read about this problem in Cosmo,’ said one girl. Men were asked to tell of their experiences here. All were too shy until this guy with a premature ejaculation problem eventually wrote in.’
‘Where was he coming from?’
‘He didn’t say. He came out of nowhere.’
One of the girls saved me the trouble of raising the matter of family planning. Tracy was aware how important it is to assist women at birth. With regard to population statistics, I told her class of a simple way to comprehend the rapid growth of newly born: ‘Somewhere on this globe, every ten seconds, there is a woman giving birth to a child.’ Tracy’s comment: ‘We must get to her beforehand and give her every support.’
After telling them everything I thought they always wanted to know about sex but were afraid to ask, I said: ‘Well, boys and girls, you heed what I told you. Now what do you say?’
One student called out: ‘Not bad, Sir. You got most of it right.’
‘Where do you get what you know about such matters?’ I asked him.
‘We pick up what we can from magazines and off telly and videos.’
Sex is everywhere on the airwaves. You can’t turn on your television without seeing it, although sometimes you have to hunt around.’
‘It’s been around a while now. I remember it on telly when I was in primary school.’
‘Oh, there’s so much nudity on TV, I just sit there shaking my fist.’
‘Lead us not into temptation. Just tell us when it’s on; we’ll find it,’ said another.’
I don’t like sex on television… I keep falling off.’
‘Try learning about it the hard way… from books.’
‘I’m told those acting on telly can now see you too. I’ll never watch ‘Number 96’ again,’ one boy said, referring to the T.V. series in which nudity was shown front and centre. ‘I’d be so embarrassed.’
Then I had a very nasty incident handling related matters with a junior class. A child asked me what AIDS was. Not knowing too much about this emerging scourge, I reported in a matter of fact way what was being written on the front page of the newspapers. The aforesaid head muggle put it to me bluntly that I had been ‘teaching buggery’. O fie! There was no telepathy with him.
My ship had finally came in, only to find pirates waiting at the docks.
It was then I realised what Oscar Wilde had meant. When you reach your target, you have to fight hard to hold onto it while some prig tries to strip you of it. In a commerce class, the fly in the ointment had been misbehaviour from a sassy young provocatrice which had seemed a closed book. It took a talk with her and her parents on teacher parent night for her to divulge that the head had told her behind my back I wasn’t qualified to teach the subject, my double major. He was having his way with me this underhand way so as to undermine my position.
This spelled trouble. Game on. Having been around the block enough times, I knew of the rough and tumble climbing this greasy pole but I didn’t expect anything so down and dirty. Things settled down with her after that but not my stomach, churned by this malicious head shyster, totally innocent of common courtesy getting at me all the time.
‘He has to learn what manners are,’ I said to the Principal. ‘A way of dealing with people you don’t agree with or like.’
‘You’ve just got to take the rough with the smooth’, the principal said.
‘You two just got off on the wrong foot.’
‘And it seems to be in his mouth.’
She then gave me a piece of unexpected news. I was being shifted to another school.I suddenly understood completely what ‘Loose Lips’ had been up to. His little game was to have me removed.
When I asked if I could discuss the destination on head office’s directive, the principal replied, ‘I’m afraid you have no choice as to where. This is no mail order catalogue.’
When I asked her, ‘What about about this matter with the head of department? Are[DW1] you just going to leave it there?’
Mr. Davis, ‘I’m sure you’ll come to agree with me, the less said about this, the better.’
‘Being lowest in the pecking order, there being no way to have it out, I was forcibly transferred to the next, Concord High School, to teach – wait for it – geography. Give me strength. Plus “slow learners’, science and a large load of mathematics. Here we go again. Back to square one. When would there be plain sailing for this factotum?
On the surface, there seemed no rhyme nor reason to this staffing system, merely bureaucratic tyre kicking. In the larger scheme of things, it did, of course, but it had little to do with the requirements of the public, those who foot the bill and prop up the bureaucracy.
I didn’t need to look at the sky to know where the rain was coming from.
At Bass Hill I had put down some of the heat that had been put on me to my writing my own notes, purged of the pervasive propaganda in the commerce and economics textbooks – the main being that every owner of resources in the ‘free enterprise’ system, whether they own a factory, cattle station or just their own labour is free to sell these equally. I saw the opportunity to teach less sugar-coated schlock in a more open-minded niche, closer to home, as a chance to get some latitude in what I could do, not having to worry about my paymaster’s reactions, to get such footling undermining minds off my back.
And I was very excited to teach science, the area in which I had invested so much time as a mature student. Harvest Time.
When Mr Chips is Down
I’m telling you beware, beware of the handshake that hides the snake. Listen to me now beware, beware of that pat on the back. It just might hold you back.Your enemy won’t do you no harm‘Cause you know where he’s coming from. Don’t let the handshake and the smile fool ya.Take my advice I’m only tryin’ to school ya.
[Whitfield and Strong: ’Smiling Faces Sometimes’]
The authorities had thrown down the gauntlet in the tasks they set me and the man for the job rose to the occasion, jumping through all the hoops. In rare form, extremely directed, poised for a strong showing, I was going great guns, doing the heavy lifting with elan, high-minded commitment, maturity, self-possession, and the sense of purpose that comes with being a father. This was my strong suit. When I was originally broken in as a fresh-faced novice in country town high schools, I saw the job as a ‘back-up’ position that would give me free time to work out my next move. Not a patch on what I would be capable of, I was rubber stamped as up to scratch, no sweat. But the gauntlet the authorities had in mind for me in this new proving ground was the other kind – the one you are tripped up and pounced on running through. There were upbraiding reprimanding reports. Niggling ones. There were ‘incidents’ and ‘accidents’. There were hints and allegations.
One battle axe took me to task for being five minutes late to sport duty. ‘You should have been here at 1:30!’
‘Why? What happened?’
‘What kept you, Mr. Davis? You must set a better example to the children.’
‘I had to stop a fight between two boys on the way here. I’m a mere mortal, not Apollo. The beneficent deity gave me two hands, not two wings.’
‘What an oversight,’ she replied tartly.
‘You could say the same thing about my oversight of professional courtesies here and I’m sure you do.’
Called on the carpet, driven up the wall, fair game, I had to attend constantly special cavilling sessions with some officials that would do any stalinist hacks proud, where they kept going on at me, stiltedly carping at my ‘inability to cope’. They couldn’t tell me to shape up or ship out as they couldn’t justify what they were doing professionally. These sessions proved a waste of time.
One asked me to see him after school one day. ‘Can you think of any reason you can’t come?’
‘I can’t right now, but I’m sure I will.’ There were plenty of reasons of course. We both had better things to do and this was a waste of public resources. I wanted to get home and correct homework.’
‘Well do your job properly so we don’t have to get someone to do it for you.’
What he had the last casual teacher filling in for me while I spoke to him was to get the students to copy pages from their textbooks. In silence of course.
Another time he said to me, ‘I don’t like this any more than you do. To tell you the truth I look on you as part of the family.’
‘Judging by the amount of time we spend together, I’ve expected you are going to adopt me.’
This official came up to me once and caught me in mid-sentence, saying, ‘—been making things difficult for some heads’.
‘Are you asking me, or telling me?’
He said, ‘‘We’re going to be seeing a lot of each other. Would you come and see me in my office in an hour’s time?’
‘Do you look any different there? Just want a little confab? Some grown up company?’
‘Your next class will be supervised by the casual teacher. I see you don’t approve of that.’
‘You’ve got it in one. How did you guess?’
‘Well do your job as required so we don’t have to get someone to do it for you.’
‘Please be prompt.’
‘I wouldn’t dream of leaving you alone for a minute longer. I imagine that while you can eat better, it can be lonely at the top.’
‘Here I am!’ I said, once in his office. ‘Now what are your other two wishes?’
‘May I ask you a personal question?’.
‘I can hardly wait. Go ahead.’
He said, ‘How long have you been teaching, Mr. Davis?’
‘You’ve got all my vital statistics in your staff records. Get to the point,’ I replied, fed up with this absurd pretence.
‘Do you know what your problem is, Mr. Davis?’
‘Don’t you start on me’, I thought. ‘Just don’t start on me.’
‘Certainly. I have to waste my time and yours here rather than teaching.’
‘A friendly word of advice. Don’t try too hard’, he said. ‘What do you say?’
He dropped in the room after the class assigned to me bracketed as ‘general activities’.
‘Wet enough for you? Not good for it, eh. Won’t do the geraniums a bit of good. They say we’re in for more heavy rain tomorrow.
‘Well you can’t argue with ‘they’, can you. ‘They’ seem to know everything. But you didn’t come here to tell me about the weather, did you.’
Mr. Davis, from what I know, you’re a man who looks at the situation, acts accordingly and asks, ‘What’s best for me?’
‘You’ve got something there. That’s why I aim my best to bring out the best in all my students.’
He proceeded to advise me the kind of donkey work to give them. ‘Keep it simple’, he said. ‘These laggards don’t have much upstairs. Genius does what it must, talent does what it can, and they had best do what they’re told. With them, it’s in one ear and out the other. Some are so slow they have to speed up to stop. I’d wish them good luck on their career path but they wouldn’t know what to do if they got it. None will ever be invited to join Mensa. When most took an IQ test, the results were negative,’ she said laughing. ‘Everyone is entitled to be stupid, but they have abused the privilege.’
‘Would the real teacher please stand up,’ I said.
‘You might think I’m a back number but you’re wasting your time trying to boost their intelligence. Our inheritance, our genetic endowment is overwhelmingly innate.’
‘I agree that genetics plays the significant part in our intelligence. At least half our intelligence is inherited. I don’t think any combination of determinacy and randomness can easily explain intelligence. However, a rigid insistence on its innateness acts as a developmental straitjacket or a prison cell. If you don’t get the right nurturing and access to health and education, you’re unlikely to develop your full potential. We each have the same cortex as every genius who ever lived-every great villain too. Every child has a greater potential to develop. As for the environment we can enrich it as we like.’
‘I know your ideas about this and I have my own. You might like to drop into my office to discuss them further. That’s what I’m here for.’
‘Just say the word. Now, where was I? Ah yes, enrichment. The earlier the exposure to an environment rich in intellectual stimulation the better.’
‘We don’t want it to be too loud, do we. What are your thoughts on this?’
“Personally I like things quiet but I don’t think silence is our paramount goal. We need room to move. A margin of tolerance. Many students can be compliantly quiet yet disengaged. A good learning environment can be quiet or noisy, but it’s one where all of the students are actually thinking about their work, wrestling with it and keeping up with their peers,’ I said. ‘We have to halt the widening of the IQ gap that accompanies adolescence. Racism, poverty and the teen culture of sexual conquest, hanging out at shopping malls, dressing sharply all significantly affect it. This subculture is less cognitively demanding. A high level of IQ can be a source of embarrassment for these kids. They hide their light under a bushel. Yet they can be anything they want. ‘The problem for them is getting them to believe it. IQ scores are not set in stone. Judging people using the analytic and verbal skills that IQ tests measure is way too narrow. There are children with ADHD who have high IQ’s.’
‘I don’t like the look of that sky,’ he said, looking anxiously out the window. ‘I’m not sure if the weather’s going to hold.’
‘Don’t tell me you’re taking refuge in the weather,’ I thought.…
‘There is more than one kind of intelligence,’ I went on. ‘In real life there’s no one who gives you a problem and says the answers are a, b, c or d. In real life you have to figure out what the problem is and then you have to figure out some of the alternative ways you can go about solving it. Then you have to figure out whether any of these solutions are any good. The best way to increase intelligence is to use it in everyday life. Intelligence is a lot like muscles. If you use your muscles, if you exercise them, you improve them. If you let it go, so too do your muscles. So too is it with our intelligence. ‘We have to cultivate their talents much greater.’
‘I’m afraid some people lack the capacity for that.
‘It’s a bit late in the day with this unresponsive lot. They’ll tell you themselves of their limits. There’s some real live ones amongst them. Just keep your charges happy and quiet. Monkey see, monkey do. They don’t need to think for themselves here. It’s all laid on for them.’
‘I’ll make a note of that.’
‘Easy does it. I’m looking to you to keep things in order. Just lead them by the nose. I’ll leave it in your capables.’
‘I hear you.’
‘And please don’t rearrange the seating for any improvised movement. We are not amused. It disturbs the childrens’ sense of structure.’
‘We needed to make space for break dancing, moon walking and doing the splits.’
‘One of your colleagues complained you didn’t put everything back together quickly enough.’
‘I believe I judged accurately when to place the furniture back. I had the timing right.’
‘Those kids in your charge don’t know what century they’re in. And you talk about timing.’
‘Next time we’ll move things back at exactly the right moment.’
‘Just think of what you’ve done. One of your boys tore his pants. That is unacceptable.’
‘I’m more concerned about what they’re learning rather than any sense of feng shui.’
‘Take your cue from your colleagues,’ he said, his hand on his cheek, ‘it will count well for you.’
‘Don’t worry,’ I replied. ‘I’ve been around long enough to pick up a few tricks of the trade. I know what’s what.’
‘I would thank you not to give them anything too complicated. It only messes with their heads. You won’t do it again, will you.’
‘Don’t worry. I’ve got it covered.’
‘They can’t fully think for themselves. A good teacher needs to know this.’
‘A good teacher’s got to know his limitations, hasn’t he.’
I had approached such children as would Mr. McKenzie, the English teacher in the British TV series ‘Hearts and Minds’. You can see him in action in episode two. With limited resources but limitless enthusiasm and imagination. In one scene he subjects his pupils to a frenzied interrogation. He wants them to describe a visit to a chip shop but he isn’t satisfied with the bland responses he’s getting. What noises can they hear, he asks? Exactly what noises? What do the chips feel like in their hands? Who else is in the shop?
Slowly the children grasp what’s required of them and oblige with growing excitement, a chorus of suggestions which creates a chip shop as you listen, from the babble of the wall-mounted telly to the frizzle of wet chips going into the fryer.
‘Don’t get me wrong,’ this official told me during another of our sessions, ‘Would it be that hard for you to get other kind of work? Surely someone like you could think of such a move as a re-birth, as self-renewal. And please don’t misunderstand me, I’m only trying to help you.’
‘I’ve heard that one before.’
‘I’m trying my best to do you a favour.’
‘Well do me a favour. Don’t do me any favours.’
‘Is all this trouble worth it, Mr. Davis?’
‘What do you think? That I’m a masochist. That I can suffer fools gladly? What do you want to know? If I have endured all this hassling enough to want to keep going?’
‘Mr. Davis, I’m given a policy. I’m paid to marshal my staff. I do what I’m paid to do. You might do the same. I’m not responsible for what head office decides.’
‘It’s not you, it’s not your predecessors. I wonder who the hell I’m talking to sometimes.’
‘I contemplated the sign on the road near the school. It read,’ Slow– Children.’
‘That can’t be good for their self-esteem.’ I said to another teacher.
‘You have to look at it on the positive side. Some can’t read it.’
I felt sorry for another official at Concord. It stood out a mile she was feeling a right proper charlie at the cringeworthy hatchet job she was put up to. ‘We need to talk, Mr. Davis,’ she told me one day.
We need to talk actually means, ‘I need to talk, You’d better listen.
‘We’ve got to stop meeting like this,’ I greeted her to no avail. ‘People are going to start talking.’
I grew accustomed to her face. There were awkward moments of silence as she tugged at her lower lip with the thumb and forefinger of her hand.
‘This is the hardest part of my job,’ she declared when trying to justify this idiocy.
Would you like me to give you a hug?’ I replied, ‘you must be under a great strain.’
‘Just biorhythms. Now I just want to know, Mr. Davis, what are your goals?’
‘ I try to encourage students to think for themselves, to question standard positions, to question what they read, to question everything.’
‘So they will arrive at the truth?’
‘ I tell them, ‘You have to put yourself out, seek the truth and take what comes from it.’
‘And what advice do you give them?’
‘ I advise them ‘You have to draw the connections between things yourselves rather than rely on others to do it for you.’
I tell them, ‘Don’t take assumptions for granted. Both in nature and in society, there’s more than meets the eye. Begin by taking a sceptical attitude toward anything that is conventional wisdom. Make it justify itself. It usually can’t. Question everything including what is taken for granted.’
‘You’re trying to produce free thinkers-at age 16?!
Why not? It’s time for their generation to inherit the earth.’
‘The meek shall inherit the earth -if that’s all right with the rest of you,’ she said laughing.
‘What’s so funny about peace, love and understanding?’
‘I appreciate your spirit but this is not Nimbin. The hippy era elsewhere has been supplanted by harder edges, misanthropy and cynicism. Many people now are having to work round the clock or not at all.’
‘We have to investigate why this has happened. Children should never be afraid to ask important questions.’
‘Such as why should we take it to be obvious that if I let go of a ball, it goes down and not up? Learning comes from asking, “Why do things work like that? Why not some other way? Believe nothing without reliable proof and evidence. Try to think things through for yourself, putting two and two together. Look for more findings that tie in with what you already know. You’ve got plenty at hand to get a line on more. You’ve got to learn how to appraise, get the measure of, and compare it with other things. At the same time, you’ve to take some things on trust or you can’t get by. When a physicist tells you that there are over a billion stars in the universe, you can believe them. If someone tells you there is wet paint somewhere, you don’t have to touch it to make sure. But if there is something significant and important don’t take it on trust.’
‘And what if they disagree?’
‘I invite them to have a discourse. I say to them, ‘Take the opportunity to make your case. We’re all open to hearing your arguments.
If they’re valid and you persuade us, I’m sure we’d all be willing to change our minds.’
‘Don’t you think they’ve got enough to think about what with the large body of knowledge they have to remember for exams?
‘We shouldn’t be on about getting students to memorise and regurgitate masses of facts and figures but getting them to think critically and communicate respectfully with others.
Our knowledge of the world is always changing. Just when you think you know something, you have to look at it another way.
As you investigate a matter more deeply, step by step, each step leads to a new discovery. You have to peel back the surface layers of things to find what lies inside.’
‘I get them to cut open golf balls as I speak,’ I told her, ‘ to find the little bag of rubber inside. They enjoy that.’
The world is a very puzzling place.’ I tell them. If you’re not willing to be puzzled, you just become a borrowed voice, a replica of someone else’s mind.’
‘Hello?! Do you really think you can get children to understand that?’ she said, hemming and hawing, pulling her thumbs.’
‘It’s not so much children who I have difficulty with.’
‘Don’t you realise that you’re stirring them up when you talk to them like that?
‘I’m only activating what’s already there laying dormant.’
‘If you question everything, what’s to prevent them from doing the same? You’ve advised them not to conform, not to be like lemmings.
‘Actually these are the words I’ve employed to urge them to be independent minded. ‘Boys and girls, if you don’t run your own life, somebody else will.
You must strive to find your own voice. Because the longer you wait to begin, the less likely you are to find it at all. The American writer Thoreau said, ‘Most men lead lives of quiet desperation.’ Don’t be resigned to that. Break out!’
‘They will take that literally. You’re giving them the green light to muck up. We have to protect our children from certain concepts that they are too young to understand.’
‘Their parents support me in this.’
‘I believe you’ve met with some to discuss their children‘s progress. This is not a pizza delivery service. If they want to find out about their children they should make an appointment to see me here.’
‘I went to the home of John Altomare to talk about their son. They were very welcoming to me. He promised in front of them to apply himself better to his schoolwork. He has come through on this.’
‘You realise you have ignored and countermanded direct, explicit and specific orders to the contrary.’
‘I think we have to communicate more with the community. The parent teacher night is inadequate. You know, the way it is, we’re very much under a hermetically sealed bell jar. We’re very much out of touch with what’s happening there.
‘Unsanctioned contact between probationary teachers and parents is strictly forbidden. It’s a breach of conduct. It can lead to all kinds of legal complications.’
‘I’m sorry. I wasn’t aware of that. No one ever mentioned that.’
‘Well I am now.’
‘Message received. The next time I consider that I will ask for approval beforehand.’
‘You just leave contact with parents to myself and our executives. If you see them as you cross the street, say hello and confine it to that. They’re not your concern. Here’s a thought. Why don’t you try teaching in a denominational or private school?’
‘I’d feel as out of place there as a left-handed violinist in a crowded string section. I have no desire to teach over-privileged children or lie about my lack of religious commitment.’
‘Well isn’t that precious. If you can’t cut it, lay low on your ideas. The problems they raise won’t solve themselves. Maybe your talent lies in another direction. If you want to cultivate your emotions, maybe you should try something else to make a living.’
‘I have to make a living but I’m also interested in living. ‘
‘Sometimes the wrong turns in life bring us to the right place.’
’I’m here not by chance but from conviction, I am never going to be anything else, okay? That boat sailed years ago.’
‘Look, get this straight. We’re not the keepers of some sacred flame. There’s no heroics involved in teaching here. Just pick and shovel work. We’re here to help the kids along, nothing more. Check through the ‘Wanted’ ads. Your best days may well be ahead of you. If you’ve got a strong itch you can’t scratch, press on to pastures new. You should go far.’
‘Yes, and the sooner the better as far as you’re concerned’, I thought, replying, ‘I do what I have to do. And this doesn’t include handing in my notice if that’s what you’re after.’
Judging by her furrowed brow, I was flying in the face of the done thing. To churn out like link-sausages obedient, docile working stiffs, people just smart enough to keep the machines humming and just ‘dumb’ enough to passively, apathetically accept jobs with lower pay, longer hours, reduced benefits and the end of overtime. To keep them slavishly adhering to superficial values, busy chasing shiny things, fuelling endless fires of consumerism. Getting dressed in clothes that they buy for work and driving through traffic in a car that they are still paying for – in order to get to the job they need to pay for the clothes and the car, and the house they leave vacant all day so they can afford to live in it. To render them susceptible to advertising’s empty cycle of acquisition, unable to focus on important social matters and obsessing about trivialities that lead to debt and a deep dissatisfaction with their lives and bodies. To indoctrinate them with Corporate Stockholm Syndrome on behalf of the owners.
If I couldn’t oblige, I was expected to come around to their point of view, roll over, fold like a cheap accordion and chuck it in. I stood my ground keeping focussed on my work at hand.
‘Look, let me put it another way. I do what I am.’
‘You mean you are what you do.’
‘That too. But really, I mean I do what I am. We’re born with a gift. It’s what we’re put on earth to do. If not that, then we get good at something along the way. And what we’re good at, we can’t take for granted. We can’t betray it. If we do, we betray ourselves.’
‘All right, all right, all right, have it your own way’, she said, clearing her throat, ‘but get real. We’ve been over this again and again. Let me explain it once more in simple terms. The Department is well disposed to the idea of tradition. It believes this has proven it’s worth over the years. It likes things to stay the way they are.’
‘So I’ve noticed.’
‘It likes it when personnel fall naturally into line. It works for us. You’ll see that eventually. Don’t waste your time whistling in the wind. Climb, prosper and expand the gene pool. Be more pragmatic, less purist for your own protection. Cool it til the ink on your permanency agreement is dry. Know your limits. Know your place.’
‘I know. As a lowly subaltern.’
‘Let me put it another way. Your assigned position is an entry level one. It’s not a springboard for promotion. The door to advancement opens only from the inside. Let its officials think better of you, that you’re on their side, be noncommittal. Do you think you could do that? I know this goes against every instinct but it doesn’t do to act otherwise. Play along with them. Get yourself in their good graces. Let them rule a line under your name-not through it.’
‘Are you talking to me?’ I asked, looking around the office, ‘or is there someone else in here?
‘What do you mean?’
‘What do you take me for? Do you honestly expect me to compromise my principles about this? I can’t go for that.’
‘To be a man of principle is one thing. But a man doesn’t cut his throat on principle. I’m just asking you to co-operate. In return the Department takes care of everything. It looks after its own. And all it asks of anyone, all it’s ever asked of anyone ever, is not to interfere with management decisions. This is how things work. Take it from someone who knows. There’s a way we do things hallowed by usage, consecrated by time.’
‘Trapped in amber. How do you know it’s not time for a change? There’s a first time for everything surely.’
‘Why now of all times? Why here of all places?’
‘Times have changed. We need to move with the times, not be in variance with them. How we work is outmoded.’
‘And your suggestion is plain out. We don’t need anybody to tell us the time.’
‘Surely this choice location is an obvious place to start. And doesn’t any request for some flexibility have to go through you. Surely the Department could get off my case and accord approval for all the children to enjoy school?’
‘And what do you want for your next two wishes?’
‘Don’t you think a principal would be able to press successfully for this? Isn’t that your call?’
‘Fiddle-de-dee. Do you know what my fellow principals would call putting forward such a demand?
‘No, you’ve got me there?’
‘Early retirement. You know how it is.’
‘No I don’t know how it is. Here and now would be a great opportunity.’
‘Or it’s opposite. You understand me. I haven’t been with the Department all these years for nothing. Let well enough alone. Be your age.’
‘Then I shouldn’t be treated like a child. No one tucks me in at night. I’m not afraid of the dark. I blow my own nose and even go to the bathroom by myself. I can eat peas with a fork. I haven’t had a pimple in years. I’ve got body hair and all and shave every morning. I’m no longer Mummy’s little boy.’
‘You can be flippant if you’re well established. You can’t be unknown and be so full of confidence.’
‘I’m not exactly brimming over with it.’
‘There comes a time in our lives when we have to follow principles that are bigger than us. Bigger than all our small ambitions put together. You’re looking at forty, I see.’
‘What about it?’
‘You’d do well to think of tomorrow. What are the odds of you getting what you say you want? Haven’t you already thought of that? Make it easy on yourself. Do I need to draw you a picture? You’re starting on the ground floor. If you want a big tick on your CV, if you don’t want to be up for the high jump, it’s best you keep to your allotted place.’
‘Did I stutter? There’s no second slot for you to be pushed back to. Not even an Irish promotion in the offing. You’re taking your life into your own hands.’
‘Is that so? Then I’ll keep a tight grip on it.’
‘You don’t want to be like some poor old actor and be dragged literally off the stage, do you? You keep insisting you want to further develop the concept of the comprehensive school. I’m not expecting you want to throw it all away.’
‘Nor am I. Once you break the tradition of the common desegregated school you create classes in society – the elite who are ‘clever’ and the rest who are taught to put up, shut up and do what they’re told.’
‘No disrespect intended but you just don’t get it. Can’t you take a hint? Your unorthodox methods have attracted the attention of the more traditionalist. It’s all your own doing. The trick to survival in the Department is going unnoticed. Not drawing attention to yourself.’
‘You mean running with the crowd.’
‘You weren’t appointed as a new broom. Don’t go getting fancy ideas. You can’t expect to waltz in from cloud cuckoo land and the system to adapt to them.’
‘They’re not that complicated. I only want to engage the students. I’m not trying out for an Oscar or to re-invent the wheel.’
‘You don’t know how things work here.’
‘Yes I do. Just like everywhere. I’m the worker bee, you’re the queen.’
‘You should think better your position. Ask yourself if you’re the right man for it. Things could get very complicated.’
‘Things are never simple.’
‘And so it goes. Listen, things won’t change on your say-so. It will go hard with you otherwise. Needs must, you know. We can’t stop our wheel turning for anyone. If you go against it, you’ll see what happens.’
‘And what is that? Sparks flying?’
‘Worse than that. I’ll tell you what you’ve got to face up to. You won’t just get passed over for promotion. Don’t spit in the face of your future. It’s as well to be forewarned.’
‘I’ll take my chances.’
‘Please yourself. On your own head be it. You have no guarantee of continued tenure. There are plenty of Chinese teachers who’d love to work here. Do I have to spell it out? I’d advise you to tread lightly-and that’s flat. I urge you to see sense over this or down goes you and your career. Anyway, suit yourself. If that’s the way you want it.’
‘That’s the way I want it.’
‘Then that’s the way it is. Now have a nice day.’
‘I have other plans.’
She would just have to like it or lump ‘it’. Whatever this nebulous ineffable ‘problem’ of excess was that they didn’t want to go into, that couldn’t be openly addressed. That could only be side-tracked. What more did they want me to say?
Utterly engrossed in my work, blinded by natural contrarian optimism, refusing to be worn down. Like the man asked as he was falling many floors down the side of the tall building, “How’s it going?”, I would have answered: ‘So far, so good!’ I was deaf to the increasingly persistent ugly rumblings of the edcons, the educational conservatives: ‘The user pays- Cut the fat! The user pays-Cut the fat!’
Never letting up, the only scope they had in mind was that guiding their aim. The firing line. The problem with trouble shooting is that trouble shoots back. I was being issued with a verbal cease and desist order. For all my trouble, you might have expected them to come around and cut me some slack. No siree! Just as things were looking up and I was on a roll, picking up steam, getting into full stride, fast tracking it to the top, I was lumped and rolled. Landsakes, these pikers shot me down. To help their aim in this open season, they had the tailwind at their back. I knew then which way it was blowing. To help their aim in this open season, with me the sitting duck. For ammo they chose default accusations which they direct at anyone trying to exert any degree of improvement.
In my brochure I draw attention to comments made about my teaching practice by the principals of the schools where I worked in Sydney. These comments reflect the image of the exemplary yeoman, top of his game, I aimed to be, or at least that of a competent professional, who’s applied himself to his finicky craft, dotted his i’s and crossed his t’s, gone by the numbers. I prepared my work well and all students had to was get on with it. That can’t be bad. In my résumé these bona fides conferred a certain certified cachet on me, I felt, that no one can take away. I thought they would have spoken for themselves. However, as well as a good word put in for me, other negative nitpicking potshots were taken after a pernickety inspector’s visitation. He had gone in hard, tying me a gordian knot. His audit was brief, superficial and a mere formality. The inspector had spent all the time at the back of the class with a clipboard making notes which were never shown to me. There was no follow-up action of the quibbling inspection reports with the result that the very purpose of the inspection seemed to have been defeated. Not so. It was never discussed with me but it led to me being declared unsatisfactory.
A whole year after waiting anxiously for a reply to my response to this evaluation, the principal approached me hesitatingly with a letter. I hoped expected it would be one of approval setting out how my recommended ideas could best put into operation. ‘to stop someone worrying, usually by giving that person information that they have been waiting for: to stop someone worrying, usually by giving that person information that they have been waiting for: Come on, don’t be shy,’ I said to her. ‘Put me out of my misery.’
Instead, the letter put me deep into it, informing me of my new status. Not suspended, not stood down indefinitely, not benched, not held in abeyance, assigned to other duties, placed on administrative or sabbatical leave. No rap over the knuckles like for Detective Harry Callahan, placed on modified assignment, told to take time off or a vacation until things ‘cooled down’, whatever ‘things’ were in my case. I was given no grace to allow my defence. Obstructed by the dead hand of officialdom, I was surplus to requirements. What I was being effectively told was ‘That’s your lot. Stand aside! Take the rest of your life off! Go to hell, don’t pass ‘Go’, don’t collect superannuation, don’t bloody well come back!
“School failed me, and I failed the school. It bored me. The teachers behaved like Feldwebel (sergeants). I wanted to learn what I wanted to know, but they wanted me to learn for the exam. What I hated most was the competitive system there, and especially sports. Because of this, I wasn’t worth anything, and several times they suggested I leave.”
If you’re ridin’ ahead of the herd, take a look back every now and then to make sure it’s still there.
Standing on the shoulders of this giant, my head above the parapet, I felt the floor open under me. I had been issued a summary dismissal.
It hit me between the eyes to the General I was a cipher, not worth the candle, a misfitting cog in this machine designed to obliterate individuality and free will. A bit of grit to be chewed up and spat out. Someone to take the fall. To be made an example of. Receiving short shrift, cutting the niceties, without so much as a thank you, I was allowed just enough time to clear out my desk.
‘There must be some mistake,’ I told the principal. ‘I’ve seen my duties through without exemption. Someone has a lot of explaining to do.’
‘The Director-General is no mistake,’ she said. ‘He’s the consequences. If he thinks he has just cause, he doesn’t have to explain anything.’
‘Just how democratic is that? Isn’t any organisation dependent on all the numbers that make it up? Aren’t we all numbers of equal value?’
‘He’s only a number here too. But he’s Number One.
Everything goes through him.
He’s not just anyone. He’s untouchable. He’s not on the same level as you or me. He’s way, way above your pay grade. He has the ultimate say who teaches in the system.
His word is law, as binding as a papal bull. Absolute, final and clean cut. I can’t make it go away. It is what it is.You have to leave with immediate effect. Once he makes a decision, that’s it. It’s binding. It’s not up for discussion. Unless you know something I don’t, what he says goes. You don’t get to vote on this.’
‘Who exactly did get to vote on this?’
‘The Department has its own constituency. You don’t dare go against it.’
‘Are you threatening me?’
‘I’m cautioning you. It’s a fight you won’t win if you force its hand. I don’t like all this any more than you. It’s not what I wanted. But it’s what it has to be. It’s not optional. I’m sorry.’
‘Try putting that in a sentence.’
‘I’m sorry it had to turn out this way. I’m a teacher too. It goes against the grain. I’ve got my principles.’
‘Yes, and if people don’t like them, you’ve got others. Well, there it is. Just one of those things.
‘It’s just like that. I can only say I’m sorry.’
‘That’s very noble of you. But what about this kind of sorry ? Sorry the whole school knows what a big lie has been told about the staff and students?’
‘It’s not like that.’
‘No, how is it then?’
‘You don’t have to take it this way. I’m on your side.’
‘Until you’re not,’ I said to myself.’
Listen, don’t look at me like that. With matters like yours I die a little inside but I live to fight another day. I had no choice.’
‘You always have choice in these matters. You just made the wrong one.’
‘I’m just doing my job. There have been pressures. I tried my best to challenge their decision. It’s nothing personal.’
‘I call that personal’
‘I’m only trying to show you how things are.’
‘Maybe I don’t like the way things are.’
‘You lost your job because of your ego. Instead of subordinating it to the habits of others you had to be cock of the walk.’
‘That’s not true but you can say that if it makes you feel better.’
‘Look at what you made them do. You’ve got too much to prove. You put your belief in your intelligence and your vanity project above everything else. You were too sure of your abilities. That’s what this is about.’
‘Listen, if I want to be analysed, I’ll pay for it.’
‘Just accept it, Mr. Davis. It’s for the best. Everything happens for a reason,’
‘You really think there’s some pre-ordained chart floating around the ether with our fate all figured out. That this action against me is some test sent down by the universe. But it’s not. Things happen because human beings make choices. They commit acts and that makes things happen. This can have a snowball effect causing others to make decisions. The cycle continues, the snowball keeps rolling.’
’You’ve no one to blame but yourself. You should have resigned when you had the opportunity.’
‘For me to resign when I’ve given all to my work is abhorrent to every instinct in my body. I’m not going to bend over for anybody just to make their job easier.’
‘You can’t say that.’
‘I just have.’
‘It’s out of my hands now. My contract to advise you has run out. I’ve got no room to manoeuvre on your behalf. Instructions are instructions, It’s not up to me. I don’t have any hotline to the Director-General. You’ve got your troubles, I’ve got mine. Don’t make this any more painful than it has to be. The most I can do for you is offer you a short-term subscription to the ‘Herald’. They have the best ‘Classifieds. You deserve it. It’s the least I can do for you.’
‘Rest assured I know you’re doing the least. It’s the least you deserve. Don’t bother palming me off. I’ll be taking this forward. The Federation, my local member and the whole community shall hear of this. They’ll have something to say about it. I’ll make sure of that.’
‘You do just that. .For your sake I hope it’s worth it. But don’t worry…You show quickness of mind. You’ll land on both feet. You’ve got a great future—but not here. Now move on deal with and get over it. Enjoy your downtime. Make the most of it. ‘
‘I know. Go on, say it. A change is as good as a holiday. Think of it as a chance to spend more time with your children. Think of it as a time of reflection.’
‘Just a parting question. From a personal perspective just tell me one thing. What’s the going rate for selling your soul? How do you do it ?’
‘You know what Mr. Davis, sometimes I wonder myself.’
Having studiously avoided courting controversy or rocking any boat, I had nevertheless become a lightning rod for negative reactions, ones that distracted attention away from my detractors. If it wasn’t one thing, it was another. I was under fire.
It was alleged that the students in my classes were violent and unruly. Well fancy that! I had used every trick in the book to occupy any restless minds. Most conversation was pitched low. I emphasized self-control. I couldn’t fault their behaviour.
‘Read my ellipse, Tracy. I desire average solutions by means and extremes. So leave your ‘Boy George’ magazine at home. You might think him sharp, that his angle is acute one, that he’s the x factor. You might think you have his number. You might think that like parallel lines, you and him have a lot in common. However, I assure you that like these lines you and him will never come together. There are sines that he’s an odd number. And stop drawing hearts around pictures of boys you fancy. “Draw a circle around the one you love because a heart can break but a circle goes on forever.’
‘You can define a circle, I hope, Tracy. A circle is a round straight line with a hole in the middle.’
When I brought a pile of graph paper to class she asked, ‘Are you plotting to get us drawing curves?’
‘Having studiously avoided courting controversy or rocking any boat. My standard introduction to any class with reputedly difficult children went along the following lines: ‘Good morning, girls and boys [or ‘ladies and gentlemen’ depending on their age], my name is Mr. Davis. You may call me that or ‘Sir’ if you so wish. This is my first session with you and I don’t intend it to be my last. If any of you wish to challenge me, I suggest you do it now.’ Then after the pause for this to this sink in, ‘Good, that settles it. I’m a fair man but don’t be under any illusions. I’ve got eyes in the back of my head. I see everything. I hear everything. My main concern is that when you’re in this room, you learn what you’re supposed to. You may ask me any questions you like. I will try and answer them. If I can’t I will say so. Do I make myself clear?’
I ran the room like an orchestra conductor with me at the helm getting the students who picked up things quickest to help the slower ones catch up. This meant they could move freely and give me their undivided best. No one in the corridor peering through the classroom’s door windows had ever come in to read any Riot Act. Those observing the ‘mayhem’ either chose to let it go, or through their charismatic powers claimed they could halt it simply through their surprise look-in followed by a smug ‘I should think so!’ Not surprisingly any group of hormonally charged fidgety scamps are going to mind their p’s and q’s and hold back from mucking around when an authority figure is briefly in their presence.
Authorities pinned the cause of the ‘disturbances’ – of which I was said to be ‘oblivious’ – on my ‘vague’ questioning technique. As if roughhouse hellions would be riled by vague questions! As the slugs, slings and arrows rained fast and thick, I sat tight, keeping my head down decorously, unphased, wrapped up in my work, on the back foot, sticking to the business at hand, dodging the bullets, riding out the battery. Cutting to the chase, I answered at great length, admittedly in a candidly dismissive tone with thinly-veiled contempt, a welter of preposterous trumped-up charges along similar lines. Blind Frieda could have picked holes in them.
Never having issued any skerrick of complaint, I set about pointing out deficiencies and weaknesses in operations and stressing the need for corrective measures. To smooth out the humps and bumps. I believed the matter would have been handled in-house. I recommended that all the children be encouraged to read and write, that they keep their eyes glued to books to avoid distractions. I said to the principal: ‘Far be it from me to tell you what to do, but don’t you think this would serve as a means to obviate any funny business?’
‘Mr. Davis, Never you mind about that. There’ll be no stopping the presses. Our books are about right and they’ll do. In fact, they’re more than adequate. A good craftsman never blames his tools. As for your pupils, there’s one duffer born every minute. Not everyone wants to drink in the fountain of knowledge.’
‘You can talk!’ I thought. ‘You’ve only had a light gargle.’
‘Do you really think all those we have are up to learning reading and writing properly? If they haven’t picked it up by now, it’s too late. They’ve only got themselves to thank.’
‘Surely it’s down in part to the way they learn and reproduce knowledge. Their exam results don’t do them justice.’
‘That’s what you think. This is not a holiday camp. You can’t pick and choose. You just follow your instructions. Leave the decision making to us. Your job is to keep your eyes on these kids at all times, to keep them in line-to see they don’t walk all over you.’
‘Heavens above! We wouldn’t want that to happen, would we?’
You’ve got to lay down the law. Sit on them at all times. You can’t be too careful.’
‘What, is the sky going to fall because they’re engaged looking at books rather than at me?
I had been directing my comments to her mainly about the general activity class. With these children I had to work through a watered-down version of the academic stream’s curriculums. Although the problem with many was difficulty in concentrating, hard and fast regulations required that after I had settled them down to working in one subject, with the bell I had to start again and settle them into another subject. No allowance was made for their difficulty in concentration. The rigid airtight compartmentalization of knowledge was totally inappropriate. One boy in this class was a football junkie. He had little to say if the subject moved beyond rugby league.
When I handed out copies of a book, he took one look and turned his nose up at it. It didn’t have anything to do with league on the front.
‘Don’t judge a book by its cover,’I urged him.
‘I should be so lucky’, he said, I can’t read even that much.’
I informed the class one day about news from the Prime Minister. ‘Bob Hawke has announced “Advance Australia Fair” as the official national anthem.’
‘Who’s Bob Hawke?’ asked the boy.
He’s our captain and one of the forwards.’ I explained.
The boy was interested in one thing and one thing only. Rugby League.
‘My mum is unhappy about it’, he said. She said I love rugby league more than I love her. That hurts. We’ve been a family thirteen seasons.’
He thought he was intelligent enough to go up to a mainstream class but needed to broaden his horizons.
‘No matter how good you think you are, you can’t skip reserve grade and go straight into first grade. And if you can’t be convinced otherwise, then you go and get an early shower.’
Of course this sport ties in with everything, especially in N.S.W., but unless that everything was on their current curriculum, it was considered off-side.
‘They’re here to follow orders, not to have fun.’ I heard tell several times.
These restrictions led to them being a bit toey and taking it out on each other. One of the boys accused by another of stealing his pen defended himself saying, ‘You can’t prove nothing’. When the accuser became angry and threatened to flatten the alleged thief, the latter said he’d get his mates to defend him.
‘You and what army? You don’t know no one.’
I explained to them, ‘We all understand what you’re saying but grammatically you’re both wrong. Both of you have ended up saying the opposite of what you want to say. In English, a double negative forms a positive.
‘What you,’ I said addressing the accused boy mean to say is, ‘You can’t prove anything.’
‘What you,’ I said addressing the accuser, ‘mean to say is “You don’t know anyone”.’
‘If it’s the case that they’re both wrong,’ commented one of the girls, ‘do two wrongs not make a right?’
‘We’re talking about the rules of grammar here. The truth of what happened to the pen is another matter. As I’ve explained to you a double negative in maths is acceptable but best avoided in English.’
‘What about a double positive in grammar?’ asked the girl.
‘In no language in the world can a double positive form a negative, I explained.
Then a voice from the back of the room piped up, ‘Yeah, right.’
Unable to keep up with the academic stream, these children tended to give up trying. One G. A. student said glumly ‘I’ve failed maths exams so many times, I can’t count’.
Such children need to be exposed to the best of popular culture, to talk and write about what interests them, and to learn the curriculum content in a non-academic way. What they were left with was an academic qualification hardly worth the paper it was written on, and an abiding loathing of school. Most teachers want to avoid being lumped with such children but cannot. How to lighten this millstone around teachers’ necks led to the germ of my brainwave for change taking shape in substance.
Not taking no for an answer, keeping my powder dry, I first believed that defending my practice would be a piece of cake. I had followed instructions to the letter, working out everything to the last comma and decimal point, punctiliously and voluminously recording every extraneous transaction and any misdemeanour that occurred in class and having them countersigned by those involved with their agreement. As it turned out, defending my practice became a slice of life.
We pay for what we say and my tab had become overdue.
Set in their ways, the school executive wasn’t a scrap interested in discussing my ideas let alone allowing me to run with them. In raising them I had laid myself wide open to attack. My creative licence was revoked. Pulling rank, they left me holding the baby, dropping the problem of school discipline right in my lap.
‘Look upon this as a good career move’, said one head of department as I was leaving the building. Clean break, pastures new. I expect your talents will be equally appreciated elsewhere.’
‘Well, you can’t keep a good man down, can you.’
The first order of business was to take things up with the Staff Inspector. He pencilled me in for an early morning appointment. This was put on the shelf as in the words of his secretary, he was in ‘the middle of something’. After having me wait an hour, Greatness called me.
‘Mr. Davis, sorry to keep you waiting — these committee meetings, they just go on and on.’
I refrained from saying to him, ‘You know what, Your Superfluous Excellency? At Auburn Girls High they called departmental committees ‘ a dozen bureaucrats doing the work of one.’
‘Now I’m given to understand you’re very upset about this decision’, he said.
‘ ‘Upset’ doesn’t begin to cover it. I’ve been put in a terrible place.’
‘Mr. Davis, It may come as a surprise to you that in the Department we instil discipline – we don’t dispense with it. Still less do we expect our staff to criticize their heads of department.’
‘I don’t consider drawing attention to a head running me down to students inappropriate. I took it up with the principal.’
‘You probably feel you have been unjustly treated and discriminated against.’
‘This is your line of argument and you’ve leaned hard on it. However, let me draw attention to your organization – or lack of it.’
‘Have you actually taken time to look at the details of these accusations?’
‘I cannot confirm nor deny them. What I will say is that believe it or not classroom management is essential for orderliness. A teacher’s only as good as his classroom management. A teacher’s practical skills for handling a classroom are probably more important than knowledge of the subject he’s teaching. You failed to implement sanctions to deter students from disrupting the learning environment.
‘Go on, be vague, accusatory, whatever sticks. Is that how it works?’
‘You failed to prevent such behaviour occurring in the first place. Let me be unambiguous. This lowered the tone and reflected unfavourably on the Department’s image. Procedures only work if we follow them every time. This is a matter of maladjustment. If your apparent management is anything to go by, we have no reason to believe you’d ever turn your game around.’
‘Isn’t this where you’re supposed to say, ‘We regard your attitude as something to be desired but also as a sign of intelligence and independent thinking. Like any large organisation what we need are other perspectives, because we know that in those are insights and nuggets we don’t want to be without. We’re going to give you now a better chance to show us what you can really do?’
‘Mr. Davis, ’ he said taking an antique timepiece out of a drawer, ‘this fob watch has long been in my family. It was passed to me by my grandfather on his deathbed.’
‘He sold you this when winding up his estate? You wrote a post-dated cheque?’
‘It was a gift. A hand-me-down. Providing I respect it and look after it, it keeps perfect time.’
‘I wouldn’t trust it. One hand is shorter than the other.’
‘All I have to is wind it up and this piece of peerless, miniature engineering takes care of itself. in “the pursuit of perfection. Each particular spring and wheel has a particular duty and function to perform, everything working together in harmony and integration. You can imagine the Department working like this, as an enormous watch. It operates with a definite rhythm and purpose. If you tamper with it’s mechanism, you interfere with the arranged order of things. Otherwise, it works precisely. Tried, true and trusted.
‘The same exact unchanging movements over and over again’, I said, saving him the trouble. ‘Perfectly designed to get the results you’re getting. Where not even the slightest tiny ‘error’ can ever slip through.’
‘It only works if all the moving parts, all the little cogs mesh together. Now, a watch needs to be cleaned, well-lubricated and wound tight. The best watches have jewel movements, cogs that fit, that cooperate by design.’
‘‘Who’s your oculist? Your late grandfather’s watch, as you refer to it, ticks and tocks but doesn’t show the right time. Like the Department it’s works are gummed up. It needs cleaning out and a complete oil change. Like the Department it too is late. It’s too tightly wound. After all is said and done, this is the twentieth century isn’t it? There’s a whole new set of numbers. And surely you can’t in all seriousness pretend everyone in this department works in unison when so many are off the hinges.’
‘You’ve got a lot to say for yourself, haven’t you.’
‘There’s more where that comes from. The only thing co-ordinated about the Department are the control measures. It’s apposite you make the analogy of an enormous fob watch. It’s designed to appease by evasive means. It’s designed to dismiss underlying issues with something easier to explain. So, what’s your point? Or am I missing something?’’
‘I’m referring to your attitude. Who knows what things it might lead to. It would be anyone’s call. While this is no reflection on your intelligence or character, you haven’t tried to fit in.’
‘I do confess idle merriment and triviality are out of place in my conversation.’
‘Let‘s be honest. You’re a holdout. The Lone Ranger. I hope you don’t feel offended by me saying that.’
‘Oh I’m not offended. You’re pretty much what I expected.’
‘This attitude won’t do.’
‘Not fit for purpose, eh?’
‘You’ve been teaching geometry haven’t you? You would know your Euclid. Since when is one part greater than the whole? And are you familiar with the concept ‘team play’?’
‘You could say it’s my religion.’
‘You know your trouble? You’re really not a team player. There is no ‘I’ in team.’
‘Maybe not. But there is an ‘I’ in independence, individuality and integrity.’
The Department rewards easy fits. Wasn’t that properly explained to you? You toe the line, you get to stay. You step off that line and you’re gone and you can forget whatever it was you wanted to achieve.’
‘You’re thinking of someone who blends, someone who would rather not stand his or her ground even though they know they may be right. One of the boys. Someone who also usually lacks the guts to take a risk to effect change. Someone who obeys and follows one side blindly, follows anything that moves.’
‘Am I right in thinking you’ve let your side down.’
‘I want to be on the winning team. On the right side. On a level playing field without gamesmanship, where everyone in the school has the same sporting chance of getting up the runs and scoring the points. Where everyone’s a winner.’
‘Welcome to the world, Mr. Davis. Life is full of disappointment. No happily ever afters. As adults we have to accept things we wish weren’t true. You can’t go to extremes with impossible schemes.’
‘Thanks for that valuable life lesson.’
‘The education system won’t revolve around you. This is the way things are,’ he said snootily. ‘You’ve got to take them for what they are. Now give it a rest. You have to be able to put up with it.’
‘I put up with it at Annandale Primary, at Hoxton Park High, at Chester Hill High, at Bass Hill High, at Concord High. At Leichhardt High. At Auburn Girl’s High. At Granville Boy’s High.’
‘‘O.K. I sense the trend. Now are you finished reminiscing?
‘May I ask you one last question?
‘Go ahead. It’s no skin off my nose.’
‘How does this continual being moved being moved from pillar to post benefit anyone? Who’s better off as a result?’
‘That’s two questions.’
‘I believe I’ve done my time. I’ve been jerked around so much, I got whiplash. I know how to suck it up.’
‘So what’s your point? Do you want a medal? Before you get too comfortable on your cross, let me remind you teachers have to go where they are sent.’
‘So do cocker spaniels. Are we not better trained?’
‘You can’t always get what you want.‘ You can’t always get what you want. Life doesn’t come with a guarantee. Things don’t always turn out as planned. Why should teachers have tenure and be allowed to stay at the same job, no matter what they do? There’s your answer. I’m not going to argue anymore on such a level. Just be thankful the Department has allowed this interview. This may surprise you but it does believe in the milk of human kindness,’
‘From my perspective I’d say it has as much such milk inside it as a bull.’
Mr. Davis, my patience is wearing thin. Now good day to you.’
‘I only want a just hearing. Nothing more, nothing less’, I continued to argue. ‘Fair’s fair.’
‘‘The answer is still a firm, unequivocal, thunderous ‘No’. We have to adhere strictly to our departmental code to allow consistency and impartial fairness. Fairness is vested in the code. Our strength lies in refusing to give special treatment. We are duty bound to avoid preferential action towards one person over another. It would set a bad precedent. If a special hearing were allowed for you, it would have to be allowed for everyone claiming it. Where would we be then?’
‘Where all involved could exercise judgement. Wouldn’t that be a nightmare, eh.’
‘Save your breath. How many ways do I have to say it. It’s categorical. The decision has been rendered. Case closed.’ ‘That is all,’ he said, chopping the desk with his hand. ‘is that clear?’
‘We’ll see about that. You have to do what you have to do. Well guess what? So do I. I’m not going to let it rest there. I’m within my rights and will get what I need.’
‘Then why are you the one you’s sweating?’’ he asked, smelling blood.
‘I’m not tense, just terribly, terribly alert until I have satisfaction.’
‘You might say that, I couldn’t possibly comment. Like I haven’t got enough to deal with already. Now can you leave, Mr. Davis? I’ve got actual work to do.’
‘You really mean to say, “Would you leave now, please’, don’t you. I have the same problem with some students. I can never get them to say the magic word. I put it down to nerves. It can escape their minds when they’re nervous. Does that happen with you?’
‘That will be all, Mr. Davis, let’s bring this in for a landing.’
‘Just answer me one thing, Sir. This travesty of justice. How do you do it? ‘
‘Sometimes I wonder myself. Now, I don’t want to even hear you clearing your throat. You’re really getting on my nerves. Step out of my office, please.’
‘And a merry Christmas to you.’
So, rather than pushing an open door, I was quickly being shown it.
You could talk to such apparatchiks about the done deal until you’re blue in the face and nothing would shift them. None took a blind bit of notice. You couldn’t argue with them. They drag you down to their level and beat you with experience. The decision had been fixed back at Bass Hill. Presumably some in the Department viewed me, challenging them on each and every one of their indignities, as unco-optably uppish, bucking their rigged system, levelling their tilted table, testing their rigid mould. A loose cannon to be muzzled. ‘Howzat!’ they cried to the umpire, the Minister, a cricket enthusiast, adamant that I was out fair and square while hiding behind their obstructive hardballing dictates, denying me the verbal sparring basic to a healthy democracy, not just one in which you say what you like and do what you’re told. I couldn’t expect to draw them across to my point of view. No gentlemen’s covenant in play here.
The words ‘when I hear the word ‘culture’, I reach for my gun’ are attributed to Goering. Our eugenist apparatchiks only need reach for their pen.
A well-organised society is one in which we know the truth about ourselves collectively. I had paid my dues. I thought I had covered all my bases. I saw myself as a citizen above suspicion. My approach was predicated on the belief that there would be some allowance for my undisputed dedication. To my astonishment I discovered alas that there was no professional hearing available where I could be heard out, spell out my thoughts, cross-examine the witnesses against me, at which I could answer this intellectual cowardice. From the upper echelon no cut, thrust and parry whatsoever.
Just cut and dried. I had a right to my opinions. I just didn’t have any right to do anything about them. They just didn’t want to hear them. Apart from a terse ‘be that as it may’, those obscurantists who levelled charges, lacking probity, shielded from oversight, stopping at nothing, didn’t have to justify anything. All neat and handy, with me, unable to state my case professionally, the fall guy.
This insolence of office reminded me of the plea made in the US by Assistant Secretary of the Interior Gerard Davison to Presidential advisor Clark Clifford. He reminded him of the unconscionable miscarriages of justice suffered by government employees during the McCarthyist period. “Employees must be guaranteed the standard rights of due process to confront their accusers – to hear the charges against them, to present witnesses on their own behalf, to appeal”.
Such drumhead justice is subversive of British constitutional liberties. In the days of reckoning at Nuremberg, the tribunal noted that elimination of the right of appeal was the first act of the National Socialist regime. The basic concept of a rigid separation of public powers and functions, on which our liberties largely depend, seem to be beyond the grasp of the bureaucratic edcons. You can understand if not excuse politicians and private magnates behaving this way, but not public servants.
The Thought Police were very much on the case, busy as ever looking for some difficult individual who they think may be saying something that in some ways undermines authority. What would they have considered my thoughtcrimes? Maybe they felt I had not participated in enough official activities and that I had appeared to not enjoy them. It isn’t only one’s actions and words that they consider are punishable; they attempt to detect, listen in on and punish even unorthodox opinions. Finally they would try to render those harbouring unapproved thoughts such as mine as unpersons.
I remember seeing a film from the German Democratic Republic which showed the high handed punishment meted out to a teacher who encouraged his students to watch West German television for ideas and information. The G.D.R. state media portrayed the West as dominated by a small group of very rich capitalists while most people were very poor. A lot of people suffered political persecution. In fact, they were painting a picture of states like the G.D.R. itself without the respective window dressing. Falling into line politically was a prerequisite for an undisturbed life, and was preferred over discussion and individual opinions. After receiving his marching orders without recourse to appeal, and his ensuing isolation, he committed suicide.
I haven’t yet been able to source the film which was shown on the Special Broadcasting System in Australia. It made a big impact in East Germany because of its critical nature. I find the parallels with our own procrustean system telling.
Yes sir, a schoolteacher in N.S.W. is something to be.
My being dumped flat was preceded by a newspaper barrage targeting ‘bad’ teachers, and heralding special powers to make short work of them. Of all the dirty tricks! In this baiting game, the media had a field day offloading blame for the crisis. Muggins me was put in the frame as a ‘whipping boy’. My colleagues were browbeaten by the sound and fury, simply shrugging their shoulders. At a meeting I called to protest my dismissal, no one among my colleagues could say anything about what to do. They were thinking to rule. Considering that I had allowed such disruptiveness to reign in my classrooms, it was remarkable that no other teachers were aware of it.
One of them, Denis Petratos, knew exactly what was going on, and what I was up against. He had grown up in Greece and knew these sleazy machinations for what they were.
‘It’s not that I don’t have good comments written about me by the school heads,’ I said to him.
‘It isn’t what they write about you, it’s what they whisper.’
‘That’s what’s burning my ears,’ I said.
I know a set-up when I see one, Allan, and this is one. Those behind it want to destroy initiative. This is madness.’
‘Welcome to my world.’
‘There is little that bureaucrats hate more than innovation, especially that which produces better results than the old routines. Improvements make those at the top of the heap look inept. They fear being shown up. So someone has to pay. ’
‘I need greater support from every thinking person involved, ’ I told him.
‘That’s not enough. You need a majority.’
Denis had been a worker before studying mathematics at university. Alas, this circle of professionals was one he couldn’t hope to square. He had difficulty articulating himself in the English involved in this situation and couldn’t come up with the rhetoric to defend me.
‘It will take time for you to get justice about this, Allan.’
‘But it must be done though the heavens fall. This affects everyone.’
‘The basis for your defence will have to be your mastery of English. At least you are starting from the advantage of an archimidean point.’
My Member of Parliament, a colleague of the Minister for Education, the deciding voice in this matter, was very supportive on my behalf and got onto it right away, trying to swing his opinion, trying to shake something loose. However, Dr. No said ‘No Go.’ A tough nut to crack, he took not a blind bit of notice, turning me down flat. Just like that. I wasn’t calling in my chits or didn’t expect any strings to be pulled, but hoped for some principled protest at this blatant abuse of professional ethics. To be judged on my own merit. Thanks for nothing, brother.
From his secure, pensionable perch on top of the heap, collecting the scraps tossed to him by the narrow circles of power, this spokesman for the A.L.P. abdicated his responsibility to further workers’ democratic rights to defend their work practices, using public sector workers as a trojan horse. The party was heading into an election campaign responding to the dictates of the media and the judgement of public relations firms rather than to the intercession of his colleague. For me there was no counter-balancing force against possible abuse of ministerial authority.
In terms of getting justice, I was a dead duck. The gnomes, having neatly picked me off on the wing, did not wish to have their marksmanship questioned.
Spokesmen for the Teachers Federation to which I belonged and naturally support said they could not do anything about the regulation which denies probationary teachers right to an appeal, a denial that militates against the achievement of universal literacy. ‘You shouldn’t have committed your thoughts to paper without consulting us. That’s the way it is’, I was told by one footdragger. ‘We don’t make the rules.’ Clearly, I was disturbing their polite arrangement with the Department. I was told I hadn’t talked to my colleagues about my position. Too bad. ‘We’ll see you when we see you.’ That kind of thing.
One of my colleagues who wasn’t in the Federation didn’t blink when I told him this. He gave me a consolatory pat on the back, saying: ‘That’s union officials for you. They’re supposed to back you up, not leave you up in the air. You’re as much the union as they are. They should reimburse your dues. Didn’t they offer you any assistance or is that up to divine intervention?
‘One official I spoke to promised to look into it further.’
‘Sure, and the cheque’s in the mail. Is that all they’ve got to offer? What a weak act.’
Some time later he asked me if they’d extracted the digit.
I told him, ‘ They said to me they’re working on it.’
‘That’s reassuring. I hate to tell you but we’ve got a live one here. This aristocracy of labour is not going to touch your case.. You must be really browned off at them.’
‘Not really’. I said. “I don’t know what people have against them. They’ve done nothing.’
‘And the Minister won’t listen?’
‘He turns out to be your typical politician. One who doesn’t look beyond the next election cycle.’
To cap it all the Minister accused the Federation of backing ‘incompetent’ teachers for any offence short of child molesting! For me to be placed under the same foul rubric as ‘rock spider’ was rich considering what would unfold.
Within the Federation any account of my case dribbled off until it fell out of the paper.
The students at the school who I had found quite tractable were all too happy to make supportive statements as to my service.
Like high school students anywhere, it is they who can make life unbearable for any uncommitted teacher. To see the lies gotten up about their behaviour going so brazenly unchallenged would take them quickly along the learning curve of corruption. Learning about hypocrisy rather than democracy. In a perfect world this kind of under-handedness shouldn’t have been allowed. In a less than perfect world, my colleagues and the community backing me up would have shut down the school until an enquiry was held. Unfortunately, this possibility was slim because of the milktoast support from, without mentioning any names, certain of my colleagues, silent and acquiescent. Some fake death – they faked living. On autopilot, they had been ground down long since and never got over it, lifers given up on their dreams, afraid of endangering their retirement fund. They were born retired. Somewhere along the path of least resistance, they had lost sight of any sense of mission. Some had gone into playing at educating for want of anything better to do. Convinced the only way to make it in life is to fake it.
‘Deal me out, don’t feel me out’, was all one could say as I approached to solicit his vote.
As for me rounding up support, the well was very dry. I had no favours to call in. I had been done like a dog’s dinner. Shafted royally. They had stuck it to me good. The Departments practice of shuffling me around had paid off for some. I could never sink my roots in deep enough anywhere I was sent.
My supplication to the Ombudsman about the matter was likewise to no avail, what I considered my airtight case laying outside their ambit.
I couldn’t blow the whistle on the Department to any official agency. Undeterred, I sought legal advice about taking on this mindless behemoth–you pays your money and you takes your chances-but was told there wasn’t much I could do about the stitch up. To attempt otherwise would incur prohibitive costs.
Like the steps in an Escher drawing, those toward justice went nowhere. I had come up against the culture of complicity – an establishment involving politics, segments of the media, the judiciary, and the economy which functions through a series of self-protective, tacit understandings, and without sharply defined checks and balances.
After sending me packing the Minister brought in special powers to start on the next on his hit list. He would deal with ‘disorderly’ children so as to ‘protect’ teachers. The sheer brazen-faced cynicism of such deuced blackguards I feel, to talk up fear both of teachers and students is breathtaking. Setting people against each other solidified the climate of fear and withdrawal.
While I was leafleting outside the school in protest the principal came up past me and said, ‘You couldn’t help yourself, could you.’
‘To each his own.’
‘I tried to warn you. I hope you’re enjoying yourself now.’
‘It’s right up there with my father’s funeral for sheer entertainment value.’
I had hoped somewhat romantically that the community would rise to my defence, joining me on my picket, organizing a letter writing campaign, making so much noise calling for my reinstatement.
Parents trusted my witness but couldn’t respond to the situation. They were bound up in their daily jobs and often didn’t know many other parents. However, I have no reason to be cynical. I had been fully bound up in mine.
I quickly understood better how lightly the sense of public community can be embedded.
On the notion of cynicism, I will always remember the throwaway comment of one hobbledyhoy -one who was never in my classes. While I was picketing the school alone that autumn, putting on a brave face, twisting in the wind, openly addressing the dangers of the powers, this rubbernecking boy called out glibly ‘Sucked in!’.
This buzz phrase would become a recurring motif in my life.
Back on the Beat.
Give the world the best you have and you’ll get kicked in the teeth.
Give the world the best you have anyway.”
Hedy Lamarr, screen actress and inventor.
Slipshot in every respect the system kept calling me, it’s patsy, back to work again after I had been drummed out of the teaching service. A case of the left hand not knowing what the right was doing. The selection process was as if names were drawn out of a hat.
In this game of snakes and ladders the banned played on. I did a melba, returning to the profession after my ‘farewell’ performance. I worked on standby at four more schools, two as a casual teacher. At Auburn Girls High I taught Art and Arabic. The girls only wanted to learn about pop music, fashion and Australian things. I arrived at the same conclusion that Russel Ward had in N.S.W. public schools a generation earlier. That national feeling and patriotism are in no way conditioned by one’s ancestry but in every way by the environment in which one grows up. Doomsayers asking ‘Please explain! Australia isn’t one big waiting room,’ who borrow trouble over the volume of non-european immigration, would loosen their girdles if they had ever taught immigrant children. The Auburn girls, like their brothers at Granville Boys, had been in Australia for only half their lives, yet they were fluent in strine, which most of their parents could hardly speak at all let alone know it’s rules.
‘An abstract noun,’ I explained to one class, “is something you can think of, but you can’t touch it. Can you give me an example of one?” ‘Sure,’ a boy replied. ‘My father’s new car.’
I showed these children how to simply transform a flat sheet square of paper into a finished sculpture: ‘The advantage of easy origami is twofold…’
As usual I had to counter the argument that they would never use the skills I was passing on: ‘I’ll never have someone come round and I ask them, do you want a coffee? I’ll just put on the Bunsen burner. What colour flame would you like? I’ll never have one of my friends ask me when we want to light up at the back of the toilet block. Do you have a gas tap?’
I could have kept on forever working like this, supporting this ineptitude, another brick in the wall,
if I had never let on. I could simply have continued clocking on and clocking off, a fifth wheel filling in for laid up or absent teachers, a fake smile plastered on my face, and no one would have been any the wiser. Or cared.
Such a prospect-glorified babysitting in weary fits and starts- proved unprepossessing, unfeasible and insufferable. When it came right down to it, it meant I could never develop in this professional purgatory, my discipline in the hand of the gods. I swore off going down that road, driving with the handbrake on, dancing to the eugenists’ tune. No way in the world.
What mattered to me was that the principal at Auburn gave me a great report that rounded out my desired CV. No, no, they can’t take that away from me.
As for my continued work helping my re-instatement, this mattered not a whit to the Department.
The School Of Hard Knocks.
When I think back
On all the crap I learned in high school
It’s a wonder
I can think at all
And though my lack of education
Hasn’t hurt me none
I can read the writing on the wall.
The next and last departmental government school at which I worked, Yasmar, was situated inside a juvenile detention centre. Now what was my role there? You’re going to like this. I was a youth worker, supervising children who had a troubled history at school, some stroppy ones who others couldn’t tame. They hurt people for the hell of it. They took so much out of you. You’d feel wary of them on sight. They were far advanced in the science of every kind of misconduct.
The vast bulk were the product of where they’d come from, a product of circumstances, just as their parents before them were. Family breakdown, bereavement, multiple foster placements, violence and sexual exploitation were the background to their lives.
’Hey Gazzer, do you remember when we couldn’t get arrested?’ one asked his mate.
Garry replied; ‘When was that? When you were four?’
‘Garry has had everything going against him,’ I argued to Bernie, a law and order oriented officer, ‘his father’s in jail, ‘his mother is in drug treatment. And due to a legion of forces beyond his control he joined a group of rascals for acceptance, family and protection. He has one prior minor offence. Each one of us is greater than the worst thing we’ve ever done.’
The inmates’ cases fell into the amorphous catch-all called juvenile delinquency. Some of the wilder ones kicking over the traces had been involved in gangs. Their motto was simple: ‘Do it to them before they do it to you’. Often, they were not the first in their family to be inside. Physical and sexual abuse and neglect were common experiences among them. Alcohol and substance abuse came into it. Some were a danger to others, unafraid to face down staff.
They didn’t waste time trying you out.
‘You’re Steven, aren’t you?’ I asked one boy, addressing him for the first time.
He was pacing like some sort of a caged beast, indignantly venting his anger at being there.
‘What’s it to you?’
‘Manners maketh man. Here’s what you’ll do from now. You’ll please drop your sweet wrappers in the bin rather than on the floor.
‘Make me, or are you going to pussy out.’
‘No, but you’ll lose out.’
‘Drop dead!’ he replied, his chin uplifted.
My response was, ‘I don’t do requests. And you won’t do lollies. There must be one hundred reasons why you shouldn’t have your access to sweets taken away but I can’t think of one right now.’
‘Why should I believe you?’
‘Do or don’t, it’s up to you.’
When he finally started to bend down ever so unwillingly I said, ‘Are you going to pick it up or not?
He replied, ‘What does it look like I’m doing?’
Others were a danger to themselves, sent there for their own protection. I had to monitor their every move, every moment of the day. When the school race was held, I watched the guys like a hawk, making doubly sure no one did a runner.
At this purpose-built secure unit, the ceilings were designed high, the walls far apart so the inmates couldn’t easily shin up. I got to know all the angles. They had to have me or another member of staff with them at all times. With a courteous manner and a large collection of keys, I opened the doors for them. When suspicions arose, I’d shake down their room and go through their personal items, looking for ligatures and contraband, items that had been smuggled in. Matches, felt tip pens for graffitiing, and anything that could be improvised as a weapon. Their guiding principle was ‘Do unto others-then run.’ The kind of crimes they were there for included such things as carrying a bladed article, firearm, arson, assault, burglary, snatch and grab, hands in the till, dining and ditching, possession of stolen property, aiding and abetting, second-storey work.
‘You gotta stop’em when they’re young, ‘said Bernie.‘ It Starts off with a bike, then a car, then a bus.’
‘If that is the train of thought, the thing after that would be a tank, then a jumbo jet, I told him.’
It could have been for sexual offences that the children I encountered were locked up. At Minda, the higher security centre where I went on and off, it could have been for kidnap or murder. There cold, grey, solid walls, layers and layers of locked doors backed onto bare rooms, and heavy doors had bolted slits for basic meals to be delivered in.
Being locked up didn’t stop some hard cases, caught dead to rights, coming back for more.
They were real Jekyll and Hyde characters. Their stories ranged from the tragic to the absurd, though most were something of a mix. You could read their file and they could have a history of violent, aggressive behaviour and then you met them and they seemed like the most polite, pleasant young people. There were the ginger cats who needed to be stroked but also couldn’t wait to get into the alley and fight. Obviously, you had to be aware of the potential risks.
Many invariably invent heroic fantasy accounts of their life. I got to talking to one wiry seventeen year old boy, suspicious eyes and acne scars on his cheeks, sitting on a bench, sweating after a football game. I asked him how he came to end up here, and something odd happened. He offered me a completely fictitious life, one in total contradiction to the story in his file. His mother was still alive selling hand-painted souvenirs in front of Bondi Pavilion. His brother, the same age as him, came and went. He never saw him from one day to the next. And he didn’t get his skin in the game with other young hoods willingly. ‘I liked it though. It’s hard to explain… but it was good. I left them all for the love of a woman. She answers to the name Alice Peters.’ He says the name with dreamy love. ‘I met her because I stole her bag. I was busted and sent to the cop shop, but when she came to collect it she was so charmed by me she decided she wanted to adopt me.’
At first, I think I must have the wrong person, but then I realised these young inmates coat the truth in self-protecting lies. It’s no use trying to shake them loose of them. His mother was indeed dead and he had no siblings. Tragically he was an only twin. He was never forced to mix with the other hoods. No – he joined them to get back on those they believed were the cause of his poverty.
He continued with his dream story, where he was adopted by a rich woman. He said ‘ I think about her all the time. I’m like a cat on a hot tin roof. My tummy is upset, my chest hurts. It must be love.’ One of the other youth workers said, ‘You go on like this after meals. It sounds more like indigestion.’
I tried to get him on to something more real. What is a typical day in a gang like?’ “We would go to a mall or a street corner and have a tote. Or we would watch ‘Rambo’ in the cinema, or steal bags. We pinched flowers from the cemetery and sold them around the pubs. They called us ‘The Bad Boys’. I had a black belt in bullying.’ He drifted back into the fantasy, and the more I pushed him back to sense-impressions – did you see somebody being done over? – the more wet tears ran, unforced, down his face. Before he left to change, I let him tell me more and more about this Alice in Wonderland.
‘What work does your mother do?’ I asked.
‘It’s difficult to say what she does.’
‘You’re ashamed of her?’
‘It’s not that kind of soliciting. You’d never guess what it is she sells.’
‘She takes sparrows, paints them with peroxide and sells them as canaries?’
‘She sells sea shells on the sea shore.’
‘You’re expecting her any time now?’
‘She is coming to get me. She’s coming to get me any minute now.’
‘And your brother?’
‘I never know when he’ll turn up. Nothing new to me. When I lived at home, I used to lie in my twin-sized bed and wonder where he was.’
When he turned sixteen put on a small party for him. ‘This is the best birthday party I’ve ever had. This is is the first birthday party I’ve ever had.’
In loco parentis I had to monitor their prescribed medicine. One girl in there, a sly compulsive kleptomaniac, was subject to occasional fits. It wasn’t surprising. During biology lessons at her former school she had sniffed formaldehyde.
‘It’s gotten worse the last year’, another officer said. ‘Her father died last year.’
‘That must have been hard for her,’ I said.’
‘It was’, he replied, ‘but tough on him too.’
‘Were father and daughter close to each other?’
‘She wasn’t particularly close to her father before he died… which was lucky, because he drove over a cliff.’
In a quiet moment I asked her, ‘What did your father do before he died? She replied, ‘He went, ‘Aaagh!’
She had some loose springs when it came to respecting other people’s property. She’d as soon rip them off as look at them.
I asked the officer how she kept things under control.
‘She’s normally O.K. but sure enough when it gets bad, she takes something for it.’
‘Can’t you explain to in simple terms her this is wrong?’
‘This is like threading the eye of a tiny needle. She always takes things literally.’
‘That means you really can’t take her out into the shopping mall.’
‘We had long sessions before she went accompanied shopping, working to relieve her of this disorder. I told her ‘We trust you won’t be trapped by the desire to steal again. Be a good girl!’
‘Not if I can help it.’
‘You’re going to have to learn some painful lessons.’
‘So what do want me to say ? ‘I’ll always try to be good because to act otherwise never pays off. ’
‘Always’ and ‘never’ are two words you should always remember never to use lightly.’
‘Don’t tell me what to do,’ she cried angrily.‘
Temper, temper,’ I told her, ‘get those anger monkeys off your back. Remember your temper’s the one thing you can’t get rid of by losing it.’
One of her friends said ‘If you do have a relapse, don’t lose my list. First of all I could do with a new CD player.’
Not that she baulked at making off with her friends’ assets. They were just one more class of victim. ‘When I woke up and found her gone with my money,’ said one, ‘I was furious at first and thought, ‘Of course she’s taken it. Then I thought, ‘Why wouldn’t she?’
‘What led to her being sent here?’
It was one of those friends she’d stolen from who led to her being charged with yet another charge of shoplifting.
Along with that other girl she took three chocolate bars from the shelf in a supermarket and put them in her pocket. She said to her friend, ‘It took me great skill and cunning to steal those choccies. The owner didn’t even see me.’
Her friend replied, ‘That’s just simple thievery, I’ll show you how to do it the honest way and get the same results.’
The friend then proceeded to call out the owner of the cash and carry and said, ‘Sir, I want to show you a magic trick.’ The owner was intrigued so he came over to see the what it was.
The friend asked him for a chocolate bar and after he handed one over she proceeded to eat it. She asked two more times and after eating them both the owner said, ‘Okay young lady, where’s the magic trick?’
The amateur magician then said, simpering, ‘Look in my friend’s pocket.’
‘She had him there. When was this girl’s condition first noticed?’
‘When she went with her class on an overnight excursion, they stayed in a nice hotel. You know the kind-fluffy sheets, big bath towel and all. It was then her teacher noticed. It was taking her an hour to get her bag closed. Then there was the beach outing.’
‘That’s a mecca for thieves isn’t it. Where to put your personal belongings when you go in the water? ’
‘People have their own little personal security things – things that they think will foil thieves, you know. In your own mind, right? You go to the beach, put your wallet in one of your sneakers and dive in the surf. Who’s going to find your hidey hole? What criminal mind could penetrate this fortress of security? You tie a bow. They can’t get through that. You put the wallet down by the toe of the sneaker. They never look there. They check the heel, they move on. But not our young female fagin. She quickly saw through that kind of deception.’
‘I’ll keep an eye on her.’
‘Be careful. When it comes to seeing other people’s property, she has special powers.’
‘Yes, what was the phrase I remember from her file, ‘Constant super-vision.’
‘Don’t forget – the hand is quicker than the eye. A hand that is supple, deft. A hand that slides. A hand that alights. If you shake hands with her, I suggest you count your fingers afterwards.’
I tried to instil in her the virtue of labour and its rewards: ‘Anything in life worth having is worth working for.”
She replied with ‘A thing worth having is a thing worth pinching for.’
I bluffed her when there was clear evidence she had taken a boys pocket money.’ Do you have something to tell me?’’
‘I ain’t saying anything.’
‘Too late. You just did.’
This filching female complained about another girl who accused her of being a ‘lousy thief.’
‘If the shoe fits, wear it,’ I advised her.
‘If the shoe fits, I’ll take another one just like it.’
One pair she lifted were too large leading to her constantly stumbling. I told her, ‘You don’t know what they’ve been laced with. That’s why you’re tripping.’
I endeavoured to get her to see things from the perspective of those she stole from: ‘Imagine how they feel at being ripped off. Think of things from their point of view.’
‘It’s simple’, she said. ‘They’re losers. Finders keepers. Losers weepers.’
I reminded the chancer of the famous proverb: ‘Before you judge a man, walk a mile in his shoes.’
‘After that who cares?’ said this budding Imelda Marcos, ‘he’s a mile away and you’ve got his Nikes. Actually I need a new pair now ’
Aware their teacher had told the class about child labour in the poor countries I told her ‘You’re fifteen, make your own!’
‘And then you had the state wards in this secure unit for their own protection. They could be there for such things as domestic abuse, neglect, truancy and running away from foster placements. These were not cool, criminally inclined young thugs-in-the-making, but average, goofy kids, ill-equipped to resist the negative pull of their surroundings.
As with the huffing and bagging girl, some became subject to substance abuse to get high.
While concerned about the effects, the youth workers made black jokes about the ever-expanding range of common legal, cheap and easy to find toxic substances chosen. I asked about two boys the police said they were bringing in.
‘They caught this one chewing on electrical cords.’
‘That’s shocking behaviour. Will he recover from this episode? Watt’s going to happen to him?’
He’s doing better currently and should conduct himself properly. However, I’m afraid we’ll have to ground him.’
And the second boy?’
‘He’s been drinking battery acid laced with sodium chloride. The police have already charged him.’
‘Battery and assault.’
‘I thought there were three of them.’
‘The other boy was caught eating fireworks but they let him off.’
Chaotic family backgrounds had left some of the errant youngsters unfamiliar with even the most basic house-training tasks. Whether washing or tidying, they’d polish here, brush there, slop at one place, give a lick and a promise at another. Like nature, they abhorred a vacuum. Prepared for the inevitable comments, I had to to blag them into hoovering: ‘Yes, I know it sucks.’
It’s amazing how quickly teenagers learn to drive a car, yet are unable to understand pushing a broom, making an omelette or operating a vacuum cleaner.
When I got one girl finally started, she ran over a string at least a dozen times, reached over and picked it up, examined it, then put it back down to give the vacuum one more chance.
‘Just finish cleaning up your room,’ I warned each one, ’let’s see that dust fly with that broom, get all that rubbish out of sight, or no videos for you Saturday night. If you don’t straighten your bedroom floor, you aren’t going to rock and roll anymore.’
‘Please, Allan, don’t do that to us.’
‘Show me a spotless room and I’ll think about it. Now start moving in that direction, pronto.’
I put to the aforementioned light-fingered, affectless lady the following question after her science lesson: ‘If you are in a vacuum and someone calls your name, can you hear it?’
She thought for a time and then asked, ‘Is it on or off?’
All our encouragement tended to wash over on them. I had to blag them into making their bed, ‘No, you don’t need nails and wood, fortunately.’
‘What are you doing?’ asked one of the boys as the young lady got into tidying up.
‘I’m trying to clean up before the Manager comes round.’
‘Chloroform, Rohypnol or a good old-fashioned cricket bat?’
‘Comes round on inspection, you nong.’
My most important daytime duty was to maintain order in the classroom for the teachers. I kid you not. In this school, every period ended with a bell. Every sentence ended with a period. Every crime ended with a sentence.
For some of the inmates having fallen between the cracks in the education system, it was the first time they’d actually had to go to school. Mostly they’d been expelled from mainstream school, many of them at the primary stage. Rage and an inability to control it were the common personality trait.
It was as if a vital behavioural development, which usually occurs when children emerge from the toddler stage and start school, was completely missing. So, what we had at Yasmar were big, adult-sized teenagers who spat the dummy, throwing toddler-type tantrums. They were like dogs chasing cars. They wouldn’t know what to do with one if the caught one. They just did things. Mischief for the sake of it. They believed in instant gratification no matter how dubious the prospects. Governed by the pleasure principle, they could revert to anti-social conduct at any moment as the mood took them. They were particularly dangerous when their desires were being frustrated.
In their face, in their space at all times, I had to stop young hard put minds from projecting spitballs onto the ceiling, throwing chairs, trading blows and interfering with each other and others with such interruptive pranks. Such messing around could lead to a critical incident. The smallest incident could set them off. With lots of different triggers, the tiniest push could escalate into a dangerous row.
The teacher once explained to the class about how verbs change to indicate time. He then asked one boy ‘Peter, I’d like you construct a sentence where you demonstrate the three kinds.’
Peter offered this one with reference to his classmate sitting behind him: ‘Graham Turner, you were a cretinous scumbag yesterday, you are a cretinous scumbag today and you always will be a cretinous scumbag.’
Graham fumed and I positioned myself near him, ready to restrain him. It was tense. Peter had correctly included all three. The past, the present and the future.
With no real warning, these youngsters could flip – just like that. Such behaviour recurred in a continuous cycle.
As for anger management, I took the line that I had to come down quickly and firmly to get the right boundaries in place.
‘You’re the living end.’ I said to one of the boys I had to restrain from constantly moving from chair to chair. ‘Why so restless? Why can’t you stick to your allocated desk until moved.’
‘I keep hoping to get lucky, but there’s never any gum stuck under any of them.’
Chewing gum is surely one of the weirdest human inventions,’ he said, popping a lump of congealed Juicy Fruit he’d scraped off the wall into his mouth. ‘It’s not a liquid, it‘s not a solid, it‘s not a food. What is it? It isn’t really anything, you know. I mean, it’s like a treadmill for your jaw’.
‘It’s good to hear you asking the right questions,’ I said, ‘because when you’re chewing gum, you don’t look like you’re too thrilled with anything anyone has to say. Teenagers seem more sarcastic when chewing it.’
‘Oh, World War Two. That was an important historical event?’ Yeah, I’m sure.’
‘They landed a man on the moon, nineteen sixty-nine? Yeah, right. Yeah, whatever.’
When I first came to class members used hardened pellets of gum to shoot at flies that wandered inside. If the two-winged insects were plentiful and landed within striking distance they’d fire the rubberbands themselves at them. The job was easy, quick, precise and gave rise to knowledge about the physiology of Musca domestica. Their speed, trajectories and near 360 degrees vision.
The inmates found the practice fun because they competed with each other to improve their marksmanship. It was a challenge to see if they could improve their ratio of kills per rubber band releases. Sometimes, the prey would remain in one piece. More often there would be squished pieces in several places. Needless to say, the killers were not enthused about getting a piece of tissue and cleaning up the gross debris. After I pointed out the diseases borne by flies, I lowered the boom on the practice, confiscating bands and went for essential oils, strips and traps.
‘Be serious and passionate about the world around you,’ I constantly reminded them. Take advantage of your education here to straighten right out. While you’re here, you’re a prospect; once you’re out, you’re a suspect. Learn how to live with others without ruction.
‘You can do this the hard way, or you can make it work for you,’ I constantly reminded them. It’s your choice. Make the wrong one and it’ll be the big house for you. The Long Bay Hilton. Just another statistic. Do the crime, do the time. When you get out you might just be about due for your pension, eh?’
‘What advice would you give us to avoid this path, Allan?’ asked one boy.
‘There is a way to exit. Go through it. Keep walking. Turn over a new page but don’t turn around. Move on in life. Don’t look back.’
‘Are you afraid we could turn into a pillar of salt? ’
‘Did this really happen?’ asked another. How do we take this ?‘
‘You can take it as a condiment. Of course, it’s a reference to a Bible story. This man named Lot was warned to take his wife and flee out of the city, but his wife looked back and was turned into a pillar of salt.”
One boy asked, “What happened to the flea?”
‘There was an inmate here some years back,’ contributed another boy. ‘who took off in a stolen Falcon. He looked back once while he was driving, and he turned into a telephone pole.’
You couldn’t always count on humouring them. The staff had to take a lot of provocation from them. At the same time, it didn’t pay to be confrontational. That just wound things up. A negative interaction or an ambiguous comment could cause an awkward situation to degenerate to dangerous hostility. I helped them teach problem-solving and conflict-resolution skills so the students didn’t resort to aggression to cope with situations. In a revolving door situation,
I restrained and escorted any scamps outside the classroom for a prescribed time until they cooled down and could come back inside to start again. Some spent more time outside the class than in it. I recall the almost unbearable jim jams as the clock on the wall crept toward the final bell. ‘Like the grip of the boa constrictor’, rapped the Bad Boy, ‘doing time swells up like those that convict ya. You got the pitcha?’
It’s tricky to turn around the learned behaviour of fourteen, fifteen, sixteen years. With little control over what they can do and how they’re going to do it, they take the only action they can do. They aim to manipulate certain situations where they know the staff will have to react in a certain way. Waving their finger at society, they do negative things to get attention. Getting restrained shows just how tough they are. They used violence as a way of gaining acceptance in peer groups.
Pining to be older they fretted about how they would make it through adolescence. Always on the move, they struggled with the age-old problems of class, the season, and their age: lack of money and opportunity; boredom; and sex, or, more accurately, thoughts of sex.
One of the boys dropped his wallet disgorging its contents onto the floor.
Helping him pick up the pieces I spied amongst them a condom.
‘This can’t be yours. You’re too young. What can you make out of this?’
‘I can make a mini slingshot out of it. And I can use it to contain and sneak booze in.’
‘When the time comes- and I don’t want to know when that is-
are you going to use it for its usual purpose?’
‘I’ll try whatever it takes. I’ll use hypnosis if I have to.’
‘Just make sure you know how to use it properly. Remember, kids in the back seats cause accidents. Accidents in the back seat cause kids.’
One of his mates said boastfully, ‘Personally I find them very restrictive.’
‘I said, The way you’re going when you make it to Long Bay, you might change your mind. Without one you’d have to ask yourself one question .’Do I feel lucky?’ Well would you?’’
One seventeen year old had a speech impediment. In a prison of illiteracy, one without visible walls, he was doing double time. I devoted as much time as possible getting him to stay composed and relaxed, to talk calmly but confidently. Gradually he pieced together what he wanted to say: ‘You should have seen me before I came here. I was really slow. Nobody really helped me. I couldn’t talk. I stuttered badly. I couldn’t say two clear words that made any sense to anybody else but me. And people laughed at me because of it. I felt like a real clot. And when they laughed, the only sound they’d hear would be my fist whistling through the air. Did I hear laughter out there? My fists did my talking. Now, that stopped the laughter for a while, but it also got me into serious trouble, and I didn’t pull a rabbit out of any hat. I still couldn’t talk proper. I wish I’d listened to what my mother told me.’
‘Why, what did she tell you?’
‘I don’t know, I didn’t listen.’
’When I arrived at the school, I thought to myself that at last I’d experience something really exciting educationally. If there would be any school where you’d expect the authorities to abide children enjoying learning it would be in such an institution. Anybody in a confined space such as a waiting room will invariably pick up any half decent reading material available to avoid boredom. Boredom is probably the most common factor behind much crime and anti-social behaviour. You don’t have to be a genius to recognize this. It led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Why can’t the authorities recognize it and promote universal literacy? The children were there as a punishment, not to be punished, so why not? When those young brains were not actively involved in thinking about what the teacher wanted, they’d be thinking about something else.
My considered opinion was they should get in on as many activities as possible to keep their minds off mischief. I had assumed that in this day and age, there would be some trade off in which the decision makers would relinquish some degree of professional control to the teacher in exchange for his or her dependability, integrity and uncomplaining, demanding workload. Quid pro quo.
The reality of the situation in this school was that it was much like the shambolic situation that it was alleged my classes were like before I was given the old heave-ho.
Not that I put blame on the staff. They had a lot to contend with. Yet in spite of this they knew how to react when things looked like getting out of hand. The strategy was to delegate responsibility.
‘Hold everything. Let’s not all panic! demanded the youth worker in charge on one occasion, ‘You, you and you panic. You and you stay calm.’
When I questioned this left of field approach, he explained it as follows: ‘NASA points out there are ‘known unknowns’ and ‘unknown unknowns’. We have to allow for all contingencies. If you can keep your head when others about you are losing theirs, it’s just possible that you haven’t understood the situation.’
I wasn’t left holding the bag, I’m glad to say.
These skittish feckless children with attitude to burn and plenty of lip, have great difficulties. Plagued by boredom, the tizzies and sex, all the usual agonies of the awkward age only more so.
They were compulsive yet at the same time indecisive. Not knowing what they wanted in life but knowing that they wanted it now.
All too often rather than achieve a fully human identity, an empty space appears where feelings beyond the purely instinctive are expected to be.
‘Watch your wallet while he’s around,’ I was warned about one artful dodger. ‘He’d steal a dead fly from a blind spider.’
Running on impulse, they feed their drives and desires from one moment to the next, habitually, casually ransacking and ripping off anything not bolted down. Driven more by the thrill of transgression than the reward of hot goods and ill-gotten gains. At loose ends they’d be crawling in front of moving trains, hot-wiring cars harum scarum, then finding themselves on the road with a vague couple of ideas of where to go and what to do. There was an edgy expectation as they drove around relentlessly chomping on McDonalds, waiting for something to happen, spending half of the night looking for a rumoured beer bust. For them there was that air of immortality that goes hand in hand with youth, a notion that sitting in the back of a car, blasting some tunes and mucking around is as grand and important as life will ever get. Soon enough they’d be siphoning petrol, souping up the cars for joyrides, wringing them out, breaking traction, doing burnouts and fishtails, busting letter boxes, mooning and zooming until the tank is empty. Dawn would see them fanging it down abandoned roads, behind the drivers a crazy flotilla of mates in cars with screaming horns, leaning out to get a photo of the race, aggressively sideswiping each other, and trying to spook the opponent’s car so he crashed.
They always came up quickly with a smart answer to explain their activities when apprehended. One of them was barreling down the motorway when the highway patrolman pulled him over.
‘Why were you going so fast?’ The policeman asked before taking him back to Yasmar.
‘Why? I had my foot to the floor. It sends more petrol through the carburettor. This makes the engine go faster. This makes the car takes off.’
‘OK Smartypants, you realise you went through a ‘Stop’ sign back there. How about you explain that?
‘Officer, I don’t believe everything I read.’
This young sceptical car thief had been born unwanted in a crumbling Housing Commission flat in Waterloo.By the time he ended up at Yasmar he was wanted in four states.
With a public holiday looming, he asked one of the youth workers how he’d be spending it.
‘I’m going to Newcastle to see my mother.’
‘You’ll be taking the train?
No, I’ll be renting a car. The company told me they have a new service: ‘You can pick up a car in one city, use it for getting around and drop it off in another city.’
‘There’s nothing new about that,’ replied the boy. I’ve already done the same thing ages ago.’
Some of these rev heads could never find a car they couldn’t jump start. They could jemmy most car doors and be off while the owner was still looking for the keys. Gone in 60 seconds. It happened to mine as I was leaving the Centre.
I had a new name bestowed upon me by the inmates, ‘Carlos’
Craig Dunne reported to me the news that a few of those responsible had used my car in a drive by shooting, I expressed great shock until he explained they just had their rear ends sticking out the window.
‘You hop in any car you want and just drive off? I asked one of the culprits. ‘Not any car. I like a variety. I’m always looking for a new experience.’
Last year a mate asked me to join him raiding a car showroom to pinch a Ferrari. He said the car would be worth a lot.’
‘What’s the catch?’ I asked him.
‘It’s dangerous,’ he replied. There’s security alarms, cameras and armed patrols to think about.’
‘That’s not a catch. That’s the fun.’
What about your latest experience?’
‘I wasn’t prepared for that one and gave things away. The police pulled us over all polite and said, ‘We’re looking for a couple of adolescent housebreakers.’ I looked at my mate, he looked at me and we nodded our heads. I said to the cops, ‘We’ll do it.’
Given what happens to them on the outside, I believed they – and the public – were better protected here. Softer on the inside, they were crazy on the outside. For some, it was the first time they were with adults who didn’t abuse them or deal with them unacceptably. They learned they could live with other people, including adults, and they’d be treated O.K.
‘It wasn’t that long ago, this would have been the last kind of place they’d want to be’, said one of my colleagues.
‘Why would they think that?’ I asked.
‘You know what happened at Parramatta Girls Home.’
‘Not as such. What really went on there?’
‘The inmates many of them indigenous. were kept in an isolation cell. They called it ‘the dungeon’. They were administered drugs while they were there was to ‘calm them down’.’
‘Which one specifically?’
‘Largactil. 300 milligrammes twice a day.’
‘That dosage would calm down the Middle East.’
‘It was to subdue them while they were being raped.’
Down By Law.
One of the wards of the State, Craig Dunne, a fine athletic fifteen year old boy, had a delightfully mobile and expressive face that telegraphed a whole range of youthful anxiety, even as he affected a studied blank stare of coolness. He had a wicked sense of humour.
His boast in class was he could recite the alphabet backwards. When his teacher asked for a demo, he turned around and declaimed it in the normal sequence: A,B,C—-’.
‘Smile, you’re on candid camera,’ he cried as we passed any mounted surveillance devices.
‘I’m in, I’m out, I’m in, I’m out,’ he whooped gleefully dancing back and forwards over the gateway as we left Yasmar.
I had taken him out shopping at a department store. When we were there he looked all around him before we went up a level to get a pair of shoes . ‘What are you looking for?’
A dog to carry’, he replied. ‘Haven’t you seen the sign on the escalator?’’.
Going up to the next level there was a man ahead of him. He had a whole ton of shopping bags in his hands, so he wasn’t very balanced. All of a sudden, he started to fall over. In this escalating drama Craig quickly put down the dog and ran up to catch him. At the same time, someone else pushed the emergency stop button. Craig told me later, ‘Imagine if I hadn’t caught him. He would have just kept on falling…’
‘Aaagh! My shoelaces.’ was the screaming sound Craig made at the bottom of the escalator coming back that got everyone’s attention.
I had taken him to the store to buy some underwear.
‘When was the last time you shopped for clothes?’ I asked him on the way.
‘Last year I went to one of those army disposal stores. I wanted to buy some camouflage trousers and blend in like Travis Bickle.’
‘You were looking for the urban guerrilla look. Did you get a good fit?’
‘I couldn’t find any.’
The underwear he wanted stood out more. An assistant came up to us and Craig said ‘Could you help me out?’
The young lady said: ‘What way did you come in?’
He said, ‘I need to get some underpants.’
‘What colour would you like?’
‘Black. I need to wear them several days in a row.’
We have a big selection here,’ she said, showing him their large display. ‘Why don’t I let you have a look through these while you think over what you require. If you need anything, I’m Leanne.’
Leanne had a conditional identity.
When Craig mentioned what he wanted she showed him some boxer shorts. Those with the circumvent at the front. On seeing him turn up his nose, she said ‘They look much better on.’
‘On what?’ he replied, barely unable to contain his dislike for them, ‘on fire? How can anyone wear those things. They bag up, they rise in. There’s nothing to hold me in place. I flip, I flop. Leanne, can I try those red briefs in the window? Are they satin?’’
Leanne assured him they were brand new but that it was O.K. to try them on. It wasn’t my fault she failed to direct him to the changing room instead.
‘Craig,’ I said, ‘Underwear is like intelligence. It’s important that you have it, but not necessary that you show it off.’
It wasn’t my fault when I directed him to the change room he promptly went along the cubicles pulling aside the curtains, followed by female objections.
‘May I help you, Sir,’ asked the floor assistant?’
‘Just looking,’ replied Craig.
Along the way he grabbed hold of a labelling gun and was checking how it worked.
As we left I realised how much this shopping trip had affected his distinguishing characteristics.
He had entered the store an innocent ward of the state. He left it with a price on his head.
Not long after I had a my run-in with him at the high fence. He giggled when I had occasion to frisk him: ‘Ooh, aah, you could at least have bought me dinner first!’
When I felt through his trouser pocket, I came across a locker key. He said, ‘Thanks, Mr. Davis, I’ve been looking for that over six months.’
He been acting shifty, hiding something. He appeared to be pretending to tie up his shoelaces. I noticed the soft clump around his ankles. ‘I’ll have that if you don’t mind. Now come on then, give it to me.’’ I patted him down in full view of everyone. He went red and I asked, ‘What’s that under there?’
He replied, ‘Under where?’
I said, ‘Under there.’
‘Like I said- underwear.’
Would you like to take them out?’ He reached down and pulled out a pair of wrinkled up underpants.
This was his explanation: ‘Last night I ran into my room, kicked off my jeans, had a quick shower and threw on my jeans. Early this morning, not yet alert, I threw on my new pair of underpants, grabbed my jeans from the floor, climbed into them and ran out here. I noticed something funny in my pants. This soft bulge round my ankle. In my rush to get my gear off last night, I didn’t do a good job separating them so yesterday’s underdaks were still squooshed up in today’s pants. I was trying to get them out without anyone noticing or to get them back up the leg of the pants.
‘A brief word to you, Craig. Take off your clothes more carefully.
And remember, we’re on your side. This centre is like a good pair of underpants, supporting you and giving you freedom in equal measure.’
‘Hey, how’s it going?’ I asked him soon after that. So he grabbed my arm playfully and twisted it up behind my head and said ‘Now who’s asking the questions?’
Full of the devil, he howled along with passing police sirens, and affected mock fighting poses at the passing cops. He could fake walking into a door. He hit it with his hand and snapped his head back much to everyone’s amusement.
As part of their recreation the inmates were allowed to watch video cassettes. One movie Craig got into interestingly enough was ‘Police Academy’. He evinced a talent in mimicry. He replayed the scenes with Sgt. Larvell Jones over and over again and kept his hand in wherever making sound effects with his mouth. He used his vocal chords, making noises to play pranks and deceive both his peers and authority figures. This ‘Winslow Boy’ as I called him was able to clearly imitate such sounds as a flat tyre, his mates noisily packing fast food in, machine gunfire, barking dogs, squishing soggy sneakers, jets roaring, spine tingling scratches from a chalkboard, radio noises, guitars screaming, telephones, and martial arts sounds. Other times he used his sound-effects ability solely to amuse himself such as one time when he imagined himself playing a game of space invaders and making all the known sound effects from that video game.
I showed him a performance of Marcel Marceau. I asked him ‘Have you ever tried doing mime?’
‘I have but I found I had nothing to say.’
One morning I approached his room to make sure he was getting cleaned up and ready for breakfast. I heard the questions ‘’You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me? coming maniacally from inside, followed by ‘Oh yeah? Who the hell do you think you’re talking to?’ This had me wondering as he was supposed to be alone, couldn’t have known I was there, and mobile phones weren’t around yet. I pushed the door open wide enough to find him standing in front of the mirror, zipping his jacket up and down, folding his arms, in tough guy poses. He was practising the role of Travis Bickle from the film Taxi Driver in the mirror. On the down low, or so he thought. He had seen this visceral vigilante movie, I hasten to add, before my arrival.
‘Yeah, I’m talking to you,’ I answered in Travistalk. ‘Who the hell else would be talking. Well, I’m the only one here. OK. I’m the Man. I’m standing here. You make the move. It’s your move. You gotta get your act together. Like your room, your possessions. Take these socks you’re wearing, one is green and one is blue. Would you believe this coincidence? Your mate next door has got a pair like that two. Also you’ve got to get your timetable clear. You gotta get one of those signs that says ‘One of these days I’m gonna get organizized’, I said quoting the novelty poster Travis mentions.
‘You mean organized?’
‘Organizized. Organizized. It’s a joke. O-R-G-A-N-I-Z-I-Z-E-D.
‘Oh, you mean organizized. Like those little signs they have in offices that say ‘Thimk’
‘Yes. That way when you want to find your personal things, they’ll be at your fingertips. Take those new red undies of yours. If you store them with the others and place them ready for the next day, things will go smoothly. Do you know where they are now?’
‘Now let me see. They’re not around my ankles right now. I think they’re in this top drawer.’ He pulled it out. There were a few pair of other colours and some odd socks. But no red undies. He went through all his drawers but no trace of the undies. Finally, after rummaging through all his cupboards he found them under his mattress. ‘It’s always the last place you look,’ he declared.
‘Of course it is, Craig! Thimk about it. Why would you keep looking after you’ve found them?’
Apart from throwing the odd wobbler, Craig seemed devoid of the thuggish instincts that drove others of his cohort to rape, rob blind, and muss up anyone and everyone who stood in their way. All there about where this would lead him, Craig wanted to take control of his future. He kept his nose clean, putting up with the bullying and extortions of the more hardened, tattooed inmates, but was able to defend himself when the horseplay became too aggressive. I could sense an energy trying to break through, emotions un-examined but urgent.
He oscillated effortlessly from emotionally neglected, moody child to streetwise slicker in a syllable, at once sympathetic and troublesome, cocky yet troubled. Not surprisingly one of his favourite songs was “Hurricane” the protest song by Bob Dylan about the wrongful imprisonment of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter. Craig took great relish in peppering us with its rich details and impolite truths, embarrassing the legal system by coming off smarter than every lawyer, cop, and jury on the case:
“How can the life of such a man
Be in the palm of some fool’s hand?
To see him obviously framed
Couldn’t help but make me feel ashamed to live in a land
Where justice is a game.”
In class his mind was usually miles away.
‘What’s the matter, Craig?’ asked his teacher.
‘You don’t want to know, Sir.’
Endlessly fidgeting, he twisted his arm around his head as if trying to strangle himself. He rubbed his eye furiously, fingering his shirt buttons, smacking his lips and scrunching up his body.
‘Craig, do you have difficulty hearing? his teacher asked.
‘No Sir, I just have difficulty listening.’
‘Craig, I don’t think you’re really following me.’
‘Sir, I don’t think you’re really saying anything to me.’
Yet he wanted to read, badly. He asked me if I could read him good night stories – I worked night shifts as well. Having vouched for him, I was denied approval for this.
Stirred crazy, forlorn of hope, eyes glazed, feet fidgeting, staring into space, he expressed terminal boredom with school: ‘It feels like I’m in a coma. Time stands still. The walls are closing in on me. My world around is crumbling down. I switch right off when the teachers drone on flogging some dead horse.’
‘Craig, I said, trying to convince him otherwise,’ only the boring get bored. You’re not boring. You’ve got hidden talent.’
‘My head hurts in class. It keeps falling on the desk.’
‘Wake up and live, Craig. Life is one big road with lots of signs. So, when you riding through the ruts, don’t you complicate your mind.’
‘It already is. The only difference I see between a rut and a grave is the depth.’
‘Craig, When you’re chewing on life’s gristle, don’t grumble. Give a whistle. This’ll help things turn out for the best.’
I had to catch his head once. ‘Do you need a pillow, Craig?’ asked his teacher?’
‘We’re told these are the best years of our lives,’ Craig told me. I can’t take this anymore. ‘Hah. I’m out of here if this goes on any longer. I’ll take the ‘midnight express.’ In a later conversation he was reluctant to say much.
‘Out with it,’ I said. ‘It’s no good to bottle it up.’
‘They’re coming to take me away ha haaa ho ho hee hee,’ he sang, ‘and I’ll be happy to see those nice young men in their clean white coats getting out the syringe.’
He intimated that he would use heroin if it were available.
‘That’s enough of those thoughts,’ I told him. ‘‘You can be happy if you’ve a mind to. You’ve got your whole life ahead of you. All is not lost.’
‘If all is not lost, where is it?’
’I conveyed my concern about this needless self-destructive tendency to my superior officers who had duty of care. I stressed the impact that literacy, reading and writing, books and words, can have on the lives of those incarcerated. For those such as Rubin Carter, books were his only friends. These and Dylan’s lyrics were about to literally set him free. Now, that’s the awesome power of the written word.
I argued strenuously to management that I be allowed to supplement educationally what the school was unable to provide him with. I argued that I be allowed to create a more engaging classroom climate for learning: raising student expectations; developing a rapport with students; establishing routines; challenging students to participate and take risks. A preventative approach to problems encouraging active learning in students – understanding that the goal is learning, not silence.
As with this report I agree the reasons for student disengagement complex. They arise from personal problems and because students find the subject not interesting, too hard or too easy. These latter factors can have overcome by allowing appropriate resources to allow each to develop at their own rate.
‘Don’t worry,’ I was told. ‘We’ll take care of this.’
As with my casual work previously, my Member of Parliament informed the Minister of Education and pointed again to the numerous inconsistencies, consistency and politics never being bedmates. ‘If we are intending to try to find consistency in the Department of Education,’ he said, ‘we’re going to look for a long, long time.’
Hoping against hope, he likened me to being caught in a bureaucratic web. It was one that became widely dragged out timewise. It required someone who cleaved to party principles, a books not bars, bold stroke approach, no weasel wordsmith impersonating a progressive politician, to cut through this. Someone who stood up to the conservative opposition, not for them. Someone who’d extract his digit, not hold it up to test which way the wind was blowing.
Bend with it a little maybe, but not way over backwards. Hmph! Once again, the Member’s words fell on deaf ears. The conclusion was foregone. True to form this two timing ‘Honourable’ reprobate gave the thumbs down. Refusing to budge, the smartest guy in the room declared the matter to be closed, far and away more interested in asserting his power and finding a sacrificial lamb than ensuring that justice is served. Well, wasn’t that the limit! Cavalierism at its most imperious.
It wasn’t as though he was unaware of the qualities necessary for resolving this situation. He would go on to eulogise a colleague for his ‘loyalty, courtesy, competence and common touch’, the very qualities he failed to display in my case.
Blast and damnation, my work as a youth worker was abruptly terminated, effective as of then, without discussion. No more fresh starts. I was to all intents and purposes blacklisted, my career prospects stunted, no if’s, but’s or maybe’s.
The same old story. Punching above my weight, any thrusting ambition I held to improve educational standards working within the constipated system was dealt a hard knock on the head. Some brown-nosed sticks-in the mud sure had it in enough for me. They should live in infamy.
Death by Default.
You can tell a man by his enemies and mine are a right pack of bastards.
“The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of a doubt, what is laid before him.”
Not long after, one of the other youth workers I came across informed me that Craig Dunne had OD’d.
‘Tell me this isn’t happening,’ was my reply.’
Pow! This was a real kick in the teeth for me. There was a lower force at work here. He’d been taken care of all right.
‘Surely I’ll be called on to give evidence at an inquiry’, I put to him, in the interests of full disclosure. ‘Surely any education department worthy of its name wouldn’t impede this?’
‘You wish. I’m afraid it doesn’t work like that. There’s a marked discrepancy between departmental titles and those who carry out its activities .
Is the Education Department run by educators? Is Community Services run by humanitarians? Is the Police Department run by criminologists?
‘And they call themselves public servants. They should be charged for contravening the Trade Description Act.’
‘If it’s an inquiry into these matters you’re looking for, save it. It’s not going to happen. Your word won’t hold up against those of your detractors. You’re entering a labyrinth of lies. Don’t lose yourself in it.’
‘The truth of the matter has to be brought out into the open.’
‘And where will it get you, trying to find this bright shiny truth. A lot of good? You don’t go hunting such big game, shooting high without any backup. Your case has been closed before it’s even opened. They keep cases like yours cold, sealing them with tape, tying them up with a bow. That gives them time to cover their tracks. It’s always the way. These are kids they’d rather forget. Any attempt on your part to expose this on the basis of what you know will never see the light of day.’
‘What about the law?’
‘The only law they obey is their own. Their concern is that if you get a hearing other similar cases will be considered in the same way. They’ll treat you like a leper. Don’t beat yourself up about it. What chance have you got in this case? Don’t be a martyr. Do you think anyone cares? It’s easier for them to kill any unwelcome messenger.’
‘They see no evil, hear no evil and speak no truths. It’s up to us to set the record straight about these matters.’
‘People don’t care about the truth. They only care about the future.’
‘They have to learn the connection between them.’
‘What makes a person crazy enough to become a government school teacher in NSW?’ If you find out, please let me know.’
Eventually the correctional facility attracted publicity when a number of children turned up dead. The department responsible for their welfare couldn’t account for the children in its charge. With neither hide nor hair of them, it said they had ‘run away or something’. Such nonfeasance. For it, people count for nowt. One teacher at the school would be stabbed to death on the job. It really was what one Minister for Education would categorise as a ‘Death Trap’. Those entrusted with protecting them had failed them. Truth be told they didn’t even try. The child welfare administration still was what one of its heads had described several years earlier as something out of ”the Dickensian age”.
I thought of the words of a more contemporary writer, John Steinbeck: “There is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation. There is a sorrow here that weeping cannot symbolize. There is a failure here that topples all our success.’
The government began talking up their scheme for appointing ‘lead teachers’ for government schools. So called teachers who would ‘initiate and lead activities that focus on improving educational opportunities for students and for inspiring colleagues to improve their own professional practice’. Some said what Yasmar School needed was not its own politically correct teacher but its own coroner. I heard the children there had chosen to write an essay with the title : ‘What I’m going to be if I grow up.’
Any consideration of my prescient thoughts about Craig Dunne was out of the question. For the eugenist agenda it was a triumph. Keeping the matter under wraps, The Ministry of Education could kill two birds with the one stone. Judge, jury, and misprisioner all scrooged into one, it had found getting rid of teachers child’s play. As for children, officials could stand by and watch as they suffered without having to lift a finger to protect them. They were dead easy.
Such a great lurk for these officials, observing rather than serving. They got paid top dollar while they kicked this political football into the tall grass. Where all their mistakes got buried.
I made an appointment with the Director of Personnel. I was kept kicking my heels outside his door for an hour.
His secretary said ‘
‘The Director is tied up with another visitor at present. I hope you don’t mind waiting.’
‘I’m uncommonly good at waiting. You could say I invented it.’
Finally one of his subordinates offered to look into my case himself. When I sat down with him, he pulled the file on some other teacher.
I saw this bungle as the Director attempting to fob me off. I insisted on seeing him and him alone: ‘I’m here to talk to the organ grinder not the monkey,’ I told the underling.
Finally His Majesty deigned to receive me. ‘Have him come in,’ I heard him command.
‘Would you come this way please.’ I was summoned.
This saturnine grey suit in his big, easy chair, refused from the moment I was shown in to hear me out properly.
‘Mr. Davis, let’s skip the preliminaries. Now what’s all this about you wanting to be re-instated,’ he said with cool civility. His pale eyes flashing, he seemed as cold blooded as an old lizard on a rock.
I tried to imagine him with a personality.
‘The Department had no call to do what it did. The reason goes beyond my ability and professionalism. I want to know why I’ve been broken out of the teaching service. All I’m told is I’m ‘unsatisfactory’. Can you let me in on your little secret.’
‘Let me just say it’s not for no reason. Suppose you let us be the best judges of this.’
‘You think what I don’t know won’t hurt me. Well it does.’
As I looked directly at him, I could tell there was nobody home. His attitude was dismissive, his jaw clenching, his back straightening as soon as I told him what I was appealing.
‘‘My dismissal was issued without proper cause,’ ’I continued, ’What do you think is the real reason?’
‘Try not to live up to my expectations if you will’, he replied, ’‘I don’t know.’
‘Do you mean ‘I don’t know’, or ‘ I don’t want to know?’
He had a habit of not adding inflection to the end of his sentences producing awkward silences with the impression that he’d be saying more, any moment.
‘Mr. Davis, I don’t care for your tone. You make more insinuations than I care to hear. I don’t like it when people try to put words into my mouth.’
I had no choice. It was like pulling teeth to get a straight answer from him.
Maybe I didn’t know sufficiently how it works. Was it blink once for ‘yes’ and blink twice for ‘no’?
Of course to be fair, just because he didn’t seem to care didn’t mean he wasn’t listening.
‘Make a move,’ I told him in my mind, ‘nod, grunt or something positive.’
‘May I ask you a question?’ I said finally.
‘Excuse me for putting you out but don’t you have anything to say about this gross travesty of justice?’
‘No comment’ is a comment. Surely, you’d know this. You’re telling me something without telling me anything. Can’t you just come out off the record with what you think personally.’
‘Asked and answered.’
‘You haven’t answered anything.’
‘‘What I think doesn’t make any difference. My personal feelings on your case are neither here nor there.’
‘So where are they? Would you at least tell me what you’re going to do about this so we don’t have this conversation again in future?’
He kept his arms crossed much of the appointed time of my interview, staring off into the distance.
‘For someone dealing with human resources,’ I thought looking at him, ‘you certainly have a way with people. Your sense of empathy must have been surgically removed.’
‘I’ll never understand some people,’ I said to myself under my breath.
‘What was that?! I heard that!’ he cried, coming to life.
‘I said I need to understand what’s going on.’
‘Mr. Davis, you might not believe this now but I’m here to help you with that. I’ve been fully briefed about your case. It says in my file you have a rather questionable attitude to authority. You’ve just demonstrated this to me. We’ve got you for insubordination. This is not part of the job description.’
‘What do you want? A signed confession.’
‘No, just a realisation. There is a limit you know. We’re aware you consider yourself outside the normal chain of command by which decisions are made but let me remind you this is a service, not a unilateralist, laissez-faire free for all. Anything doesn’t go.’
‘Come now, that’s very reductive. You can do better than that. I’ve always gone strictly by the book.’
‘The book hasn’t been rewritten with just you in mind. And let me tell you something else. The Department is generous but can’t allow a probationary teacher to take such liberties, and you have. You didn’t win any awards for that. I don’t think I need to remind you of the tremendous responsibility we have.’
‘Please tell me something I don’t already know.’
‘Don’t come that tone with me. It appears you’ve veered off the rails, and in your case, I use the term advisedly. You’re too out-there. You’ve taken a step too far.’
‘I was just getting started.’
‘We’ve already determined that your relaxed approach–‘
‘‘I’d say that’s a fair assessment.’
‘— your easy-going teaching style, well-intentioned I’m sure, led to pupils taking advantage of this. It’s immaterial whether students like you or not. We’re not in business to be loved but we are in business. Let me put it another way. You’re not here to win fans. You’re the ringmaster.’
‘One who you’ve thrown to the lions.’
‘Children’s advancement depends on their respect for you. You let them become over-familiar, slaphappy and argumentative. They were disagreeing with things your colleagues were telling them.’
‘I was developing their systematic reasoning.’
‘You failed to take them in hand.’
‘A very swift deduction if I may be so bold as to correct you. Some nasty little fanciful accusations based on nothing more than supposition, guesswork and clairvoyancy. Congratulations, for someone who wasn’t there.’
‘‘You let your emotions cloud your judgement. Your pupils got way out of line.’
‘So you’re playing that old game. Guilt by coincidence. You put two and two together to make eight.’
‘I’ll trouble you to remember ‘Concord’ means harmony. This went by the bye when you arrived. Everyone was happy ’til you came without a thought for anyone else but yourself and stirred them up.’
‘That makes nine.’
‘You had it coming. Our experienced personnel have given you every opportunity to mend your ways. My guess is—-’
‘Guessing is not what you’re good at.’
‘You display a fondness for dramatic exaggeration. It doesn’t serve you well. It is a characteristic you might want to reflect upon. Now listen here, our officers have got a good idea of where your problem was coming from. They’re not just stirring the dirty water to see what jumps out of it.’
‘I’m glad you mentioned that. I tried my very best to test it with them all along. To clean it up.’
‘Mr. Davis, we’re not here to discuss your ethics. If you want to refer to a professional code you can send it to me via a letter to my secretary. Let’s get this straight about the reason why. We’re not at all happy about your failure to comply.’
‘Humph! And I’m not happy with the shoddy way I’ve been treated to be perfectly honest. In all truth, I always used my better judgement. As the person on the spot, I consider my judgement more relevant than that of those riding antique desks in elegant Bridge Street offices.’
‘Now see here. You’re only here as a gesture of goodwill on the Department’s part. I didn’t allow you to come here just to be insulted.’
Now there sat a man with an open mind. I could feel the draft.
‘Am I to be marked down forever? Doesn’t my continued service warrant my re-instatement? ’
‘What of it? There’s no question of your being re-employed. We’ve concluded you’re not a fit and proper person to carry out the required role. Your approach is incongruent with the overall running of the Service. It doesn’t suit our purpose. Why should you be left off the hook for doing your own thing? This won’t happen. Not tomorrow, the day after or ever for that matter. Let it go at that and be done with it. You’re being recalled to work was nothing more than an unfortunate accident.’
‘We know all about the Department and it’s ‘accidents’.’
‘All right, that will do. All large institutions are accident prone, even ours. So what? These clerical oversights don’t change anything. The fact of the matter is that you were on trial.’
‘While the Department has been on trial and error.’
‘Your case has been thoroughly assessed. Our officers have acted entirely within the scope of their responsibilities. They made suggestions to you which you didn’t act upon.’
‘What kind of actions are you thinking of?’
‘I think you’re the only one who missed the subtext there. You see, for most of us, the word ‘suggestion’ is understood as synonymous with ‘obligation’.
‘Perhaps I’m not all that attuned to subtext.’
‘Whatever. But let me assure you our final decision has been carefully, seriously considered and not taken lightly. In view of your attitude, we’re standing by it. Your tendency to operate alone and your somewhat obsessive behaviour has brought complications. It has left you in an untenable situation. We haven’t been able to protect you or defend your conduct.’
No you listen. You have exposed the Service to public ridicule, causing unnecessary concern, making people think their children are not achieving as they should. At Concord High it’s been all about damage limitation. This couldn’t go on. You know where this has to go. I would love to say this isn’t going to hurt, but it will. I’ll be brutally frank with you. You’ll never work in a N.S.W. government school again, so get used to it.’
‘Just like that.’
‘It’s only fair to warn you that it would be wise for you now to consider where else you might wish to pursue your career.’
‘Everything I’ve done in the Service has been for my country and to further the interests of my fellow citizens. I had no choice.’
‘Now if you don’t mind I’ve had a long day, I’m slightly busy and these chairs are not well padded.’
‘I’m sorry to have trespassed on your valuable time and comfort.’
‘Look, I’ve got an office to run, I have other engagements and I’m not in the mood for further argument. Let me put it in words of one syllable. Don’t call us. We’ll call you. I believe we’re done here.’
‘But I didn’t get to—‘
‘Which part of the word “no” don’t you understand – the ‘n’ or the ‘o’?’
‘Is this the part where you ask me, ‘Read my lips?’
‘Mr. Davis, thank you! Now before you leave, I want to tell you something, because it will explain things. You see, I have a very jaundiced view of life.’
‘I do see that.’
From what I see, most of it is corrupt, venal and vile. I am just saying this so that you know that I don’t have a better nature to appeal to, or a compassionate streak. I mean, you do understand don’t you.’
I got the strong feeling I wasn’t wanted there. To expedite my departure he took my arm to steer me towards the door.
‘Excuse me’, I said, brushing it off, ‘I think you inadvertently placed your hand upon my arm.’
‘That wasn’t inadvertent. Hey why am I even talking to you. I’m not going to listen—-‘
‘—to any more of this.’
‘‘Mr. Davis, Unless you’re a clairvoyant you don’t know what I’m going to say next. I don’t like it when people finish my sentences for me.’
‘Don’t push it. Let me remind you you’re only here by my grace and favour and both have rapidly run out. Kindly leave now or else.’
‘You don’t mean that surely’, I said. I didn’t need no fascist groove thang.
I didn’t, deciding judiciously, to leave before he could sic his security onto me to escort me from the building..
‘Do you believe in anything,’ I asked this empty suit before leaving, ‘or are you wholly bought and paid for?’
‘We’re all bought and paid for Mr. Davis. I just don’t pretend otherwise.’
‘Tell me this, how do you manage to sleep at night?’
‘I never drink coffee after 6 p.m. Now off you go.’
Wake up all the teachers time to teach a new way
Maybe then they’ll listen to whatcha have to say
They’re the ones who’s coming up and the world is in their hands
when you teach the children teach em the very best you can.
Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes
I find parallels in the boots and all way I was treated with that of a host of other idealistic teachers as depicted on film, our common denominator being at the outside an independence of mind at the outside. The most celebrated in this well-established genre is the foursquare Latino maths teacher, Jaime Escalante, on whose experience, with some dramatic licence, the movie “Stand and Deliver” is based. An inspirational teacher he motivated his street wise students to sit for the Advanced Placement examination in calculus. His program was rivalled by those of only a handful of exclusive academies.
My task was to talk students through the maths leading up to calculus. In the lead up to exams, I reminded them if they didn’t think they had the ability, ‘Remember half the people you know are below average.’
In maths the professional has to check their solution for accuracy to show whether or not they have done the work correctly. .Even though they may have gone through every step of the operational procedure correctly, any mistake throughout may throw out the correct conclusion.
After working hard to complete tedious computations or multiple steps, kids are reluctant to go back and check their work. If their final solution was wrong, I got my students in the habit of going back through their work to check for errors.
I knew the score. My approach was to relate the maths to everyday life as far as possible.
‘That’s the wheel you’re thinking about. But let’s get the credit straight, the bloke who invented the first wheel was an idiot; the bloke who invented the other three…he was the genius.
‘Do you understand now?’ I said to one boy after I tried explaining coplanar lines to him?’
‘Well, yes, but but it beats me why I need to know this stuff. Because, I mean seriously, like, who, like, calculates coplanar lines, slopes and angles?’
‘Why should I learn Algebra? I’m never likely to go there.’
’Why should I learn to solve exponential equations. I don’t believe in higher powers.
‘Why should I learn statistics?’
‘Didn’t you hear of of the fellow who drowned in a river? The sign on the bank read, ‘Average depth one metre.’
Didn’t you hear of the fellow who believed that if you put your head in a furnace and your feet in a bucket of iced water, on the average you should feel reasonably comfortable’.
‘Sir, I have difficulty understanding fractions.’
‘Not to worry. You’re not alone. Five thirds of people have the same problem.’
In explaining the arithmetic mean I made reference to the census. I illustrated it by calculating the average number of children per family. ‘Simply put you get the sum of the children in each family divided by the number of families. if family A has one child and family B has two then their average is 1.5.’
‘Please Sir, what kind of parents can have half a child?’
The parents of Bob and Ruth.’
‘There are few people these days interested in Roman numerals. I is one.’
‘A curve,’ replied a love-struck boy I had asked for its definition, ‘is the loveliest distance between two points.’
On the subject of points, I wrote 10.9 on the blackboard and then rubbed out the decimal point to show the effect of multiplying this number by ten.
‘Jim,” I asked, “where is the decimal point now?’
“On the blackboard duster” came back the quick reply.
‘Why do we have to clog up our brains with these figures and numbers?’ said one girl, rubbishing the products of centuries of sustained inquiry.
Her tribute was less than complimentary: ‘To those gyppos who first thought of the idea of zero, thanks for nothing!’
As the time for exams bore down closer, I had to rule out explaining the use for everything.I would then argue that the result of the exercise would be to sharpen their logic and if nothing else help them get good grades. After which they could find the reasons themselves.
I even managed to throw in some background music such as the Kraftwerk number ‘Pocket Calculator’. Provided with my worksheets, my students were as diligent as any students will be if everything is prepared beforehand. Not surprisingly they passed their exams with flying colours and no one challenged this.
Escalante’s students surprised the US in 1982 when 18 of them passed the Advanced Placement calculus exam. The Educational Testing Service found the scores suspect and asked 14 of the students who passed to sit for the test again. All 12 who agreed did well enough to have their scores reinstated. In the following years the program grew phenomenally with similar success. Equally phenomenal was the precipitous collapse of the program following Escalante’s departure and the fact that it went virtually unnoticed. Garfield High lost its principal who had supported his belief in the intellectual potential of disadvantaged youth.
To understand the opposition to Escalante, we have to factor in unprofessional variables. Other colleagues were withering in their scorn for him fighting to turn around the lives of ‘losers’ and ‘unteachables’ – the same piddling putdowns directed at my students. In truth Escalante ran circles around his colleagues. He was of a calibre tangential to an uncaring system, the lack of appreciation didn’t end there. Piffling, shrivelled minds did a number on him from all angles. Escalante had been threatened with dismissal for coming to school too early – the janitor complained about this; Escalante was said to have kept students too late. His students were said to be ‘rambunctious’. Such ludicrous distractive doozies were on a par with that of Concord High where I was held responsible when a boy allegedly fell off his chair. I was too preoccupied with him balancing his equations to notice. I needed to watch both the political as well as the intellectual side of the education equation.
In Escalante’s story arc things reached a new nadir. He received threats and hate mail. The public attention he received aroused the green-eyed monster. Brilliant in its absence, the teachers union was upset because his classes were larger than those set by the contract. The vice president of the union said Jaime didn’t get along with some of the teachers at his school. He was pretty much a loner”. This is the same comment as was written about me by an official of the NSW Teacher’s Federation. He said I didn’t spend enough time talking to the other teachers. It’s true, I didn’t spend as much time in small party talk as teachers are encouraged to. Flat chat, I talked to them about what I had to professionally, as you do. Shop talk. No idle chit chat, blither blather, wibble wobble, abba dabba, trifling twiddle twaddle or yakkety yak. No natter. No matter. I was there to make a difference, not to occupy a space. Not to take up with flibbertigibbets. Like Escalante I talked to the students, my eyes on the prize, bringing out the best in them. I encouraged them to see me as a resource, as someone who they have to extract what they can from, as a guide rather than an absolute fount of knowledge, one to be feared. I tip my hat to Escalante and his open-door policy of welcoming into his classes all students who wanted to have a go – a major reason for him making a go of it. Was I, like him, thought guilty of pedagogic Stakhanovism or being a class traitor? Perchance some of my colleagues suspected as much.
‘Qui Docet Discit. He who teaches, learns.’
motto of the N.S.W. Teacher’s Federation.
I certainly learned a lot. Fully aware that campaigning against the edcons’ measures, they having it all their way, the upper hand in terms of the law and resources, was not to be taken lightly. They give teacher campaigns for better pay both barrels, exploiting the common envy that teachers finish work in mid-afternoon and have lengthy holidays, ignoring the fact that most work much outside school hours.
I talked to the president of the Federation whose mother was a colleague. I pointed out that yielding to them allowed them to single out teachers individually.
‘This is the thin end of the wedge,” I told him. ‘It will allow them to pick us off, give more the chop, for the Federation to lose more ground and to be brought to its knees. Then we’re all goners.’
I attended a mass meeting of the Federation organized around the sacking of another colleague who had refused a forcible transfer. Unable to get in, I addressed the meeting about my situation from outside the building. I didn’t need a microphone to be heard.
Back from lunch, the Federation machinery suddenly swung into action with respect to my case. They sent me a letter informing me that because I didn’t have the approval of the Department, I couldn’t belong to the Federation anymore.
Thrown under the bus, wrapped around the axle, I saw the machinery from under the bonnet. The wheels weren’t grinding. The apparatchiks were asleep at the wheel. I learned fast. This was a closed club. Catch 22.
The Premier in waiting had achieved his goal of banning specific members from belonging to trade unions. As of then his Minister refused to talk further to Teacher’s Federation representatives. He went incommunicado.
Whatever the case, unfazed, unable to draw a line under it, I steadfastly dug my heels in. I was never one to snap. If the edcons were so dead set on stonewalling me at every turn, I would press on, hammering away, in whatever way I could. I didn’t have any choice.