The old school days

By chance, I discovered today that one of my secondary school teachers had died late last year. I’m sure other teachers have passed on since, and the law of averages suggests that one or two of my school mates will also have. The thing is, a lot of them I could hardly remember now, but this teacher – whose name I won’t give – is easily remembered because she was passionate and slightly eccentric and very caring beneath a gruff exterior. She was always Ms to us, and I think school and teaching was her life.

I talked to a friend the other day who told me he’d been to a performance of The Merry Widow over the weekend. We did that at school, I said. Are you sure he responded sceptically? I wasn’t – in fact, I think it was HMS Pinafore I was thinking of – but it brought back memories of the progressive school I had attended, where we would put on musicals and stage ambitious dramas. Seems odd to think now, but I became involved in that.

Like so many things, it’s hard to believe it’s so long ago. It was a private school in the leafy outer suburbs of Melbourne. We lived in Lower Plenty at the time, and I would catch a bus to Eltham every morning, sharing it with the CLC girls, before catching another bus from Eltham to school. It was a modern, progressive school with cool teachers and a mod attitude. It had a broad curriculum, but the focus, it seems to me, was on the arts and physical development, including but not limited to sports.

A lot of that time remains very clear to me. I can close my eyes and see so much and recall so many moments that it feels almost true that time as we suppose it doesn’t exist – everything is always happening, and always will.

In Form 1, as it was called then, there was a competition across the school to create an artistic representation of the new sports and community centre being built on-site. Every class would submit an entry, but first, the class submission had to be selected. I can remember being set the task and sitting there drawing up my entry – a face-on view of a couple of swimmers with the lane rope between them, stylistically represented. I can recall the teacher looking over my shoulder and commenting, pointing at something I’d drawn.

I had a close relationship with that teacher. She strong-willed and smart, and even as a 12-year old I thought her pretty sexy (though, fair to say, I cottoned onto women a couple of years quicker than my contemporaries). I guess I was her favourite too, for reasons I don’t know. I could draw okay, but I wasn’t a great artist. Perhaps it was that I was imaginative and sensitive. And I was a cute kid.

We were given class time to formally prepare the submission. I had a couple of kids assist me. We painted it onto a board about 4-foot square, and, with every other class submission, it was put on display afterwards. Looking back, I can say the execution lacked something, but it was one of the more interesting designs. Come the end of the year, the whole school gathered and sitting on the lawns, the principal announced the winners. To my great shock, my entry came third, and I can still remember the light-headed feeling I had as I stood and marched across to collect the prize. As if I was an automaton. My mum was so proud!

I had my first kiss at that school and my first lust, if not love. I can recall being kicked out of a rehearsal for some drama production because I was mucking up. I recall moments on the sporting field kicking the winning goal or crunching someone (though I was undersized back then). And the teachers, some of who I was very fond of, and others I did battle with. I look so innocent when you look at photos of me then, but there was something stubborn in me.

Yes, this was me, age about 12 – school photo

A science teacher saw me as his nemesis somehow – I was smart and would blitz tests and then do poorly with my homework because I couldn’t be arsed. One day I finished a test early, and from my back pocket, took out a fold-out comb and began combing my hair. He hated that.

Then there was the famous encounter with my English teacher when I was about 14. I’m sure I’ve told the story before. We’re studying the Greek plays and having a class discussion. I don’t remember exactly how it plays out, but once I recall the feeling, almost as if my body is taken over by something else – a will of its own. I must have said something he disagreed with, or perhaps it was someone else, and I can feel it in me, let it go, let it go, but even as I’m thinking it, I open my mouth and suggest that there are no wrong answers, surely? Are we supposed to leave here knowing Sophocles backwards – or is the point of this to learn how to think and analyse for ourselves?

It seems a precocious answer, but it’s true, though I may not have put it as succinctly as that. He objected, in any case. Perhaps I put him to shame. Backwards and forwards, we went until he suggested that perhaps if I was so sure of myself, I could take my English classes alone. Of course, that’s what I then did until my attendance was demanded…

An economics teacher I quite liked made a statement one day about how there was a student in his class who had never asked a question, and I knew it was me. I didn’t care, and I made up my mind then that I’d finish the year without asking a question. One on one, we would talk, and I remember him lending me E.F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful to read.

And the maths in his own world of formulas and equations. I hated maths. One day, bored with it all, I packed up my stuff while he was writing on the blackboard and climbed out the window next to me, and walked home.

If there was any pattern then, I was rebellious and refused to be constrained or told what to do or how to think. I was a good kid, polite and well mannered and kind, but I had this thing. I was one of the smart kids, but I was also a poor student. I would wag school occasionally and skip classes and was more likely to be found kicking a football around somewhere than studying in our study periods.

Lot’s of other stories.

As it happens, there’s a school reunion this year. I’ve never been to one. Never been much interested and will likely skip this one, too. I’m curious also to see some of my old friends from school. I would bump into the odd one or two once upon a time, but I reckon it’s been 15 years since I last saw anyone from those days.

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