The corridors of the school were always busy during the breaks. Then as now we had hooks outside our classroom where we hung our bags. Inside were desks at which two people could sit. There was a lift up lid invariably covered in penned notes like John Loves Betty or Mr Stafford has a pig face. Sometimes they were carved with knives and if you did that the trick was to smudge the new carving with lead pencil or ink to disguise the fresh cuts in the wood. You were dumb if you wrote something like Loz was ere so that people could identify you but even then if you had a clever tag you could always deny it was you. Foo was here was one I used to use together with the face that now I think of it looked like a penis drooped over a fence.
We started writing with pencil but some time around Grade 2 we graduated to fountain pens. We were constantly reminded not to make a mess. With Fountain Pens? Were they kidding, you couldn’t help but make a mess. I dunno what blotting paper was supposed to do but it didn’t clean up spilt ink.
The front of the class was dominated by a huge blackboard and some teachers were particularly good at drawing all sorts of wondrous things in multi-coloured chalks. Others simply used it to denote what the days lessons were going to be. There really were times when some of us had to write “I’ve been a naughty boy” just like Bart Simpson.
Above the blackboard were two things – a world map much of it coloured in pink to denote the British Empire’s extent and the other a PA system over which the famous lunchtime message about Mr Stafford used to blare.
History was British in those days. We were taught about Julius Caesar and the Roman Invasion, about the Vikings and the Angles Saxons and Jutes, of Alfred the Great and William the conqueror, the Spanish Armada, and the conquering of the new World. Never mind that Christopher Columbus was an Italian in the employ of the Queen of Spain, he had an English name, in fact I even had a few Christophers in my class.
I clearly remember when Francis Chichester became the first person to sail solo around the world in the Gypsy Moth IV because Mr. Stafford used to teach us for an hour each day and he would keep us updated on his voyage. It was a triumph of Empire and Chichester later became Sir Farncis, just like Sir Franics Drake who famously played bowls whilst the Spanish Armada approached. Here was British chutzpah at its best, brave men doing monumentally brave things just because they could. I think most of us dreamed of being a knight in those days. We of course had no idea that the Empire was in fact on its last legs and Great Britain was in the process of losing the adjective great if not the name.
Australian history was made to look boring. We didn’t learn anything about the convict era other than the First Fleet and even then the story was about Arthur Phillip and John McArthur rather than the thieves, trollops and charlatans that were the true founders of the country. We learnt of the Rim Rebellion and little about Eureka. Of course the explorers featured heavily in what we were taught, Cook, Blaxland Wentworth and Lawson, Bass and Flinders, Burke and Wills, and always in the context of the valour and heroism of the British. Now it’s unfashionable to teach these things, the black armband view of history may have perhaps taken things too far the other way. But at least now more of the truth is taught.
Every morning we had an assembly where we’d line up in our classes and say the Creed –
“I love God and my country, I honour the flag…”and I’ll be buggered if my brain can actually remember the rest of it. And then, just before we’d March off to the drumming of side drums and the thump of a bass drum we’d all sing God Save the Queen at the tops of our voices.
In Grade 6 I was one of the reserve drummers, not good enough to be in the permanent band I was only called upon to step in when someone was away sick, which wasn’t all that often.
The PA system was not only used for making announcements like rainy day timetables or short lunch times which occurred on rainy days so that we could get let out early, but it was an educator in it’s own right. The ABC “For Schools” program broadcast all sorts of things, many of which were slanted towards our British History. Before Anzac Day every year we were told the story of Gallipoli and of Australian heroes like Simpson and his donkey, we weren’t told of the disastrous decisions of the British High Command who sent thousands of young Australians to their deaths. We were told about the Rats of Tobruk but not of the disaster at Singapore. Australians fought for King and Empire and we were living free because of it.
Apart from the pink on the map we also knew of the Iron and Bamboo curtains behind which lurked enemies who were hell bent on destroying our way of life. We were told to fear the yellow peril we were shit scared of the specter of nuclear war and were never sure when the Red Chinese or the Russians were going to launch an attack on us. But even if an A Bomb fell all we needed to do was close our eyes, cover our ears and hide beneath the school desk. Buggered if I know what we were supposed to do if at happened when we weren’t at school. But it wasn’t a constant fear, life went on normally, we only got scared when we got told about it. We were the lucky generation who grew up in the aftermath of a world war at a time of great prosperity and whilst we were told we had enemies that only made us stronger.
And we were also fed religion over the PA every Easter as well. We walked with Jesus as he shouldered the cross, we sailed the Ark with Noah and learnt of the baby in the bull rushes and how he lead his people from Egypt. We were scared by the story of Sodom and Gomorah and booed Judas as he betrayed the Lord. Religion wasn’t force fed, it was simply part of the school year at those times when it was deemed important.
But it wasn’t all doom and gloom we also had singing lessons. We sang songs published in an ABC song book distributed to us each year and we were delivered school papers which contained stories, poems and songs for us to learn on a weekly basis. We learnt such classics like Click go the Shears and sang rounds of Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree and Row Row Row your Boat. I don’t think there were any songs under 50 years old that were in our repertoire. But we learnt the same stuff our parents had learnt before us and for all I know what my grandparents had learnt as well.
And that theory was born out by the early reading books we had. We all learnt to read with John and Betty – “This is John. This is Betty. John can run. Betty can run too.” It’s a wonder any of us learnt to love reading. But sometime in around Grade 3 or 4 the teacher came into the class with a big box of puffin books that we were allowed to borrow and take home. I can remember one book in particular “The Weirdstone of Brisingamen” and the author Henry Treece who wrote historical novels. And it was then that my love of reading began.
Part 3 in a couple of days but here's a challenge in the meantime. Some of you know me now as a grey haired old bloke so let's test your powers of observation - pick me out in the photos and leave a comment with the year and the position I'm in. :)