Education and schooling were critically important to my parents, and have since become critically important to me. These days I can appreciate learning for learning’s sake (which is one of my excuses for doing pretty much bugger all with my teaching degree), the joy of books (explaining the great dusty slabs waiting for me on my bedside table), the power of rational, informed thinking and the value of being able to make oneself understood through the efficient use of correct spelling, grammar and punctuation. Granted, I’m about as useful with mathematics as Anna-Nicole Smith, but you can’t know everything.
My father was involved with our school’s P&C association, and once even invited our sixth-grade teacher to a barbecue at our house. He was no stranger to our teachers, and my brother and sister and I were happy to let him get as involved as he liked because we didn’t know any different and subsequently wouldn’t have it any other way. We were all more than ready to start school by the time we did, as our education had already begun at home. Riotous spelling bees around the dinner table were a frequent occurrence, and child-friendly encyclopaedias lined one wall of the study. A favourite family story has my father fronting up to the headmistress’s office at Mimosa Public School with my then-four-year-old brother Michael, the first of us to nudge institutionalised-education age, to attend a meeting discussing his early start in big-guy school. Dad strode into the office with a copy of the Sydney Morning Herald, which he deposited on Miss Davidson’s desk. “He can already read that from cover to cover”, he announced in a cool, matter-of-fact fashion. “He’s here to learn some social skills”. I don’t care if you’re cringing right now. I reckon that’s awesome.
Mum and Dad experimented a little with our pre-school education, sending us to an experimental school called Kinma for a short time. To parents and teachers, Kinma was a progressive, vaguely Steiner-esque co-operative school at which individual needs were addressed through a curriculum of self-directed activities, social interaction and organic progression. To us, it was a place where we learned batik, ran around the ‘drama space’ and made pizza. For some reason, I still have an undying love of pizza, but can’t stand hippies.
By the time we all reached high school, we pretty much had the swing of the whole learning thing. We’re those loathsome people who say that most wretched of things – that we found school easy. My brother found it so frustratingly easy that he sought out his own challenges with a series of self-directed projects, such as tying all the chair legs together in English or sewing a star into his palm in Home Science. I had a reasonable rapport with most of my teachers in high school, being a goody-two-shoes with a pathological desire to impress people, albeit wrapped in a package that shaved parts of her head and went into joyous spasm whenever a new Depeche Mode album was released. One teacher in particular, Mr O’Brien, had met Dad a few times due to his enthusiastic involvement with our school lives, and to my mild embarrassment singled me out in Year Twelve Modern History, mentioning my father a number of times in front of the rest of the class. Mr O’Brien was at one time a terrifying spectre of discipline, and at other times a bit of an oddity who patted the trees in the quad and extremely rarely displayed an awkward sense of humour that nobody understood. If you were ever called into his office, which people often were due to his role as Deputy Principal, you knew you were well and truly busted. He was that one teacher that represented the most dire punishments and the most balefully disapproving glares. I’ll never know if he actually made Modern History either come alive or die a tedious and slow death, because he was the only Modern History teacher I ever had. I spent most of my time in his class being quietly jealous of the kids in Ancient History, who were poring over illustrated texts about blood-soaked gladiators and Bacchanalian bum-orgies while I waded through joyless, dense texts about economic fluctuations and whatever the Luftwaffe was up to.
Because of my parents’ devotion to the getting of book-learnin’, our attendance at school was exemplary. Even on days when most teachers were on strike, and therefore most parents didn’t make their children go to school, off we would go with a packed lunch and an entrenched scowl. We’d wander through the almost deserted halls and attend sparsely-populated classes while teachers (probably) read magazines behind the desk and prompted us to engage in ‘self-directed study’. Everybody had a good old tedious bludge in between bursts of schoolbell.
Except in Modern History class. As I waited outside the door for Mr O’Brien and other students to arrive, I realised with horror that no other students were arriving. I was going to be the only person in the class, a double-period, with a teacher I was equal parts terrified and scared of. Eventually he showed up, uncharacteristically late, and opened the door heavily, indicating that I should take my seat. I noticed that his eyes were red, and briefly wondered if the predictable rumour about him keeping a hip-flask of Scotch in his desk drawer was true.
After fifteen uncomfortable minutes, Mr O’Brien looked at me with his bloodshot eyes and asked if I had a cat. “Um... yes”, I tentatively answered, wondering how that related to the post-war period. He said that he had a cat, too.
Until this morning, when his cat had died.
It dawned on me with considerable globs of doom and desperation that he had been crying. Then, with the urge to sprint away from this desperately uncomfortable situation making my legs twitch, I realised that he was - present tense - crying.
Imagine the most awkward situation you’ve ever been in. Now, put that situation in a vise for a year, mix in a teenager’s inexperience with anything even remotely related to empathy, then talk to a crying deputy principal about his cat for an hour and a half.
There has never, in the history of grossly anxious situations, been a more welcome school bell.
We never spoke of it again.
I passed Modern History.