The back to school blues


Pencil and paperBACK TO SCHOOL shout the billboards and shop window displays and it's still only mid January. I suppose this infuriates present day kids as much as it used to stir my juvenile ire. Well, if it doesn't, it ought to because it's a kind of theft of time. Like the table of hot cross buns in our local Woollies: six-pack specials, more than three months before Good Friday.

For former teachers, 'Back to School' probably arouses other, less youthful associations.

After spending the first two years of my working life very enjoyably at a northern Victoria technical school, I returned to the city and an appointment to a new and still growing suburban high school. The headmaster, a large, rubicund bloke accustomed to revelling in both the responsibilities and the pomp and rituals of leadership, told me when I introduced myself a few days before the term started that he had 'two buffoons' on his staff and he was intent on reducing not adding to their number.

On the first day of term I arrived at a few minutes to nine and signed the time book for 8.30, as was the custom. The time-book was an insulting, unprofessional imposition that I and others refused to respect and which would be soon swept away in the upheavals to come. Anyway, on that morning, having scribbled in the book, I was walking past the head's office when he appeared in the doorway.

'Matthews!' he bellowed (a bellow was his normal decibel level). I kept walking.

'Matthews!' he roared again (a roar was his default vocal position). I kept going.

'Mr Matthews!' he positively exploded. I stopped.

'Did you not hear me?' he said, as I approached with a carefully manufactured look of puzzlement on my face.

'I answer to "Brian" or "Mr",' I said, as my father had taught me, 'nothing in between.'

You could see from his beetrooty features that his entire physical and spiritual being was tossing up between having apoplexy and hooking me under the jaw.

Of course, he did neither, subconsciously recognising that, insufferably smartarse and disrespectful though my reply had been, it had a certain justification: times were changing and just as the time-book, resting on its stand behind us as we confronted each other, had had its day, so the custom of treating trained professional teachers like flunkies would no longer stand up.

It was a passing, slightly ridiculous encounter but, as so often in such otherwise ephemeral moments, it was a small, visible manifestation of gathering currents of dissidence awaiting their hour and the more crucial confrontations of the '60s.

But, for myself, I was poised for flight. I had not sorted out what were the certainties, if any, in my life, or what were the priorities. I was probably part of a very large, persuasive and powerful stirring among the young of that time in Australia's still rather stitched-up cities, but how could I know that?

Sailing away at the end of the year expunged all other considerations. With three mates, having planned sporadically throughout the previous year — planning usually consisted of drinking beer and poring endlessly over maps of Europe — I boarded the MV Fairsky on Saturday 14 January 1961, the recent significant anniversary of which all four of us saluted.

The Sitmar Line's Fairsky was one of a number of vessels ferrying boatloads of ever more restless youth away to the northern hemisphere and unimaginable adventure. It seemed as if most of the population under 25 was on the move.

It was fairly easy to go; it took a minimum of arranging and the cost was quite manageable — I had an FE Holden in good nick and its sale provided me with the nucleus of my bankroll aside from the fare of, I think, £112.

That's why, if you could have taken an aerial view of the youthful exodus at the turn of the decade, it would have looked like the rabbit plague: not just local patches, but whole hillsides on the move.

But as the money began to run out, a process which, in my case, was made more inevitable when the absolute certainty carrying my last 50 quid came unstuck by a nostril at Catterick Bridge, it was BACK TO SCHOOL.

In October, after driving through Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, we became 'Supply Teachers' in the English system. For a tumultuous three months I taught — using the term very loosely — at Ockendon Courts County Secondary Modern School Essex. More potently than ideological objections to 'the theft of time', it was that institution for resettled East Enders that for me gave the phrase 'Back to School' its peculiarly violent and depressing note.

If it's a choice between thefts of time, give me an early hot cross bun any day. 

Brian MatthewsBrian Matthews is the award winning author of A Fine and Private Place and The Temple Down the Road. He was awarded the 2010 National Biography Award for Manning Clark — A Life

Topic tags: Brian Matthews, back to school, theft of time



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Existing comments

Always good to start the day with Brian Matthews. A beautifuly crafted piece, Brian. Thanks.

Joe Castley | 21 January 2011  

Re. Ockendon Courts County Secondary School – many of us who attended this secondary modern school in the 1950s and 1960s give thanks for our good luck and regard it as a very fine school, a great monument to its’ headteacher Mr Lawrence Larwood. I am sorry Mr Matthews missed what we still value.

Alan Mathison | 15 March 2013  

Well, I for one am grateful for the education I received at Ockendon Courts.Mr clever-clogs was obviously too special to teach there.Many of us went on to higher education.The whole school ethos was positive.This school had brilliant extra-curricular activities.

Jan Mansell O'Connell | 28 October 2014  

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