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Shifting Sands

Posts tagged Australian childhood

You know you work in a tough high school when you…

1. feel an overwhelming sense of pride when one of your students cares enough to cheat in an exam.

2. are not surprised to find an uprooted tree in your classroom when returning from lunch break.

3. once had a student suspended for plucking out his pubic hairs and flicking them at the girls during class.

4. have at various times confiscated items found in a student’s bag including a pet rat, 2 homing pigeons, a feral kitten, a snake and a bag of filled water balloons.

5. receive an email from a Deputy saying, “If you see Mr. Bloggs on the school grounds today do not approach him. Call me. He may be armed.”

6. set the absolute final, no more extensions! due date for any assignment by saying, “I am doing your reports Tuesday morning. Give it to me before then.”

7. cannot leave white chalk in the classroom because students will steal it to write, “F**k you” and “I am a c**t on the back of each other’s school shirts.

8. regularly receive letters, cards and emails from well behaved students begging you not to quit like their last 14 English teachers.

9. bring soap to class so you can send male students to the bathroom to wash penis drawings from their arms. (my husband wonders why they didn’t draw breasts instead)

10. spend the entire week before Parent Night inspecting files, folders, textbooks, blackboards, display boards and student jerseys for aforementioned penis drawings.

11. are an expert at dealing with belly button and nose piercing emergencies.

12. can’t allow students toilet breaks during class time. The toilets are locked because one of your students keeps setting fire to the toilet paper.

13. regularly send certain students to deliver a sealed letter to the Principal that says, “Please give Bradley (many Bradley’s are naughty) an errand to do and do not, under any circumstances, send him back to my classroom. Thank you.”

14. accept that climbing in and out through the window is a perfectly acceptable way for students to enter and leave the classroom, even when the classroom is on the second floor.

15. form close friendships with fellow survivors (former students, their parents and colleagues).

16. are not alarmed to pass a classroom at lunchtime and see students have made a huge pyramid from their desks and are perched on top of it, watching a video of the Muppet Show.

17. consider not informing certain students (and swearing the others to secrecy) when changes are made to the classroom roster.

18. are delighted when particular students become chronic truants. You are even more delighted when their parents avoid enquiries about the whereabouts of their child through phone calls, letters and the truant officer.

19. understand exactly what a parent means when they say they are, “all parented out” in regards to their offspring because you are “all teachered out.”

20. receive a prestigious teaching award and the first student to send a card congratulating you will be the worst student you ever taught (he actually turned out okay).

I am sure my friends and regular readers would be shocked to hear my lovely husband, Jeff, thinks I am not an entirely honest person. This belief arises from an incident that occurred in the first year or so of our relationship. Jeff had to travel frequently for his work and I would drive him to the airport in his Saab sedan and pick him up. One day we set out somewhere and the Saab started making a strange knocking sound, as cars of a certain age tend to do. The conversation went something like this:

“I should get that noise seen to,” said Jeff

“Has it always made that noise?” I asked.

“Yes. Why?”

“Because I was going to say if you asked me that I had never heard the car making a funny noise before- so you wouldn’t blame me for breaking your car.”

“You would lie to me?” asked Jeff incredulously.

“Of course.”

“You’d lie?”

“Mum said we could lie to protect someone’s feelings- so by lying I save you the feeling of being mad at me for breaking your car.”

“You’d LIE?”

He didn’t seem grateful at all.

My personal history is littered with numerous examples of my consideration for the feelings of others, particularly my teachers. Sometimes, I was just being a mean little kid.

As in this first example:

1. When she was 5 and I was 7, I told my youngest sister she was adopted.

My middle sister (MS) should take some of the credit for this as well. In fact, it was probably her idea. My youngest sister was different to us because she was blonde, slim and green eyed whereas we were brunette, compact and brown eyed. We had her believing she was adopted for ages, although I’m not sure she knew what it meant. We made her do stuff for us because she was like Cinderella. Which, I suppose, made us the ugly sisters. The fun ended one day when she asked our Mum, “Am I dedopted?” (sic) I don’t remember if we got in trouble or not. Probably.

2. When I was 11, I invented 50 literary quotes, books and authors

My last year of primary school was a nightmare. My mother and stepfather sent us to a private Catholic school and our teacher was a maniac. She gave us an exercise book of 50 pages and told us that when we were reading novels and we came to a splendid piece of writing, we had to copy it into the exercise book. We were expected to fill the book. I was a keen reader but the chances of interrupting my reading to laboriously copy out long pieces of prose was zero. Therefore, on the Sunday before the project was due, I made up 50 literary quotes worthy of Dickens with fictitious book titles and authors to match. My teacher was deeply impressed with the quality of my examples and I got an excellent grade.

 3. When I was 12, I invented a parish

In my first year of high school we had to do an assignment on My Parish for Religious EducationThis was a bit of a challenge because we didn’t go to church. Going to church and getting myself a parish for the purposes of the assignment would have meant getting up early and riding my bike to the Catholic church a few streets away for a few weeks. That wasn’t going to happen. So I invented a Parish, complete with a floor plan and sketch of the church. It was a wonderful parish. I got a reasonable mark for it and MS handed it in at her school when she had to do the same assignment the following year.

If everyone showed the same consideration for the feelings of others the world would be a much happier place, that’s all I’m saying.

Tabby cat

In 1977 Mum, my sisters and I lived in a cute duplex house in the Perth suburb of Maylands.  It was a great place to live, near the river and close to our primary school. Mum decorated the house in the fashion of the day with orange carpet and purple wallpaper, although it may have been the other way around. One afternoon Mum gave us packets of flower seeds and instructed us to plant them. In a few weeks the front garden was a riot of old fashioned flowers like stocks, nasturtiums and sweet peas. We spent hours playing fashion shows in the garden with our Barbie dolls, the flowers making a glamorous backdrop to the festivities.

Our happiness was complete when Mum let us have a kitten. He was a pretty tabby with big green eyes and lovely tiger stripes. I am sure we gave him a cute name like Tiger or Fluffy but he was soon re-christened Killer because he killed things. A lot of things. Barely a day passed without our finding a clump of lifeless feathers, a lizard’s head or the backside of a mouse lying on the doorstep. We found Killer’s habit distressing but in 1970’s Australia, cats and dogs lived outside, not in the house. Micro chipping and enclosed cat runs were in the more environmentally aware future.

One afternoon we came home from school to catch Killer in the act, with a small yellow bird clamped in his jaws. We grabbed him and managed to rescue the bird, which wasn’t hurt but couldn’t fly away. This bird was different to his usual victims and we guessed he had snatched it from our neighbor’s aviary. After a quick conference we decided not to turn KIller in to the neighbors, which meant we had to keep our new bird a secret from Mum, who would have made us return it. Besides, we had always wanted a canary.

My sister (the middle one) remembered the old birdcage rusting away in the disused chicken run. Before long we had the canary safely in the cage and hidden in the back garden with a generous supply of Jody’s budgie food. We may have been too liberal with the food because in a matter of days the canary had grown to an astonishing size. He was almost busting out of the cage. Reluctantly we confessed to Mum, who came to evaluate the situation and informed us, with much hilarity, that our “canary” was actually one of our neighbor’s chickens. Sadly we returned our battery hen to the bemused neighbors.

A few weeks after this incident Killer’s murderous activities came to a sad end. We woke one winter morning and realized he was missing. Four days passed and still no Killer. On the fifth day Mum opened the front door and found Killer huddled on the step. He was obviously very sick or injured. Mum scooped him up and ran up the road to get help. My last glimpse of Killer was his tiger tail dangling under Mum’s arm. I knew I would never see him again.

How did my mother handle this turn of events? She told us Killer was fine and had gone on a holiday. My sisters (aged five and six) accepted this, especially after Mum reassured them Killer had telephoned her. He was having a wonderful time. As the oldest child, I was more skeptical because we didn’t have a phone. Over the next few months, Mum kept to her story and by the time it dawned on us Killer wasn’t returning from scuba diving in the Maldives we were used to his absence and eventually forgot about him.

Current parenting advice is to be honest with children about what I have dubbed the “three D’s” –divorce, disease and death. In this post GFC world, parents could add debt to the dreaded trio. Discussions about death and the possibility of an afterlife (dogs go to heaven- the jury is out on cats) can be shaped to fit the family’s spiritual beliefs. My husband attempted this with my stepdaughter (who was four) following the death of Thumper, the guinea pig. After a formal funeral and burial complete with heartfelt prayers and a pop-stick cross they returned to the house for a solemn afternoon. The silent contemplation of life’s mysteries was broken by my stepdaughter wanting to know when she could go and get Thumper, as she wanted to play with him.

Mum’s desire to protect us wasn’t unusual. A surprising number of our friends had destructive dogs that went to live on a farm, kindly arranged by the vet. Children learn the harsh realities of life soon enough. My mother evaluated our lives and decided the death of a cherished pet was something we didn’t need to be dealing with. I never did find out what happened to Killer (karma, I suspect) but I like to think of him on his eternal holiday, chasing mice. I just hope he has enough credit on his phone.

colored sweets

colored sweets (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As I race towards my 45th birthday with terrifying speed it has become increasingly difficult to recall the events of my childhood. I was astonished a few years ago to discover two of my colleagues were in the same class as me in one of the four Primary Schools I attended. It was in 1976, the year I turned eight.

I vaguely remember Jenny. She lived close to the school and I often stopped at her house on the way home. What we did on these afternoons I have absolutely no idea. All I remember is walking up her driveway together. We could have spent the afternoon engaging in arson and petty larceny, for all I know. Strangely I had no memory of Gavin, even though he remembered me, including the home – made uniform I always wore. Sadly, I have little memory of Mayland’s Primary, even though I spent 18 months of my life within its confines.

Whole swathes of information and lived experience have completely vanished. I don’t remember most of my classmates, teachers, lessons or any outstanding events. All I have are patches of memory; the student teacher who gave us spiders made from pipe cleaners and boiled sweets, running under the sprinklers in our underwear on hot days, picking mulberries from the trees and stealing a beautiful pink pencil from a despised classmate when she dropped it on the floor.  I felt too guilty to use the pencil but never regretted keeping it.

However, one aspect of 1976 lodged in my memory is the sweet shop across the road from our school. My two younger sisters and I would do anything to get our hands on sweets. We had our individual favorites. My list included Bates Poached Eggs (hard to find), Big Boss cigars, Fags (no, I’m not kidding), Freckles, Cobbers, Fantails, Milk Bottles, Sherbies, Licorice Allsorts, Jaffas, Choo Choo bars, Freddo Frogs, Teeth, Musk Sticks, Sherbert Fizzers, Snakes Alive, Chicos, Jelly Beans, Fruit Jubes and Black Cats. It was possible to buy a selection of each in a 20 cent bag of “mixed lollies”.

While we were aware of the existence of chocolate bars, we never bought them. Chocolate is expensive in Australia so (with the exception of the Milky Bar Kid) chocolate bars were marketed to teenagers and adults, rather than young children. I did love the Chokito Bar television advertisements, with glamorous permed girls, eyes slathered in “pot ‘o gloss” singing, “Chokito gets you going.” I badly wanted to be a “Chokito Girl” but my dedication to the corner sweet shop made me chunky in my embroidered denim shorts.

In the days before people cared about such things, a remarkable selection of cigar or cigarette themed sweets were devoured by school children all over the country. Every day I agonized over whether I should buy a white Big Boss cigar or a coffee colored one. Both had a dab of red coloring on the end and a realistic gold “cigar” label. Each had their desirable qualities. The white version was deliciously creamy with a heavenly melt in the mouth quality. Coffee colored Big Boss had a slightly meatier texture with delicate overtones of cocoa and cream. Both were 10 cents and presented excellent value for the cash strapped eight year old.

Along with Big Boss cigars we could also buy Fags and Camels. Fags were designed like a box of cigarettes. The blue box had a picture of a girl with yellow hair, and was filled with a dozen lit white “cigarettes”. They tasted similar to the white Big Boss cigars but with a pleasant minty after-taste. I didn’t buy Fags as much, they were more expensive (25c!) and I tended to shove the whole box in my mouth at once, making them too fleeting a pleasure. Camels were the most costly King of the cigarette sweets genre. From their realistic Camel pretend package to the wrapped chocolate “cigarettes” inside, Camels were the epitome of the politically incorrect sweet. I loved them.

Various methods had to be employed to ensure a steady supply of sugar treats. On the weekends, my two sisters and I collected glass soft drink bottles and took them to the local grocery store so we could get the 5 cent deposit. Any funds gained in this manner were immediately converted to sugar. This was not a fool – proof method as it meant going around the neighborhood asking for bottles, as we didn’t drink much soft drink (if any) in our house. It was difficult to get the bottles to the shop (usually in our bike baskets) and sometimes the other kids in the street got there before us. It was a cut-throat business.

The best source of money for sweets was our enviably patient mother. We didn’t have a car in 1976 so Mum sometimes needed us to go to the corner shop to pick up some missing ingredient for dinner, with the promise we could have 20 cents each for our trouble. I suppose she thought we’d do something sensible with it, like save for the holiday movies. Fat chance. On more than one occasion we came home without the parsley or whatever we had been sent to get as the stress of choosing what sweets to buy overwhelmed our addicted brains. Of course, we would have to go back again, this time without any money to spend. It was torture.

My sweet cravings followed me to high school where one of the nuns handily sold toffees every recess to raise money for charity. These toffees were the finest of the genre. Home made and poured into white patty pans, they were the perfect shade of gold and sprinkled with Hundreds and Thousands or desiccated coconut. I’d buy two, one for recess and one for lunch, even though the recess toffee would last for hours. I was a high school teacher in a previous life and let me assure you that if a kid sat in my class sucking on a toffee and occasionally taking it out of their mouth for inspection, I would go nuts. Heaven knows how I got away with it. The toffee bonanza ended abruptly after the school dentist complained about the dramatic increase in cavities. It was the sad end of a glorious era.

How did this love affair with the sweeter side of life affect my health? I admit for much of my childhood I was overweight. No kinder slant can be put on it. The daily ingestion of 1000 extra calories when I entered high school soon showed itself in my figure. One morning when I was 13, my Home Room teacher turned to me and said, “Madonna Valentine, you are getting fat. You need to go on a diet.” So I did. I lost the 7 extra kilograms and have kept it off. I get my “sugar fix” from Pepsi Max, diet jelly and fresh fruit, with just the occasional sliver of cake or a tiny square of chocolate. But I still don’t look like a “Chokito Girl”.