Shifting Sands

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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).

Photograph by Jeff Corey

Photograph by Jeff Corey

 If you’re a novice teacher ASSUME NOTHING about the students’ prior knowledge. They aren’t completely empty vessels but it would be easier if they were, because a scrap of knowledge is a terrifying thing.

I learned this lesson with a group of 15 year olds during a geography class. It was a hot day, early in the semester and I hadn’t been teaching them long. We were studying a unit on climate types and I gave them a climate graph activity with questions to complete. Everything was going well until it was time to mark the worksheet and discuss the answers. The climate type shown on the graph was in the northern hemisphere whereas we were in Australia, the southern hemisphere. I didn’t anticipate any problems with using a climate graph from the northern half of the planet. I was wrong.

The students answered questions that relied on a literal interpretation of the graph well. They identified the coldest, hottest, wettest and driest months from the information on the line and bar graphs. Eventually we came to the interpretive questions – when are the spring, summer, autumn and winter months? Most of the students chose December, January and February as summer months and June, July and August as winter months, which would be correct for Australia. I breezily explained these answers were incorrect as the climate type depicted was in the northern hemisphere. Naively I assumed this settled the matter.

I was mistaken. My explanation was greeted with a sea of blank faces.

“You’re wrong Miss,” pronounced Johnny, “It’s always summer in December.”

“It is here in Australia, in the Southern Hemisphere, but not in the Northern Hemisphere,” I responded. “This is a climate graph of New York, in North America. It’s summer in July in New York.”

“And it’s always winter in July,” chimed in Doug, ignoring my explanation. By now I was beginning to feel a twinge of despair. The few students who had answered the question correctly were giving me some serious side eye.

I grabbed the world globe from my desk and improvised a sun with a confiscated water balloon. “When we have Christmas here in December, it’s hot because the southern hemisphere is tilted towards the sun. When people in the northern hemisphere have Christmas in December, it’s cold and snowing because the northern hemisphere is tilted away from the sun. We did all this last week”, I persisted. My efforts were met with more blank stares, a few wrinkled foreheads and derisive snorts from the “tough” kids on the back row.

“Santa! Sleighs! Jingle bells! Dashing through the snow! Bing Crosby! White Christmas! Snowmen! eggnog!” I yelled.

Not a even a flicker of comprehension, yet when we covered the material about seasons in class previously, they all coloured in their earth-sun diagrams and seemed to understand the concepts.

Suddenly, the fog on Johnny’s face cleared. “I know why you’re confused Miss,” he announced.

“Do you? Oh please! Enlighten me!” I sarcased (this is a word I invented- it means, to reply back sarcastically when exasperated).

“Miss Valentine” he explained with elaborate patience. “Just because it’s December over here, doesn’t mean it’s December over there!”

“Yeah!” chorused the rest of the students relieved Johnny, at least, knew his stuff.

Apparently most of the class were under the impression that when it’s December in Australia, it’s actually June in the United States.

I wasn’t looking forward to teaching time zones.

Neanderthal Silhouette

Neanderthal Silhouette (Photo credit: erix!)

Before any teaching graduate is let loose on a class of unsuspecting teenagers, the following mantra should be tattooed on their foreheads, “Preview all visual material before showing it to the students. This includes films, recordings of sporting events ( streakers) and documentaries. Ignore it at your peril.” Fortunately most teachers have large, alien foreheads.

The laws as they relate to Australian schools are clear. Any audio visual material above a General (G) rating cannot be shown to students without a permission note from parents. Is it always safe to trust the ratings system? Oh no, no, no as the lady said. Hysteria, tears, pyschological trauma and a tsunami of complaints from hypocritcal parents (who let their kids watch all sorts of crap at home) awaits the teacher who trusts the G-rating.

As a first year teacher in a remote country school, I was eager to enrich my students’ appreciation of the curriculum by using films. It also meant I could avoid the drudgery of lesson plans and well, teaching, for a few lessons while we vegged out in front of the television. In the pre-laptop days of 1995, nothing prompted more exclamations of joy from my Year 8 Social Studies class than the sight of the huge Phillips TV being wheeled across the quadrangle.

In keeping with our theme of “technological change” or some similar rubbish, I decided to show a G-rated film I had found in the local service station/video store called Caveman Monkey Sex. Okay. It may not have been called that, but it should have been. The film was Quest for Fire made in 1981 and directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud. It won a 1983 Oscar for best makeup and 10 other awards. According to the blurb, the plot centered around 3 prehistoric tribesmen who search for a new fire source after their fire is extinguished during an attack by another tribe. They are unable to make fire themselves. The film is based on a 1911 novel by the Belgian J-H Rosny (1856-1940). It sounded harmless enough.

Excitedly I took the film home to watch in the evening before showing it to the class. I had a vague idea I should make up a worksheet, so the kids wouldn’t think we were having a complete skive.

I watched the film and was completely shocked.

Obviously Annaud wanted to explore what would happen in a world shared by 3 different species of humans; Homo erectus, Homo Neanderthalis and Homo sapiens. Apparently the main thing that would happen is a lot inter-species casual sex. It’s impossible to understate the casualness of caveman sex, as imagined by Annaud. Cavewomen couldn’t bend over to dig up a tuber or attend an infant without some hairy fellow taking her by surprise.

Being relatively mature farm kids, the students would have coped with the numerous sex scenes without being too scandalised. It was another aspect of the film that disturbed me. At some point in the film the Homo sapien woman is captured by an ugly ape man. He promptly cuts off her arm and hangs her in a tree,  like a leopard with its kill. Evil ape man squats under the tree, makes a fire and barbeques her arm for lunch. Ignoring her loud protests, he gnaws away at her arm while she watches. We assume she will be forced to observe her own cannibalisation as her captor hacks of limbs whenever he feels peckish. Fortunately she is rescued but this scene alone gave me nightmares for weeks.

Despite the General rating allowing teachers to show this film without parental permission, I decided it was too graphic for students barely out of primary school.

Foolishly I had told the students the previous day we would be watching Quest for Fire in class (not doing any work) so they were disappointed when we had to drudge through a chapter on the wonders of the spinning Jenny.

“So why aren’t we watching Quest for Fire?” whined Trent, the primary work dodger in the class, besides me.
“I decided it had too much caveman monkey sex and cannibalism.” I replied, thus ensuring Quest for Fire became the most borrowed film in the town’s history.

Anyway, the students had been promised a film so I had to find one. After feverishly searching the rack at the service station/video store for G-rated movies, I found the 1993 film, The Silver Brumby. This was more like it- a sweet kids’ movie about a wild horse (brumby) based on the series of books by Elyne Mitchel. It also starred a young and dreamy Russell Crowe. By now I had abandoned all educational pretext for showing a film but thought I could work in something about technology, horses and cars or whatever. No need to preview this film. What could go wrong?

Quite a lot, it appears. The hero of the film, Thowra (the silver brumby) commits equine suicide at the end of the film rather than be captured. Oh the trauma! Eighteen years later I can still see their pathetic tear stained faces staring at me in horror as the final credits rolled on the screen.

The following year I showed Quest for Fire to the Year 8 class after devising an ingenious way to show G-rated films that include dubious scenes. Every time I showed a film I brought along a large pillow that I (or a trusted minion) could hold against the screen, blocking the offending image.


Twenty years ago I accepted my first teaching position in a tiny town in the southeast of Western Australia. The town population was less than 400 people although it rose considerably once the entire shire (mainly farmers) was counted. Although the town is over 500 km from my hometown of Perth, I wasn’t worried about the isolation as I lived in a remote mining community as a young child.

It may be difficult to imagine in this more connected age, but I had none of the on-line resources teachers take for granted now. No one in the town, much less the school, had Internet or mobile (cell) phone connection. I received two television stations because my house was near the transmitter but families living further out needed a satellite dish.

The school was a little isolated

The school was a little isolated

I liked the freedom of country living and settled into teaching my high school classes without too many hassles. Towards the end of the first term I decided the students needed a more challenging English program. I visited a retired teacher friend and we excitedly planned a “proper Literature” program for the next term.

As a few of my students were no nonsense farm boys, I was slightly concerned by my colleague’s initial suggestion that we develop a program around the theme of Mystery and Romance, using Daphne Du Maurier’s novel, Rebecca as the primary text. I knew the girls would enjoy the book and Alfred Hitchcock’s Oscar winning film adaptation. The boys I was not so sure about.

My concerns were unfounded. The class enjoyed the mystery element of Rebecca and didn’t complain too much about watching a black and white movie. I gave out the final homework assignment that asked the students to write their own short story using the Mystery and Romance theme. Things were going well and I smugly congratulated myself.

The first sign of trouble came on the weekend when I was shopping in the only store. More than one parent commented to me how much little Johnny* was enjoying his homework assignment. In fact, he had stayed up all night to complete it. I may have been imagining it, but I could have sworn one of the fathers gave me an amused look as he paid for his Coco Pops. A more experienced teacher may have sensed the coming storm.

English: Alfred Hitchcock

Hitchcock would have solved the mystery behind the smirk.

The following Monday the students handed in their assignments, with Johnny solemnly declaring, “This is the best thing I ever wrote,” as he handed over a bundle of closely written pages. Feeling like the world’s best teacher, I took the short stories to the staff room and made myself a warming cup of coffee before settling down to mark them. I decided to read Johnny’s first, guessing he would be eager to know his grade after working so hard on the weekend.

Oh my Godfather. Little Johnny’s romance story was not exactly pornography, but it was a near thing. Page after page described numerous amorous trysts loosely wrapped up in a Du Maurier plot. Suddenly his Dad’s smirky look in the Megamart made sense. Dad had obviously gleaned enough information from his son about the assignment to guess how his son had interpreted the Mystery and Romance theme.

A screenshot of Judith Anderson and Joan Fonta...

Judith Anderson and Joan Fontaine in Rebecca (Photo credit: Wikipedia) Did we all watch the same movie?

In a panic I examined the other boys’ short stories and found them all the same. Feverishly scrawled across the pages were long (very long!) tales of entwined limbs and lust in the moors. Spelling, punctuation and penmanship was all forgotten in their haste to get every sordid detail on the page. Good grief.  Grey hairs started sprouting from my 24 year old head.

With some trepidation I examined the girls’ assignments and was relieved to find they followed the standard Mystery and Romance plot without the carnal embellishments. I considered my options. To be fair, it wasn’t the boys’ fault. As far as they were concerned, they had written excellent Mystery and Romance stories and would be surprised to discover their work was more Penthouse than Poe.

It's important to be a good role model...

It’s important to be a good role model…

I wasn’t worried about the parents’ reaction to the students’ assignments. Reflecting on my weekend experiences, it was apparent most had a fair idea why their sons were taking an intense interest in creative writing. I imagined them having a good laugh at my expense. Bastards. As a newly qualified teacher on my first posting, however, I didn’t want the Principal to discover I had inadvertently corrupted my male pupils, the oldest of whom was only 14.

My first thought was to blame my dogs. The boys would believe me as the destructive appetites of my four dogs (including two rescue Labradors) was well known around town after they ate a council picnic table. “My dogs ate your homework, “ seemed an easy way out. On reflection, this seemed a bit dishonest and it would be hard to explain why the dogs had singled out the boys’ work.

My dogs ate your homework...

My dogs ate your homework…

Anyway, I arranged to have a private conference with the boys and did my best to explain the difference between soft porn (what they had written) and the Mystery and Romance sub-genre (what we had read).

They listened politely but insisted they had written brilliant romances with a dash of mystery thrown in. Eventually they agreed to revise their stories so everyone kept their clothes on. For the boys, the romance part of the theme equaled sex and nothing I said would dissuade them. For a woman who had grown up with three sisters and attended a girls’ school, the discussion was quite enlightening and explained a lot of my dating history.

The next year, I substituted Mystery and Romance for the Westerns sub-genre and received boys’ assignments full of horrendous bloodshed, wanton cruelty, scalping Indians and murderous gunslingers. It was a huge relief.

* Names have been changed to protect the not so innocent.

sewing at the dining room table

sewing at the dining room table (Photo credit: pinprick)

My sisters and I stayed with my grandparents in their Brisbane house regularly as young children and enjoyed being spoiled with noon breakfasts of Froot Loops eaten in front of episodes of “Batman and Robin.” It was the kind of holiday only grandparents can provide, free of responsibility, rules and dietary restraint. However, the best part about staying with my Grandparents (Joyce and Sydney), was exploring the bottom floor of their house.

Brisbane is subject to regular flooding so a lot of houses are traditional “Queenslanders” or timber buildings on stilts. Using this building method, houses are raised and protected from rising floodwaters while cool air circulates under the building. Evidently, Joyce and Syd didn’t anticipate much flooding so they converted the underside of their home to a wonderful storage area. I can attribute my interest in History (which I studied at University) to the many hours spent examining Syd’s action photographs from World War II, where he served in North Africa against Rommel. It was difficult to imagine my Grandfather throwing grenades down foxholes and dodging bullets but he told me it was better than the fate of his younger brother, Ernie, who spent his 21st birthday in Changi Prison as a guest of the Japanese. All the Toovey boys returned home from the war and lived long, productive lives.

Besides Syd’s photographs, the underbelly of the home housed Joyce’s sewing area. This was the most wonderful treasure trove of original dressmaking patterns, fabric, buttons, zips, lace, ribbons and (most fabulously!) a dressmaking dummy. Joyce supplemented the family income by working from home as a dressmaker. I loved going through all the patterns and imagining making my own clothes from scratch. As a young girl about town, my mother often came home from work to find a new opera cape or dress waiting for her to wear on a special evening out.

Mum made our occasion dresses as well. My favourite was a red floral traditional party dress with a panel of white lace on the front. She also made some of our school uniforms and First Communion dresses. Unlike Joyce, my mother didn’t particularly like sewing and claimed to be bad at it. I didn’t care. It was exciting waiting in my underwear, trying on the dress as it took shape. I desperately wanted to make my own clothes.

When I turned eight, Joyce sent me a lovely orange floral wicker sewing basket and Mum gave me a small child’s sewing machine, that actually worked fairly well. I practiced for my fashion career making a toy cat, clothes for my Barbies and other projects from my “Learn to Sew” book. Encouraged by after school hobby classes, my sisters and I also did tapestry, French knitting, crochet, macramé, silk embroidery and rug making. My Stepfather regularly left for work wearing something one of us had made for him; a yellow crocheted hat with a pink pom-pom on the top, a knitted football scarf or a macramé belt. His good – natured humoring of our efforts only encouraged the onslaught.

I was not completely without self -awareness and it did not escape my notice that my sisters were far better at craftwork than me. My younger sisters made gorgeous crocheted and hooked rugs whereas my tapestries morphed into abstract shapes instead of the kittens and bunnies they were supposed to be. My macramé pot – holder quickly unraveled and the toy cat never could sit upright, like the one in the book. Not to be deterred, I told myself I was too impatient and needed to take more time on projects. I refused to believe I had not inherited Joyce’s talent, despite all evidence to the contrary.

Therefore, it was thrilling to learn I could sign up for three years of sewing classes at my new high school, Santa Maria Ladies’ College. Mum and I excitedly set out for Garden City Shopping Centre with the list of supplies I needed for sewing classes. It was an impressive and somewhat intimidating list. Along with the expected needles, thread and pins were other mysterious objects such as fusible interfacing, tailor’s chalk, marking wheels, marking paper in different colors, pinking shears, soluble glue, the lethal looking quick-unpick (later to become my most used item) and the suggestively named “stiffie roll”. Everything was stored in an ugly orange plastic container the size of an Esky complete with carry handle. My pretty cushioned sewing box was no longer up to the job. This was SERIOUS SEWING.

My first day of Year Eight was also my first sewing lesson and I spied many nervous little girls, all of us carting around the same orange containers. The lessons were distributed throughout the week so the first sewing lesson was forty minutes of theory (using an excellent textbook called Clothing and Fabric) and later in the week we had a double lesson for working on our projects under the watchful eye of our teacher (we will call her Miss Apple). I never had any trouble with the theory. Warps, wefts, the difference between satins and tweeds were quickly and easily learned. My theory test scores were excellent. The execution of my new skills, unfortunately, was a completely different matter.

I am sure Miss Apple was in every way a wonderful woman and warm human being. She was an attractive young woman with lustrous brown hair and luminous hazel eyes. Within the first week of sewing lessons, however, I was terrified of her. After recently retiring from a long teaching career, I realize now she was an exceptional teacher. Sewing classes were taught with the same intensity and academic rigor as a Year 12 Physics class, which was marvelous for the Italian girls (who were born clutching a needle and thread) but a nightmare for a klutz like me.

Before being allowed anywhere near our sewing machine (we were assigned one each) we had to practice sewing with an unthreaded machine over spiral shapes marked on thin cardboard. I sewed in the same way I would later begin to drive- with suicidal fits of speed around corners and sudden screeching stops. Night after night I sobbed into Mum’s Singer as I attempted to improve my machine sewing so I could be let loose on the school machines. Mum and I sadly concluded the sewing gene had skipped two generations and I wasn’t ever going to sew dresses for Lady Di. Eventually Miss Apple relented when a week of lunchtime lessons only marginally improved my accuracy.

Our first project was an embroidered cushion. Mine was made of peach fabric with an unhappy square owl chain stitched on the front. The embroidery looked like the work of a drunken monkey. This may have been because I did most of it standing on the school bus while gossiping with my friends. My large cushion was lumpy around the edges due to my crooked sewing, which didn’t fill me with confidence for my next project, an appliqued calico bag.

I don’t remember a lot about making the bag (traumatic memory loss) but far worse was to follow. For the next two years of sewing lessons, the “sample” became the bane of my school life. Before attempting any new technique, such as inserting a zip, we had to complete a perfect sample. This meant making a miniature example, pinning it to a piece of lined paper and then writing out the steps taken to complete the task. Miss Apple checked every sample and if the technique was sewn and described correctly, it could be completed on the real item.

Attempting a new technique on a 10 cm square of fabric was completely beyond my sewing ability. The reduction in size made it harder to control my stitching and I learned what happens when fingers go under a sewing machine needle (nothing too horrible, but I broke a lot of needles). To my infinite relief, I was not the only sewing dunce. My fellow dunces and I became devoted friends as we dejectedly trooped up the steep staircase to the sewing room at lunchtimes to work on our samples.

To her undying credit, Miss Apple was always waiting for us, eating her lunch at her desk but not interfering with our work. We had to learn to do things properly for ourselves, without a teacher storming in to rescue us. It was an important life lesson for young girls and the sense of satisfaction when the sample was finally completed (with a decent score!) was immense.

In the three years of sewing classes I completed some truly tragic items and others I actually wore. My scores for practical work remained ordinary but I enjoyed seeing the dresses I sketched on paper spring to life. I persisted and made my own clothes at home and continued to so for the next twenty years. Ironically, sewing became one of my most valuable skills. As a young wife, I learned how to cover old lounge chairs with fitted covers and made matching curtains. The elderly people I nursed benefitted as I replaced their buttons with Velcro and elasticated dress necklines. I sewed maternity dresses for my pregnant colleagues in the small country town where I began my teaching career and numerous costumes for school plays or fashion shows.

None of the items I made were expertly sewn. A trained eye could easily pick out the flaws. Three years of struggling through sewing classes taught me not that excellence always follows perseverance. Despite hours of extra lessons my projects were never as good as those of the other, talented students. They never would be. I gained something far more valuable. I leaned to follow my interests and develop new skills despite lacking natural talent. I have spent great chunks of my life doing things for which I have no aptitude. I am not athletic but I have run regularly for the last 25 years (old ladies power walk past me) and two years ago I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro with my husband. Painting badly, singing terribly, burning cakes and coming last in the charity race are all part of life’s rich (and in my case, crookedly done) tapestry.