Do Nuns Wear Knickers? Tales From School Unleashed.

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In the midst of returning to classes after the holidays and farewelling my daughters on their overseas trip, the arrival of the latest anthology from Melaleuca Blue Publishing was a pleasant surprise. I mentioned in a previous post, that one of my poems had been chosen. However, a delay in printing meant the expected February arrival of my copy was delayed until April.

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For me, seeing something I’ve written accepted for publication is always thrilling – a vindication that just maybe I can write what others like to read, and someone believes it is worth printers’ ink.

It’s why I love producing anthologies for my students, albeit the print run is only for them and their friends or families. Writing and publishing go together like paint and canvas, cameras and developed photographs.

I consider the tangibility of holding a book, a painting or photograph one of the delights of the creative process. I’m looking forward to meeting the hard-working Kari O’Gorman (this is the third collection of life stories she has produced) and some of the other contributors at the launch/celebration in August – our ’15 minutes of fame’ moment.

The other stories and poems in Do Nuns Wear Knickers? a cross section of memories from schooldays in Australia through several generations and from the point of view of student and teacher.

… a collection of memories from award winning Australian writers expressing the joy, pain, humiliation and humour of growing up and attending school from the 1940s to the current century.

Discover why nobody uses surfboards, how to bust your teeth on a piece of fabric, what really happens on school camp, how ink wells help beat boredom, the thrill of certain library books, how coins leave callouses, why rah rah and loose bras are dangerous, how to know when to retire as a teacher, and whether or not nuns really do wear knickers.

There are stories to make you laugh and others are poignant reminders of how tough growing up can be and that some teachers were friends and mentors, others tormentors.

Sister Elizabeth’s weapons consisted of an acid tongue and a long wooden ruler which she would crack on the desk as a means of control. By the end of the day our self-esteems were as crushed as our school tunics.

The expectations we have and the pressures put on teachers captured too, especially the introduction of new technology and demands of extra-curricular activities.

Teaching staff entered the theatre, sinking into padded seats, eyes drawn forward, voices whispering, ears gossip tuned, lights dimmed… another damn after-school meeting!

Lost in semi darkness faces peered expectantly at the Power Point presentation of a Headmaster’s dream, encompassing the master plan for the much vaunted 90s IT revolution in schools…

The honesty of reflection admirable, revealing how tough transition from child to teenager, to adult can be and showing that regardless of which decade you attended school issues, idiots, inadequacies and ideals appeared.

At school, I was always the dunce trying to be king, the nerd trying to be liked. I wanted to wear the brands everyone else wore like Rip Curl and Billabong. I wanted to have the toys everyone else had like Tamagotchis. I wanted to listen to the music everyone else listened to like No Doubt. I wanted to style my hair the way everyone else did with a messy bun, butterfly clips and tons of bobby pins.

The stories remind me of my own school days, discussions in writing class with students older than me, and the reminiscing of my daughters who are twenty-somethings now.

The book is enjoyable reading and the stories trigger memories, more stories and ideas on how to write them. One of the great takeaways provided by anthologies for writerly readers.

Congratulations to Kari  – a great result and a lot of effort. This being number three, no wonder she has decided to take a rest from publishing and will concentrate on her own writing for the next year or two.

A decision I applaud and hope to emulate with no plans to produce another anthology for the Mordialloc Writers’ Group until I finish a couple of my own writing projects!

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Croydon Primary School Grade 5 1963 – I’m the last one, second row(RHS), teacher Miss O’Toole

I had sent a couple of pieces for consideration. They didn’t make the book but I’m glad I took the time to write down some memories.

The Road to Enlightenment…
Mairi Neil

It’s funny what or who we remember from schooldays. For me characters stand out more than events, although the memory usually links a person with an incident.

1963 – I arrive in Australia from Scotland in December 1962 so enjoy the long summer holidays before starting term one at Croydon State School.

Although nine and half years old I’m promoted to Grade 5 because I know Long Division and LSD (money sums not the drug!).

The teacher, Miss O’Toole has tightly permed black hair and wears a pleated grey skirt every day with different coloured twin sets, favouring red the most. She sits on the corner of the desk swinging one of her stockinged legs in such a way we sometimes see the tip of her suspender belt and the fleshy top of her leg. This causes giggles and jokes from the boys in the playground.

I like Miss O’Toole because she has the same Irish accent as my Mum and shares lots of interesting stories about books and places she’s travelled.

A new friend, Nola Tickner leaves school early every day because she sat on a needle and BoxHill Hospital is monitoring its passage through her bloodstream. It eventually comes out through her big toe!

croydon primary school 1964
Croydon State School 1964, Mr Stuart the teacher. I’m front row 3rd from left – worrying that if the wind changes will my face stay like that!

1964 – Mr Stuart, the Grade 6 teacher likes to strap, but thank goodness girls are exempt! He wears a grey suit, but his jacket is tight over a portly frame and never meets to button. He sometimes wears a waistcoat and tie. When he laughs his belly wobbles. He lets us put on a play I’d written after listening to the ABC Radio school hour. It’s about the three field system in Medieval England. We have a lot of fun dressing up. I play the Lord of the Manor because it was my idea. I wear a pair of pince nez glasses that belonged to my grandmother and think I’m the ‘bees knees’.

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Sally Joffey has bright red hair and soft white freckled skin.  She comes to school one day with a face matching her hair except for white rings around her eyes. She looks like a strange panda and confesses she spent too long under her older sister’s sun lamp because she wanted a tan. It took weeks for her skin to return to normal.

1965 –  First Form at Croydon High School with Mr Lurajud who has a moustache and hairstyle like Hitler’s. We cruelly whisper ‘Sieg heil’ behind his back. I’m Form Captain and at a class fundraiser, I take a plate of Tablet my mother has made. This very sweet Scottish fudge enchants Mr Lurajud, who tastes one piece and buys the whole plate for himself!

Mr Butler, the headmaster frightens us at Monday morning assembly warning of the ‘red menace’ waiting to invade Australia from Indonesia. He urges the older boys to join the Army and fight for freedom in Vietnam. Later, when an ex-student is one of the first national servicemen to die in Vietnam after stepping on a land mine, I wonder if Mr Butler regretted some of his scary speeches.

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Home from Croydon High School at lunchtime

1966 – Mr Wilson the balding Geography teacher always behaves as if he’s slumming at the school. Class handouts have to be coloured in, but he never stipulates a colour, rather just states Derwent Number 12 or Derwent Number 32…

One of six children, I don’t own Derwent pencils. I ask what colour to use and Mr Wilson lectures, ’Derwent pencils were on the booklist. Your parents should have bought them.’ Mum bought cheaper pencils at Croydon Market and I blush with shame. I learn a valuable lesson. It’s not a crime to be poor and children will never forget how you make them feel.

(Years later, I  buy my daughters Derwent pencils when they start school, not that they were asked for but because I can and because I want to give them something I couldn’t have.)

Mrs Fear, the Sewing teacher lives up to her name and ensures I hate needlework for years. My older sister finishes class projects for me and I get high marks. When my sister hands in her own work she almost fails. Not a good teacher or seamstress Mrs Fear resented my sister because she knew more than her.

1967 – Mrs Walker is a fabulous English teacher. She’d been a journalist in England and encourages me to write with the warning that journalism is not a glamorous occupation. ‘You’ll be asked to cover the local cat show as well as exciting crime!’

She’s trying to give up smoking and chews gum all the time – her excuse for chewing in class while insisting pupils can’t do the same.

Neville Purchase’s bicycle is hit by a car on the way to school. Rumours fly around the playground he’s dead, but at a special assembly the headmaster announces Neville has lost a leg. When Neville returns to school we must be considerate and not stare at his prothesis. It’s the closest I have ever been to someone who has lost a limb.

1968 – Mrs Hurst wears pencil skirts so tight the boys titter about seeing the outline of her suspender belt. Mr Barouma, our French teacher had been a landscape gardner in Holland. We take all year to read a novel about the French Resistance because we keep sidetracking him to explain real life exploits living in Occupied Holland.

On hot summer days because there’s no air conditioning Mr Barouma takes us outside to sit under the trees and read. In classes straight after lunch, he tells us to put our heads down and power nap for 15 minutes. He’s Mr Popular!

water fights a feature on hot summer days
water fights a playtime feature on hot days

1969 – English teacher, Fred Carstairs, the glamour boy  on the Staff payroll sports an all year suntan like an Olympian. One day, he leaves a student teacher in our clutches. The young blonde with curly hair begins writing on the blackboard. He foolishly asks if he’s spelled ‘their’ correctly.

Like scavengers fighting over a carcass we soon work out he’s not a confident speller. Even when he writes a word correctly someone tells him differently. Mr Carstairs returns to a blackboard full of misspellings. The student teacher is called Charles Dickens. The irony of his name not lost and  compounds our glee.

European History teacher, Mr Jones, a proud Welshman, never lets us forget his origins. He takes us to see the film Oh What A Lovely War. A scene in the movie has a couple of privates refer to the commanding officer as ‘that Welsh bastard’.

A wave of  titters floats down the rows of seats at the cinema. On the train journey home to Croydon, the boys repeat the line ad nauseam within earshot of Jones but insist they’re just discussing the film.

Croydon high school oval
the school oval only completed in 1965-66

1970 – Dr Saffin (PhD Eng Lit) my teacher for four HSC subjects. A brilliant man, who could be teaching at university but chooses to work in a state school. He has an horrific stutter and warns new students not to sit in the front row unless they wear a raincoat.

He acts out scenes from Shakespeare and his stutter miraculously disappears. Because of his teaching I win a Commonwealth Scholarship and a place at the Australian National University as well as the Victorian Shakespeare prize.

He challenges pupils to always question texts and accepted beliefs. Tells us to research answers for ourselves. He believes education is not the cramming of knowledge but the nurturing of the desire to learn. He more than any other teacher inspired my lifelong love of learning.

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It’s called Croydon Secondary College now.

Most of the above photos of Croydon High taken from  Friends of Croydon High’s Facebook. It’s depressing how little the school has changed from the outside – I just hope the inside of the classrooms have fared better over the years!

Schooldays from Myopia to Utopia
Mairi Neil

I remember the days of chalk and talk,
They seem such a long time ago…
Some memories vivid, others faded,
Some memories happy; others not so.

In the 50s and 60s corporate punishment
Considered discipline and acceptable force,
Breaking rules or challenging authority
Meant the strap, ruler, or cane – of course.

We sat in rows, faced the front of class,
Teachers used their pointers like spears.
We recited grammar, chanted times tables
Copped many a clip around the ears.

At all times you paid undivided attention
To avoid dreaded lines – or detention,
Teachers often demanded written lines,
‘I must not…’ scrawled hundreds of times.

School desks with lift-up sloping lids
Sweets and secret love notes easily hid
But no moving without permission,
Until the bell signalled intermission.

We wrote in ink with fragile nibs and pens,
Blotters, jotters – rostered ink monitors then
Teachers omniscient, few encouraged discussion
Questioning authority invited concussion.

Originality met with ‘stick to the topic’
British Empire curriculum deliberately myopic,
School uniforms ensured our regimentation
Some playgrounds practised gender segregation.

Mastering reading paramount, by phonetics,
Rote lessons repeated until they’d stick
Mental arithmetic standard daily fare
Holidays longed for, days off so rare.

Our playground at Croydon poorly equipped
We had marbles, ball games, and we skipped
Sent outside at recess whether rain or sun
Kiss Chasie could be dreaded, or was fun!

Tunnel Ball, Tag, and swapping cards galore,
Crossball, Netball, British Bulldog and more.
The boys relished their footie competitions
Girls loved ‘Chinese Elastics’ positions.

Compulsory folk dancing only some enjoyed
Holding the sweaty hands of girls and boys
I remember a boy who had horrible warts
Another’s jumper his handkerchief of sorts.

Bottles of milk delivered to drink for free
Left out in the sun it soon soured for me
Drink ‘for your health’ teachers would say
But I recall many days vomited away.

On Mondays, we assembled to honour the flag
This ritual patriotism made shoulders sag.
Promising obedience to the Law and the Queen
Regular indoctrination – no sincerity seen.

Marched into classrooms by fife and drum band
Pupils’ enthusiasm transient like sand
Migrant kids from a host of different cultures
Their lunches targets for unfriendly vultures.

School toilets always stuck up the back
A lean-to roof on an old wooden shack,
No soap or towels, a sink, nothing more
‘Holding on’ damaged bladders for sure!

Lunchtime litter duty came around each week
Lolly papers and food wrappers we had to seek
Before vying for the right to empty waste bins
Incinerator flames dancing as rubbish poked in.

Today’s resources include technological wizardry
Different attitudes serve a multitude of needs
But the most important gift has never changed
Thank your primary teacher if you can read!

2 thoughts on “Do Nuns Wear Knickers? Tales From School Unleashed.

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