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Let me take you back to the beginning: to a time when JRAHS first began. It was 1959 and I was one of the first ‘Fivers’ – part of the first group of students to complete their full five years of high school at James Ruse. Other years were in residence in 1959 but these were students who had transferred from other schools and had not served their “Fresher’ year at the school. To these older boys (for it was exclusively an all male domain in those days) we were the ‘fags’ – placed at the school to respond to their bidding, to bear the brunt of their schoolboy pranks and to provide amusement to their otherwise mundane existence. They taught us obedience and humility; they taught us about servitude and loyalty and, most of all, they taught us how to survive in a world of gangling awkwardness wrought on us by those strange hormones that, in varying degrees, possessed our bodies.
We outnumbered them but we were a disorganised lot – drawn from primary schools and suburbs near and far – with no prior capacity to form allegiances that might withstand their attention. Some Freshers were particularly targeted – nothing life threatening, mind you, but far beyond the bounds of today’s legal tolerance. I was one of the fortunate ones. I had made friends with a boy in my class who lived in the village next to mine and whose brother was among the upper echelon of the older students. Their brotherly association was fairly strong and my friendship with the younger afforded me with some degree of immunity from the ruling groups’ attention. Not that my school mate sheltered behind his brother’s higher status:- He was full of spunk and mischief; one of those likeable lads who was into everything and a ring-leader for any action that might be going, even if it meant standing in defiance against his older brother’s renegade band.
Uniforms were particularly targeted. Blazer, tie, socks with garters and a straw boater were foreign garb to most of us. In varying degrees we resisted the strict school rules that demanded we be suitably attired at all times. I made a moderate stance with socks rolled down and hat kept safely in my locker. The teaching staff had far worse offenders than me with whom to deal – cut off ties, sneakers, untidy hair and nicotine stained fingers particularly displeased them. The occasional detention was the severest penalty I ever suffered and that was often countermanded by my required presence at football training. Some lads in my year, however, remained loyal disciples to the uniform code and became martyrs to the cause. They bore the brunt of the senior boys’ attention. Hats would mysteriously launch themselves out of bus windows; ties would become so tightly knotted in multiple granny knots that they were impossible to undo; and socks would scale flag post and plunge recklessly into toilet bowls intent on self destruction.
Initiations were mild by reported standards and only a handful of Freshers were subjected to any serious humiliation. The school playground – grass and dirt in those days except for the assembly area – featured a number of heavy bench-like seats that, I think, were once tram or railway platform seats. The solid arms of these benches swept down in an ‘S-like’ curve, such that when two benches were pushed together face to face it left a roundish hole the size of a boys neck and ideal as a set of stocks in which an initiate’s head could be securely held while butter, lard, flour or water was applied to selected parts of the body. In response, the teaching staff punished the perpetrators accordingly with permitted disciplinary measures of the time – cane, time detentions and lines.
More by good fortune than design, I managed to avoid ‘the stocks’ until my very last day at the school. Never backward in pranks on other students and staff, I was, however, somewhat elusive to detection and retribution. … So I thought until the December of ’63! Then, on our final day of school, in recognition of my contribution to the lesser side of school folk-lore, my classmates unceremoniously stripped me to my jocks, secured me in a set of stocks and left me in the hot sun to contemplate my five years of mischievous behaviour. At one stage I thought the arrival of my Maths teacher heralded my release – but it was not to be – instead, a wry smile came over his face and he strolled on by muttering “Ah! Stephens – they’ve got you at last. Enjoy the sunshine!”
These early days at JRAHS were not without their positive contribution. Many years have passed since I’ve been back to the school so I do not know how much of the original infrastructure remains. However, we helped grass the first school oval and plant trees around its perimeter. We established much of the original orchard – an extension of an existing planting on the property. A somewhat robust orchard that withstood our clumsy and sometimes brutal attempts at pruning and survived those out of control rampages from the old rotary hoe that could often be seen pig-rooting through the rows of stone and citrus trees with a small schoolboy clinging desperately to the handles. We helped build animal enclosures – a tangle of wire and post the like, perhaps, will never be seen again. Our parents set up the school canteen and we did our best, through patronage, to ensure its success. We stood proud on the sporting arena and, although few of the outcomes were worthy of mention, began a tradition of fierce pride that hopefully still exists. For a young school, too, we performed admirably academically – not to the level of modern day Rusians – but certainly a solid foundation upon which to build the school’s unequalled scholastic reputation.
This is just the start of my James Ruse story. A wealth of anecdotal memories remain to be told of those fledgling years, should readers of Gesta non Verba be interested. No doubt, others of that era have their own tales or variations to disclose. What say you?
Alan Stephens (1963)
A couple of editions ago, I told of James Ruse in the early days. This time, I thought I might share some reflections on illustrious teachers of that era. Forgive me if I omit names to protect the guilty! – some of these ancient fossils may still have meat on their bones.
My very first memory of a teacher was my Year 1 Math master. We all thought the world of him and I admired his style when correcting our mistakes:
“Stephens!” he would command after chalking up a math problem on the blackboard, “come out and solve this for the class.”
Out I would trot and with trembling sweaty paws and scrawl my best effort at a solution on the board. Should I be correct, the duster was my reward to remove the puzzle from the board. Should I err in my grasp of arithmetic, a strong hand would lift me by the back of the collar, calmly propelling my face towards the board, where my nose would be used to erase my feeble attempt at a solution. Although slightly calcified, I gained a very good grounding in Math that year – a basis that has served me well, thereafter.
Then there was our short, stout and fiery History master whom, as you will comprehend, we nick-named Zorro. – Zorro’s forte was a long cane which somehow, without apparent discomfort, he concealed down his trouser leg. When provoked (and there were some in the class who excelled in this area) he would suddenly draw his trusty sword from its hiding place and deliver a telling blow around the culprit’s legs. Alas, one day, our entertainment was permanently terminated by the headmaster when one of Zorro’s victims took exception to the red marks on his legs, wrestled the cane from his hands, and proceeded to exact a telling retribution on a bewildered Zorro’s buttocks. The bloodier side of history has held a fascination for me ever since!
Next, my memory turns to PE. For many of us, a welcome break from classroom activities but, for some, a dreaded interlude where a fag behind the toilet block seemed the only plausible alternative. Enter our energetic sports master of small but wiry physique. His constant companion was his whistle with chord: the chord heavily knotted at the other end into a formidable weapon which he swung with great aplomb at the heads of sprung smokers and the retreating behinds of boys he thought to be too slow in their circumnavigation of the oval. At least once or twice a week, whistle and chord would mysteriously find its way into the school incinerator to be reduced to ashes; but each time, a new knotted chord and whistle would appear the next day without a word of caution or retribution being uttered. I added several yards to my speed that year and made the state sprint championships!
I think, too, of how unknowing teachers were in those days. Our science teacher – a man of impeccable principles and the very model of a safe practitioner, must have known little of the poisonous nature of mercury. One day, a classmate stole a barometer from the science lab then accidentally dropped it in the playground. His punishment, to begin, was to recover, bare-fingered, every drop of mercury that had been spilt. On leaving James Ruse I opted for science rather than crime!
Histosterone became a favourite of mine in Years 4 and 5. How else could the school capture the attention of a classroom of pimply adolescent boys than to deliver them a young female teacher with a liking for history, a short skirt, and a penchant for sitting on a desk rather than a chair. Panty-hose had not yet replaced suspender-belts in those days! Boys fought to sit near the front of the class, slouching in their chairs as low as they were able. I had the fortune to have permanent residence in row two and the audacity to not infrequently pester the lad in front to the point of retaliation. Whereupon, he would turn around to strike me a blow, be caught in the act and made to stand in the corner for the remainder of the lesson. This left his desk empty and invariably a lure to our leggy history ma’am intent on holding our attention. My auditory faculties must have taken second place in my ocular senses at the time, for I only matriculated with a pass level in History but a strong preference for the fairer sex!
In those halcyon days there were far fewer descriptor for a man’s sexuality. Gay and camp had noble connotations, poof was a puff of air, and an immaculately groomed teacher of Agriculture with trimmed eyebrows, manicured nails and a soft cultured resonance to his voice was merely regarded as dapper. His teaching skills were excellent and, without the distraction of prejudice, the class gained a swag of Honours under his guidance.
French lessons from a good-natured but plumpish mother figure were bearable to the point of being un-noteworthy. An open text book concealed under the desk got me through most periods without too much trouble and it was only at exam time that my grasp of the language seemed to suddenly desert me. However, her foray into dance lessons, bent on preparing us for the end of year social, were far more traumatic. A young boy’s arm is just not made nor meant to stretch around the sizeable love handles of a portly woman as she vibrates like jelly to the strains of a quickstep. French is now my favourite language, though I still struggle with gender. My dancing tends to be of the ‘free-expression’ style – likened by some to a convulsing man on a pogo stick!
Ah! Yes – these were great teachers who instructed us well for the life ahead. I wonder, though, ……. How many would be acceptable under today’s rules and societal expectations? Bring back the cane, I say …..
Alan Stephens (1963)
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