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)