Reflections, mostly about a chequered teaching career: Part Three

Emphasis on the bizarre or scandalous

I will mix these up chronologically and won’t identify which school was concerned. There were indeed some funny things happened during my Wollongong Decade. One I told you of recently.


Ah, Wollongong! Photo by Sirdan

The night visitors

It was the seventies, remember, and I must add that I have never been into illegal drugs, though I have tried marijuana – in Wollongong, naturally.

I think it was a Saturday night, or rather Sunday morning at around 1am when there was a knock on my door. Three Year 11 or 12 students, one clearly in an abnormal state. “Sir, Bill [not his real name] is on a bad trip and we don’t know what to do.”

What would you have done? These days I would have been obliged to call the police, but knowing that the students wouldn’t have come to see me. Then I simply invited them in, got them water and prepared coffee and waited, ready to call an ambulance if things went badly. Fortunately they didn’t and after a few hours they left. Yes, I did make a point or two about the folly of what they were doing.

Come Monday I had to say something about it to the boss. I was slightly torn on the matter of confidentiality and trust, but the boss said, “Don’t worry; I’ll tell you who they were.” He was right. Afterwards I had (with the boss’s permission) a very open class discussion on the subject of drug abuse, rather rife in Wollongong at the time, and it went so well the students actually overstayed the end of the period to continue it. “Don’t worry, Mr Whitfield. It’s only Chemistry…”


Odd things used to happen when Year 12 left. One year I was kidnapped by a group of them and taken to a rather swanky home where I was plied with food and drink. They released me eventually.

Dancing with the Regional Director’s daughter in the early hours of the morning

This happened when I was brave or foolish enough to go to a Year 12 “Informal” – I was invited. It was, if I remember correctly, at the North Wollongong Surf Club. Well, one rather let one’s hair down and I had a good time. It was a touch embarrassing though turning up for breakfast on the front lawn of one student’s Mangerton home. Mangerton is/was one of the more select suburbs. Mrs D took it in her stride.

The elopement

One day a member of the English staff disappeared. This was just one of several bizarre events that year, which led to questions in parliament.

We later heard she had eloped with a reporter from the local newspaper.

Skinny dipping

One staff member was around 22 and rode a World War II Harley Davidson, dressing to match. Otherwise he taught English and History. He was on good terms with “Animal” and other noted members of the Kings Cross biker scene. He had a wonderful place on the river at Minnamurra, a short swim (almost a walk at low tide) to the sandspit and beach. Many a good staff party happened there, and one warm night swimming was definitely the go. It wasn’t low tide, though, so he rowed across with his assortment of English teachers. I recall one Brian being counselled about guarding his Catholic manhood as in the then state of undress he stumbled getting into the boat almost bringing the gunwale into firm collision with his private parts.

Fortunately no-one drowned.

It’s not a good idea, kiddies, to go surfing in the dark, especially when intoxicated and there are sharks about.

The teacher who threw things out of windows

He was in fact rather popular, but when a child especially annoyed him he would, after several warnings, grab everything off the child’s desk and throw said belongings (but not the child) out the second floor window. He would then send the child to collect them. I got quite a shock when I first witnessed this.

I am sure conservatives would see this as evidence that schools today have declined in comparison with 30-40 years ago.

Breaking records

A large batch of 78rpm records destined for the school fete was stored in the staff room. One day our biker friend crept up behind someone and smashed a record over his or her head. We discovered this was painless but dramatically noisy and left very satisfying shards of black shellac everywhere. So we spent the lunch hour working through the records, not excluding any students who were foolish enough to knock on the door.

The cleaner complained.

The suit of armour

I was given the task of taking a suit of armour, a prop for the school play, to the school hall. I decided the best way was to wear it. This did get talked about for a while…

The head

I was so naive, really.

I had a class of Year 9s who were variously, well, retarded, or should I say differently abled. One of them had also been dealt a bad hand when it came to personal appearance, but was actually rather nice though occasionally given to rages. On graduation he found a job in a sheltered workshop.

The door of their classroom had a small window to enable passers-by to check on the inmates, but the glass had long gone. My young friend used to stick his head through this window and smile in a rather alarming way at people in the corridor. One day going past I asked him to pull his head in. I went further than that. Seeing he reminded me of nothing more than a moose head mounted on a wall I said, “Peter, pull your head in or I’ll mount you on the wall.”

Pleased with my wit, I recounted the story to my colleagues. “You’re so athletic, Neil,” a female teacher who later went on to considerable fame remarked.

My embarrassed blush lit the room beautifully. Honestly, governor, I meant no double-entendre!

more, possibly not scandalous, next post.

Reflections, mostly about a chequered teaching career: Part Two

This series could equally have been called “My Wollongong Decade” – for that is what it was, broken in 1977-78 by secondment to Education at the University of Sydney. In terms of where I lived:

Wollongong 1970-1976

12. 1970 Finlayson Street WOLLONGONG (solo)
13. 1970-1971 Princes Highway DAPTO (family moves back ;) )
14. 1971-1972 Gilmore Street WOLLONGONG (a) (first flat)
15. 1972-1974 Gilmore Street WOLLONGONG (b) (second flat)
16. 1974-1976 Gilmore Street WOLLONGONG (c) (solo flat)

Sydney 1977-1978

17. 1977-1978 Alexandra Road, GLEBE

Wollongong 1979-1980

18. 1978-1980 Church Street, WOLLONGONG

In terms of schools:

  1. Dapto High 1970
  2. Illawarra Grammar School 1971-1974
  3. Wollongong High 1975-1976
  4. University of Sydney 1977-1978
  5. Wollongong High 1979-1980

17531_103743032982300_100000398100350_94397_6653824_n In February my friend Graham, who was an Inspector of Schools and architect of the 1972 English Syllabus back then, turns 80. There will be a bit of a who was who of English teaching in the 70s and 80s at that gathering. I might add in one of those continuities that Mr R (right in school excursion mode) met G some nine or ten years back. I wonder if R is now starting a Wollongong decade of his own? I rather think he might be onwards and upwards before the current decade is out.

Mr R’s decade begins in a very different educational and technological environment. Evidence of the latter is dramatically noted in Internet 2009 in numbers – thanks to Adrian Phoon for that one. In 1970 we had chalk, for writing with and for throwing at students when their attention wavered – probably grounds for assault nowadays – and we had Gestetners and Fordigraphs. By the end of the decade we had reel to reel videotape, then VHS or Beta, closed-circuit TV, cassette recorders, calculators, and sometime in the mid-70s I spotted the first computer in a school. It rather terrified me, a state of affairs that was to last at least another two decades! By the end of the decade I  had a new teaching subject: Photography. We also had the cane at the beginning of the decade: 1970 was the only year I ever used it, and that because as Year 8 “Master” at Dapto I was obliged to.

By the end of the 70s I had qualified to be a Head of Department — though, aside from an honorary Head of History status for a while at TIGS, I never was one. I was on the state council of the NSW English Teachers’ Association, and was secretary of the South Coast branch. I had organised and/or participated in several staff development conferences and HSC study days.

But there is more to a memoir series than such facts, and the CV is ever a poor indicator of what really happened, isn’t it?

Did you ever see the TV series Teachers? Well… When I arrived in Dapto aged 26 I was comparatively old compared with the rest of the English staff…

… More to come