Reflections, mostly about a chequered teaching career: Part Five + Salinger

No mistaking the voice.

"Hey Ackley," I said, in sort of a whisper so Stradlater couldn’t hear me through the shower curtains.

Ackley didn’t hear me, though.

"Hey, Ackley!"

He still didn’t hear me. He slept like a rock.

"Hey, Ackley!"

He heard that, all right.

"What the hell’s the matter with you?" he said. "I was asleep, for Chrissake."

"Listen. What’s the routine of joining a monastery?" I asked him. I was sort of toying with the idea of joining one. "Do you have to be a Catholic and all?"

"Certainly you have to be a Catholic. You bastard, did you wake me up just to ask me a dumb ques-"

"Aah, go back to sleep. I’m not going to join one anyway. The kind of luck I have, I’d probably join one with all the wrong kind of monks in it. All stupid bastards. Or just bastards."

So J D Salinger has gone. I rather like a comment by Matthew da Silva on Facebook.

@Meredith – Isn’t it weird … I read Catcher as an adolescent and other books in my twenties … So that’s almost 30 years ago … But I still hold fond memories of the guy … Shows how ‘faithful’ fiction can make us, I guess … The narratives of youth remain when everything else drops away … We are enamoured of our younger selves.

I missed out as I didn’t read Catcher in the Rye in my adolescence, but it still resonated when I was in my twenties, and amazingly still shocked back then.

In Wollongong sometime between 1975 and 1980 I was delegated by my Head of English who passed on to me a task he had been given by the Regional Director: to defend before the Illawarra branch of the Parents and Citizens the choice of “nasty” literature – like Catcher in the Rye – for HSC Study.  Fred Nile had been banging on about it at the time. My honour was a dubious one, the end of a chain of passing the buck.

So I went armed with a host of Biblical and classical references, rather like this 2005 post.

OK, let’s really get into those good books and get rid of this 21st century crap, eh! For laughs, we should start with Chaucer’s Miller’s Tale, for the fart jokes and the hilarious red-hot poker up the bum scene. Always goes well, that does. And the General Prologue before that, of course:

For if a preest be foul, on whom we truste,
No wonder is a lewed man to ruste;
And shame it is, if a prest take keep,
A shiten shepherde and a clene sheep.

The principal complainant was at the meeting. Turns out it wasn’t a moral issue with him; rather he objected to the slang and bad grammar because they would corrupt his child’s English.

“So,” I asked, “You want your child to read Shakespeare?”

“Of course.”

“Aren’t you worried your child will start speaking in blank verse and Elizabethan English?”

He got the point. It turned out to be a rather pleasant evening.

Back to Catcher in the Rye.

Have you seen the shrinklit version?

Angst angst angst swear curse swear crazy crazy angst swear curse, society sucks, and I’m a stupid jerk.

Unfair, of course.

Wollongong local history

From 1982: the collective who designed this poster had association with some people I knew in the 1970s.



This is handy. My “Wollongong Decade” is in red. When my father lived in Illawarra and Shellharbour is in blue. The period in which we regularly visited family in Wollongong and Shellharbour is in purple.

Table of dates and events

Continue reading

2010 recycled: Reflections, mostly about a chequered teaching career: Part Four

Classroom exhibit Illawarra Museum. I did take an interest in local history.

Wollongong the Brave

Not every city has its own national anthem.

Raise your hand high
To a burnt sienna sky,
Land that is girt by sea (on one side) —
You may laugh, say we pong,
But to us it’s Wollongong!
Wollongong the Brave!

— from memory.

Parent-teacher nights

This ritual occurs once a term, or twice a year, or once a year — depending where you are. It is often a mad round of quick interviews by the end of which one has forgotten who one is, let alone who one is talking to or about whom one is talking.

Some memorable quotes.

  • “So, what have you got against my son?” I came at the end of a round of hairy interviews, it seems.
  • An entire interview with an intoxicated parent which was mainly about the best brands of sweets. The parent was a grocer.
  • “You tell me when he’s not behaving and I’ll bash him.” — I was from then on very sympathetic to the student and never took up the offer.
  • “Mine’s the blonde one. You know… What’s wrong, Neil? Don’t you remember people you have met at parties?” — That was in fact the Principal’s wife playing a trick on me. I had only ever seen her once before. I did indeed teach her daughter, but “the blonde one” was a touch unhelpful as an identifier in that particular class.
  • (Not from the 1970s). An entire interview devoted to the difficulty of living in Australia without servants!

… more later

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

Reflections, mostly about a chequered teaching career: Part One

To quote Jim Belshaw, who was up with the lark this morning: “It’s just coming up on dawn. Yesterday was a hot day, today is expected to be more so. They are talking about 43c, 109.4F. That’s quite hot.” Indeed it is.

This morning too (our time) Ramana in India posted Doubts And Regrets.

…“A man is not old until his regrets take the place of his dreams.” – Yiddish Proverb.
I have learnt to like or at least accept what I attract rather than attract what I like. That enables me to live now without doubts and regrets leaving both to others to handle to the best of their ability. They can chase their dreams and spend a lot of money on all the books, tapes, videos, blogs etc that sell “The Secret” and the “Law of Attraction.” I shall watch the fun and chuckle.

Now for all those sixty plus readers of my blog, here is something that each of us would like to sing and for those younger, you have some catching up to do.

And so spurred too by Mr R on Facebook as he is about to teach in Wollongong (as I did long ago) I have been on an archaeological dig and have uncovered some of the great highs, and lows, of my teaching career. As for Mr R, a SBHS ex-student and great friend, I was struck by this remark of his: “I am creating the future here!!!!” Whether tongue-in-cheek or not one can never be sure with Mr R, but that’s true for teachers anyway, at least up to a point.

Quite a few of my Facebook friends — not that I have anything but a modest collection — are ex-students, and one, Craig Donarski, goes all the way back to my Wollongong days. So too does my friend Simon H, mentioned on my blogs from time to time, whom I first met in 1970. Of course my oldest ex-student (from Cronulla) turns 61 this year!

Here is a snapshot from my last year in Wollongong.

J opens the door. He has just moved in, a year in America behind him. He will be a writer, is starting a course, will live alone not answerable to anyone for who he is what he does. He has been painting: the walls white, the furniture brown.

– Mr Smith!

– Hi, J. It seems we’re neighbours. Rosemary rang me from Wollongong and told me you were here. I’m living just around the corner.

– Really! Have you been transferred?

– Yes, to Simmons Street.

– That’s a good school isn’t it?

– So they say.

– Well… nice to see you. Would you like to come in? Sorry about the mess.

– What mess? You’re a model of neatness. You should see my place, books and boxes everywhere.

[There were rumours last year that Mr Smith was having it off with a Year 12 girl.]

– Would you like some coffee?

[There were rumours last year that Mr Smith was having it off with that spunky librarian.]

– Thanks, J.

[There were rumours last year that Mr Smith was having it off with the milkman. “Had your cream this morning?” the class wit, Carcase, used to ask him.]

No prize for guessing who Mr Smith is, or that Simmons Street is Fort Street. I took the name from “Brian James”, The Advancement of Spencer Button (1950), a bit of a classic and still one of the best (satirical) novels on teaching in NSW.

— continues in the next post.

Ah, Wollongong!

Dare I quote Mr R from Facebook?

Wollongong: beach, bike path, burger. Not bad!

Perhaps near where Sirdan and I were on our Wollongong/Kiama reconnaissance.

Looking down Surf Road towards the light house

Yes, a photo I hadn’t used yet.

Forty years to the minute, almost, since I moved down to Mrs Cuell’s half house of fond memory and began my ten years in the Illawarra. (Sometimes I am sorry I left! But then lots of good things wouldn’t have happened otherwise, I guess.)

Found another old post which testifies to the brilliance of one recent graduate from the selective school down there.

From what I can see Mr R will be hard pressed to beat the experience I gather he has had at CPAHS; sometimes a new school can have its time of readjustment. There’s a sense in which you have to reestablish yourself each time you take up a new appointment.

I have to admit though that Mr R is way ahead of where I was in so many ways, when I think back to January 1970. I will certainly be eager to hear of his progress.