Preamble: Spurred on by my muse Cat and some positive reader feedback, I somehow got the impression that I may have begun to transition from mere blogster to blogstar. I confidently wrote Episode 3 of this seeingmeout blog last week, congratulating myself on what seemed, to me at least, an inspired dream run. This illusion was shattered late on Sunday night, when those carefully crafted precious words vanished forever with the flick of the wrong switch, never to return to my iPad, lost even in the iCloud. So much for hubris and the seemingly bland but deadly function called Document 2. As I also find the WordPress site a challenge, I am obviously still a babe in the blogosphere woods, stumbling along in a blog-fog. Nevertheless, here are some newly minted words (that hopefully will make it online intact) concerning the memories that often haunt and taunt us from our school days.
1. School days…or as Chuck Berry sings: “Up in the mornin’ and out to school , The teacher is teachin’ the golden rule..”
While University graduates are called alumni, a school-leaver is labelled an ‘Old Girl’ or an ‘Old Boy’ as soon as she or he heads out the gate for the last time. This immediately ageing, perhaps even ageist, tag starts, unconsciously and imperceptibly, to undermine the sense that we have plenty of time in the world to grow and make an impact in the adult world. Marking the decades since leaving school, Old Girl/Old Boy Reunions are organised by some very keen, well-meaning peers. Invitations to such events come calling with their relentless reminder of the passing of time, bringing a mixed bag of feelings with them. Could it really be 10, 20, 30… years since we left that school? We look in the mirror, wondering anxiously about how we will stand up to inevitable comparisons with our contemporaries, both in the ever-important appearance stakes, and in the high-pressured career/life stakes. How many missed opportunities on life’s journey? Did we choose the more challenging fork in the road to travel? Have our bodies stood the test of time? How did they track me down? Will the dreaded so-and-so be there? Many contradictory emotions and long-forgotten blasts from the past stir and disturb our hearts and minds. Many people press ‘delete’ and move on with their lives, thinking there could be nothing worse than mixing with the old school crowd.
I am definitely not a school reunion junkie, but I have to confess that I may well have confronted these issues, swallowed my pride, and rocked up dutifully to more school reunions than the average person. I attended two Queensland secondary schools, and that means double the possible reunions, and also I have been invited to some class reunions at schools where I taught in the dim past. Most of these events I have actually quite enjoyed, being a relatively sociable soul. I hate to admit also that at times I have experienced a momentary guilty pleasure, soon suppressed, on hearing that someone who was a complete bitch or snob at school hasn’t exactly had a great life.
Members of my primary school class, comprising mostly retirees, are definitely in reunion-overload mode. A Yeronga State School reunion is organised once a year nowadays, because we might not have too many decades left. In some ways, despite the so-called jokes from some unreconstructed males, it is always pleasant to connect and laugh with people to whom, in some significant way, you don’t have to explain yourself, as they have more or less known you since you were about 5 years old. Members of this clan are certainly engaged in a companionable countdown process of determinedly ‘seeing each other out’.
By contrast, I was rather reluctant to attend my first secondary school reunion after 30 years away from Brisbane Girls’ Grammar School. I had never been happy at the school, although I certainly treasure the great lifelong friendships made there. The sports teacher was sadistic, reveling in humiliating, even terrorising many in our year. We endured a French teacher from hell, and the History teacher went understandably mad in our first year. The Principal was mainly mean and petty, with very thin lips that curled cruelly when she was angry, which tended to be her default setting. While memories of that era are not always pleasant, at least the reunions have been tolerable and even fun at times, and old friendships have been renewed in very heartening ways.
2. Homeland alert: resisting rule-overload and the secret service
Reminiscing about the ups and downs of school days is part of the reunion package. I recall vividly how Grammar girls had to obey many finicky rules such as wearing hats and gloves at all times outside the school grounds; sitting or standing only in the designated front ‘ladies’ section of the bus or tram, and never venturing into the dangerous masculine space at the back. We were also forbidden from loitering in the city without being accompanied by a responsible adult. We were directed to head home as soon as possible every day…Do Not Pass Go, Do Not Collect any of life’s joys.
The ubiquitous BGGS alumni, the Old Girls, appeared to us to form an elaborate vigilante network. They regularly reported into the mother ship any transgressive behaviours they witnessed involving current girls lurking suspiciously on city streets, chatting to the opposite sex. We would hear in morning assembly that certain rebellious girls had been spotted minus their hats and gloves on public transport, meeting with boys or flaunting the gendered spatial taboo by sitting up the back.
I recall one such spy gesticulating from her car while travelling rather haphazardly beside the Moorooka tram my old friend Pippa Longpocket and I were travelling on. Horror of horrors, she had caught us sitting daringly near the back of the tram, minus gloves and hats (it was a hot windy day), apparently ruining the school’s reputation and tempting nearby males who would naturally not be able to control their sexual urges. Probably also it was evident that we had not sat down in a proper ladylike fashion, carefully pressing our pleated skirts beneath us as all virtuous Grammar girls did. Obviously God’s fierce Police were constantly on morality alert, and we were expected to be demure God’s Police-in-waiting, resisting at every turn the fall from grace into becoming the only other alternative – Damned Whores (see Anne Summers’ book on gender politics in Oz). It was impossible to carry out strategic counter-reconnaissance and suss out these Old Girls who emerged unexpectedly into our schoolgirl world from across the decades. While they no longer wore a uniform of course, they were united in their dedicated ‘search and destroy’ mission to uphold the honour and reputation of the school at all costs.
When we were about 15, Pippa and I used to try to dodge the strict prefects and the obsessive Old Girl brigade, by secretly meeting our boyfriends from BGS in a bizarre after-school courtship ritual, occurring mainly in lifts and foyers of various buildings around town. One time, lured by rumours of notorious Churchie boys frequenting a dimly lit, basement coffee dive called De Brazil, Pippa and I decided we needed some new excitement and went there in the hope of encountering these mystery bad boys from across the river. They were no-shows that day – apparently they had already been suspended for hanging out in this forbidden zone, daring to talk loudly and pour salt into the sugar bowl and vice versa. Such a scandalous condiment-swapping prank became part of urban mythology.
Later that year, some thrillseekers were suspended for frequenting a coffee shop after school. Mustering up her over-blown indignation, her bright red lips curling more than usual, her bouffant hair even more spiky and rigid, the headmistress declared imperiously that any girl who had ever been in a coffee shop in school uniform should report to her after assembly and confess immediately. While we felt sorry for the luckless culprits who had been caught red-handed, probably by one of the secret service army of Old Girls, Pippa and I decided that, in the scheme of things, our coffee dive transgression was pretty mild, and we were about to leave the school anyway.
3. A saga of singlets and showers
Detailed rigid clothing and appearance rituals at private girls’ schools are always enough to drive one into despair, both at the time and in retrospect. The rules extended to the wearing of particular underwear at all times. Leaving the navy bloomers up to your imagination, I will just mention here the white cotton singlet fiasco. A Brisbane Girls’ Grammar girl had to wear a singlet, no matter what the weather, to guard against a wardrobe malfunction such as her blouse riding up in the bus, and someone catching a forbidden glimpse of fresh nubile flesh, ostensibly ripe for the plucking by some pimple-faced youth.At Ipswich Girls’ Grammar, where I boarded for the final 2 years of schooling, the singlet fiasco plunged to unforeseen, even perverse depths – thankfully for only a brief time. Girls were ordered to wear their singlets under their bras. This was of course illogical and impractical. It appears, however, that the main motivation for this bizarre ruling was that wearing a bra directly against bare flesh might overly stimulate an innocent teenage girl. One particular teacher would go on singlet patrol, randomly ordering startled girls to strip and show that they had bra and singlet in the correct order on their bodies. If they dared have their bras up against their skin, they had to perform a deeply embarrassing strip in front of this teacher and swap the order around. Another borderline activity by one rule enforcer, the Boarding School Matron, was to hang around the showers, checking on the length of shower time (no more than 3 minutes) and catching girls with wet hair – no hair washing was allowed during the week. On the upside, the 3-minute shower training has actually come in handy in later life, particularly as Queensland often experiences a dire water shortage.
Despite the short showers, the lank hair and the singlet-bra reversal issue (N.B. I didn’t have to endure the strip search – I was always on the alert to refuse and to report the teacher), I was happier in class at IGGS and found the teachers mostly excellent, inspirational and passionate about their subjects. The sports mistress was an encouraging soul who possessed a dry sense of humour, and not a tinge of sadism. The French teacher was a veritable legend and the knowledgeable History teacher was mad about her subject, rather than being simply mad…
4. Rockin’ and rollin’: a few reunion snapshots
Hail, hail rock and roll , Deliver me from the days of old (Chuck Berry Schooldays)
Snapshot 1: At our first Yeronga State School reunion in 1988, we sat cramped at children’s desks in our former classroom, responding as our old teacher Miss Thorne called the roll – a heightened nostalgic and surreal experience. At the call of each name, the person had to stand and deliver something about her or his life since schooldays. Without really thinking it through, I rose and mentioned a few biographical details career-wise. Then on the personal front, I gave a quick summary of marriage, divorce and beyond, adding the old feminist joke that I ‘forgot to have children’. Afterwards some of my classmates came over and hugged me sympathetically, saying, in effect, ‘Poor Helen, it’s so sad that you forgot to have children’. Shamefacedly, I realized that, while my paltry attempt at esoteric humour may not have clicked with them, these people were the salt of the earth.
Snapshot 2: During one of our more recent primary school reunions, a very shy fellow rose and stated that he had had a major crush on my friend Pippa Longpocket while at school, and his feelings had never waned. His public declaration was greeted with a supportive round of applause. Pippa was gobsmacked; she barely recalled this person, but being a kindly soul she had a warm chat with him afterwards. Needless to say, despite the odd school reunion movie to the contrary, his childhood fantasy was never realised.
Snapshot 3: At one secondary school reunion, an old acquaintance came up and told me she had buried several husbands. I hate to admit that my initial reaction was uncharitable astonishment, rather than much needed sympathy. As I am an avid crime novel reader, I couldn’t help but be very curious about the manner of their deaths, and how her current husband felt about the other three. But for once I was tongue-tied.
Snapshot 4: I attended another reunion as one of the class teachers from the era, rather than as a former pupil. I was pleased to catch up with many in that year, as they were the first English class I had taken through their final years of schooling. On this particular evening, it was very interesting to observe how the powers-that-be in that school have conveniently rewritten history to suit the establishment’s own purposes by bolstering their current progressive image. In their senior year, the brave, wonderful students I taught there had staged a hunger strike, as the food in the boarding school was basically inedible and well below standard, and earlier complaints had fallen on deaf ears.
The strike triggered a huge moral panic, and a paranoid anger-fuelled hunt for mythical ‘reds under the bed’. Finally the intrepid students held their ground and won through, and the school executive grudgingly changed the menu and the caterers. However, during the formal part of the reunion dinner, the old and the new guard of the school gloated, in smug self-congratulatory mode, about being so liberal-minded and receptive to the need for such a change – a very different version of the truth from what we remembered.
Such entrenched institutions engage actively in selective branding through mythologising and propagandising over time, in the same way as these potent modes operate in our political culture. Firstly, the dominant group fiercely resists; then, when that strategy seems to fail, they appropriate the threatening shiny ideas, glossing over them and wrenching them into the bland mainstream. Thus such forward-thinking ideas tend to be neutralised and manipulated for future counter-advantage, whenever possible. During that reunion evening, I learned a salutary school reunion lesson about power: the more things change, the more they stay the same.
5. Medication blues
There’s Aspirin, Adrenaline & also Aminophylline, Amphetamine, Adenosine, Augmentin & Rifampicin, Amoxicillin, Penicillin, Heparin & Warfarin, & Oestrogen, Progestagen & Canesten & Chloroquine…Adam Kay The Drug Song – see http://www.lyricsfreak.com/a/adam+kay/the+drug+song_10002492.html
As signaled in Episode 2, one burning topic amongst friends in my ageing demographic (and not only at school reunions) has developed quite naturally over the years: what medications are you on? Or spot the symptoms, share the cure. People sympathetically listen to each other’s conditions, comparing notes on aches and pains, on fads and treatments. We have apparently reached a distinctly resonant minor key movement in the hemi-demi-semi-retirement symphony. Financial management is no longer front and centre. This once seemingly ageless generation, who triumphantly created such age-defiant slogans as “50 is the new 30”, are finding that the core emerging topic, up there with travelling and grandchildren, concerns illness and drugs. As we are seeing each other out into another decade, it is not so difficult to predict what the next hot topic might be…
NOTE: Check out the wonderful Flickchicks website – http://www.flickchicks.com.au Mandy and Margie are very dynamic, talented filmmakers, and you might like to see their inspirational award-winning film on centenarians, The 100+ Club.