Monday, March 28, 2011


About 3.38 am I'm writhing in my sheets, greasily sweltering in the cool bedroom air. Doona off. Kick. Fling myself over. Now I'm too cold. Now something's crawling on my hand. Flick it off. No, something really is crawling on my neck. Frantic slapping and jerking. Light on. 'Can't see anything,' says the old man, who's up on one elbow assisting with the insect inspection. He drops back onto his pillow and almost immediately the gentle, but fucking annoying, not quite snoring resumes. (Happily I can't hear myself snore. Apparently I regularly reach motor mower on a Sunday morning proportions. In case anyone's interested.)

Why am I thinking about students, at, what is it now, 4.25 am? Haven't been back to sleep, just continued the hot cold twisting, thumping head on the pillow, first this side, then that. To no avail. I'm thinking about how immature these two rangy Bobsy twins are, swanning in late with immaculate foundation and hair swinging, to every lesson. My faultless peripheral vision picks up their incessant signals to each other from their 'seating plan' seats on opposite sides of the room. Why don't I just sit them together and cut out the middle man, me? They're disruptive anyway. Let them sit together and giggle their thirteen year old hearts out about the tricks they've played on 'the hobo' at Watergardens. Suppose they're allowed to be immature at thirteen. But why are they in my head at, what is it now, 5.13? The joys of the red eyed digital clock keeping an exact watch on my insomnia.

I'm not feeling well. I feel positively queasy and belly-cramped. No. I can't be sick. I've got four-on. The year 12s - I've got both classes today - need to get their third Creating and Presenting SAC topic. The Bobsies will ruin the substitute teacher's day. The writing class has got work due in. And it's parent-teacher night on Thursday and I won't get their work marked in time. And we've got to do the change over for the second SAC marking. The year 8s will be all right. They can just go on with English Basics. And I was going to miss last period anyway because I'm going to the Skin Cancer Foundation to get this BCC off my face. The year 12s can just start preparing their next SAC. What are the writing class going to do? Journal writing? They're getting sick of that. Geez, my guts hurt. Doubles up in pain before staggering off to the smallest room, grabbing yesterday's "M" along the way.

Curiously, no matter how ill I am, I still have to read. I usually put the newspaper, book or magazine down when heaving, of course, but it's generally there on standby. A trip to the toilet without a text is a wasted opportunity. At times, caught short, I'll even 'delay' until some tolerant family member can fling some reading material - junk mail, anything - through a crack in the door. In desperation, I've even read the back of my watch. Actually, the iPhone has made staying in camping grounds so much more amenable. It fits discreetly into a pocket. So much reading material.

Where was I?

Will I or won't I? Seven-thirty-three. Decision is made. I can't work today. That's it. Why do I feel so guilty? I leave an apologetic message on the school's answering machine, adding that I'll email my lesson plans before school starts. This is obligatory at our school, for what it's worth. The kids never do the work anyway, but it looks good in the marketing. On occasions, I've been at the computer making up vague plans for my classes, with a bucket handy at my side. Today, I'm hunched over the laptop, hugging my abdomen as I tap out four lesson plans with one finger. Never get a return email thanking me for sending plans through.

The upside? By about 10.24 I'm still in bed but feeling a bit hungry. Showered, I definitely feel better. The sun's breaking through the clouds, and having worked on Saturday, I have no marking to sully the remains of the day. An unexpected plus? I'm at home when my twenty-four year old son gets a phone call telling him he's got his first professional job. Whoo hoo.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Behold! For I am Fraudster, queen of procrastinators!

Saturday, eight am. Wake up and spend about twenty minutes' side-splitting time reading David Sedaris’ Naked. Back to bed for...first pile of marking of several discrepant Creating and Presenting SACs. Riveting.

Next, cheap home hair dye to make me less like someone who should be advertising Australian Pensioners Home Insurance. My old man assists with the back of the head so I don’t end up looking like a greying Blondie. With gummed up hair, flying around my house in a protective plastic cape, get first load of washing in.

Call to my mum to arrange her eightieth birthday bash. “Oops! Gotta go, mother. Gotta rinse.”

Not a bad dye job, but, interestingly, think I’d still get the APIA gig; perhaps even more so.

The old man cheerfully accepts that he’ll be doing the Saturday shop alone, cos Fraud’s got marking, as per usual. Off he goes as I settle to start the batch of thirty-eight ‘analyses’ - I wish; most were summaries - of the language use in a Mark Seymour piece from last year’s Age. Click. That’s the washing machine door telling me the first load of washing is done. Delighted, I spring up from my desk to hang it out and get the next one in. Gives me a welcome break from the marking I haven’t yet begun. Find myself inspecting the laden apple tree while I’m out there. Using the legs of a pair of pegged up jeans as a bird hide, for about ten minutes I study a couple of king parrots eating the apples. Bit of a dawdle around the back garden. Still haven’t marked a paper, but I confess to having actually picked up the red pen and removed the lid, before replacing it, and drifting through my autumn house into the bathroom for a quick eyebrow inspection.

I’m not one for obsessive eyebrow plucking, but it seemed an opportune time to peer at them. Have to get up really close due to special combo short and long-sightedness. I have perfect visual acuity, without the aid of contact lenses or spectacles, provided whatever I want to look at is exactly four inches from my eyes. That is, my left eye. My right eye is, well, fucked. Consequently, only the left eyebrow got plucked. God knows what’s happening on the right side of my face.

Back to the marking. Think I assessed about three papers before replacing the dangling deodoriser in the dunny. Seemed like a good idea. Yes, the eyebrows were still there. Well, one of them. I checked. Really must get stuck into the marking.

The old man returns with the shopping and I’ve barely started.

And thus I proceed through my day, desperate to sweep up leaves on my back porch, to inspect grouting, to weed pot plants, to clean out the fly zapper, to read Sedaris – fluent, witty, correctly spelt and punctuated, as opposed to my students’ labours. And they really have tried hard. Their efforts exude from their awkwardly expressed convoluted prose as they dip inappropriately into their thesauruses. There are some who’ve nailed it, and I sail through these. It’s the others that take their toll. (Hey, I’m full of clich├ęs too.)

Marking is the curse of the English teacher, but for me it’s worse because I am the queen of procrastinators. If I’d just got on with it, I’d have finished it in three hours. Instead, I took about nine.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Me and John Proctor

In 1973, when I completed my HSC, I had a brief respite from mediocrity during my English classes, and, happily in the final exam. I’ve had several shining moments since, in terms of writing, but quite often I struggle because I just can’t take it seriously enough; can apply neither the intellect, nor the endurance – one of the many reasons I consider myself to be a fraud.

It’s probably why I have a couple of recurring dreams. In one, somehow I’ve slept through an alarm, or forgotten to turn up on the first day of school. I flap around under the shower, usually fully clothed, trying vainly to rinse suds out of my hair. I stumble late into a room packed with year 12 students and unsuccessfully attempt to wing the lesson. (Actually, this isn’t far from the reality on occasions, but I usually manage to divest myself of my clothes while showering.) In the other dream, I’m sitting in a silent exam hall doing my year 12 English exam. And I’m caught out. I can’t do it. Consequently, my life is a sham. I simply fluked it back in ‘73, and I shouldn’t even have been admitted to my lesser Melbourne State College B. Ed. course; shouldn’t even have got in by the back door, which is what my father pronounced when I didn’t get into Melbourne University – for which I hadn’t even applied, by the way. My acceptance into La Trobe didn’t impress him at all. It was common knowledge that you could get in there if you could play three chords on a guitar.

Which is all a rather rambling lead up to me trying unsuccessfully to write an imaginative response to a prompt for that part of VCE Units 3 and 4 English called Creating and Presenting. Our Context, with a capital C, is Encountering Conflict. (I’ve been doing a bit of that lately. I like to think I’m John Proctor from The Crucible, but I’m not sure I’d die to save my name.)

This is the prompt. Think it’s from the 2008 exam. “In times of conflict ordinary people can act in extraordinary ways.” And this is what happened, and why, once again, I’m the fraud who’s been up the front of the classroom for thirty-one and a quarter years.

John Proctor languishes in gaol, awaiting execution. I’m trying to capture the tone of Proctor’s thoughts back in 1692. Here goes:

Their lying, their pretence, has conjured a demon. Though it be invisible, though it be wrought from the girls’ demented minds, it has risen up and has taken men’s senses. They quake in fear as that whore cries witch. Though I believe not in these incubi and succubi I see that something has taken hold in Salem. It be not born of goodness. It be born of fear, lies and vengeance. (Thought that wasn’t too bad, then ensued my own descent into the pit.)

In Salem we were a hardworking community, not given to idleness. Not three months gone we were united. Aye, one had not time nor strength for aught else. How did such mayhem arise from such mischief?

Indeed. How? Fucked if I know what Proctor was thinking when he sacrificed himself. Extraordinary indeed. He had nothing left but his name, and, as he said, ‘leave me my name...I cannot have another’. What drove him to such lengths? Would anyone fall on the sword like this? Evidently not. Ordinary people meld into the group. Reminds me of those Arctic or Antarctic penguins flocking together against the cold, occasionally taking their turn on the outside but nonetheless clinging to the warm mass. To leave the group is sure death. But that’s penguins and we aren’t really concerned with the behaviour of the ‘animal kingdom’.

I don’t find humans surprising at all. I find them very predictable. A percentage will show altruism, will give of themselves and bequeath extraordinary gifts to humankind. I recall an episode on Australian Story. A young Australian girl adopted a number of homeless Cambodian children, raised funds and ran her own orphanage and school. It’s as if there are certain people who are wired in some way to commit these extraordinary acts when they see a need. Were such people ever ordinary?

John Proctor, from the outset, struck me as different. By being his own true self, he inadvertently made others, the Parrises and Putnams, feel their inadequacy. Or perhaps, like my students, I’m just confusing the ‘novel’, as they say, with the ‘movie’. Perhaps I just like the look of Daniel Day Lewis with his twinkling eye/teeth combo, striding across the fields, no grim reaper, in his baggy britches.

I rest my case.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

My ongoing relationship with Lockie Leonard, Human Torpedo

Last year, I began my crusade to have Lockie Leonard, Human Torpedo, removed from our book list. I've 'taught' the text for the last ten or so years. In some ways, it's kept me young. I put it down to being immersed, for a couple of hours each week, in the fug of pubescent hormones emanating from twenty-five excited students. I should be grateful. It's evidently helping me to ward off osteoporosis, facial hair, night sweats and the other scourges of the menopausal.

I'm not bothered that Lockie and Vicky get sexy. I'm more concerned that Winton gets preachy. There's one line in the text where Lockie tells the Sarge, his dad, that the Sarge could never be a teacher because he's got too much going for him. Really hate reading that line. Every year I hate it.

I also dislike Winton's stereotyping of rich kids and their parents, of the kids at the church youth group, the bogans, and yes, the teachers. However, it usually leads to worthwhile discussion about the positives and negatives of stereotyping.

Almost every year that I was coordinator, I received complaints from parents, concerned about their precious children reading about sex. One poor kid, forbidden from participating in any class on Lockie, had to suffer the ignominy of sitting in my office, wading through The Sun on the Stubble - a novel of which his mother, a rabid Christian, approved. Interestingly, she thereby guaranteed that Jimmy, a bright and curious kid, read all three Lockie Leonard books, perhaps with a torch under his bedsheets.

So why is Lockie still doing us, despite the protestations of an oldish former English Coordinator who wouldn't mind aging gracefully?

Basically, most students love it. I even received a petition from one group last year who'd heard from their loose-lipped teacher that we were considering dropping it. So Lockie stayed. Can't fight that.

My students read Lockie aloud in a sort of 'readers' theatre'. One person reads the 'narrator' and other students take the various parts. There's great competition to read the 'rude' bits. This year, two boys desperately wanted to read the first nipple section. With a coin toss, we sorted out who would read. 'Fair enough,' conceded the losing contender, after another had tossed a dollar into the air and called heads. He was crest-fallen but placated by my promise that he could read the next rude bit.

I teach my year 8s in the period before lunch each day. A couple of weeks ago, so enthralled were they with what they were reading, they begged to be allowed to stay in at lunchtime to finish the chapter. I kid you not. They stayed in for seven minutes, and even though I had a full teaching day, I didn't care because I don't think that's happened before. Engagement with reading is what it's all about for us English teachers. I felt really good.

It's been interesting observing my students this year. They're more sophisticated than last year's group. They pick up lots of unintended innuendo. They cracked up at the men holding their sausages in the water-skiing scene. Neither have I received any complaints. I suppose I am teaching in the world of Two and a Half Men.

I do wonder though, what Winton thinks of Lockie Leonard, Human Torpedo from the perspective of twenty years. Wonder if he cringes. Wish I'd written it.