Going Home. Part I.

As I hit the road to head back home from Echuca for the second time in a fortnight, I had this overwhelming feeling that I needed to write. Words for me have always been my way of making sense of the world. My photography, I do that to help others to tell their stories, but when it comes to understanding my own, I need to work through the words, in order to get the tale just right in my head.

People who don’t teach have this notion that holidays for teachers are beer, skittles and bon bons. Sometimes, yep, for sure, but mostly it’s a mad rush to catch up on everything else that you’ve let go over the preceding weeks so that you can start the rush again in two weeks time. But this holidays was nothing like either of this.

These holidays started with me in my old home town, and finished with me leaving it. In between was a funeral, the opportunity to meet and play with some amazing people, and then my 20 year high school reunion.

These holidays were bookmarked by two of the scariest things that I could possibly imagine. I’m going to need a while to get these stories just right, for myself, if not for you.

My Nan hadn’t been well for a long time. Her decline was a physical one, totally dominated by the way that Alzheimer’s had left her somebody different to the woman I knew. That was the worst part about it – I had never realised, each time that we visited her, with each time being harder, sadder, that somewhere in my mind, but where I didn’t know, I was already grieving for who my Nan had been, not just for who she was. And no matter how much we knew that it was coming, until it arrived, none of us knew how it would be.

Nan to me was the epitome of Hemingway’s definition of a hero, she was grace under pressure. She was always stylish, always upheld her standards, always looked just so and always wanted these things for those she love. To watch that be slowly stripped bare from her was so painful, but in the end she had nothing more to give it, so she found her release.

What I hadn’t understood, was the grief that I had accumulated as a result of this defilement. I didn’t understand it in years previous since it had begun it’s march, and I hadn’t understood it as we made the plans and arrangements for her funeral. But as it came time for me to speak, at her funeral, a tap inside of me opened up. As my Dad had read what we had prepared for her eulogy, I had already felt that somehow, the words that I had put together on the page for him just weren’t right, weren’t enough, weren’t perfect; and as I spoke, my voice failed me, my heart broke me and when all that I wanted to do was to sit somewhere quietly and sob my guts out, I tried to speak of how I remembered my Nan, I tried to express who she had been, but I felt as if I had failed.

The next day, I drove home, with the companionship of my sister in the seat next to me, and the feeling that I should just give the word game away.

Introverts need an audience too …

At my high school, performance had a high priority.  The drama classes, run by Terry Muller, were excellent, and his enthusiasm permeated the school.  We had school productions that were huge affairs, and in the dusty haze of my memory, they were rather professional.  The best example in my mind of the way that self-expression was fostered was through the weekly Theatre Sports competition, with the final being held in front of the entire school. I’d love to teach in a school where this was the culture.

Our team in this competition was called the Teenage Suicidal Lemmings, a tilt towards the ridiculous, and the animated heroes of the day.  Ninjas we certainly were not, but our confidence certainly mutated throughout the course of those performances.

Our arch rivals were another team from our year level, and as is typical at school, they were our nemesis in most things.  But if I remember rightly we beat them in that final (the beauty of history is that the winners write the story, yes?).

Our team later went on to present a rewritten interpretation of the fight scene from Romeo and Juliet, inspired by the principles of Bertolt Brecht.  It was out of control – bawdy, unrestricted, totally unrestrained.  Quotes from Churchill mixed with pelvic thrusts and wit – it was clever, and our costuming was phenomenally sophisticated too – we all wore tights, with foam volleyballs stuffed down the front.  It’s amazing how much teenage bravado can hide behind a foam ball.  The entire thing caused a tremendous commotion in the school, there were those gasoline fuelled rumours of disciplinary action for Mr Muller – but throughout all of the ruckus, I still remember one of the English faculty telling me that they ‘got it’, that we had ‘gotten it’.  That’s all that mattered really.

Looking back on all of this, a great fraud of my personality was being committed here.

Throughout High School, I couldn’t be myself.  I would prefer to imagine, rather than be.  I held myself back in so many ways because my natural reaction was to limit myself, to not offer up a chance for rejection, for failure, for exposure.  One moment in particular stands out so clearly.  This girl was sophisticated, beautiful, different to the other kids I encountered at the country high school I had started at in Year 8.  We were in the school library (the classic haunt of the introvert) – I was reading, she had followed me in there.  It was summer, there was bright light coming in through the windows up over her head, and she smiled at me in a way that melted me, completely.  But rather than say yes, I wavered, I shrank.  I still have that smile smashed into my memory, but that’s all that I have.  I’ve always wondered what it would have been like to have known more.

The contradiction to this nervousness, these withdrawals, is that if I was in a role, I could be gregarious, outgoing, but as long as I was somebody else.  As a public speaker, a Lemming, even as a waiter or an actor on the stage I could assume the character, except if it required me to expose something of myself.

This introversion has always been a part of me.  My favourite toy was Lego – I could sit for hours by myself, creating new machines for new worlds, fiddling with the bricks, manipulating their shapes, creating, all by myself, but I wasn’t alone.

When I look at it, my creative outlets were always a way for me to build a bridge between the world as I imagined it, and the world as everybody else lived it.  My writing did this, and the romance of my first real relationship as translated through my words was a fantasy construction that never really met the realities of the destruction that pairing would bring.  My other writing was a fumble with my needs for something more, for adventure, for masculinity, for a trade in personas.  In my twenties my creativity went out the window as I sought to create an adult life and its no shock that without it, my connections to the world shrivelled.

As I’ve sought to renegotiate the threads of creative communication that allow me to negotiate my way through the world, things have gotten better again.  I feel more like myself now than I ever have since I was a Lemming.

Writing this blog has certainly helped with all of that.  I’m exploring parts of me that needed a good going over.  Photography has been the other way that I’ve been able to reconnect with the world.  As a very close friend recently identified, my camera has let me be in the thick of things again, but it’s still a barrier from too much of the chaos which would potentially drive other introverts insane.  It has been the entrée for me into a different world, one which I would never be able to negotiate without it.

When I finally did manage to say yes to a girl, naturally I said yes to the wrong one.  We were walking through Melbourne on a Saturday night, one of the few times she managed to come and visit me, when we came across the wrap party for The Phantom of the Opera.  It was the final performance and the audience and cast had spilled out of the Princess Theatre onto Spring Street in this multicoloured cacophony of streamers, balloons, champagne and cocktail dresses.  This girl was a MASSIVE fan of the show, and wanted to go over to the party.  I froze in my shoes, and suddenly developed a rigid spine that would have been better diverted towards ending the relationship, rather than avoiding a party – but that’s the way it was that night, and that spine wouldn’t fuse itself to me for another three years.  Why was I so afraid though? What was it that I was scared of? Why had anxiety become such a big part of my life?

It’s the people that I don’t know.  And because they’re strangers, they’re immediately better than me, more intelligent, more fashionable, more interesting, more everything, and utterly intimidating.  Where did this come from? I have no idea.  For once there isn’t some memory that I can return to to explain things; instead it’s just a part of who I am, at my simplest and most basic.

But with recognition comes understanding, and ultimately, I hope, it’s something that I’ll overcome.

All of this was laid bare to me on the first day of this year.  On New Year’s Eve I had an Almost Famous evening.  My camera had gotten me into a performance, but as is usual in life, there was an element of my past there that night that wasn’t going to let me forget it.

When I was a young lad, this amazing circus had come to town in the form of a film crew who were making an example of that classic medium of the 80s, the mini-series.  Growing up in Echuca, everyone knew the story of All The Rivers Run, and in 1989 it was time to make the sequel.  As a part of this circus there were all manner of performers – the 2nd assistant director who had recently divorced from the barrel girl and was drowning his sorrows; the special effects guys who loved blowing shit up at any given opportunity; the beautiful star who first put me on the course of having a predilection for red-heads; and the daughter of the guy running the show whose grandfather is a household name.

What was different that time round? I have no idea.  God was she beautiful.  But growing up in a family of left-wing intellectualism had made her smart too, and worldly and everything else that a 14 year old boy who is too busy trying to grow up to ever properly live was looking for.  I don’t know if I even touched her, but we had an understanding over the Easter weekend that year.  She was the first girl I ever knew who I was willing to give my complete heart to.  But it was just a weekend, and then she was gone …

… until she started showing up here and there, in the media and whatnot, and at this performance.  I knew she’d be there, she was on the bill and I had no idea how I would handle it – I didn’t even know if I should handle it, let alone whether I could, she probably forgot about me a long time ago, she doesn’t strike me as the self-historian that I am …so many thoughts, ran through my brain, except for the right one, about how it was over 20 fucking years ago and who really gives a shit?

At one stage she looked at me with a hint of recognition, perhaps, I don’t really know.  I had turned away at the barest hint of smile and the fight or flight instinct of mine that kicks in when it comes to dealing with people, with the issues that cloud my head, decided to fly away.  It always does. Fly I did.

Once again, I’m now left wondering.  Solely because of my own actions, my own response, my own fearfulness.

My introversion doesn’t hamper me in the expected ways.  There is nothing stereotypical about it, that would be too easy.  But I’m sick and tired of the way that it creates regrets in my life, the way that it keeps locked away the part of me that steps forward with purpose and the way that it dominates me to fly at that split second moment, when I could be something more.

It’s time to be the Lemming again.  To set sail from the cliff that I’m clinging to and fly with real purpose, not in fear, but into life.

People who have only seen a part of me are often shocked to think that I’m an introvert; but they have only seen me when those threads are in place that connect the world in my own mind, to the world that is outside of that place.  Teaching is one of those places.  But for those times when the threads don’t exist, then I stand apart from the world, happy to observe, to see, to record, perhaps to imagine.  What I’ve recently discovered is that there is nothing wrong with that place.  It’s ok for me to be there.  As long as when I’m there, I’m not left imagining what could have been.

It’s time…

Alright, in the words of Ben Folds, it’s time to rock this bitch. (ooooooohhh, we’re very potty mouthed today …)

I’ve been sitting around on holidays now for a couple of weeks getting a bunch of stuff done, but sadly, this blog hasn’t been one of them, but there’s a lot inside that needs to be let out, so I think it’s time – yes??

OK, today’s post is about that lovely thing known to all of us as the 20 year high school reunion. Yep, it’s that time.

Twenty years ago this year, I finished high school, and god, let me tell you, am I a different person to who I was back then. Holy shitballs (oh, btw, I didn’t make New Year resolutions, for reasons that I’ll explain sometime, but I did decide that Holy Shitballs is going to be my cuss of choice in 2012!) am I someone else now.

1992 was an interesting year for me … it was the culmination of my nerd-dom, it was when I began my first serious relationship, it was when it all came together and all fell apart, all at once. It was when I first started to see who I could be, and then the window slammed shut – but I feel like kicking the year off with a bang here, and not wallowing in that whiney shit.

So yes, Year 12, 1992, in the utmost expression of not knowing what really was good for me, I topped my class, even if all of my subjects were humanities, which caused a stir with some of the more, shall we say, science orientated folks, because history isn’t a real subject, is it?? I guess it was just a perfect storm of me really following my intellectual passions, and thriving in that environment. I could also spit an essay completely out of my ass in exams, which helped a lot! So I finished that year, and the next moved to Melbourne to go to uni, and left Echuca behind in so many ways. I still returned, too much for my liking, my girlfriend saw to that, but I have to admit that ‘home’ is still that town, slapped on the Murray, that is a whole lot more cosmopolitan now than what it was 20 years ago.

Back in January 2003 was our ten year reunion. I had been hesitant to attend, for many reasons, but as I’m sure some of you are familiar with, the biggest one was that the same fragility I had in high school returned to bite me on the ass. Suddenly I was back in my 13 year old body, and mind, worried about what people would think of me, what they would make of me, suddenly any power that I had built up in my own fragile ego-system had frizzled away to naught. God I was a miserable bastard. That feeling was more about who I was, than who I was at school with. At that point in my life I was struggling with who I was, who I could be, who I wanted to become. I was working in limbo, waiting to start my Grad. Dip. in Education in a year’s time, I was in a marriage that was tenuous in many ways, I had a young child in tow and really was doing a whole lot of soul searching. I frankly didn’t want to add attending a reunion to that mix.

If your glass is half empty, a reunion, in your head, will be full of people who are successful, beautiful, funny, well married off – all of those things that you feel you’re not. I knew more about who I wasn’t in 2003 than who I was.

One of the organisers was a great friend from high school, and she kept me in the loop with everything that was going on. Getting back in touch with her was a beautiful outcome of the whole deal all in itself and I actually committed to going, and then a massive get out of jail free card presented itself and I ran like the chicken I was away from that thing. The Sunday before, the Canberra bushfires hit. Whilst we weren’t effected directly, the whole town was in some way, and so I dodged the apparent bullet.

I was sent a pic of the gathering, and had a great chat on the phone with that friend, who had organised it with another old mate, and we went through all of the goss, and it was as if those ten years had never fallen between us all in so many ways. I learnt some things I had no idea about – I was so oblivious at high school – and breathed a huge sigh of relief that I didn’t have to run the gauntlet that was that room.

Now you have to remember one thing, this was in 2003, and Facebook hadn’t really been invented yet, for all intents and purposes! Since that time, I’ve been able to stalk reacquaint myself with so many mates from those days, which has taken off that inner-introvert attack that precipitates that sort of meeting.

So now the 20 year reunion is coming up. Ten years has flown by, somehow, it’s crazy, but if you had told me back then, what I would be doing now, god, I just would have called you a flat out liar. LIAR!!!

Does this mean that I’ll saunter in there, all calm, cucumberesque – hell no! I recently emailed the organisers to find out a date – I need to book in for a hair cut (and probably a dye by then too – I’m much greyer this year!!), to taper my training at the gym to look just buff enough, I need to save for a new suit or something suitably dashing to wear … hell, this thing is going to take some planning people! The worst part is, there is no date yet!! Don’t these folks realise that I have project management software to learn and implement if this thing is ever going to come to fruition?? Holy Shitballs, just now, the invite came out for reunion – October 13 … AGHHHHHHHHH!!!!

The thing is, I know that they do know what is at stake – I’m hoping they’re having just the same conniptions as me – but honestly, I doubt that they are.

Writing this, I spoke to that same old friend about it last night … I was saying what I was writing about … but I said that I hadn’t figured out what the lesson is yet. In her wisdom, she said “That eventually we all have to grow up and get over high school shit?!” Each of us can come at that statement from a million different angles, but I bet that for each of us, there is still some high school shit hanging around in our heads that we just need to get over.

For me, the shit that I have to grow up and get over is all of that crap that my ego-system was trying to grow in. It was a putrid petri dish of self-doubt, of longing, of no confidence but plenty of negativity, and in that wretched pond of scum a villainy was this small person, trying to grow at the very shallow end of the esteem pool … Like most of what happens at high school, I don’t really know if anyone knew that about me – a couple could have – but like most of what happens during those years, it’s a much bigger thing in your own head than it is in anyone else’s – they’re all worrying about their own little petri dish, you just think that it stands out bigger than the zits on your forehead, when really, each little dish is just quietly evolving in the back of a dark cupboard that we call our hearts.

So the real work that I have to do isn’t about a haircut, or a new suit, the real work for his year is about taking more steps out of that pond, and onto dry land. To see myself in the sun, away from any shadows, to see myself for who I really am. Not for anybody else, certainly not for who I was in 1992, or even for who I went to school with then, but just for myself.

So let’s see what happens this year. At some stage, I’ll take a deep breath, and walk into a room at a venue yet to be determined, on a date not yet arranged and I hope, by that stage, that I won’t give a flying fuck about what people think – because the work would have already been done … It’s time …

Through another eye …

In 1986 I saw for the first time the way that the world can change when you see it through a viewfinder. I was so young, eleven, travelling through India, one of the oldest countries in the world.

Looking back now, I had no idea of just how amazing that trip was to me. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciated it, and grew from it – how could a month in a place like India at the age of 11 not affect you? But there were parts of the trip that would influence me in ways that would take years for me to truly understand.

1986 was a year that passed unlike any other. It was my last year of primary school, and for one of the few times in my life, I felt utterly comfortable with my place in the world. The confidence I took from that pushed me to do what I would have thought impossible, looking back, perhaps it really was. I asked a girl out. I hit my first four at cricket. I was captain of my house. I gave my first speech to an audience. So many things would define my abilities and strengths in that year. Dire Straights were in the charts with ‘Brothers in Arms’, Sting had released ‘Dream of the Blue Turtles’ and I was in love with ‘Graceland’. When I remember that time, it’s always sunny in my mind, full of light, brightness. For that one year, I could be anything, nothing was impossible, and it would stay that way until I would start High School the following January.

I can still remember the day, back in Year Five, when our teachers told us about a plan they had to include the school in an exchange program with other primary schools around the world. As a teacher now myself, I’m still amazed at the voracity of this. Our school was the first in Australia to do it, and it still remains one of the few in Australia to be involved in the program. It was amazingly aspirational, but they did it, and it worked. That first exchange went to the US, and it was the second one that went to New Delhi, India. There was myself, four other students, and a teacher who I’ll find the time to explain in more detail later down the track, Greg Orchard.

We departed towards the end of September for a month-long adventure. We had stopovers in Singapore both there and on the way back – and it was there that I bought an SLR for the first time. Thinking back, it was exactly at this time of year that we left – that anniversary was just this week.

My Dad had given me enough cash to purchase an Olympus OM10 to take advantage of the bargain electricals that could be found in Asia at that time. My uncle already owned one, and Dad had always wanted one, so it was pretty wonderful for me that he decided to have me get one for him. I still remember, Greg and myself wandering down Orchard Road, looking for a likely looking store. How do you choose? Well, we did, and the guy there gave us a deal that we were happy with. And for the rest of that trip, in every pic that was taken of me, you would see this skinny little kid, turning increasingly browner and browner under that hazy, Indian sun, with a camera slung around his neck. I had found my element. I tried to record as much of that trip as I could, the way that I’d seen it. Agfa had sent us a bunch of film to use so I didn’t have any constraints with what I could shoot, so I went nuts. You have to understand here though that nuts to an 11 year old is different to nuts as a 36 year old, particularly one living in the digital age where I can pop off over 1000 frames in the space of a few hours – but I did what I could, and took images that I still think of as some of my best, given my naivety at the time.

The OM10 was an interesting camera, in that it was quasi-automatic. You had a meter on the inside of the viewfinder that told you when the exposure was right, so you altered the f-stop until it was all good and then went click. You could get an adapter for them that fitted on the front of the camera that made it fully manual, but I didn’t know that at the time. You couldn’t really play with the shutter speed, but I didn’t understand the constraints of that. So my exposures were dictated by the light available. Focussing of course was manual, and you had the classic split circle set up in the viewfinder that you got right, and away you went. When I purchased it I got a zoom lens, I can’t remember what range it went to, but it was versatile enough for me to be able to cover most eventualities. Perhaps that’s where my love for filling up a frame came from, because that’s all that I could do because everything through that lens just automatically became closer.

I carried that thing wherever we went, fell in love with the sound of a manual shutter, fiddled with what I could to try and understand just how it worked, and thankfully was able to ask Greg for some advice when required.

On the way back I picked up a wide angle for it to allow for some greater flexibility, and presented the lot to my Dad upon my return.

I then became the family photographer …I still cringe at the memory of having to shoot my sister’s calisthenics concerts, then there were parties and whatnot that I clicked around at. Occasionally people would give me some pretty good advice that I would add to the catalogue of titbits I had filed away. “When shooting kids, get down on their level”– thank you Mr Linardos.

Thinking about it now, what I loved about using that camera was that this very adult toy was mine to find out about, on my own. When I looked through that viewfinder, the decision to press the shutter was my own. Each shot was mine, mine alone.

In year 10 I did a photography course at school that really taught me how to mix it up. The next year I got for my Dad a Father’s Day present, the book “One Crowded Hour” – the biography of Neil Davis, the Australian combat cameraman that had filmed such an iconographic catalogue of material from the Vietnam war and later South East Asian conflicts. I should have been more aware at the time about how all of these fascinations of mine were coming together, but unfortunately, at that stage, I had forgotten that feeling of confidence that I had had just five years before. So much had happened though in that time that it might have been fifty years for all the difference it made. At some time, along the way, that confidence had eroded so quickly that it might well have been another person that experienced that life. The only proof I had, that it had been me, were the photographs that I knew I had taken.

One of them would stare back at me from my desk in my bedroom. It was slightly out of focus, but I had taken it during a quiet part of the trip when Greg had turned towards me, lying on a chair in a courtyard, somewhere in New Delhi. He’d look back at me, and whilst I still smiled at the memory of the man, I would be sad at the thought of who that boy that had taken that photograph had once been.

Throughout all of that time, wherever my Dad and I went, the camera would come along too. Fishing, hunting, camping … it would be there. But then I left for uni, and like so much of that life that had gone before, the camera stayed behind.

So instead of realising the passion, and the confluence of all of these threads that had been running through my life, and doing something like photography in Melbourne, I went off and did an Arts degree instead.

In the years afterward, I would use a camera from time to time, but I never enjoyed it. The photos would be taken, but for other people. A wedding, snap, perhaps a holiday, snap again, nothing was ever for keeps – not like it had been, once. But then that world began to circle back towards me once again. I assisted a pro guy to shoot some material for a campaign I was working on at the time in 2001 for the Centenary of Federation – despite digital SLRs being around, it was still film that was the standard back then, and he was using a 70mm for some stuff too. A little bug bit. Then when my daughter was born at the end of that year I bought my first digital to be able to email pics to rellies around the country and overseas. Next would come an excellent little point and shoot for a trip to the US and Europe a few years later that let me be able to experiment with my photography again, which was followed by my first digital SLR a couple of years later.

Really though, it hasn’t been the orbit of the equipment that has gotten closer to my own, rather, it is the community that my own path has grown closer and closer to. Finding your own bliss is one thing, then following it is quite another, but then being able to do so with likeminded people is something else again; but thankfully, that is what has happened to me and I couldn’t be richer for it.

How is it though that we forget our dreams, or fail to understand that we’re really having them at all? What is it about our lives that overtakes our ability to see the truth in ourselves, are we too busy trying to see it in others, to realise that it was there all along? Why don’t we know what we are capable of, or even what the possibilities are?

Too much of my time is spent in the past, I admit that. I’m an historian though at heart, it’s what I teach, it’s what I love, it’s what I breathe … But I also spend way too much time looking back at my own life. I don’t know why, it is not a strength of mine; but I do find strength in recognising the flaws in what I did, and trying to show through my own narrative the ways to avoid those, for others. I have no answer though for why I never understood what it was that I had with photography, or what it was that I could have done with it. I have suspicions though.

The biggest threat to me ever turning a camera into more than a hobby came in the form of words. I always wanted to write, to be a writer – words were my experimentation, the great novel awaited! But it was only when I started combining words with images that I ever really understood where the two should have met for me. It was my words that brought me into all of this. Helping out a photographer mate put together some text for her website helped me to open up this door. Words are what I do well, some of the time, but photographs are what drives the hunting instinct inside of me – being able to rationalise those two divergent parts of myself over the last couple of years has allowed me to get the best from each of them … and so on I travel.

What I’m starting to learn though is that it doesn’t matter what it is that has brought you to a certain place. What is important is to know where you are, what you’re doing there, and where you’re going to. Perhaps it’s not the journey, nor the destination, but instead, like from that first time with a 35mm in India, it’s about the scenes that you compose for yourself, before you release the shutter, framing a new image for your life.

Old Stories.

One of the things that I love to do as a teacher, in fact, the very manner of delivery that I have based my success around, is to tell good stories.  These are sometimes related to the topic being studied, but not always.  They are often self-depricating, but not always. They’re anecdotal, they don’t have to be littered with facts and figures, but not always. They’re always used for effect, yes, always!  I have some favourites that I like to pull out from time to time, some of them have already featured on these pages.  I love telling my classes how my great-grandmother was a hooker in Melbourne before the Depression – that really flips their lids.  I like to talk about the way that the men on Kokoda would sometimes not wear pants at all, because it was easier to shit diarrhea that way as they were hiking along.  And I use the word shit, because it’s what it was, and what they did.  I’ve got a whole bunch of them, and to be a good teacher, you must have them.  My problem though is that I tell them here and there, drop them in like extended punctuation or something, but then I forget I’ve told them, or rather, I forget which classes I’ve already told them to, and get in a whole manner of trouble! A good anecdote is only good if it’s only told once!

Now today I’ve had exactly that same issue, an idea started bubbling away in my head, out plucked itself this story from my memory bank, and then POW, I thought I might have used it here already! So, I had to go back through all of my posts to see if it was there.  Thankfully it wasn’t – phwew!! So now that we’re over that, let’s go hey?

Last week in my discussion with Bre – the heroine of the post She Was Only 19, she of the beautiful black shoes – I told her that I have a theory, that the internet is a wonderful conduit for those stuck in the wrong place, or the wrong time for that matter, to connect with like minds and break free of the geographic constraints you may have … Her answer was interesting because not only did it confirm what I thought, but it did so from the perspective of where I might have been at, if I were twenty years younger.  She said:

“The internet is an amazing place! I definitely think it’s the conduit that allows people to become who they truly want to be, or who they see themselves as in their minds eye. I know I have the internet to thank for a lot of things in relation to that! I also met my partner over the internet 4 years ago – was pretty idiotic and risky for a teen to do but we now live together! So the internet is definitely world of endless possibilities!”

I have many endless ‘what if’ dreams in this crackpot head of mine, but the biggest would almost have to be, what if I had the net as a kid, would I be different to who I am now?  The answer, I would like to think, is a categorical yes, I think it would have allowed me to have found the communities that I really wanted to become a part of, to have questions answered that I couldn’t at that age and to help me to reconcile the disparate experiences I had as a kid when I was growing up, so as to better understand who they made me as a whole.

Ok, now we get to the story part.

When I was at university, apart from reading lots of history books I also had to struggle with understanding exactly who I was, or at least, I had to struggle with the idea of asking the question of exactly who I was. I don’t think that I was ready to find out just who that person was at that point in time.  I think this is one of the true benefits of education, sure, you learn about the world, but you learn a lot more about yourself than you ever do about anything else.

My favourite class, which to those of you who know me personally will be no surprise, was titled Australians at War.  It was a military history of Australia from 1788 to the present day.  As a part of that course, in the first semester, I wrote a paper on the technological changes in weaponry from the smoothbore Brown Bess all the way through to the SMLE .303.  My lecturer enjoyed the read, but I still remember him, on this beautiful sunny day, after a lecture, asking to see me to have a chat.  His name was Dr John Lack, and I see that not long after I left he began an oral history project on his father’s WWII battalion, that had been overrun by the Japanese in Malaya, which he did with a group of his students.  God I wish I had have been there for that.  Anyway, he came up to me, to talk about the essay.  He spoke of how he had enjoyed it, but he was a bit perplexed by some of the references.  I had used a group of articles from the Australian Shooters Journal, plus other resources to synthesise the history, and he was wondering how I had come to find them.

I explained that I’d been a shooter all my life, I told him of how my father and I used to wait every month for the next copy of the magazine to come in the mail, so that we could religiously devour it on our favourite reading chair.

“Where did you grow up?” he asked.  And in that moment began the task, of me trying to make sense of the various worlds that I had inhabited during my time.  What’s ironic, looking back, is that I was 19 at that stage, the same age as Bre is now, and the gulf in the questions that I was asking then, and she is answering now is just tremendous.

I told him that I came from Echuca, up on the Murray, that my folks up there had a motel … the usual biography for me in those days. “But I always pictured you as having come from some sort of inner-city intellectual type family,” he responded.  I smiled, with a bunch of memories flashing through my mind, and said that no, that was not the case.  He was a little taken aback I suppose but it all started to make sense.  After that meeting he gave me a book to read, The Price of Admiralty by John Keegan, which began a love affair with the best historian I’ve ever read and for the rest of my time at Melbourne, he was a good friend.

Those memories that had passed before me still haunt me.  They were of a time that I was perhaps my happiest.  In the few years after my parents had divorced, my mum had first lived on Riversdale Road in Hawthorn, and then up the top of Burke Road in Camberwell, just after the shops finish.  They were good times! Her boyfriend, later my step-dad and her would take us out to restaurants, take us to gigs, we’d go to the Fun Factory in South Yarra, or just sit around listening to great records.  It wasn’t better than what we did at dad’s at all, but whereas my best memories of my dad are all outdoor ones, my best memories with mum were all based inside.  Dad was bush, mum was city, even though whenever they crossed to the other side I was still happy!  With mum we’d go to the theatre in the days when Marina Prior was just starting out, I remember seeing Camelot with Richard Harris and a few other shows.  Mum and Dave had a mate, David Smith, who was in the chorus of all of these fabulous shows at the time so he’d get them tickets, and away we’d go.  The best thing about it all was that we weren’t kids when we were there, but instead we were treated like adults, and expected to behave like them too.

This attitude was what I had always sought, that acceptance into the adult world.  I remember once being at some friends’ house.  Their names were Gary and Jane, and they would have these fantastic parties.  Jane was the most amazing cook and the food would be great, there was a billiard table, I could just walk around and join in conversations or whatever, nobody treated me as a kid, and this was all as a ten or eleven year old.  There was one person, only one, in the whole time that I remember who ever treated me as a kid, but that’s another story, for another time.

That was the Indian Summer of my life, those days.  It all got a bit harder after that, but when John Lack saw in me this inner-urban whateveritwas, it was those days that he was seeing back to.

Those days.  The problem with those days is that they happened too early, because followed by those days were others that contradicted them, rather than complimenting them, and so because of all of the ensuing confusion, I was left feeling like two people in the one body.

At the end of 87 my dad, step-mum, sister, half-brother and I left Melbourne to move to Echuca and run this motel.  I include all of us on that list because we all moved, and we ALL ran that bloody place!  Echuca back then wasn’t like what it is now. These days Echuca has a bit more sophistication to it – the fact that it’s the closest river port to Melbourne always meant that it was going to bustle for trade, but now days it means that it’s attracted the tree-change crowd, who have brought more restaurants, cafes and book shops with them.  Back in the 80s, they weren’t really there.  It was a country town, and even though we were in ‘town’, not on a farm or whatever, the mentality of country life was all pervading.  Don’t get me wrong, there were parts of me that loved the life there – we could go duck hunting after school or out bush to cut wood or whatever, but it just wasn’t the same I guess.

When my sister and I would return to Melbourne for school holidays with mum and her growing family, the differences became more and more apparent.  I would wear different clothes there, do different things, read different books, meet different people.  It was as if those visits, during that time, were keeping me on life support for when I could someday return.

There was one experience, during all of this time, that for me is the memory that tells, perfectly, the story of that time.  In the first term of year nine, a film crew came to town! They turned the place upside down, but were welcomed with open arms because they had, about eight years previously, done the same thing, and put the town back on the map.  Crawford Productions had shown up to film All The Rivers Run II, and the crew, not the big name stars, the crew, were staying with us in the motel during the week.  Now I have three things to thank these folks for.  The first is that I can link to Kevin Bacon in two steps.  The second is that I got to work for three days as an extra on it and just fell in love with that industry.  The third is that it began a romance that still burns, just a little bit, inside.

This girl’s mother and father were heavily involved in the production so she would come to the motel during the day to go to school.  There was a teacher (now there’s a job!) for her and two kids who were in the film, and after their day had finished, which naturally coincided with when I would get home from school, they would often be having a swim or something, and I got to know them all quite well.  She was a year younger than me and was everything that life support I mentioned thought that I needed.  Her parents were the inner-urban intelligentsia, her grandfather was a famous author, she had been in shows herself as an actress, she was smart and also very, very beautiful.

We had one of those understandings where you don’t have to say what was going on, you just let it happen.  It was nice.

We kept in touch via letters for a while, but looking back, what if I had of had email, or Facebook, or twitter? What if I could have written her during the day from my phone? Would it have been any different?

The following year, at my mum’s house, I called her.  We spoke for over an hour on the phone.  We organised to meet up.  Mum drove my sister (who had gotten along with her famously also) and I over to her house – she was home alone as her folks were at work. We went for a walk up Burke Road in Camberwell, near where they lived.  We knew the same restaurants, we had a shared history with that street, we talked about lunches at the now gone George and Marika’s.  That was the last time I saw her, in the flesh. I still see her all the time, she’s around, I follow her on Twitter, but she doesn’t know me. But when Bre talks about how the internet allowed her to connect, I always wonder if that girl was the link, the conduit, to where I wanted to be, and who I could have become?

She was the crossover, between country me and city me, and when her and I met it is as if they both, for the slightest, briefest of moments, crossed over, and then went their separate ways again.  It’s taken me a long time to get them back together, to where I feel as if I’m comfortable with their meeting. But with the two parts together again, I’m starting to feel whole once more.

That is why I owe that girl in the black shoes so much, because sometimes you find clarity and understanding in the briefest of encounters.  Sometimes the lessons don’t take long, you just have to remember them forever.

She was only 19 …

The shoes that led to it all ...

The shoes that led to it all ...

This post has been a long time coming.  I first wanted to write it on Sunday, but given the week that was, it was just not meant to happen.

One of the biggest issues that I have with teaching is the way that it invades all of the nooks and crannies of your life. This week it’s been in the form of exhaustion … I’ve wanted to come home from school each day this week and think about how to write this one, but have been so damn buggered that it was just not going to happen.  Also, it’s a subject that I wanted to take some care with, not something to be pumped out like a rant about ‘your’ and ‘you’re’!!!

On Sunday I had the pleasure to indulge in one of my favourite hobbies, people watching, armed with a camera!  To have a look at the final results, go to this page.  The event in question was Miss Kitka’s Burlesque Bazaar.  One of the great thing I love about this event is the variety of folks that it attracts.  I took one photo of these three nannas sitting up front and centre, not wanting to miss a thing!  Other pics featured some gorgeous little baby goths, and all manner of folks in-between.

The photo up above was one of the very first that I shot when I arrived there.  There was this graceful, poised young woman sitting with her boyfriend watching the show, and not wanting to appear like a freaky stalker dude, I decided to sneak a snap of her gorgeous shoes, before asking her for another shot.  Unfortunately I never got the second shot.  So, whilst going through the 400 or so pics that I took that day to edit down to 100 or so for the Facebook page, I saw this one and suddenly felt a little like Cinderella’s prince!! All I had was the shoe, that was it, nothing else!

Whilst this blog has been largely about the idea of transition, for me it has also been about the joys of community – with that largely being demonstrated by various people’s participation in online social-media.  This post is no different in that respect.  The joys of community were brought home to me in so many ways this week, thank you Deb, Luna, Ree, Allyeska and many others, but I was delighted in the way that this shoe led to the opening of new doors.

By being tagged in the shot, I was able to meet the owner of said shoes, and she is a delightful darling of a woman.  Her name is Bre, and she opened up for me a number of thoughts that have been orbiting around in my brain for quite a while I suppose.

Bre has been involved in the goth scene since she was about 14, has been corseting for the last 5 years, but is now getting into a more vintage, burlesque look.  For those of you out there who have been playing along at home for a while now, you’ll know of my own love for style, but moreso, my fascination with how one discovers it.  Bre’s particular metamorphosis  is a fascinating one, largely because she grew up in an incredibly rural community about an hour out of Canberra, and she has such an exquisite sense of composure for someone who is ‘only’ 19.

I’m constantly intrigued by people who, despite growing up in one particular setting (particularly a country one) are able to have the strength and resolution to go completely against the grain and norms of that particular culture and attempt to find their own sense of self, despite all of the inherent pressures to conform.  Growing up myself, during my teenage years, in country Victoria, created a very disgruntled personality in my mind.  Moulded by the experience of living in inner suburban Melbourne, then transposed to what was then a very country environment, completely lacking in sophistication of any type, gave me two polar opposite experiences, and led to me having a rather scattered set of values, interests and even style.

What amazes me about this young woman then is that not only did she not conform, but she managed to do it with such elephantine balls – you don’t wear latex, corsets and five inch heels down the main street of her small town, but she did.  What particularly inspires me is the very clear fact that she didn’t do this to be rebellious, to piss people off or to stand out, she did it because she knew not only who she was, but also who she wanted to become.  If there was one thing that I could bottle for my students, it wouldn’t be an ability to do a certain thing, or even to download content into their brains, it would be for them to have the direction and purpose of this young lady – to know what it is that they want, and how to go about achieving it, regardless of the situation they find themselves in.  During this discussion with Bre, the lesson for myself was to realise that that is what real style is, when your style is who you really are, rather than who you want to be …

Thankfully I have had students like this, with this amazing sense of self.  But for most of us, as I discussed with Bre during the conversation that flourished during the week, it takes so long to figure out.  I’m 36, and have only really found that place for myself where I just ‘fit’ in the past year or so – oh I know, better now than never and all of that, but if I was to be honest, I’d never wish that wait on anyone … It resulted in a lot of lessons in my life that I had to learn myself, and suffer through myself … And when it comes down to it, I wish that I had of had a teacher that was aware of it when I was under their tutelage, but looking back, I think most of them were still undergoing the journey themselves.

When folks ask me why I decided to be a teacher, my stock answer is that I love history, and wanted to work with kids, but that’s never the whole story  …

If I were to leave the profession, what would I miss the most?  The things that happen in a classroom that aren’t curriculum, aren’t on the test, aren’t nationalised, that aren’t even realised until years later in some cases …

‘Only’ 19? There’s no such thing.  Thanks Bre.

What do you do?

As I think I’ve said before, one of the motivators for beginning this online adventure was to develop a better appreciation for the sorts of skills that teachers posses, in order to transpose these into the general employment marketplace. Insight from those who have left the profession has been invaluable to this aspect of the quest, however, today I got first hand exposure to absolutely everything it is that we do, and how we do it, in one big, solid dose.

The first competency to be displayed this morning was personnel management. We had a bunch of folks away today and first thing in the morning is a shocking time – you’re trying to juggle the covering of classes, reacting to crazy demands, a parent rings in the middle of it all, but thankfully a staff member who was meant to be away wasn’t – then you can juggle in the cover she had to other gaps that need filling. By 9am I was exhausted. And so we begin.

Between 9 and 11 my prac student took my classes, with me supervising. The second one was being observed by the person from UC so it was a bit nervy – it all went well though … She’s a great teacher and will do very well. And on to recess. We’ll call this competency ‘offering workplace training and support’.

First I was bailed up by a teacher who was taking one of my staff’s class … Sorted her out, or at least told her what was happening so that I could go sort work for it. Next, over to the staffroom for notices, but nobody was there. Five minutes later I realise I have a duty, and also realise that I’ve promised another staff member to take her class for the first ten minutes of the next period so that she can take a student to introduce him to the student services team to get much needed support. I suddenly need to be in three places at once. Thankfully duty was cancelled because the library was closed today – that allowed me to secure the work for the relief teacher, and walk it from one side of the school to the other.

On my way back, I’m asked to mediate between a teacher who is ESL, who is helping a student regularly in the library with his maths, this kid is ESL also, speaks little English and is significantly hearing impaired. Suddenly I’m employed by the UN. I sort out their issues, he commits to doing his work, with a solution that frees him from the embarrassment of having others see that he’s getting special help, ‘is able to successfully negotiate for positive outcomes, using a variety of strategies and techniques’.

I go and check in on a meeting I was meant to be at to give apologies that I would be late, and go up and supervise that class for ten minutes. They were watching a doco, that was my ten minute break for the day. Competency there, hmmmmmm, how about ‘responding to multi demanding needs in a professional and flexible capacity’?

So I go to return to previously mentioned meeting, to discuss at risk students, when two of these are refusing to go to their classes, having interrupted said meeting! In order to try and attempt to salvage said meeting, I offer to look after them so that the other participants can return to discuss said students. Suddenly I feel like I’m attached to two baboons by a chain, it’s like trying to walk two dogs on a lead that want to go everywhere but where you want them to … Eventually I shadow them in order to get one to class, where he belonged, and the other to the front office, where he needed to go. He refuses to hand over his bag though. Excuse, he’s on anti-anxiety drugs and missed his med yesterday, so therefore the world is going to shit. OK, this is a game I can play. What drug are you on? Pristiq. So am I. What? Missing it one day does not completely stuff you up, it has a longer shelf life in your body. Bullshit – what do the pills look like? They’re pink, square, marked out one per day in the packet. The penny drops. I go on to explain a few home truths about mental illness and how it’s not an excuse, like any disease or health issue, if you let it rule you, you’ll never have any power over yourself. I compared it to my dad’s diabetes, the way he controls it, it doesn’t control him, and he’s healthy and functioning because of it. I have a win. This competency, ‘able to react to a variety of issues in a considered and efficient manner’ plus ‘ is able to effectively counsel individuals with a variety of complex and competing needs’.

I leave there and get a hug from my deputy. Sometimes you just need a hug. I return to the meeting, that has all up taken 55 minutes. I’m there for three when the bell goes. I go up to the staffroom, see half a cup of tea on my desk and think of what could have been. Competency ‘is able to subsist on a minimum diet for prolonged periods’.

I’m just about to think about some lunch, one of the staff members has brought in homemade vegie soup, when another staff member tells me that something incredibly important has been taken from her room. The class concerned has already gone to lunch. Sigh.

I inform the people that needed to know about what has happened, and plan my strategy. I’m going to get the class together, offer them the good cop and then an out … and after that I have no idea, I’ll wing it.

I eventually get them all from their respective classes, after speaking to the front office half a dozen times about announcements over the PA and whatnot. I explain that something has been taken, that it was in the room towards the end of the lesson, but then was gone by the time that all of the students had left. I explain the importance of this object, say that I just want it back, that no questions will be asked if that is done, and tell the students that I am leaving the class and expect it to be on the desk when I return. I take a walk. I come back, it’s not there. The students offer some theories. Hmmmmmmm. I next get them outside the class, give them a chance to each go into the classroom to place it in a desk drawer if they have this thing. That doesn’t work. I call the deputy, she comes for a visit. We turn their bags upside down. No joy. With ten minutes left to go, I let them go back to class. Meanwhile the teacher concerned is having kittens, poor thing. Then, two boys from the class come up to me, one says, “I know who has it, if I get it from him, will he get in trouble?” – I tell him that I just want it back. He returns, with said object, just as the bell goes. Thank god. Competency ‘has extensive research and interrogation skills’ and ‘is able to apply increasingly persuasive techniques in order to achieve desired outcomes’.

I go to tell the deputy that we have recovered this item. As I’m speaking to her, a mental health team arrives to offer to support to a kid, who has just gotten on a bus. I go to the bus, hold it up, try to negotiate with this kid to go and see them, he refuses, after ten minutes of this, the bus departs with him on it. We plan a strategy for tomorrow together. Competency ‘is able to continue to give a fuck, even after every last ounce of energy has been sapped from his body’.

I return to the workroom, it’s 3.30, my staff are working on their reports. The job I wanted to get done at 11.40, proofreading draft reports, is finally done by 4.15. I help staff with comments, put in place a central repository for drafts so that they can access them if they need help, and leave to pick up my daughter from school at 5.10. Competency ‘is exceptionally skilled in editing written communication’ and ‘is able to effectively write for desired purposes’; ‘has own licence’ I might as well throw in as well.

God it was a hard day. I so desperately wanted a drink at the end of it all. I couldn’t decide between booze and soda, so I had a cup of tea instead.

So when someone asks you what do you make? Don’t reply with that cliche about “I make a difference” – tell them what you actually DO – they won’t believe you. Today I was a manager, interpreter, organiser, detective, interrogator, psychologist, mentor and father. No wonder I’m so tired.