Reportage

A school reunion

CITIES ARE SOCIALLY stratified. The nobs live where the views are best. The workers live in the valleys and the flat wastelands. It is possible to live in a certain part of an Australian city and never meet an Aborigine, a Jew, an immigrant from the Indian subcontinent, a doctor (apart from when visiting a surgery), a garbage collector (until he fails to take your garbage away) or a billionaire.

This doesn't happen in country towns. While it is true that adults, applying nothing more complex than the "birds of a feather" principle, will tend to gravitate towards each other out of social, economic and intellectual self-interest, country schools are great homes of egalitarianism – until, at least, the end of primary school, when some parents send their children off to city private schools.

Growing up in Tumut (at the time a small New South Wales town of 3,000 people sustained by local agriculture and the timber industry) in the 1950s was a model of Australian egalitarianism. Young children are blind to race, wealth and social class. Country towns are small and, consequently, it is common for the wealthy and the poor to live within a few streets of each other.

Each afternoon I would walk home from school with the sons of the local electrical repair man and the "night soil" carter, or "shit collector" as he was called.

In retrospect, I guess I belonged to the upper end of the social spectrum in a very, very small pond. My father was a successful accountant and, as befits a socially responsible member of the local bourgeoisie, he was honorary treasurer of a dozen community organisations. He was, as the cliché goes, "a much-loved bastion of the local community". My mother was the last of a generation of women who never worked outside the family home. We fraternised, usually at private tennis courts on properties around the town, with other professionals and with the local "landed gentry" who, because the price of wool had made them rich, all sent their kids off to King's, PLC, Cranbrook, Ascham, Knox and Trinity Grammar.

It never occurred to me (partly, I suspect, because I have always been naively ignorant about social class and partly because my father passionately despised all social pretension) that fraternising with the shit collector's son every afternoon, or being entranced by the local bookie's gorgeous daughter, was a kind of "social egalitarianism by stealth" that would have been impossible if I had grown up in a city.

In the classroom and in the playground we knew no social barriers or boundaries. We never asked, or even thought about, what our schoolmates' parents did, how much money people had or where people fitted into the social hierarchy. Social status was not part of our language. It played no part in the way we constructed our world.

A decade ago someone stumbled upon the old Tumut Public School class rolls. There, in inky copperplate, were our names, addresses and birth dates with neat ticks and crosses to indicate daily attendance. Given the prevailing age regulations, we were all born between February 1944 and March 1945. We were all about to turn 50 and because, back in the late 1950s and early 1960s, we had left school in a haphazard manner (some left at the minimum age to work on family farms or in their dads' businesses, most left after the Intermediate Certificate, which was at the end of the third year of high school, a small number disappeared to private schools and about a dozen, out of a year of about 80 students, stayed on to complete the Leaving Certificate) it was decided that a reunion to celebrate "turning 50" made good sense.

There are school reunions and school reunions. This was very, very special. Only in a relatively small country town can a school reunion be held in a group of buildings where the students experienced their kindergarten, infants, primary and secondary school education. The old Tumut Public School had seen us all sniffling and clinging to our mothers as we started kindergarten back in 1949, had seen us move from primary to secondary (ie to another room across the main hall) in 1957, and seen us sit for our Intermediate Certificate at the end of 1959. It had also seen us caned and humiliated, sent to stand in the corridor for minor infractions and demoralised by those inescapable barbarians and sadists masquerading as teachers.

Someone had the inspired idea that we should gather at 2.30 in the old school hall for afternoon tea. The locals, who constituted the majority of past students, brought the usual rural fare (sponge cakes, lamingtons, scones, sandwiches) and we all wallowed in a nostalgia made palpable by the fact that all the old schoolrooms were still intact.

"Do you remember," asked one middle-aged woman of the man we used to call "Boot head" (he is now the local union representative at the sawmill),"when the teacher used to leave the room you used to sit down the front and tell us all to shut up or we'd get into trouble? You haven't changed much, have you?"

"I used to sit up the back here in Inky Stephens's class ... and did you sit over there? ... what about that old bastard who was the deputy principal ... he did all the caning ... do you remember Wom [presumably an abbreviation of Wombat] Oddy's brother getting six and coming out holding his hand and trying not to cry? ... do you remember everyone used to go and stick their hand under the tap after being caned? ... and what about ... "

There was an easy sense of warm, old-fashioned community. But why? What held us all together after all these years? On one level we did not really know each other. Most of us had not met for more than 35 years. In many ways, those years, between late teens and 50, are the defining years in a person's life. They are the period when values are really formed and solidified, when marriage or singleness is established, when children are born, when education for future employment takes place, when ladders of success are climbed (or left unclimbed), when aspirations are achieved or dashed, when a sense of "this is who I am" is created, carefully tended and allowed to bloom.

Somehow, as we chatted and reminisced, the elements that separate people in the modern, adult world – status, wealth, success – dissolved as people as diverse as wealthy landowners, senior public servants, truck drivers, women who had devoted their lives to bringing up children, small-business people, shopkeepers, builders and many other occupations, met on a common and defining ground. Our lives, or at least a very significant part of them, were contained in those old rooms and that central hall. Everyone felt that there was something unique and important about growing up in a country town after World War II.

 

IT WAS ALWAYS planned that we would meet again in five years' time. Somehow that didn't happen and so, in 2004, when most of us were turning 60, another reunion was organised.

There are probably two preconditions for enjoying and participating in a school reunion: you have to feel, by your own measures, that your life has, on balance, been successful and enjoyable, and it helps if you are the kind of person who enjoys, preferably wallows in, your past and the past of those around you.

Some people are terrified by school reunions. They feel as though meeting people whom they once saw every day, and haven't seen for decades, is one of those "life tests" they just don't want to subject themselves to.

If you have a belief that revisiting your past offers an opportunity to hold a mirror, albeit smudged and foggy, up to your own life then you are probably the kind of person who looks forward to a class reunion with enthusiasm.

Invited to MC the dinner (the meal was a typically stodgy country affair – fine cuisine rarely manages to cross the Great Divide), I was keen to use the opportunity to find out a little more about my fellow ex-students. I drew up simple questions about numbers of children, personal wealth, travel and family – nothing too confronting, just a sheet of multiple-choice questions that could be filled out in two minutes.

The results were an extraordinary image of the way rural Australia has evolved over the past half century. Of the 80 students who were in my year at the end of primary school, there were 40 who came to the reunion and filled out the form. No one knows exactly why half the class decided not to attend. There were apologetic letters from some explaining that they now lived in Tasmania, that they were heading off on some complex overseas assignment, that a holiday in Vietnam had unfortunately coincided. But equally there were people, still living in the town, who, when asked, had said things like, "No bloody way. I'm not going to waste my time on that. Saw enough of all of them when I was at school." It was a position I could sympathise with. Like many of my generation I had become so disenchanted with Australia – particularly during the long years of conservative rule and the Vietnam War – that when I went to England in the 1970s I had no real intention of ever returning home. And after seven years in the UK, when I did finally return, I looked upon most Australian culture – particularly the popular culture I was interested in – with both horror and disdain. Australian popular music was laughingly derivative. Film and television, with few exceptions, was all but unwatchable. Live theatre was beneath contempt. Levels of public debate were banal and self-serving. Public intellectuals were virtually non-existent.

But living in a society as a complaining, whingeing, misanthropic critic is not only "not Australian" it is also against my nature. So, determined to find Australian things that I could love unconditionally, I returned to my childhood. It is easy to love rural Australia both in the 1950s and today. Sure there is a dark underbelly of racism, emotional dishonesty, small town bigotry and unspoken desperation. But there is equally a true sense of community, an uncomplicated generosity of spirit, a sense of belonging and caring. And whenever I have returned to my home town, which has become increasingly common in recent years, people, who I don't even remember, have come up to me in the main street and said "Hello". I have been welcomed warmly, and I have felt that, although I haven't lived in the town for over 40 years, I still belong.

My feelings were not unique. Try these numbers for expressions of love for the town and the school. Thirty-six of the 40 said they looked back on their years at Tumut Public School with affection. More than half had not pursued any tertiary education and a quarter had never lived anywhere other than Tumut. Twenty-five were worth more than $500,000 and, amazingly the others were millionaires – at least in terms of assets.

If someone had asked us back in the 1950s whether any of us would become millionaires we would have laughed at the absurdity of it. I don't know about the others but when I started work in 1962 I was paid £12 ($24) a week and a million of anything was inconceivable.

And we've been a wonderfully faithful group. Thirty-two had married only once. Six had a second attempt at correcting their first mistake and two, quite sensibly, had never married. We had not produced the large families so common in our parents' generation. There was only one family, apart from the blended ones, with more than four children. Four people had only one child, 11 had two children, 10 had three children, seven had four children and the rest had no kids at all. One family won the trifecta of most kids (7), oldest child (42) and most grandchildren (13). The rest of us could only look on with awe. At the other end of the scale, one former student, now an IT expert living in Sydney, won an impressive double, having lived in the most places (20) and being the parent with the youngest child (13).

Simple surveys rarely provide important observations about the nature of society. They are nothing more than narrow windows giving shadowy glimpses of things easily misinterpreted. As the evening evolved, and as we started talking and asking each other about the details of our lives, a strange, and inexpressible feeling began to overwhelm me.

How can I explain it? I suddenly saw my fellow ex-students as a group of ordinary Australians who had, in their own ways, done extraordinary things. They were, without exception, decent people whose lives had been characterised by unstated, indeed in many instances, unconscious beliefs in personal honesty and integrity. They ranged from people who lived almost hermit-like existences in small shacks outside the town through to those who resided in multimillion-dollar opulence on the shores of Sydney Harbour.

Yet, because they had all once sat in small desks in the same room at a small country school, they laughed in the face of society's false divisions. I don't think this unique experience of unaffected "Aussie" egalitarianism offers any kind of template for a future utopia. It just makes me feel very lucky that I was, in my youth, part of an accidental experiment. 

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