Memoir

Outside in a teaching life

WHEN BB TAUNTED me with continual cries of "You killed Jesus, you killed Jesus ... " I had no idea what he meant. But I sensed that the nuggety, pasty-faced English lad was not paying me a compliment. After all, BB had a well-earned reputation as the school bully.

It was 1964. I was ten and attending a government primary school in a small village in Kent, England. My twin brother and I were the only Jewish kids in the school. Our family was seriously secular and my parents negotiated an exemption from the compulsory religious instruction (RI) class, which they regarded as indoctrination. This meant that while the RI class was on, we sat in another classroom. Because that room had a bookshelf along one wall, it was called the library. We read books while the rest of the class listened to tales of how God created the world and Jesus saved mankind.

Unfortunately, the library was adjacent to the RI class. Even more unfortunately, the two rooms were connected by a large window. I can still picture BB gazing at me through that window. His lips were moving slowly and I knew he wasn't mouthing the lessons.

Being exempt from RI taught me two things. The first was that I was an outsider, though outside of what I wasn't exactly sure. The second was that education isn't only about what happens inside a classroom with a teacher present.

One evening, after a long day of BB's torment, I put the question to my mother: "Did we kill Jesus?" She told me to ask my father. He told me it was the Romans. I relayed this to BB but he wasn't interested. His taunts continued. It was a cold winter morning when I finally snapped in the playground and landed a solid punch on BB's head.

It wasn't my fault that he fell onto thick ice and was knocked unconscious. The next day I was called up onto the stage at morning assembly. The headmistress, whose initials were also BB, lectured the school on the need to stop violence. She then strode offstage to a glass display cabinet that housed the school cane, marched back, pulled down my trousers, lifted my shirt tail and hit me hard a dozen times across the buttocks. She then announced that I was suspended for two weeks.

 

A FEW MONTHS later, I sat for my eleven-plus exams. Passing gave the "achievers" the privilege of going to grammar school (and an opportunity to move inside the establishment). The non-achievers would attend the local comprehensive school, regarded by many (especially my father) as an institution for philistines. My twin brother passed. I didn't. Of course, I blamed BB and the period of torment. Two years later I sat more exams and entered the "academic stream" that would have enabled me to go to the grammar school. But I was too late. At my mother's insistence, our family uprooted everything, sold the house, bummed around Europe in an old car for a few months and then migrated to Australia.

In Melbourne, my high-school English teacher, Miss N, gave the class a writing assignment. "Write about what you see from your window," she instructed. In a new country I saw many strange things from my window. I found it particularly strange the way the rubbish was collected each week. In England, the dustmen, as we called them, would walk into the front garden, pick up the bin, empty it into the truck and then walk back and put the empty bin in its rightful place. But in this strange land all the bins were strategically positioned outside on the nature strip in readiness for the "garbos" who would turn up before sunrise. In the morning light I would spend hours gazing through the window at the aftermath of the pre-dawn commotion. Rubbish was strewn all over the nature strip. The bins were mostly metal. Some lay in the gutter, many had lost their lids and bore serious dents. In my essay for Miss N, I suggested that the bins were like a nocturnal army of knights who tried to protect the houses. Each week, the knights battled an invisible enemy and each week many lay defeated in the gutter with their guts hanging out, their armour in disarray.

Two weeks later Miss N returned our assignments. I remember her as a slothful woman who would spend most of the class slouched at her desk facing her students. But she possessed an alarming ability to accurately throw assignment books. She would call out the family name and the allocated grade as each book made a perfect parabola through the air and into position on the author's desk. She paused when she came to mine. Slowly she stood up. She steadied her bulk, glared disdainfully at me and announced to the class: "Davis has copied his work. Fifteen-year-old boys don't write like this." She then ripped out the offending pages and tossed the book at me.

Miss N's rejection of my work reinforced my sense as an outsider.

 

BECAUSE I'D BEEN through university on a teaching scholarship, I was obliged to become a school teacher. After years of being a student I now had the opportunity to experience education from the other side – from the inside.

In my postgraduate Dip Ed year I taught at Swan Hill in northern Victoria. The school was empty on the day I started. The previous weekend a couple of the local boys had obliterated themselves in a car crash after local football finals. On my first day I stood in the biting wind outside the local funeral parlour with the rest of the school and watched what I later learnt was an embedded ritual in country towns. Kids on their way to school would gaze through the bus window at the nondescript stretch of road that had been marked with flowers as the spot where young lives had ended. The twisted vehicle at the local wreckers became a talking point among the eighteen-year-olds who, having just acquired their licences, saw themselves as having a foot firmly planted inside the adult world. Their talk of the wreck was not about the loss of life or the futility of death. Instead, they viewed the wreck as a trophy for bravado on the bitumen. I was only a couple of years older than these students but I felt as much an outsider then as I did when BB taunted me through the classroom window at primary school.

I took a full-time teaching position at an outer suburban school in Melbourne. My qualifications indicated that I had done well in an area called Teaching About Society.

This was abbreviated to TAS on my certificate. "Good," said the school principal. "We need people to teach typing and shorthand." I faced a group of disgruntled and bored fifteen-year-olds who seemed as tired and unmotivated as the bulky second-hand typewriters perched in front of them. I sensed they all yearned to be elsewhere and I didn't blame them.

Fuelled by recent readings of Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner's Teaching as a Subversive Activity, I wrote the words Taiping Rebellion on the badly scratched chalkboard and proceeded to talk about that crucial chapter of Chinese history. Moments before the sparks of curiosity and disbelief turned to disdain, I stopped my lecture and encouraged the students to think of their own experiences or dreams of rebellion. I asked them to type out their responses. The classroom quickly filled with the clatter of typing rebellion. I gazed out of the window at the soporific suburban streetscape and felt the thrill of an outsider who had somehow "got in" and was having fun.

Towards the end of my third year of teaching I felt the restlessness of inexperience more than the comfort of a superannuated future. Though I could not have articulated it at the time, I had a sense of not belonging. One day, I sat in the staffroom and listened to fellow staff talk endlessly about their mortgage payments or the super payouts they would get if only they could "hang in there long enough". That afternoon I quit.

Some time later, when I took a part-time position at a TAFE college, I was employed to develop media courses for the long-term unemployed. The kids who enrolled had experienced nothing but rejection and failure throughout their schooling. Storytelling, with words or photographs, empowered them. I still remember some of their stories. One lanky boy, Robert, was a drummer in a garage band and keen to write about his school experiences. "What about them?" I asked.

He looked at me as if I should know. "I want to write about a typing class where the teacher crapped on about Chinese history and then told us to type out our ideas of rebellion." There was much jubilation in the class when Robert eventually landed a job with a community radio station.

 

NADINE GORDIMER CLAIMS that a good storyteller must be both apart from and a part of their story. Perhaps the same can be said for teaching. A good teacher needs to be both inside and outside the subject matter. There sometimes exists a strange disconnectedness between teaching and practice and the more I taught others to tell their stories, the more I wanted to do what I was teaching.

I took every opportunity to travel, photograph and write. Commissions from aid and development agencies gave me access to stories beyond the tourist trail. I became the outsider who looked at outsiders. In Ethiopia, I photographed young girls who missed school because it was their job to walk more than 20 kilometres each day to fetch water for their families. I interviewed once-illiterate women soldiers who had been demobilised from the Ethiopian army. Instead of being sent back to the remote villages from where they had been plucked, they had successfully lobbied for places at school and university. As graduates, they were now set to become decision makers inside the new government.

I was there when the Berlin Wall crumbled. Of the hundreds of images I shot and words I filed, it's the story of the glue-sniffer I remember most vividly. I photographed him being beaten up by the police. Hundreds of thousands of East Germans were seeking better opportunities for work and education in the West but this poor fellow was from the West. He had run out of options. He was on the outside.

In the slums of Mumbai, I sat in on literacy classes run by the Slum Dwellers Association and I photographed the daily collection for their micro-savings scheme. Education in the slums is about politicising the residents and debunking the myth of slum dwellers as social miscreants. The slum dwellers wanted their stories told. "These are our stories," one of them reminded me. "You are the messenger."

My camera became a window through which I could frame these experiences, decode them and disseminate them. The teacher in me wanted to re-present these stories of outsiders – to the outsiders themselves as a form of affirmation and empowerment – as well as to people with power and influence, in the hope that something might change. I became increasingly aware that the art of storytelling, like the art of teaching, has much to do with the relationship between insiders and outsiders.

 

THE HISTORIAN PAUL Fussell claims, "The ideal travel writer is moved by a powerful will to teach. Inside every good travel writer there is a pedagogue – often a highly moral pedagogue – struggling to get out." I now combine storytelling with teaching in the creative-writing program at Deakin University. Sometimes I begin my semester by showing students a picture of Magritte's famous painting The Human Condition. The painting is of an easel in front of a window. The painting on the easel is cleverly superimposed over the view it depicts so that the two are continuous and indistinguishable. In 1936, Magritte wrote an essay about the painting: "This is the way we see the world. We see it as being outside ourselves even though it is only a mental representation of what we see on the inside."

From my second-floor office window on the Melbourne campus I look along the walkway that leads to the library. I watch students clutching their books and chatting on their mobiles as they etch out a three– or four-year pattern between the library, cafe, lecture theatres and car parks. At the beginning of each academic year, the area takes on a festive atmosphere as the new students become acquainted with the institution. They call this Orientation Week. As I watch it I think of the words of James O'Donnell from his book Avatars of the Word – from Papyrus to Cyberspace. "We teachers do not automatically deserve a future. We must earn it by the skill with which we disorient our students, energise them and inculcate in them a taste for the hard disciplines of seeing and thinking."

I find it hard to disagree, and suspect we can do whole lot worse than to get students to see themselves as both insiders and outsiders – and think about the virtues of each. 

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