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The Old Boy

Knox Grammar’s Adrian Nisbett

Building of Knox Grammar School, 1943. State Library of New South Wales
Building of Knox Grammar School, 1943. State Library of New South Wales  
Cover: April 2011
April 2011Medium length read
 

When the arrests started in early 2009, we were waiting for his name to come up. Yet when the day came, we were unprepared for how it would affect us. I was driving north on the F3, near Berowra, when I heard the radio announcement that another Knox teacher had been charged. My blood thickened in my ears. As the newsreader went through her item – the third teacher from Knox Grammar, allegations of indecency dating to the ’70s and ’80s – I had a strange delusion of being able to control her words. Of course I didn’t want her to name him, but I suppose that is what shock is: all sorts of subjective distortions. Then she finally said his name, and sweat broke out all over my scalp.

Knox Grammar, on Sydney’s upper North Shore, was and is a beautiful school. Established in 1924, it feels as if it has been around forever. It has expanded from its original ivy-covered brick buildings set around a grass quadrangle into a large modern campus – its size, wealth and excellence now forming its defences against the opprobrium of five of its teachers having been charged, and four convicted, over sex offences going back nearly 40 years. I went to Knox, as did my father, brother, cousins and nephews, and some lifelong friends. (The school’s name, for the Church of Scotland founder John Knox, is a coincidence.) Several of us were taught by the teachers in question. In a leafy enclave 40 minutes north of the Harbour Bridge, Knox always felt hermetic, bucolic and innocent next to the city boys’ private schools we competed against. Gough Whitlam, John Laws and Hugh Jackman attended Knox, though they were exceptions to the norm of conservative boys graduating into the professions and business. We wore straw boaters, which we doffed to adults and teachers. The blue and black tie had to remain firmly knotted. Among the many school rules was one that sticks in my mind about littering: walking past someone else’s rubbish was as punishable as dropping the rubbish yourself. A schoolyard miniature of Evil flourishes while good men do nothing, it was one of many lessons in basic collective responsibility.

If there was one common characteristic of the five charged Knox teachers, it was their charisma. Knox recruited and encouraged outstanding teachers and one of them, my brother’s English master for three years and mine for four, was Adrian Nisbett.

Mr Nisbett was indisputably one of Knox’s best and most popular teachers. He wore a ’70s moustache and had pleasant, good-humoured, tanned features. As Major Nisbett, he was dashing in his cadet uniform of khaki and tartan. In his early thirties when he taught us, he had lived his life at Knox – as a student, teacher and boarding master, interrupted by a short stint in the army. Yet he oozed real-world sophistication. A gifted photographer with his own darkroom, he could secrete himself around the sports field to capture the telling action shot. He wrote freelance for the Sydney Morning Herald, and chatted with us about world politics and culture as if among equals. His style of teaching was, when he became my English teacher in Year 9, intoxicating.

I remain close with some friends who were also taught by Mr Nisbett. After he was arrested, we talked, of course. None of us was surprised, even though he had never done anything to any of us, or anyone we knew. One of us was defensive about the school’s and Mr Nisbett’s reputation. “If the allegations aren’t true,” he said, “it’s a terrible thing.” Terrible, also, if they were true. This friend, like a lot of the Knox community, was more concerned about damage to reputation than about the alleged victims. The line I often heard was brutal: “These are guys whose lives haven’t worked out the way they wanted, and they’re looking for somewhere to pin the blame.” In a way it’s true: when life has gone wrong, you do seek causes. But to condemn the complainants, and declare they should “move on”, implies a brutal mentality.

We shared memories of ‘Nizzo’. We’d always thought he was suss, but as for him crossing the physical line that changes student–teacher magic into a crime, no, none of us could remember anything like that.

As we talked about it, however, and I thought about it, I did remember something akin to a crime.

*

When you are 14, the best teachers can sharpen life’s colours. While Nizzo introduced us to F Scott Fitzgerald and JD Salinger, Tennessee Williams and Shakespeare, he respected our ideas and shared our sense of humour. He was the first teacher to treat us as what we aspired to be. He had favourites and if you were among those you could go to his office at lunchtimes. Four or five of us would drape ourselves on his couches and flick through his current affairs and literary magazines, or the fiction and history on his bookshelves. He smoked a pipe, and I can still smell the sweet earthiness of his tobacco. He was more like a university don than a schoolteacher.

With his encouragement, we cooked up our own literary magazine. A mate and I were the advertising sales team. We went around Wahroonga shops persuading the barber, the real estate agent, the pharmacist and the chicken shop man to part with $50 each for an ad in our new magazine. Never since have I sold a thing but I remember the buzz of making a sale.

We typeset the magazine and sent it to the printer, and when it came out we shared the triumph in Nizzo’s office. He smoked his pipe and we all told each other how clever we were. Then the holidays came. The next term, having achieved the feat of creating a magazine out of nothing, we saw no need to do it again.

Nizzo had influence beyond his classroom. The headmaster, Dr Ian Paterson, was a lean, forbidding darkness known as ‘The Boss’ and ‘Snake’. American-educated, he had taken the top job at a young age and exuded mystical force. We had as little to do with him as possible and even the teachers, we sensed, feared him. But Nizzo had his ear. You would often see Nizzo and the Boss strolling along like Haldeman and Nixon, breathing the air of absolute power.

Nizzo was also close to important parents. He spent Saturdays watching school sport with Rosemary Sinclair – the wife of Ian Sinclair, a Knox old boy and federal National Party leader. (A friend of John and Janette Howard, Mrs Sinclair would become an adviser to the Howard government.) We would ponder this odd relationship. Schoolboys being schoolboys, we created rumours. By this stage – at 15 or 16 – we were changing. Nizzo wasn’t, but we were.

*

I have two nephews who board at Knox. An acquaintance asked me: “How could you let kids go to that place? After everything that’s happened? And as boarders?”

His reaction is ignorant. Knox is a changed place. Boarding masters must be married, and their wives are involved in boarding-house activities. The power dynamic between teachers and children is better understood. Since the arrests and convictions, Knox has conducted counselling, not only for possible victims and other old boys, but also internally.

Even back when the offences were happening, it’s not as if child abuse was unheard of. We knew what it was; it just hadn’t happened to anyone we knew. A lot of what boys haven’t experienced they turn into humour. A 2010 school camp was titled “Boys into Men”. The joke doing the rounds was that back in the ’80s the camp would have been called “Men into Boys”. I was there in the ’80s and that kind of joke was always around. It’s not gallows humour – it’s the humour of the unharmed.

A school council member told me in the midst of court hearings that one salient fact had been clear from the expert counselling: “You can’t predict who will be the perpetrator because perpetrators come from such diverse backgrounds and wear many different disguises, but you can predict who will be the victim.”

When we were in Year 11, my best friend’s parents sent him to Ewan House, the senior boarding house located at Knox Prep School, a couple of kilometres away. It housed about 20 boys, and the resident master was Mr Nisbett. That was Nisbett’s third year as our English teacher. Our cliquey friendship with him hadn’t yet soured but we weren’t flocking into his office with the same enthusiasm. There is a big difference, in sexual knowledge, between a 14 year old and a 16 year old.

When boys are discovering sex, it seems very important to classify and define adults. Nizzo became our target. You feel so smart when you’re 16 and wised up, so wised up that you exaggerate your perceptiveness. The penny dropped: Nizzo was in the closet. When we were 14, we’d thought he was trying to chat Mrs Sinclair up. When we were 16, we were so clever we knew he was her walker, her gay confidant.

Our relationship with him changed from that of boys and their beloved teacher to a pack of dogs and its quarry. We stopped going to his office, joking about what he might do to us if he got a chance. At Ewan House, Mr Nisbett liked to invite boys to help in his darkroom. We scoffed. Why let yourself be cornered?

The final breach came after Mr Nisbett invited my boarder mate, late one night, to his private apartment. They sat together and talked, Nizzo smoking his pipe. The next day, my friend was weeping with laughter: “Nizzo’s apartment was plastered with photos of us playing sport. Swimming, running, cricketing, footballing, we’re everywhere.” We didn’t need any more proof. Nizzo was a fag. Oh, we were wised up. The lunchtimes in his office, the charismatic classroom conversations – well, now we knew. That wasn’t teaching, that was grooming.

The truth is that we were embarrassed by having loved him. Unacknowledged embarrassment is a very powerful tool in the hands of teenagers. We used it the only way we knew how.

*

In Chris Masters’ biography of Alan Jones, Jonestown, the chapters on Jones’s life as a boarding master at The King’s School in Parramatta are very familiar to me. Masters writes of a boys’ Arcadia, Jones sitting up for late nights sharing dreams of success with his favourites, mentoring them and inspiring them, becoming the most important positive influence on their lives. But, Masters writes:

 

Perhaps the strain of maintaining a complicated pretence was, at times, too much. Jones’ emotional attachment to the boys could not give way to unambiguous physical expression. The curious romantic dance he undertook seemed to exhaust both himself and his unwitting partners.

 

I knew what I was reading here: the “curious romantic dance” was also our experience with Nizzo. By the end of Year 11 it had exhausted itself but the teacher’s sexual repression was only part of it. I think the bigger rupture was our change from sexually innocent boys into nasty little shits.

Masters sympathises, even pities, Jones, who needed love yet found himself in a dead end when it came to reciprocation. I see Mr Nisbett in a similar light. He was a romantic, looking for the possibility of love, even if he didn’t know it. We are all, as Proust wrote, susceptible to love at certain times, and it is random whom our loving eye alights upon. For a boarding master, holding down that love can be a desperate struggle. When the object of love – the boy who goes to his private apartment – repudiates it, he does two things: he makes the struggle momentarily easier for the teacher, and he leaves something accumulating for the next time.

Mine is not a victim’s narrative. As I came to grips with Mr Nisbett’s arrest, I began to believe that my story is closer to that of a perpetrator.

Early in our last year of school, our fourth with Nizzo, things came to a head. We were sniggering about his photography, his moustache, everything. He hadn’t cornered us; we’d cornered him. In a huff over some incident, he stormed out of the classroom. For the rest of the year – the most important of our school lives – he refused to teach us. When we came into class he would have left an essay topic on the blackboard. For our HSC, he left us to teach ourselves. Talk about being treated as an adult.

He was the best teacher we had, and we never spoke to him again. I heard, after I left Knox, that he had been shifted from teaching and living in Ewan House into an administrative role. The scuttlebutt was that something had happened and the school had decided to keep him away from the boys while hushing the whole thing up. He became a passionate volunteer for children’s charities in Africa. He took up golf. I saw him once or twice, but was too embarrassed about my own past actions to approach him.

Embarrassment, like an apple from the tree of knowledge, had been the poison all along. Before we knew embarrassment, we had as good a relationship with him as students can have with a teacher. Then we grew embarrassed and picked on him, isolated him, made him a victim. I felt too ashamed to ever go up to him and say “hello”, let alone apologise.

After his 2009 arrest, Mr Nisbett’s lawyer said he would fight the charges. He suggested that the school had known about the complaints and covered them up. Now, it was rumoured, if Mr Nisbett was taken to trial he would dump on the school. It didn’t happen. In September 2010, he pleaded guilty. In 1976 and 1986, he had rubbed his groin, elbow and hand against the genitals of three students through their pants while they were with him in his darkroom. He was sentenced to two year’s imprisonment but Judge Anthony Garling suspended the sentence in recognition of his good character and the humiliation he had already suffered. The insinuations of a cover-up, therefore, remained untested.

*

In Andrew O’Hagan’s heartbreaking novel Be Near Me, a priest makes a clumsy sexual advance on a teenage boy in an emotional swirl of loneliness and misunderstanding. In his naivety and their mutual confusion, the priest momentarily believes he and the boy love each other. He is wrong, and the scandal ensues. When I read this book in 2006, it hit me like a reproach. I wonder if I would be devotedly reading novels at all if I hadn’t had such a fine English teacher.

Most of the boys passing through Nizzo’s classroom and office, year upon year, came from stable families and solid peer groups. Like us, they were self-confident, and where they weren’t, they overcompensated with macho adolescent cockiness. But some boys were not like that. You can’t predict the perpetrator, but you can predict the victim. These boys were vulnerable and confused, qualities shared by a man whose sexuality had been restrained and whose isolation had been worsened by those who had rejected and mocked him. I wonder if there was a corner-of-the-eye misunderstanding, where a boy who was suffering his own confusions, who perhaps did not belong to a tough little clique, might, for a moment, have wondered about the possibility of love. Could it have ended in a fumbling approach, with the hope of enough ambiguity to offer deniability? For four years a mess was sitting there and, because we hadn’t created it and it hadn’t harmed us, we walked on and left it for someone else. Mr Nisbett was a lonely man who attempted to divert his complicated emotions into having a positive effect on young people’s lives. But those complications can never be sealed watertight. As Saul Bellow writes on the first page of The Adventures of Augie March, “there is no fineness or accuracy of suppression; if you hold down one thing you hold down the adjoining.”

As in anything, it’s the strong who find it easiest to flee their responsibility. None of my friends feels at all responsible for the saga with Mr Nisbett. We were the objects of his affection, we rebuffed it, we turned it back on him, we increased his loneliness and isolation, we made it more likely that his confused emotions would turn somewhere else, somewhere weaker – and for all that we gave ourselves a pat on the back for having negotiated one of the pitfalls of adolescence. I know men who were shown pornographic videos by another of the convicted teachers. They never complained or told anyone. “We thought it was funny,” one said. “It never did us any harm.”

Nor did our relationship with Mr Nisbett do us any harm. But that way of thinking is the problem. We only consider the harm we might have suffered, or avoided. Only when it’s too late do we think of what we left for others.

About the author Malcolm Knox
Malcolm Knox is a former literary editor of the Sydney Morning Herald and has won a Walkley Award for journalism. His books include Jamaica and The Life.