May 2009

The Nation Reviewed

School days

By Alice Pung
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

‘Ladies' is such a salacious word when slurred by young men, but when enunciated by a carefully coiffured middle-aged lady to a mass of Year 10 girls it is a severe admonition not to move. I wondered how long it would take to set the limbs of adolescent restlessness.

"Settle down, young lay-dees."

Less than a minute. Impressive.

I stood on the auditorium stage, being told off in front of 350 15-year-olds in blue ties and heavy shoulder pads. This had never happened to me before, and it wasn't even my school.

The head of English wanted to make a speech before introducing me: "Alice Pung has arrived ten minutes late, and she apologises for coming late, lay-dees." I apologised and offered to make up the lost time. No longer feeling like a lawyer approaching 30, or the visiting author the school had invited to inspire its students, I had the sensation that my stomach was dropping to the floor. I had forgotten schools could have this kind of effect.

During my adolescence, I changed high school five times. I traversed the whole Victorian education system: public state schools, private religious (Catholic) schools, private grammar schools and public selective state schools. And now, every year during Book Week, I talk to secondary students around the country. Book Week was set up in 1945 as a time to spend celebrating Australian authors and illustrators. But some schools can afford to spend more than others, as I soon found out.

One ladies college invited me to speak at their school assembly for ten minutes, and told me proudly that I was their one-hundred-and-twentieth guest speaker for the year. Two beautiful girls greeted me. With their blazer lapels so heavily impaled with merit pins - debating, swimming, drama - they looked like young lieutenants in the army, and like they had just stepped out of a Nordic Colours hair-dye commercial. They escorted me to the stage for assembly, where I peered down at hundreds of pretty, passive faces. Two words ballooned inside my head: polite boredom. The discipline it takes for these girls to sit still with their hands in their laps is extraordinary. I mustered all my energy, wishing to do justice to the inordinate fee I was being paid, but as I spoke I felt like the one-hundred-and-twentieth courtesan in line.

When I'd finished speaking, I braced myself for another telling off. "That was very interesting," came the response from the head of English. It is easy to tell when a teacher has not really understood what I have been talking about. Even after I show slides of Cambodia in the time when my family fled from there - of the Killing Fields, dismembered bodies, bloodied faces - the same adjective pops up, like a twisting of that old Chinese adage: May you live in interesting times.

Afterwards, the principal invited me to a lunch of white-bread sandwiches cut into tiny triangles, with a small smear of salmon paste on them, or cucumber, or lettuce and tomato - vegetables low in calories because they are mostly water. The young ladies folded napkins neatly on their laps and picked out a triangle each. At the coaxing of their principal, some asked me about university and entrance scores. Most of these girls were headed for university in the next couple of years. Their futures stretched before them like a string of numbers, and I wondered how much they were allowed to focus on the immediate, to be allowed to concentrate on living in the moment, rather than seeing everything as a means to the end of adolescence. They reminded me of hothouse strawberries: lushly beautiful but easily bruised.

"Miss, can I give you a hug?" asked a skinny 14-year-old Asian girl before I left the Catholic college in Springvale, where I had told stories to the students for an hour. She reminded me of my little sister. In fact, the whole year level reminded me of my siblings, and I wanted to hug them all. The teacher gave an indulgent smile, and suddenly I was surrounded by en-masse embracing. Being treated nicely is not the same as being blessed with kindness, and there are some schools that are really, really kind - you feel it as soon as you walk in the door.

In every school there are teachers who are the most caring of people, but it is the collective culture of a school that is the first thing an outsider notices. It has a lot to do with how much natural laughter is allowed before students are deemed to be behaving in a manner ill becoming young ladies and gentlemen.

Most of my secondary schooling was spent in single-sex schools, but I had never visited an all-girls boarding house until I arrived at Walford, in Adelaide. I came at 10.30 in the evening, ready to spend the next day conducting writing workshops. Seona, the teacher on duty, took me upstairs to my bedroom. The boarding house was not a year old, and this room was meant for mothers staying over with their daughters: it was feminine, tidy and the colour of lollies. A sherbet-coloured bedspread covered each of the twin single beds, and in the bathroom were clean cocoa-brown towels. The place looked good enough to eat. I realised I had not yet had dinner, so one of the teachers brought me up a plate of roast pork and vegetables.

The next morning, the school librarian took me to the students. "A real-life author!" Alison told Grade 6. I felt like a giant, with them seated on the floor while I stood and told my stories. The older girls, who were studying my book, did not ply me for answers to essay questions. Instead of polite attentiveness, there seemed to be genuine interest - in storytelling, writing, books. The day was suffused with laughter.

That evening I met the girl boarders: from rural Australia, Thailand, Hong Kong, South Korea. I was happy to see that they ate like healthy girls. I sat with them in the common room while Amara, from the Northern Territory, gave me a new hairstyle. Jenny, from Taiwan, showed me a photograph of her three-month-old brother. These girls - even the ones in Year 11 - still needed a pass to cross the road to the shops. But almost all were interested in the world outside their heads.

At one private boys' school, I spoke at the Literature Club dinner. Like the girls in their sister school, a ladies college, these were well-behaved and highly intelligent students. But when they spoke, I got a strange jolt - I was hearing one thing and seeing another. The 14-year-old boys, many of whom were Asian and Indian, had the assurance, cadences and vocabulary of sophisticated middle-aged Englishmen (but, fortunately, not their teeth). Standing by the mantelpiece, awaiting their turn at the lectern, they seemed peculiarly colonial. They presented reports replete with phrases such as "remarkable narrative", "meandering plot", "conscious effort to disconcert the reader".

The boys with whom I grew up were mostly boys without words, boys capable of inordinate bouts of rage and tenderness, boys with the dangerous physical mix of itchy knuckles and firm deltoids. They were likely to beat the crap out of young men who used words such as ‘remarkable'. Fortunately, in my experience, the two worlds rarely met. While one group was studying SE Hinton's tale of class divides and power struggles among rival gangs, the other was studying a story told in iambic pentameter of two rival gangs "alike in dignity".

During my high-school years, I was a participant in both of those groups, at schools on the opposite sides of the spectrum. In Year 8, at a girls' Catholic college mostly filled with migrant children, we studied John Marsden's So Much to Tell You, about Marina, a deeply scarred girl who did not speak but wrote in her diary. Ms Clarke never used the words ‘text' or ‘analyse'. She got us to perform role-plays: "You have to be any other character other than Marina," she advised. At home I wrote a script on tissues using a typewriter. I got up in front of the class as Marina's hysterical mother, spending ten minutes ‘crying' into my notes. The class laughed, but in a good way. Ms Clarke had a rare knack for taking us outside ourselves, and of bringing out the painfully shy students. 

At my grammar school, we studied John Keats' ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci'. Our literature teacher told us it was about the artistic muse using the poet and leaving him drained. Stephen said it was just about a guy's sexual obsession with a chick. "Look at this, miss! She found him roots of relish sweet!"

"Aw, come on - if you can read sex into that, you can read it into every line," said our teacher.

So we did. We read sex into every line. "I set her on my pacing stead. Come on, he sets her on his pacing stead!"

"Why doesn't he just say he set her on his blue-veined throbbing love pump, then?" That was the teacher. She treated us like the emerging adults we were. She knew we could appreciate a prurient joke without taking it to extremes. I loved those classes, where there was such trust.

"That was a good talk," one of the 16-year-olds told me after the boys' Literature Dinner, "but, to be honest, I really didn't quite understand when you went into the whole deep-psychological-analysing part."

The "deep psychological" stuff was what I took to be a simple analogy: a computer being overloaded and breaking down. And then it dawned on me that this student did not have an inordinate fear of failure. Quite a few of these boys did not understand what I knew the girls in their sister school felt, the deep-rooted terror at the pit of the stomach at the prospect of not doing well. Their questions were mostly practical: "How did you get published, and what was it like?" And: "How long did it take you to write your book?" "This club was started by boys who loved reading," one of them said, "so what you see here are students who really want to be here."

"Miz," a boy yelled out in the middle of another presentation. "Miz. What happened to your boyfriend in the book, miz?" The boys at Taylors Lakes Secondary College wanted to be here too, but only after 20 minutes, when they realised I wasn't going to theorise about issues of belonging and cross-cultural chasms. Watergardens is an area of Melbourne full of houses that seem to rise out of the ground like those in Edward Scissorhands, each of them trim and neat and seemingly under ten years old, like the high school. These kids wanted action. They wanted to know what happens next. "Miz, what do you do now, miz?"

At a high school in regional Albury, I explained the Chinese-Cambodian saying from which my book title was derived: "A girl is like cotton wool: once she's dirtied, she can never be clean again. A boy is like a gem: the more you polish it, the brighter it shines." "Hey, Kayla, would you like to polish my gem?" I heard a boy snickering after class. But the girls at Hornsby Girls' High School, in outer Sydney, understood that I was not talking about wanking. Many of them had Asian faces, and told me about how differently they and their brothers were treated when they were growing up. Most people value the goose that lays the golden egg. But does it make a difference whether that goose is free-range or caged?

"It's weird you're standing here in front of us," confessed one girl at Keilor Downs College, in outer Melbourne. "What is it like to be studied by us, miss?"

"Sometimes I feel like a human doing, not a human being," wrote a student in a writing workshop I conducted. Another wrote about being one among a mass of "sheeple". It doesn't matter whether they are from public or private schools: young adults all seem to feel the same way sometimes.

The day I visited Shepherds Park School, in Wagga Wagga's juvenile-detention centre, I was entirely unprepared for the sight of the three-metre-high fence topped with closely wound spirals of barbed wire: what must these students have done to end up here? I was greeted at the front office by Simon, the principal, a convivial man whose face lacked the severity I had expected of the principal of such a place - or of any secondary school. I was also given a short induction by Graham, who worked in the front office. "Now, we are allowed to restrain the kids by force, but they get a number of warnings before we do. So don't be alarmed if we have to handcuff them or tackle them to the floor. It doesn't happen very often when there is a guest, but be prepared."

Can all of these boys read and write? I asked. "Most of them can," Tracy, an English teacher, told me, "but some of them have very low literacy skills. And they would have covered that up at their schools by refusing to do any work in class and saying, ‘That's just baby stuff. I know all that already.'"

I walked into the classroom and noticed the locks on the door and windows. Then the boys filed in, slouchy-backed, monosyllabic. They looked just like boys I had met in so many other schools.

"What would you like to do? Would you like to do some writing work, or would you like me to just tell you a few stories?"

"Stories," one murmured, and the rest grunted assent.

So I spent the next hour telling them funny stories that Dad told me, about surviving the Khmer Rouge, and the ingenious ways he had of finding food, of not getting killed. David Gilbey, a writer and a lecturer in English at Charles Sturt University, told me about his visits to the men's prison in nearby Junee. "The men like seeing outsiders, people in normal society. They are thirsting to know that they can relate to ‘normal' people, so when I went to talk to the men in maximum security, they were very respectful." And of all the schools I had visited in the past three years, I'd never had such attentive listeners. The boys gave me complete stillness for a full hour, and each came to shake my hand after the talk. They taught me more about expressing respect for a stranger than most of the other places with their blanket allegations of "very interesting".

The teacher's aide spoke to me later: "You know, a lot of these kids come from very racist families. They've probably never had the experience of speaking to someone like you before." It was a tiny school in a regional city, and these weren't free-range kids by any stretch of the imagination, but when I walked out of that wired enclosure, I wanted to walk straight back into Simon's office and apply for a job.

Alice Pung

Alice Pung is a writer, lawyer and teacher. She is the author of Unpolished Gem, Her Father’s Daughter, Laurinda and Writers on Writers: Alice Pung on John Marsden.

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