July 2010

The Nation Reviewed

The only things I remember from school

By Murray Bail
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

1) the geography teacher, Mr Sullivan, loose cheeks, throat and bottom lip, and trousers too loose – always hitching them up; a general worn-out appearance in clothing and eyelids. The nicotine-stained fingers, his short-sleeved shirts. Talking about the tropics and coral, he said he had been up in the islands during the War, where he found the coral too sharp to walk on. He had to wear sandshoes.

2) the science teacher, who told us the piston of a car engine stops each time it reaches the top and bottom of each stroke – stops each time, even when high-revving. He said the greatest discovery yet to be made was Perpetual Motion.

3) Mr Kenny, his thick straight hair, combed and parted, his horn-rims. He also wore stout tan shoes. As he talked he smiled, or almost smiled. It was his way of imparting knowledge. When for no reason I let out a laugh he came between the desks and without a pause slapped me across the face. I looked up; I saw how he was unsettled by what he had done. He was perhaps the best teacher.

4) large numbers of students with buck teeth. One called Venning. Coming downstairs in a crowd he liked to give a shove from behind. Turning around, there’d be his good-natured, grinning teeth. His father was a panelbeater.

5) the art teacher, forget his name, who was small and thin, wore beige waistcoats. His way of teaching was to remain seated behind his desk, sometimes at an angle, his cheek on his hand. He had a slow, exhausted delivery. It was as if he was talking to another audience. His hair fell across his forehead. Someone began calling him Adolf (Hitler). On that hot afternoon, unable to control the class, he appeared to be ignoring the noise – until he jumped up and raised his fist at someone talking in the front: “You, by Christ, I’ll knock your block off.” Sitting down just as suddenly he put his face in his hands, “I can’t stand this any longer.”

Once he brought in another teacher, Mr Lewis, who was an artist. Quite stout, a solemn manner, a dark moustache. He wore a tweed jacket buttoned up. If he was an artist he looked like anybody else. He told us that in a painting of a white sheet hanging on a clothesline there might be half-a-dozen different colours, possibly even more.

6) the moment mathematics made sense. It fell into place, the logic of it. I could see the reason for it.

7) Mr “Lenny” Blaskett, pink all over, bald, which drew attention to his teeth – his hardworking, prominent teeth. We could not avoid his teeth as he tried his best to introduce classical music. With his gramophone from home placed on the desk, he’d put on a Beethoven symphony and close his eyes. On Sundays he played the organ at his church. Sitting down at the school piano, which was between the desk and the door, he adopted a hurried, anxious manner more suitable to the keyboard and stops of an organ. He enlisted the boy who could read music to sit beside him, as if it was an honour; the class waited for the tentative page-turner to lose his way, which he soon did, and the music to be snatched away from him. The most unpopular teacher – he took it upon himself to teach the importance of hygiene in and around the genitals, erasing diagrams of foreskins on the blackboard just as quickly as he drew them. He used the cane – a length of dowelling, which could draw blood – and for this he took the victim down to the lavatory, away from the class. There he became almost friendly, making light of it, before raising his arm and, eyes bulging, suddenly bringing the cane down on the hand, and repeating, depending on the offence.

I told no one we were distantly related – on my mother’s side.

8) reading aloud in class The Shadow Line; when someone else was doing it, getting ahead of them. Small book with red cover.

And The Odyssey (in prose). Or was that in the earlier school?

9) teachers in the lunch hour strolling in pairs, smoking pipes.

10) Leslie Roach. His mother died. The scabs on his knees.

11) Mr Gemmel was popular, mostly because of his uninterested, almost bored manner. Unlike every other teacher he called us by our Christian names. Also, in the lunch hour he played tennis with one of the older boys, without changing out of his long trousers. And he formed the Photography Club. I was elected President, only because no one wanted his favourite, an English migrant in brown specs, who went around with both hands in his pockets and knew far more about photography than I did.

12) the woodwork and metalwork teachers.

Being surrounded by timber, lengths of metal, hammers, tinsnips and loud machinery gave them authority. Bits of yellow sawdust in the hair of the woodwork teacher. He was never seen out of his grey workcoat. He was a teacher, yet hardly ever opened his mouth. He pointed and nodded, or else slowly shook his head. A mostly silent, likeable figure. On the wall behind him was a long strip of varnished wood inlaid with the different timbers of Australia. Next door, the metalwork teacher was plump and bald. He had the thin silver moustache. His unpleasant way of washing his hands, which he did four or five times a day, a soft soapy motion. His crisply ironed, short-sleeved shirts. Never a tie. When something had been dropped into a lavatory bowl he marched everyone in and ordered a boy, one who had the most pimples, possibly the poorest, to put his hand into the water and fish it out. The expressionless humiliation of this boy (at other times, his furtive look). For lunch, the metalwork teacher sat at his desk and cracked open a boiled egg, with cheese and a tomato on a plate, a serviette to wipe his mouth. He used his pocketknife to peel an apple. Years before, he had spent time in the goldfields. He still went out prospecting with his pan. For this he had a Ford V8, green, covered with a canvas hood tied down with white rope. It too was immaculate. Everything about him said he was a bachelor, even his excessive cleanliness, and if such a man could afford a large American car and drive to wherever he liked, it followed ed that it would be best not to begin an interest in girls, who would turn into women.

13) the school on Kensington Rd, Adelaide, was barely two years old. With its new cream-brick look it was assumed to be a good school. The main building of two or three storeys was set back, parallel to the road. In front was the oval – in summer, the steady metallic insect-hiss of its sprinklers. Behind the main building a creek ran through the grounds. Now and then a boy slipped in, or was pushed. It sometimes flooded and we lined the bank, throwing things into the torrent or just stood watching it, joined by some of the teachers. It felt odd to see nature rushing past, while lessons consisting of facts and possible figures were being taught in rooms.

14) Roger somebody, taller and better looking than the rest of us. He had black curly hair, and one lazy eyelid. The word went around that he had managed the night before – while the rest of us were doing our homework – to put his finger inside a girl. A small group gathered on the oval to see the victorious unwashed finger, and those still curious were allowed to bend forward to have a sniff, not knowing what to expect. In the three years at the school, the only presence of a girl I recall.

Murray Bail

Murray Bail is a writer. His most recent novel is The Voyage.

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