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OUR BOOKS > ALL THE WAY TO Z

All The Way to Z

Essay/Memoir
Written by Chester Eagle
Design by Vane Lindesay
DTP work by Karen Wilson
Cover by Vane Lindesay based on alphabet photos by Chester Eagle
Circa 70,500 words
Electronic publication 2009 by Trojan Press

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To read some extracts from this book click here:

The drum
Rotarians
Tricia
Co-education?
The Shop
THANKS
3GH


To read about the writing of this book click here.

The drum

At Bairnsdale Technical School, boys assembled four times a day: in the morning at 9; after morning recess; after lunch; and after afternoon recess. Boys who came from surrounding towns would also gather at about 3.45 to be lined up for the buses that would take them home.

This had a strange effect on the school. It filled in the morning and emptied in the afternoon. Thus it was empty for more hours than it was used. Its facilities were of the barest, and comforts there were none. The building, of itself, would teach nothing, so the business of education, not unnaturally, was left to the staff and students, and it was assumed to be a one-way process, knowledge flowing out of teachers into students. To say this is to simplify, of course, because every class had good students who drew the best from their masters, and perhaps guided the teaching by the questions they asked, and by their willingness to do things they were told to do. The achievements of even the most dominant teachers rest on the understandings of those they dominate – if they do. Someone had the bright idea that the school’s entry to the building, four times a day, might be more disciplined if the boys marched to a drum.

A drum! The military connotations were never discussed. The drum was instituted and it boomed for years before it was done away with. Boom, boom, boom! Four times a day the boys entered to the beating of a drum. Why? Because, as stated, it not only enforced discipline, it showed that discipline was being enforced. People in the street would know! It was done because if it wasn’t the boys would straggle: this was unthinkable. When decisions about discipline had been made, they had to be enforced. Decisions were in fact orders, of the military type, to be obeyed because …

… of fear of punishment, automatic respect for authority, all the other things that come to the militaristic mind. Boys at Bairnsdale Tech. were poorly dressed, many of them, neatly dressed if they came from ‘good’ families, as some did. Many of the ex-servicemen who’d settled on the land sent their sons to the tech. because they’d learn practical things , not the stuff taught at high school, on the other side of town. In, I think, my second year, Principal Rupert Terrill and Headmaster Bill Grose went to Melbourne and during their stay they watched the Head of the River boatraces, featuring the six famous Public (meaning private) schools of Melbourne and Geelong. The races took place on the Yarra River, and were attended by throngs from the best known schools of the cities. Old Boys and Old Girls attended, wearing ribbons in the colours of the school they favoured. The boatraces were well reported and were used, in their way, to establish the social dominance of the people supporting the schools involved. So Principal Terrill and Headmaster Grose had gone to the boatraces. Weeks passed, and no announcements were made. One morning I went to the classroom where I was to teach, to find, not the usual chaos, but Rupert Terrill standing on the platform, and in front of him a boy wearing a grey blazer, and, bless my soul, a grey cap! No such thing had been seen at the tech. before. Terrill was telling my class that this was what everybody would be wearing as soon as the shops had stocks to sell. The boys were unusually quiet; the principal, who’d had a lot of illness, was happier than I’d seen him in months. He explained, before inviting the boy to take off the uniform they would all be wearing soon, that he and Mr Grose had been most impressed by what they’d seen in Melbourne and felt that it was the right move to make.

I was appalled. I knew what was coming, and it came. Blazers got grubby and they weren’t dry-cleaned. Parents who hadn’t wanted to buy blazers didn’t replace them with bigger ones as their boys grew. Caps were worn irreverently, twisted this way and that, though I don’t remember them being worn back to front, in the American baseball style (I’m writing this in 2008). I saw boys in the street, riding back after lunch, advertising their school in exactly the way the principal and headmaster had not wanted when they introduced the uniform without discussion. They had tried to create an impression of quality by a decision made at the top and imposed downwards, and what they had created – an obviously scornful rejection of the values they had thought would improve the school – was evidence that they’d failed, and, worse, that they were in charge of a school that revelled in their failure.

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Rotarians

I think it’s clear that society knows what it doesn’t want much better than it can articulate what it wants. National ideals are hard to formulate, harder to express in ways that cause people to agree. Aspirations tend to sound pious and shallow, whereas condemnations of the unwanted are usually filled with fierce passion of some (unreliable) sort. Nobody forces societies to find the answers they should find; it’s simpler to treat society’s goals as a work in progress and resort to throwing out the misfits, as Neville Smith was thrown out of Bairnsdale Tech. Notice, though, that crucial difference between the government school and the private: in general, private schools can expel those they find unsatisfactory, and where do they go? To a government school that can’t refuse them. Power structures overlie everything, threading their way through the activities of schools as everywhere else. I referred in the previous essay to Rupert Terrill, Principal of my first school. He was a Rotarian. When he died, his replacement became a Rotary member too. Rupert Terrill was still in charge when a young maths teacher called Graeme Duff had trouble with a boy called Trevor Brodribb, whom he found insolent. He sent the boy to Terrill’s office. What he expected the Principal to do I can only guess: frighten him, I suppose, or threaten him with dire punishment if he displeased his teacher again. Who knows? Rupert Terrill found the situation more disturbing than the teacher expected. Trevor Brodribb’s father ran a local garage and was, like Terrill, a member of Rotary. Two members of Rotary! Rotarians positioned themselves at the town’s highest level. Interactions taking place inside this organisation had ramifications far and wide. The Rotarian’s son had been sent to the Rotarian Principal. Terrill spoke to the boy, then led him back to the classroom, a humble portable placed, delightfully, above the river, with a view of the green flats and blue mountains to the north. The Principal spoke to Mr Duff’s class about the need to put their best efforts into learning mathematics, and to be polite with their teacher because he had things to offer that they would need in later life. He invited the young Brodribb to take his seat and be respectful thereafter. The boy sat. The Principal left. The young teacher had to resume, knowing that in the eyes of the class the Principal had backed the boy, not the teacher. The boy, because of his father. His father was a pillar of the town, the boy would surely follow him, the maths teacher might return to Melbourne at the end of the year. The town, thus, would look after itself, and the teacher? The system, it could be assumed, would look after him. He could always accept a present at the end of the year, thank the donors, and leave.

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Tricia

Perhaps the teacher I most admired was Tricia Caswell, and that ranking in my mind came about, I must suppose, because her outlook was as different from my own as it was possible to be. She was a woman. She was fiery, and I’d spent years getting my impatience under control. She saw, she heard, lies and bullshit while I saw people struggling to make a capitalist society work. She taught drama, and she made it, everywhere. Contempt flowed from her when people were what she called weak; that is, they weren’t ready to make radical moves. She and Philip Cassell, her partner at the time, saw our department as a cell, whereas I hoped it would be an influence: these two ways of looking at the same thing show how far apart, as working personalities, we were. Tricia staged a performance with her drama students, improvised, she said. It ended with a drum beating loudly and a group of students, improvising of course, chanting, ‘We want a revolution now!’ It was what she wanted. She was active in the union, and scornful of people whose adaptation to society was restricted to obedience. The moment an idea, an objection, blocked her path, she wanted it torn down. It wasn’t a matter of simple, perhaps courteous disagreement, it was clear analysis confronting false consciousness, which surrounded everybody, everywhere, all the time. Life was struggle, and people were brought down, made to abase themselves, unless they fought the unavoidable fight, which was going on, all around, all the time.

Philip got sick. Tricia stayed home to nurse him. His weakness, I sensed, was connected to her strength. Her nursing was an atonement for some victory she’d achieved at his expense. She moved on to other partners, vulnerable, I thought, through being open to them. One young man came down from Sydney to be with her; he told her, she told me, that he thought he might stay three months. Telling me this, she was aghast, and yet ambivalent; something in her wanted to be wanted as long as that, another part of her knew she’d be sick of him after a few more days, and he’d have to be sent back where he came from, so she could get on with recreating the world.

The world, the world ... in our various ways, all of us were showing our views of the world to our students, and they were going on to university, and enough of them were succeeding to make us think we were a useful current in a region, the northern parts of Melbourne, where there wasn’t much for students unless they came from families wealthy enough to send them to private schools in Ivanhoe/Eaglemont, or Essendon/Pascoe Vale, two strips of high land which recreated, in ways comparable with the high-hill suburbs south of the Yarra, the class differences of nineteenth century Melbourne. Our students were Greek, Italian, Jugoslav, Macedonian, and the offspring of older, inter-war Aussie families. Asians were only just beginning to arrive when the humanities department’s time was up. Africans came later again. Nonetheless, Preston was a melting pot and we had decided to create a new, educational ladder up and out: not so much out of the area as out, we liked to believe, of ignorance, of ideological imprisonment. Hence the unlikely coming together of Marxist, left-wing radicals and those whose radicalism took other characteristics entirely.

I myself was representative of this second group. I was teaching because it was my nature to do so, and the attitudes I brought to teaching were the ones I’d learned from my parents, from my years at Melbourne Grammar, and four years at the University of Melbourne as a resident of Trinity College. I’ll deal with these four years in a later section but there will be moments when I’ll need to draw on them now.

My years on a New South Wales farm gave me the earthiness, the shrewdness, of Father, and the aspirations, the high principles of Mother. I had a base that I would never doubt. Already I feel a difference from Tricia Caswell, who wanted to wrench the world away from the direction she’d experienced. She wanted it to be different; I wanted to make everyone as confident of themselves as I’d been made. I knew very well what she meant by ‘false consciousness’, except that for me the false was often better than ...

What is the opposite of false? True? Workable? Good enough to get by? The better, shrewder, thing to do? A way of doing things that doesn’t put you in disharmony with those around you? Tricia thought that false consciousness had to be confronted. Made to admit the errors in its ways. I thought differently. For me, there was nothing devastating about being surrounded by nothingness or wreckage. There was nothing new about it at all. That was how I’d started at Bairnsdale and again in my first days at Preston. You simply started, I thought, and you kept improving. I had a slogan, voiced often enough: fight only the battles you can win; occupy other ground surreptitiously. I might have added that as you occupied ground you looked around for further spaces to take over. I don’t think I ever expected to be in a position where higher authorities understood the nature of my goals; this meant that what I wanted would never be handed to me on a plate.

What did I want? What I, to some extent at least, had had myself, a feeling inside me that I was inferior to none and equal to all. My parents had sacrificed to give me the best opportunity available and I thought the same openings should be there for everybody. Slogans like these are easy enough to say, but places of education test rhetoric severely. Pious utterances rarely fool those who have to listen. If you want to give people chances you have to create the structures that will change the students so they become the sort of people whose success can’t be stopped. Or so you hope. ‘Change the students’: in this respect I was the same as Tricia and those whose radicalism took different forms from mine. The students had to be changed, they had to undergo experiences and deal with challenges so that they were different people by the end of their year with us. This meant that I and my colleagues had to accept that when the students failed their teachers had failed, and this meant that when we devised the questions, the essay topics, by which the students would stand or fall, we had to accept that we were testing ourselves as teachers at the same time. If the students were to be challenged then so too were we. I think that reaching this point in my – our - collective thinking was probably the high point of my years at Preston TAFE. It was very different from the sort of teaching, usually quite skilled, at Melbourne Grammar, where well-worn men taught well-worn subjects in a good-humoured, sceptical sort of way, sure of themselves because they’d done it so many times before.

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Co-education?

Men and women, boys and girls, are different. All the time, or only in certain matters and at certain periods of their lives? These are difficult questions to answer. It’s easy to define things so that the balance comes down in favour of, or against, segregating the sexes, or conversely, putting them together. If they are put together and well managed, they will surely learn to respect each other? Or does putting them together simply increase the opportunities for harm? I am reminded of a boy called David Andrews, a champion swimmer who spent hours at the Lakes Entrance Lifesaving Club. Late in year 10, his parents removed him from school. Why?

A whisper ran around the town. He’d got a girl pregnant during one of the Saturday night dances at the clubhouse, and his parents had decided he must marry her. Yes, marry. I looked at his empty seat in amazement. When he hadn’t even finished year 10?

Then I ran into him at the newsagent’s. He was glancing at a shelf of Penguin books, looking for something to read. I had the Melbourne Age under my arm. I would read it later in the day, to keep myself up to date. He noticed me. I greeted him. ‘Good morning, David. How are things with you?’ He said he was well, he called me sir, our conversation was ridiculous because neither of us was willing to open up the realities of his situation within earshot of the staff behind the counter. Anything said on Main Street would be around the town in half a day. How was David? He wouldn’t be able to tell me for twenty years, or thirty, would he? How was David? How was I? I was a servant of the society that surrounded us, and he was, I thought, a victim, yet, when I met his father, weeks later, and listened to him saying that David had made a mistake but now he had to turn it into a way of achieving integrity, and success, I had a mixture of reactions: I thought the man was stupid, I could see that he wasn’t telling me his ideas for any other reason than that he wanted to be understood, I felt a pang of sympathy and support for David and his soon to be wife, or was it now-wife, and, most strongly of all, I realised that nothing I did or said would have the slightest effect. Mr and Mrs Andrews had taken their son from the school where I’d taught him. This was a drama of two families and nobody was consulting me.

Teachers, then, should not be too dogmatic about co-education, because it’s a matter, fraught by fears, where teachers’ intentions won’t necessarily be listened to. Other people see the matter through the prism of their hopes and fears for their children. Parents’ notions of respectability can be upset ever so easily by the misdeeds – misfortunes? – of their sons and daughters. Parents have accepted that they are responsible for more than themselves; they stand in a line joining past generations to the future, and any falling down, any failure, will be attributed to them if there’s a breakdown in that succession. Handing on belongs to the parents, parents think, and it can be shared in part with teachers and schools, but parents are inclined to suspect that teachers are less concerned with moral transfer, than they, the parents, would like. Teachers may well argue, on general lines, that mixed classes of boys and girls are better for everybody than segregated groups, but once there’s a scandal, a pregnancy, reports of misdemeanours or secret meetings, rational discussion is inclined to end and other, deeper, more ancient, primitive modes of behaviour come to the surface.

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The Shop

My subject, then, at university, my only true subject, was humanity and its history, its cultural forms, the ways in which it thought, expressed itself and acted: that was big enough to take a lifetime to master!

Eventually I came to music. I’d always liked it well enough but I’d never been surrounded by people who loved it as musicians, as composers, loved it. Strangely, it was the army that brought me what I didn’t know I wanted. In my platoon at Puckapunyal was a young man called Don Adams, a former quiz kid, extraordinarily clumsy and just as clever, self-educated, and a primary teacher. He was living with his grandparents in Collingwood, a suburb that hadn’t yet recovered from depression and war. He said I could visit him and he’d play me some of the music he liked to talk about. Time passed, and I did. His grandparents were hospitable but they had little enough; Don said that if I wanted to ‘really’ hear music, on a quality machine, I should join him at Vans Ovenden’s house, 21 Grey Street East Melbourne. It was in walking distance of college, but after Vans had insisted on driving me home in his ancient Fiat, much the worse for wear after drinking deep into a flagon of sherry, I bought myself a bike! I’ve written about this household elsewhere, but I introduce it here by way of reminding myself that leisure, spare time to fill, is an essential part of a young person’s development. Educators are inclined to think of curriculum as a vast area to be filled by careful instruction, but education is as much about a readiness to absorb as it is about the material to fill those gaps! I was never more ready than when I visited Vans’ home, with its loudspeaker system bricked into a corner of the front room. Vans had made his own amplifier, and he was experimenting with cutting long-playing discs; he’d once been a violinist but his hands were shaky, now, under the influence of alcohol. His father and his brother, both of them living nearby in East Melbourne, ran an optical practice in the city, its windows overlooking the town hall. I visited Vans there on numerous occasions, because I knew that he felt he should make an appearance most days of the week, even if all he contributed was a few comments about items in The Herald, which he read as he drank coffee. Father George and Brother John accepted him as he was, and that, I thought, was the miracle that Vans introduced into the world. It was possible to be bohemian and survive. Vans loved Bach, Beethoven and Mozart, Papa Haydn too; he loved the songs and chamber music of Franz Schubert, which came close to his recipe for music to get ready for the making of love. I started to buy more records, and I took them to Vans’ place now, not the college library, because they seemed a little lonely, or distanced from the world when I played them in Trinity’s patrician rooms, but, surrounded by Vans’ noisy, often drunken, friends, the music became something else: as blood was to the body, music was to the world. I read a lot about music, when I had time; I read the lives of composers, their patrons and the demands of the church. It was all so far away, in a Europe only distantly resembling its creations in Australia, but when, eventually, and years later, I heard music in European cathedrals, concerts and opera houses, I knew exactly where I was. I’d come home, to the lands of music from which I’d been exiled by Australian birth: it took a number of years, and three or four visits to Europe, to decide that I didn’t envy the Europeans what they’d made for themselves, much as I admired it at times.

It may seem to the reader that we’ve wandered far from the University of Melbourne in the nineteen fifties, but it seems to me that going to Europe was only an extension of going to university; that all life is a journey and with any luck it can be a journey of learning, not of misery, nor even of personal or financial success. Finding in myself a profound affinity with music meant that for me the journey need have no end. Music bonded heart and mind, thought and feeling, it led to surmising, philosophising, and care for others similarly affected. Music linked, and bonded, human beings, so it was educative in the most generous sense. My discovery of music in my university years meant that those years gave onto all the things I knew little about, at that stage, and made me ready for whatever developments lay ahead when my university years were behind.

I was in for some awful shocks when I started teaching, but I’d been made strong enough to absorb the shocks and take them into my learning systems. I could hardly have been less ready for teaching, because I’d used my university years to keep myself sheltered from the world’s brutalities, but university had served me well, because it allowed me time and emotional space to develop, and I had developed, largely by doing things that lay outside the curriculum printed in the handbook. Those were the motions one had to go through, and interesting motions they were, for the most part, but the freedom surrounding what was compulsory was the true, and enormously broad, field of my university learning.

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THANKS

On the other occasion, I was in the Fitzroy section of Saint Georges Road when I had to stop at a red light. Facing the other way at the same set of lights was a bright yellow, brand new Porsche, driven by a young woman of perhaps twenty two. Her hair was pale, almost white, her face was flawlessly beautiful, and her hands sat daintily on the wheel as she waited, as I was doing, for the lights to change. They changed, she drove north and I to the south, giving me one short moment to notice that the number plate on her Porsche was one of the early message-plates. In black caps on white it said ‘THANKS’. I burst out laughing. Thanks to the man, older and wealthier, who’d given her the car. Thanks. I drove through the city and down Saint Kilda Road to where I was playing my part in the creation of a new system. Thanks. I’d be out of it in a few months and I hardly knew what I felt about the career I’d built. Thanks. Had one of them got the better of the other, or had they made an equal exchange? It was an interesting question, but I knew I’d never know. I’d put a lot into my years of teaching; what had been my reward? Friends, yes. Memories of some constructive years spent in pursuit of worthwhile ideals? I could say yes to that. Many happy moments in and around the classroom with students I’d served well enough ... yes, yes ... Endless awful moments when students, other teachers or the college administration seemed to have gone out of their way to annoy me? Yes unfortunately, yes again. Did I have a sense of service? Yes, that was well-embedded. Was that reward enough? It was if I loved my fellow human beings enough to make that service into a willingly, happily given gift and ... after some hesitation, perhaps ... I could say yes to that too.

Were there any nos? I go back to the Porsche, the beautiful white-blonde, and the word THANKS. Education is a peculiar occupation. My mother had been a teacher and in taking up her former profession I think I had unconsciously accepted the way she attached her high standards of morality to work that can be pretty pedestrian. Not so for Mother, not so for me. The observant reader will probably have decided by now that my judgements of my colleagues were and still are fairly harsh. The rest of the world, the people who settle Porsche cars on desirable go-getters, would, I’m sure, have thought me pretty strange if they’d followed me around for a few days of teaching, and interacting with students, teachers and an often annoying administration. Strange because of the need that teaching imposes on those who practise it for purity, objectivity, endless altruism, selfless aspirations attached to those other things which any reasonable teacher needs - a good dramatic sense, a capacity to explain, a willingness to lead and that toughness which is prepared to force students to follow. One could go on for pages, listing the qualities a teacher needs, and then another teacher, of a different sort, would produce a different list of qualities, and the two teachers would have to agree that there are many ways of doing this job which is so difficult, and so intensive in the ways it tests those who follow it. Two teachers? We could have dozens, all drawing up lists, and we wouldn’t be able to bring the matter to an end. What makes a good teacher? My simple, probably silly, answer is the ability to bring about the learning of good lessons, of whatever sort they may be. This, as I have tried to show, doesn’t always take place in classrooms, but that’s where the public expects them to take place, so let us concentrate the last part of this book right there.

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3GH

In my early years at Preston I sometimes walk up to High Street if I have a spare hour, and sit in the back of the magistrate’s court. The cases depress me. The magistrates are impartial enough, and the police are impersonal, but the young men brought to face charges are so palpably in the wrong and confused that ‘justice’ can be swift – and scornful. The magistrates hit these young offenders hard, intending to frighten them so they don’t come back. It’s obvious to me that if petty criminals aren’t shown another road they’ll keep to the one they’re on. This means that their second sentence will be tougher than the first, and the third will be harder again. Justice! I have a class called 3GH one year, for English. They’re an interesting if maddening group. They’re a ferment of talk and restless interaction. They’re talking to each other flat out, all the time. They can’t concentrate. You pose a problem and it interests them for a moment, then they lose it. They start chattering to whoever’s a friend that day, close to them or on the other side of the room. They have no sense of themselves as a group, with a destiny, or perhaps they have, and they hope that ceaseless energy will block what’s coming over the horizon. I decide that the only way to steady them is to take them walking, observing, and then writing about what they’ve seen. I do this. I take them on many excursions – to a carpet factory, Preston cemetery, into the city. They like to do these things, though it doesn’t make them any more settled. As we move about, my eyes flicker like those of a prison warder; I’m counting. Everybody here? Anybody lost? I want them to ask themselves where they’ll fit in when their schooling’s behind them, and then to ask what they’ll need to hold themselves out of trouble. It would be nice if they could succeed at something but that might be too much to ask. They are hormonally over-active, so perhaps they’re a case for that form of education that suggests that males of a certain age should be let loose in the wild and forced to find out how to cope. They, on the other hand, find security of a sort in being together. I don’t lose anybody on our walks, though I’m fearful that I will. They’re interested in the cemetery. It affects them. They read the words on headstones and they rush about pointing out inscriptions to each other.

An incident occurs. We’ve been at the cemetery for an hour, and they’ve gathered in one corner, for no particular reason. They’re standing, although I don’t think they realise it, close to the tiny grave of a child who died at two years and eleven months. Set in the grave is a tile that used to hang on the boy’s bedroom door. He was, when he died, the exact age that my son is at the time of this excursion. I’m affected, therefore, and ask the boys to move away. They do so, affably enough, and then they see some quaint inscription that amuses them. They laugh. A woman who is standing outside the cemetery fence becomes enraged. She shrieks at them. They have no idea what she’s going on about. Neither have I. They stop laughing and look at her. She rages on. I step toward the fence, telling her I’m in charge of the group and asking what her concern is. She says she’s the mother of the child whose grave they’ve been laughing at. I assure her that their laughter has some other cause entirely. She doesn’t believe me but my intervention has at least stopped her from yelling at the boys, who are watching their teacher and this unbelievable woman. I appease the mother by telling her how affected I myself was by the grave, and I tell her the age of my own son – exactly the age her boy was when he died. This calms her a little, and she is mollified when I tell her that it’s time I took my group back to the school where they belong.

Teachers have sometimes to mouth the most awful lies. The boys don’t ‘belong’ at their school. That’s why I take them out. I get them to write about these excursions the following day, and they make an effort of sorts to say what they saw and felt. Oddly enough, I don’t remember any of them mentioning the angry mother in their accounts of the cemetery visit. I think this is because, before I get them to write, I explain to them why she was so distraught. She thought they were laughing at her son’s grave. I assure the boys that I assured the mother that this wasn’t so. I mention my own son’s age by way of explaining her feelings. They are unusually subdued on this point and, I think, they are satisfied that justice has been done on their behalf. She was wronging them, but their innocence has been asserted. They write, and their efforts are pathetic enough, but I count the expedition a success because for once they’ve been forced to think about something outside the strange, defensive construct which their social interaction – endlessly active and hellishly noisy – puts around them to protect them. The world which will sweep them apart, and use them brutally, has been kept at bay a little longer.

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The writing of this book:

I’ll start with what I had to say in the introduction:

In 1986 I published Play Together, Dark Blue Twenty, an evocation of Melbourne Grammar School in the years when I was a boy in blue: 1946-1951. Soon after, a colleague at Preston TAFE told me that he’d enjoyed the book, but what he was really waiting for was my recollections of my years at Preston. I told him he’d better not be in a hurry, because it had taken me more than thirty years to get sufficient distance between myself and my old school to be able to write about it. He chuckled and went away, thinking who knows what. His name was Mark Wilson and I’ve hardly seen him in the two decades since he put that request to me, and yet his interest, his request, has stayed with me. Mark, you are remembered!

I’m fairly sure that the book I’m now offering is not the one that Mark had in mind, and the truth is I’ve never had the faintest idea what sort of book would present itself when/if I ever got to writing about my years in education. In fact, as readers will see on the first page, the book had decided for itself that its subject was learning, and every time I tried to impose a little authorial insistence about it being about my ‘career’, such as it was, or the systems inside which the activities of learning take place, the book reimposed its own subjects: learning, students, teaching.

A word about names. I’ve used real names freely where I expect no offence to be taken, I’ve changed names when it seemed tactful to do so, and in a few cases I’ve simply forgotten the real names so I’ve invented new ones. There is, I think, a certain generality about the things I’m discussing: I’ve tried to use the specific in order to show the commonality of much that happened in the years and places I’m describing.

I’ve said in recent years that writers are at the mercy of their books, which are much more certain of what they want to be than are the writers who help them into the world. Hal Porter once called a collection of his stories A Bachelor’s Children, and bachelors, husbands, wives, and mothers will all tell you that many children come into the world knowing who and what they are better than those whose job it is to look after them. It is in that spirit that I give All the Way to Z to the world.

Now a few later thoughts about my methods and intentions:

Elsewhere on this website I’ve described the way in which my book Mapping the Paddocks came into being. Strange as it may seem, the writing of All the Way to Z came about in much the same way. I suppose I could have turned to my former colleagues, especially those who had worked with me at Preston TAFE, but for better or for worse, I didn’t; I used what I could find in the memories of those years when teaching had been my livelihood and my way of life. The incidents and personalities that presented themselves when I sat down to write were the incidents and personalities that created the character of the book. Many issues of burning significance to myself and some at least of my colleagues in those years paled into insignificance when I delved among my memories; why this should be so I cannot say, but I am by now quite used to the writer’s mind having ideas of its own about what needs to be said and what can be left out. Some highly valued colleagues slipped between the cracks of the writing process and although this hardly seems just to me, looking back, a longer and more exhaustive book would have been needed to do justice to them all and I didn’t want a long book about education: I wanted only to say a few things that might not otherwise get said, and after that I was content to hold my peace. Many people write about sport these days when sporting events, in my view, should be recalled by those who watched them, but shouldn’t take up pages of print. Paper is created by chopping down trees and by and large we shouldn’t do it unless we feel a great need to say something we believe shouldn’t be forgotten. I wanted my book on education to be brief, and tight, and I hope the reader will find it so.

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