Watching Brief

Julian Burnside


I did not enjoy my school days. This is a pity, because by any standards I received a first-rate education. While not brilliant, I was not a fool. I was a receptive student, eager to please teachers, no matter what their personal foibles and failings (and they covered the full range of human shortcomings). I was a late developer, which probably made me seem less promising material than they would have wished.

The problem was that, from first to last, a lot of it seemed pointless. Although I’d been lucky enough to be sent to Melbourne Grammar, nothing I learned seemed to connect with any part of the real world as I understood it or could imagine it. No one, to my recollection, did anything much to help bridge the gap between lessons and life — not even in Biology classes, which were full of all mitochondria and frogs and cereal grains. I never managed to put that learning to use; nor the Hittites and Sumerians I read about in Ancient History.

Heading the list of unnecessary subjects was Maths. It was the only subject in which I needed remedial tutoring, if I was to escape the ignominy of failing. Maths and I decided to part company without recrimination in Year Ten, and it did not seem too soon, if a more bitter divorce was to be avoided. It was not until my second year of university, when I stumbled across the wonderful Martin Gardner’s column in Scientific American, that I met up with Maths again, and discovered that we had a lot in common after all. We are now friends, but childless.

My memories of school days are mostly bleak, although I must surely have enjoyed myself enough of the time if I did not go mad. The teachers were a predictable mix for an expensive private school: former Melbourne Grammar students themselves, many of them, and Melbourne University graduates. Some had been chosen for their excellent academic qualifications; some for their hero-status as noted sportsmen with adequate degrees; some were there to maintain their isolation from the real world. A couple had never, it seems, broken away from the tightly bound world the school represented and tried to perpetuate—Goodbye Mr Chips and The Browning Version with an Austbridge accent. All of them were good teachers; some of them, brilliant.

One of them had a disconcerting habit, as he paced between the desks, of approaching from behind first stroking, then clenching, our adolescent thighs. I found this puzzling and also slightly painful. He took me to my first Shakespeare play. Although I was neither offended nor interested when he stroked my leg for longer than could be explained, he still marked my papers fairly and without reprisal. He was a cultivated, harmless man, trapped inside a web of curious obsessions—shoelaces, pronunciation, schoolboys’ legs. If he were alive today and teaching, he would be torn limb-from-limb by the tabloid press. I am glad his peccadillos were never found out: exposure would have destroyed him. As it is, he lived with his mother, taught generations of students, fondled vast numbers of puzzled schoolboys’ legs, and never, so far as I know, did anything more. He was, above all, a fine teacher.

Another teacher was the unwitting vehicle for a lesson that haunted me for a long time. He seemed extraordinarily ancient, his voice croaked from the creased parchment of a withered face as he tried to induce the idea of algebra in us. His classroom had tables rather than desks. Each table accommodated two students. Underneath, the table-legs were braced together by a cross-bar which was about 15 centimetres above the floor. By placing your feet under the cross- bar and lifting slightly, it was easy to make the table lift a couple of centimetres. When the whole class did this, it gave the impression that the classroom was floating drunkenly. It seemed like harmless fun until it provoked in the teacher some kind of seizure. The lesson ended abruptly, and we did not see him again for a long time. It later emerged that he was due to go on long-service leave and was just plain sick of us on his last day. But for months I thought I had personally, individually caused his death. I was in a state of anguish, unable to confess my crime or investigate its consequences.

In the way of driven misfits and late developers, I discovered only in my last couple of years at school that I was not the plodder that I, and popular opinion, had always assumed. My self-esteem, minimal at best, was briefly improved when I won five prizes and two scholarships in my matriculation year. It was a day of great happiness, but was irretrievably marred when sport intruded.

My relationship with sport had always been uneasy. The school held some sports in high esteem. In those days at Melbourne Grammar three sports ruled: football, cricket, and rowing. To be good in any of those sports was a passport to popularity, to excel at them was to achieve the status of an Olympian god. Unfortunately I was always attracted to ‘lesser sports’. A born contrarian perhaps, but not wilful. I was a strong swimmer and an accomplished diver. I had been a school champion in both sports for years, and played rugby in the first fifteen.

On my last day at school, when the glittering prizes were being strewn among the chosen, I was awarded colours in each of my sports. But I was awarded only second colours, because they were only second-colour sports. I still remember the stinging injustice of it, that a good footballer received the ultimate accolade of first colours for playing a season for the school; yet after representing the school for years as a swimmer, and in diving and rugby, I got second best.

If I were to speculate on the origin of my concern about justice, I would settle for that day. Even though it has faded in vividness, and has ceased to hold any fear or pain for me, I still think of it with a clinical detachment and recognise that trivial events can have long consequences.

Watching Brief Julian Burnside