AUE Column Dec 2016
My 84-year-old mother, who taught in Melbourne from the 60s through to the 80s, reckons that these days, school kids are too indulged and overstimulated. And she’s not speaking from the skewed benefit of hindsight because Mum’s been raising my late sister’s son since he was 15 months old. He’s seven now and in Grade 1.
“Every week there’s some kind of event or celebration, and every second week I get a note home asking for money for this fundraiser or that multicultural day or whatever.”
I tell Mum she sounds like a grumpy old woman, a Depression kid from migrant parents, stoic and frugal. She looked after them, as much as, maybe more than, they did her.
But Mum, surely things are better now than in your day when you and your little brother were at Fitzroy Primary. You know, when school excursions didn’t exist, when learning was by rote, and when shaming and fear were classroom management strategies.’
Clearly conditions have improved since Mum first started teaching in public education in her late 20s (she was a baby journalist for an Italian Communist rag in Sydney before that). Back then curriculums were less complex, varied and stimulating than what they are today.
‘Of course things are better today,” Mum pipes up. “When I went to school, the Aboriginal and migrant kids were lucky to make one day out of five a week and nobody sent notes home to the parents in those days.’
Mum’s on a roll. Always the journalist, providing background and context to a story’s still important. ‘It was tough for those teachers too with often 40 kids a class and lots of them struggling with the language. No ESL teachers in those days!
Since my sister died, Mum has devoted herself to her grandson’s rearing and education with enviable single-mindedness and energy. I wish my parenting were half as consistent.
But today after our usual morning walk around the Castlemaine Botanical Gardens, she’s irritated.
“It’s as if teachers are expected to be entertainers and festival directors as well as just teach, nowadays. I really don’t believe kids require a teacher’s constant attention and affirmation. A bit of benign neglect doesn’t hurt either, you know.”
“Yeah,” I say, “except that we know so much more these days about student engagement, multiple learning styles and authentic assessment. We have smaller class sizes and better teacher training so of course there’s going to be more going on at school all-round … more extra-curricular opportunities, more newsletters and forms to fill out for incursions and excursions to Sovereign Hill or Japan or wherever.”
“That’s my point. Japan! When I was at school, Japan was the enemy, not a bloody school excursion!”
“You want a coffee at that new place in town?” I suggest.
“No. Save your money. I’ll make us one at home.”
It’s been a long time between drinks for Winch. Her first book, Swallow the Air (2006), a semi-autobiographical novel about a Wurundjeri girl in search of her father, won many awards and catapulted the young Australian writer into the emerging-talent literary coterie. No pressure.
After the Carnage meets expectations. Here Winch continues to explore themes that coursed through her first book like white water: intergenerational grief, cross-culturalism, racism, family dysfunction, children in search of ‘‘lost’’ parents. If this is all sounding a bit badges-on-the-lapel, it is not. Winch can pack a punch and break your heart within a few pages.
She now lives in France and in these 11 short stories she moves farther afield into new geographical territory, her characters pivoting on a moment in life when past and future collide in personal crisis, causing them to make some kind of a shift, no matter how subtle.
In A Late Netting, a young man is working as a deckhand on a French couple’s boat, and they appear to be lost. Winch’s use of metaphor is striking: “If we had been drawn down a river, at least that knowing river would’ve taken us towards its mouth; a city might have invited us in and set us onto the certainty of a bank. Here, though, all those odds had fallen against us in a panic of horizon.’’
Stories vary in tone and style, and they can be funny. In Baby Island, a second-generation Chinese woman — ‘‘I was an amalgam: the union of my voice and face didn’t sit well with people” — is in China selling overpriced Australian education and mourning her childlessness and a recent break-up. We follow her down the empty streets of Guangzhou into a kind of surrealist baby-buying cafe.
‘‘Everywhere there were newly rubber-stamped babies, hundreds and hundreds of babies being quiet, screaming, crying, squirming, throwing food, giggling, staring blankly, rocking, rolling, crawling, climbing shoulders and booster chairs and the fabric of strollers. I pointed to an omelette.’’
In Easter, a brother is stationed in Paris on a Stanford journalism scholarship. His sister has come to visit him. It’s been nine years since they last saw one another, and as they wander around the city together, sibling intimacy re-surfaces, as do memories of childhood.
The power of memory to both comfort and disturb permeates these stories. Sometimes the memory of a moment in a character’s life is so vividly drawn you can just smell it.
I remember precisely being too young and riding the fair dodgem cars … with the night’s linger of boiled and fried meats, the warm wafts of powdered sugar on doughnut batter, even the damp smell of turned gravel underfoot, from night coming on the wet earth of a gullied town oval — each smell was rotated, propelled through the carnival; night from a flashing, jerking car.
Occasionally a story feels just a bit too abbreviated or there is an unnecessary data dump, but overall each is satisfyingly complete unto itself, with Winch’s prose supple and potent. At their best, these stories offer vivid insights into our complex humanity, pivoting on that moment when we realise things cannot continue as they were.
In Failure to Thrive, a young Nigerian student doing an internship at the UN is determined to break through the glass/class ceiling and get a foot in the door at Goldman Sachs. ‘‘They had their own entourage, those … rich kids from the European private schools. Did we all hate them? I think I hated them the most.’’
In the titular story After the Carnage, More, one of the collection’s finest, a man wakes up in a hospital corridor. There has been some kind of explosion. A terrorist attack? Where is his wife? Dazed and confused, the man summons images from his childhood in Lahore, his wife, his kids, their move to the US; snippets from the past collide with the present.
“That was the sound, at the restaurant, the sound of the car going into the pool — it was just like the sound of propane bombs on the cherry farm to scare the birds, birds hungry for ripe May cherries.’’ This is a layered, richly textured story about violence and hate and about a victim trying to understand it. ‘‘One can rationalize most things in life, except this — one cannot rationalize hate; hate is irrational.’’
The personal-is-political worldview flexes Winch’s considerable literary muscle. The stories in this book may be about some tough stuff but are never didactic or sentimental; Winch’s voice is more poet than prophet.
‘‘When I write,’’ she has said in an interview, ‘‘I dredge the gully of what I know best: what burnt me most, what wakes me in my sleep — the value of life.’’
Are you a Feminazi, Mum?
Incredibly revealing, the lines we’re prepared to transgress and trample, and the ones we’re not. Women are still totally fair game.
On YouTube, there’s an animation series called ‘Feminazi’. Have you heard of it? The episode #GlassCeiling scored over a million views. There are lots of other episodes: Feminazi Getting Owned. Feminazi Fail. Feminazi Gets Triggered. Feminazi gets Reckt.
Note the use of gaming language; predominantly the province of adolescent boys.
I scrolled through a few of these clips which tend to depict plump, bespectacled, trouser-wearing ‘feminazis’ raging away about their rights and gripes to some passive cartoon-bloke. Most of these clips are accompanied by a male voice-over pointing out how extreme and hilarious such women are, how hysterical and irrational.
When I hear my 14-year-old son guffawing from his room and then calling me in to watch one of these types of clips, what do I say?
“How did you find this misogynist crap? …. No, it’s not a joke, it is SEXIST. Don’t they teach you anything at that school of yours?”
I tell him that I’m a feminist, that he comes from a long line of feminists and doesn’t he realise, by the way, that feminism is about equality and equity between the sexes.
You know, things like equal pay and respectful treatment all-round.
“Well, who’d be against that?” he responds simply. “ Now can you get out of my room please?”
Here’s what I have to confront: sexism isn’t something that only exists amongst sociopathic, violent, shady men – it’s much more insidious than that. It’s often part of lovely, kind, open-minded boys and men in our own families, who would never think of themselves as anything other than supportive of equality. And yet there is this kind of disconnect that persists within the moral compass of many of them.
Hear it in the quiet chuckling between the fellas, enjoying Eddie Mcguire’s ‘joke’ about drowning his colleague Caroline Wilson, and hear it in the snorting laughter of my son and his friends watching Feminazi-type clips on Youtube.
See it in the plethora of sexually explicit material that covers billboards and magazines and the internet, including the vile Instagram account started up by a few Brighton Grammar students, featuring photos of girls as young as 11 (who had not consented).
The thing is, once upon a time, our culture would’ve belly-laughed at all manner of racist jokes which would now be seen as being utterly not OK. It’s incredibly revealing, the lines we’re prepared to transgress and trample, and the ones we’re not. Women are still totally fair game.
There are great, well-established programs working to engage students with issues around bullying, sexuality, racism, mental illness … and the roll-out of programs like Respectful Relationships Education gives me hope. One day, I’d love to see the history of feminism taught as a mandatory unit in history, alongside other key social justice movements like Aboriginal land rights and industrial rights. I’d love to see more schools have explicit value statements and mottos around equity, and see more English classes study feminist texts.
Helping young ones to become more self-aware is part of it too, and helping them understand the links between attitudes, language, objectification and violence against women – because we’re swimming against a mighty media current with some nasty little rips. Maybe then my son wouldn’t think that lambasting feminists on YouTube is so funny after all.
Review of Fine by Michelle Wright (The Australian 16.6.16)
A middle-aged woman named Delia has just been evicted for the fourteenth time. She takes refuge in a dump full of car wrecks and meets a ten year-old boy named Jay who lives on his own in the ute next door to Delia.
‘He tells her about his collection of rust and tells her he reckons that one day the whole excavator will have turned into crumbling leaves and will fit into his box. Delia says that everything will fit into a box if you wait long enough.’
In these thirty-three finely wrought short stories Michelle Wright demonstrates impressive control of the form, every story offering a powerful glimpse into a world via the juxtaposition of a character’s inner life with their outer circumstances.
Many of these stories are told from the point of view of a child or adolescent, an increasingly common literary device and perhaps a reflection of the burgeoning popularity of young adult fiction.
A child hides beneath his grandparents’ kitchen sink. He is eavesdropping on a conversation about his delinquent mother and nibbling on a family block of chocolate he should wait to share with his mother at her next visit.
‘They sit on the pouf…facing each other with their knees touching. Then Mummy puts one end of the row in her mouth and he puts the other end in his, and they let it melt square by square…’
Wright’s style is precise, lyrical and un-tricksy even if occasionally it can feel a little too restrained: as if the hand-break needs releasing to give the writing more room to move.
In a story set in the aftermath of the Sir Lankan Tsunami, Wright endows ordinary things with fresh significance.
‘Near a hotel in Hikkaduwa he picks out suitcases, plastic chairs, a pool umbrella like a javelin in the ground.’
On New Year’s Day a paperboy is up early to do his rounds.
‘As he hops on his bike and turns from the driveway out onto the footpath, he sees the coloured lights strung up under the new neighbour’s carport, still on and looking kind of pretty against the quiet blue sky.’
There are no big shots here. There are people who want new lives. Traumatised couples stumble amidst ruined marriages. Parents grieve lost children or worry about the ones they have. There is a twelve year-old girl who sets up a street stall selling her prize collection of fifty latest fashion sunglasses to help out with family finances. School kids brave the playground bully. A man working for the dole, rather than tell his childhood abuse story to the police confides in a cleaning lady. There is a prisoner who dreams of becoming an artist and a former champion boxer who ‘fourteen broken noses later returns to his home in Ceylon and begins a new career as a king coconut seller.’
All essentially good people in tough circumstances and all just doing the best they can.
It’s hard to write good people and make them plausible and interesting but Wright can. Her dialogue is true and her voice unsentimental and despite the prevalence of downbeat subjects these stories from the ‘get in get out and don’t linger ‘school of story telling, are full of compassion.
Invariably they begin in medias res – no set up or preamble – so the reader fills in the backstory, absorbs the subtext and dives straight into the action. And there’s the cracker opening line to hook the reader in from the get go.
‘When she has burnt toast for breakfast, there’s a trace left on her fingers that smells like cigarettes.’
A woman is studying applied linguistics and her father has a PhD in Middle English. They shared a love of language.
‘My father is dead. My dad is dead. I decide I need to hear the words pronounced, to accept the fact of them and give them voice. Already the words my father spoke are losing shape.’
Even if sometimes Wright’s love of a good metaphor is overstated, themes are gracefully abstracted from central metaphors and minimal plots.
When a woman goes for a swim in the ocean for the first time since her husband’s death, Wright describes the natural world with its power to destroy and to reassure.
‘She turns and looks back out at the water. It’s calm now, but grey and sullen, hungover from its rage… But she knows it’s only physics, just pressures and speeds, energy and friction. And the human body in all that. Her body.’
Crucially these stories have a sense of something unravelling or unfolding so that the reader wants to keep on reading to find out what happens next and maybe, even, to understand why.
‘I read for pleasure,’ wrote Margaret Atwood, ‘and that is the moment at which I learn most. Subliminal learning.’
Cause You Gotta Have Friends
(June AEU Column)
Until Bette Midler’s Trash and Flash toured Australia in the late 70s, I was a live concert virgin. But that night as I sat with my best friend in the second back row of The Palais Theatre I came of age.
Middler might have been barely discernible as a beached mermaid, zooming on and off stage in a motorized wheelchair, but my friend’s and my mutual excitement moved between us like an energy circuit.
‘Cause you gotta have friends/that’s right/ friends, friends.’
Later when we took the tram home we were so hyped up we missed our stop.
These are the four things I remember from my six years at secondary school:
- My friends
- My drama teacher
- My first boyfriend
- My friends
In writer Vivian Gornick’s recent collection of essays, The Odd Women in the City she describes friends as ‘Those with whom we can be our best selves.’ Maybe. Sometimes friends fulfill other functions other than making us look our best.
Do today’s adolescents do friendship differently in a world of hyper connectivity, virtual intimacy and Facebook de-friendings?
Well they do and they don’t. Sure friendship is mediated and arguably skewed via technologies but who am I to say that my son’s friendships are any less real or by extension, of less value than mine were?
The adolescents I know seem to get just as passionate and engrossed, hurt and infuriated by the seismic shifts within their friendship universe as we did.
The adolescents I teach and the ones that sometimes hang out at our house, are just as uncommunicative with adults and hyper relational amongst themselves as we were.
I watch my son being excluded and feel his inarticulate hurt. I hear my son’s voice heighten when he is with a friend and I feel all’s right in the world
Unlike Muhammad Ali’s famous remark that ‘Friendship is the hardest thing in the world to explain and not something you learn in school.’ making, cultivating and losing friendship is a significant part of the school’s ‘hidden curriculum’. It is there amidst the subterranean social hurly burly that kids learn the lessons of friendship – and we all know they are often the hard ones because navigating friendship is a bloody minefield even for kids.
I am careful not to be too obvious when I advise my adolescent son in matters of friendship. For example, when he told me that his friends said he is sometimes too loud, I just stopped stock-still and quoted Alice Walker at him. ‘No person is your friend who demands your silence, or denies your right to grow.’ My son looked at me and said that I was weird and embarrassing.
Maybe next time I should go for something more relatable because I did used to read the Pooh books to him when he was young and he still let me.
“Piglet sidled up to Pooh from behind.
“Pooh!” he whispered.
“Nothing,” said Piglet, taking Pooh’s paw. “I just wanted to be sure of you.”
My new boyfriend is my oldest friend. We met when we were in high school.
The friend I went to see Bette Middler with is picking me up later to go to some party. ‘Come on’, she urged. ‘It’ never too late to make new friends.’
Screen Time all the Time
(ABC Radio National)
My Year-8 son gets home, issues a barely perceptible Hi Mum, hurls his ginormous school bag to the floor, yanks open the fridge for something edible, chucks off his school shoes, (laces still tied), exchanges the top half of his uniform with a back to front tee-shirt and, in this one ritualistic adolescence dance, somehow manages to take a gulp of water from the kitchen tap. And all the while maneuvering his iPad from hand to hand, couch to chair to kitchen table, where he does his homework, on, yes, you guessed it, the iPad.
Half an hour later my year-8 son moves, with the clumsy stealth of a Labrador to his room, where the ipad proceeds to function as a virtual mall. He plays games, chats with friends, shares 10-most lists, makes videos of himself narrating games and browses PewDiePie on YouTube.
What an intrepid and compact little traveller the ipad is: it’s on the train to school, it’s in the classroom, it’s in the schoolyard and then it’s back on the bus at the end of the day. The ipad may look like an innovative teaching tool, a very ‘moving forward’ education initiative, but the thing comes home every night after school for a sleepover as well!
Research surfacing now about the rise and rise of in-class technologies across the private and public spectrum, (except maybe within those non-mainstream schools and I don’t like the word ‘mainstream, it’s very us and them, but you know what I mean) indicates that the learning and teaching efficacies of such technologies are dubious at best.
Don’t get me wrong. I love technology. I procrastinated writing this column and watched the final season of The Good Wife on my laptop instead.
But I remain unconvinced that students do any better at school or function any better all-round, with an iPad at hand. And I’m a teacher and a parent.
Now when I ask kids to open their books at the start of a class, they open their laptops instead. Now it’s a landscape of small silver squares unfurling before me, the students’ heads all lowered in homage to the screen.
Having conducted exhaustive anecdotal research with other parents – who all feel they are failing somehow in not being able to control their kids’ screen use adequately – we all agree that the situation is getting out of control.
Someone has suggested I put my son on a ‘technology fast’ because apparently it reverses much of the physiological dysfunction produced by daily screen time. It’s probably too late for me to go cold turkey but his frontal lobes aren’t even switched on yet. But how can my son go on a fast when he has to go to school where his drug of choice is mandatory?
In Reset Your Child’s Brain, American psychiatrist, Victoria L. Dunkley explores six major effects of screen-time on the developing nervous system:
- Disrupts sleep and desynchronizes the body clock. Check
- Desensitizes the brain’s reward system. Probably.
- Produces a light-at-night. Check.
- Induces stress reactions. Absolutely.
- Overloads the sensory system, fractures attention and depletes mental reserves. Um…
- Reduces physical activity levels and exposure to “green time.” No comment.
And this, from Australian adolescent psychologist Andrew Fuller:
‘Addicts crave things. A computer-addicted teen when denied total access will throw every trick in the book at you. It will take some hard headed parenting for teens to turn off their digital identity and turn on themselves instead. Don’t expect much change in a month and expect no gratitude.’
What did I do when I was fourteen that got my mum so exasperated she’d say things like: Go outside and play with the hose. And if you continue to watch so much junk on T.V. or talk on the phone to friends you’ve spent the whole day with at school already, you’ll end up with square eyes and a dummy who’ll never be able to get a decent job later in life.
Are things harder for adolescents these days? Is their world more distracting, complex, and spirit sucking than mine was in the 70s? Yes.
One of my son’ teachers recently emailed me this:
‘To concentrate more in class I would suggest that he put his iPad on my desk so that he won’t be tempted to use it.’
If iPads were not an integral part of his school’s culture, then he would not have to put anything on his teacher’s desk except for maybe an apple.
Apparently in one of those Scandinavian countries whose education system we wish we had because it’s more equitable, the salaries higher and the teachers more respected and the teacher graduates are more high achieving, they are pulling students’ personal devices out of the classroom.
I don’t know… I don’t have the answers…I can’t finish this column right now. I’ll get back to it as soon as I update my Facebook status from single to currently in a hyper-stimulating relationship with my Smart Phone.
Our Magic Hour by Jennifer Down
Review (The Age)
After her best friend Katy’s death, Audrey’s characteristic self-possession begins to unravel and ‘When the grief came, it was primitive and crippling.’
Jennifer Down’s impressive first novel – shortlisted for the 2014 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript – takes place during the yearlong aftermath of Katy’s suicide.
A kind of twenty-something Bildungsroman, Audrey’s journey charts her progression from emotional paralysis to psychological free-fall and, finally, to a less self-punishing equanimity.
As Audrey travels throughout the city, her observations of the landscape are now, since Katy’s death, redolent with significance.
‘She watched the smeary droplets on the windscreen. The car inched into the freeway. The rainbow signs above the factories read OUR MAGIC HOUR. Audrey felt sick.’
Audrey lives with her boyfriend Nick in inner city Melbourne. They listen to bands in pubs and hang out at messy-boozy parties. Have sex. Talk work. Audrey is a child protection worker, Nick a paramedic. Before the capsizing impact of Katy’s suicide, their relationship looks an easy-loving and companionable one.
There are some striking breathlessly written montages of Audrey’s family – her late abusive father, her mentally ill mother, her troubled adolescent bother, all provide added texture and depth while the novel ‘s fluidity of prose and rhythm keep the narrative afloat as it moves elegantly between the lyrical: ‘It was getting so the warmth dropped out of the days quicker, and the sun was thin.’ To the colloquial: ‘I’m fucked,’ Emy announced cheerfully. She kicked off her knickers. ‘I’m just the safe side of a really lavish vomit.’
The book does however pull a few punches. As to why Katy killed herself, we never really know. The extent of Audrey’s mother’s mental illness, we are never really sure. Audrey’s brother Nick seems to go from drug dependent screw up to motivated arts student no problem. And the apparent awfulness of Audrey and Nick’s break up remains cloudy.
But Down’s writing about grief is insightful. ‘She felt such a complete and terrible sorrow that she curled into bed before dusk and tried to find a new space between waking and dreaming.’
Grief, past and present, is the story’s engine and it does run out of puff about two thirds in. But when it feels like something more needs to happen, it picks up speed again and the vividness of it prose and authenticity of its central character get it all moving.
Down’s clear and confident voice can play originally with language: ‘soft-serve summers’ and ‘clumsy grief’ and scenes with Audrey’s French mother with her idiosyncratic turns of phrase evoke the bi-lingual soundscape of childhood: Audrey recalls of her parents: ‘They’d be talking their bastard talk, lightning French and English. ‘… the kind of love that Audrey had no words for in either language.’
When Nick asks, one night in bed, what Audrey’s reading, she replies: ‘They’re stories about very small things.’
Down’s novel is a story about very small things, that all add up to very big things about, grief and friendship, family and illness, love and death. ‘…the smell of him on her hands, his legs heavy between hers, the sepulchral bed, the turned earth of the sheets.’
An eloquent debut.
When I was at high school I didn’t know any lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex or sexually fluid people. It’s not as if we weren’t wrestling with confounding and emerging sexual identities; it was just that back in the 70s, we knew little to nothing of such things.
I mean we knew, but we didn’t know. There was always the intimation or suggestion of sexual difference but other than a smattering of miserable and misfired pejoratives, we had no educationally sanctioned language or learning to help us understand or speak about differing sexual orientations.
We didn’t have anti-bullying policies or education like most schools do today. We didn’t have much in the way of self-development or emotional intelligence programs. Sex Ed was a tittering cacophony of boring anatomical cross-sections and euphemisms.
Today, most of us understand something of the real pressures faced by LGBTI students, who are currently the targets of an ideologically-driven campaign against who they are, and against the anti-bullying programs that have been set up to protect them.
Back then, we didn’t have anything like Safe Schools Coalition running programs that educated students about sexual and gender diversity, and educated staff about policies to promote inclusion and safety. Some of us came out of the system seemingly unscathed; others were not so fortunate.
Adolescents are often given bad press. They are self-focused and selfish. Their hormones are in overdrive and their brains are under renovation. They have no respect, common sense or empathy. The boys are smelly, the girls are judgmental and we adults just have to help them and put up with them while they endure this pimply, sexually charged, competitive and excruciatingly self-conscious stage of their lives.
But adolescents are not all like this. Adolescents are as diverse and dynamic as our sexualities. I love them. I have taught them for years. I own one. He is annoying and messy, forgetful and volatile, potty mouthed, screen addicted, funny, sweet, vulnerable, rude, embarrassed by his parents and by his own emerging self-ness.
In his book Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain, Daniel J. Siegel writes:
“The adolescent period of life is in reality the one with the most power for courage and creativity. Life is on fire when we hit our teens. And these changes are not something to avoid or just get through, but to encourage … [There is a] need to focus on the positive essence of this period of life for adolescents and for adults.”
Last week I picked my Year 8 son up from school – something I avoid doing because I’m meant to making him more independent – and in the car he says apropos nothing:
“You know that Grant is bisexual and that Ally and Lisa are together, as in girlfriend and girlfriend?’
“No I didn’t know that,” I said, trying to keep my eyes on the road.
“And Jason’s a kind of girly boy.”
“Oh, okay. And what about you?” I ask him.
“Oh I am sooo heterosexual because I sooo like girls. But most of my friends are all other kinds of other stuff. Could you change the station, this music is boring?”
(first published in March AEU mag)