AEU Australian Education Union Column

Teaching at TAFE forced me out of my comfort zone and into the uncomfortable world of all-things, grotesque and hilariously implausible.

After seven years of teaching creative writing at TAFE I became a reluctant expert on zombies. Even though my young students were encouraged to read literature other than genre fiction it remained hard, initially, to get them to write about anything beyond the speculative, surreal or plain scary.

During workshop after workshop – this is where students get to read their writing and then receive ‘constructive’ feedback from class colleagues and bemused tutor – I was presented with a smorgasbord of foreign delicacies such as: sexually ravenous vampires; perambulatory zombies with a penchant for small children; alien monsters posing as benevolent maternal figures and lesbian cyborgs with anger issues.

My Certificate 4 students were a magnificent and motley crew of the young, the adult and the not so young. From kids straight out of Year 12 or VCAL, to mothers wanting to return to the work force and needing to retrain – these forty-something women often served as surrogate mothers to the more spiritually wayward younger students, and were people for whom being a writer had been a dream kept on hold for years – to elderly gentlemen and gentlewomen whose initial know-it-all-ness belied a poignant fear of failure.

But by the end of semester the sixty-five year old grandfather and former IT consultant’s hard-earned resistance had transformed into a newfound pride in the discovery that 1. He could write. And 2. That being in class again after forty years was a beautiful thing.

I just looked up the definition of motley crew and apparently ‘Archetypical instances of the “motley crew” overcoming adversity are commonly found in fantasy and science fiction.’ Perfect.

The 19-year-olds made up the bulk of a class, with the middle-aged women (and occasionally men) and the hexagenarians in the minority. And ever since those supremely dumb funding cuts to TAFE and the attendant rise in fees, mature age enrolments have dropped considerably.

Needless to say I was not the only one in for a fast track course in lesbian cyborg short fiction, the other ‘olds’ amongst us were similarly flummoxed while we continued to do our grown-up best to respond helpfully to the latest 1200 words of blood, sex and chaotically constructed nihilism.

‘Well you have created a strong sense of tension in your story and the central vampire protagonist is vividly described.’

‘Awesome. Thanks.’

‘Although I don’t really understand why her eyes change colour or why she needs to eat her lover’s liver?’

It’s tough to create an alternative world in fewer than 2000 words but these young students who’d survived on a high fat diet of fantasy and futurism since they were twelve, did come to learn how to write and read outside their comfort zones.    And I did too. Did you know that the word zombies first appeared in a 1929 novel, the year the stock market crashed and the Great Depression started?

Carousing with Oedipus (ABC Radio)

In the last twelve months my son has changed. A year ago he would grab my hand faux-casual-like and tell me stuff unbidden. Fifty-two weeks ago he answered my questions with a complete sentence. Today on the brink of thirteen he regards me as an embarrassment and tells me to stop talking so loudly in the street. Currently carousing with Oedipus my son is trying to kill me off.

Occasionally he will look directly at me like when I ask if he has lost his PE uniform again or if he has the change from the two pairs of psychedelic skate socks he just bought.

Other times we play this little game where he chases me around the house and when he catches me – and he always does –maneuvers me to the ground and looks into my eyes and says,

‘Gotcha Mum!’

What does he see I wonder?

His nose is like a man’s nose now and the expression in his green eyes is new- amused, flirtatious, defiant.

He slumps past me in the hallway examining the lines in the floorboards. He trudges towards the train station, his heavy school bag slung across his almost-manly shoulders. His head is in a book. His focus is on a screen. He stares at his body side on in a mirror. He is chatting online to friends. When he sleeps he is longer than the bed now and when he mumbles goodnight from under the covers, he presses his body up against the wall like he is trying to merge with its stony coolness.

These days I am an embarrassment. My top is too low and my hair is too frizzy. My lips are too red and what’s for dinner. He is becoming a man, that’s for sure.

I am going to do some teaching at his school next term and he tells me: ‘Mum, don’t be too strict or too friendly. Just be normal, okay.’

If he hears me singing along with Bob Dylan he asks me not to, so I lower my voice and whisper-sing: she aches just like a woman but she breaks just like a little girl.

‘I wish I had a brother,’ he laments, when I drag him home from his best friend’s house after an entire weekend living in someone else’s bigger, noisier and ‘funner’ family.

‘I wish I could live there,’ he says, staring out of the passenger seat window.

‘Well you can’t, I say. ‘You already have a home. And by the way, the only way you will ever have a brother is if I get involved with some man who’s got kids.’

‘So why can’t you then?’ he says, making faces in the side mirror now. ‘How come Dad’s got someone and you don’t?’

My almost 13-year-old son wants me to do online dating but I tell him that I tried it once and hated it.

‘It’s horrible. It’s not real.’

‘Nothing’s real’, he says. He is not being philosophical or clever; he is just of that generation who experience the world virtually, so it’s no big deal.

My son is right of course. I mean he is right in wanting his mother to find another man apart from him. He is right in trying, however ambivalently, to kill me off, figuratively speaking, because lately my maternal presence is just too big for him. I am needy and he knows it. He loves me but he hates me too. He wants me available but invisible. He needs me reliable, loving but shtum. He likes me to keep my distance but to acknowledge his every want.

Maybe these days what he needs is different to what I think he needs. The best times are when he is doing his thing and I am doing mine but we are under the same roof and only calling distance apart.

‘You want a smoothie?’

‘Yeah.’

‘What are you doing? You need some help? You know I used to teach Year 7 English.’

‘No, I’m fine Mum.’

‘What are you reading this term?

‘I don’t know.’

Last try. ‘I hope you’re not playing computer games?’

‘I’m doing English revision.’

Revision? I didn’t know how to revise until I was twenty-eight and in my third go at university. The grammar of my son’s and my relationship has changed. I use questions and imperatives while he employs monosyllables and closed statements.

I am trying to teach him to ask other people about what they do and how their day’s been because it’s polite and empathetic.

‘I’m marking stories.’ I call.

Nothing.

‘You want to read one a first year student has written about zombies?’

‘Yeah, okay.’ He comes out of his room and I meet him halfway at the entrance to our kitchen. I have been working at the kitchen table. I have a study and a desk but it’s friendlier in the kitchen.

I am standing in front of him now. He is almost a head taller than I am and for a flicker of a moment I see him at forty.

‘So where’s the story?’ he asks. ‘Are they vampires or zombies, you get them mixed up remember?’

‘Vampires. I think.’

He reads the first page, grins and then hands it back to me.

‘It’s not that bad. You just don’t get it,’ he says. ‘We got any of that good bread, not the one with all the seeds?’

He recently got dual Australian-German citizenship so now he’s got another identity I can’t know. He scares me a bit. He is so other. He has become an exotic blonde with whom I cannot speak and for whom I can never do or be enough.

‘Hey Mum!’ he calls from his room.

‘Yes.’

‘Come here.’

‘What is it?’ I am at his door. He’s got his iPad in one hand and a sheet of questions in the other. He’s still on the English revision.

‘What’s character development?’ he asks.

I sit down next to him. Now this is something I can help him with.