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:

  1. My friends
  2. My drama teacher
  3. My first boyfriend
  4. 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.

“Yes, Piglet?”

“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:

  1. Disrupts sleep and desynchronizes the body clock. Check
  2. Desensitizes the brain’s reward system. Probably.
  3. Produces a light-at-night. Check.
  4. Induces stress reactions. Absolutely.
  5. Overloads the sensory system, fractures attention and depletes mental reserves. Um…
  6. 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.’

 

Hello?

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Keeping the Kids on the Straight & Narrow

 

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)

 

 

AUE Column February

Rage against the machine

My Year 8 son doesn’t know why he has to go to school. ‘All we do is sit around all day and do boring stuff. Why?’

In a recent article in the Griffith Review, ‘Teaching Australia’, GJ Stroud writes of having to flee his vocation. ‘I was burnt out because successive Australian governments – both left and right – have locked Australian education into the original model of schooling first established during the industrial revolution learn-to-work model, now complete with ongoing mandatory assessment of our student’s likely productivity and economic potential.’

What do I say to my son? Tell him that he has to go to school because we all have to do things we don’t particularly like in life? Shall I say that I understand school can be hard, but it will get better? Or perhaps, that I liked school so why doesn’t he? (But then, I was one of those irritatingly gregarious kids so into drama that school for me was a holiday away from the stress of home.)

Sometimes when I’m teaching I think – no wonder kids are so tired and disconsolate at the end of the day. School can be so regimented and prescriptive, so madly standardised and vocationally-orientated. So disproportionately about knowledge rather than imagination. Our fundamental school structure is still so stuck in the industrial revolution model that no amount of iPads and co-curriculum activities can change it. All work and too little play makes kids reluctant to go every day.

‘Teaching – good teaching,’ writes GL Stroud, ‘is both a science and an art.’ Plenty of our teachers are artists and scientists but it’s getting tougher for them to keep it up.

I am a casual relief teacher these days, so I can fly in and fly out, all energy, engagement and novelty, no long-term commitment. I’m like a mistress – the students only get me at my prettiest. It’s far tougher to maintain the long haul, day-in, day-out teaching load, and remain inspiring. And with this burgeoning culture of standards and accountability, it’s just getting tougher.

There are, of course, incredible educators out there who find ways to maintain their zest and energy; but sometimes I get the sense that it’s in spite of the system, not because of it. For me, what Gonski funding represents is hope – for the students, yes, but for the teachers as well. Already we’re hearing stories of how, in places where Gonski funding is actually getting to schools, it’s resulting in happier, calmer students who are finally getting the one-on-one tuition they need. And it’s helping boost the morale of teachers who feel like the system is finally supporting them to bring about the kinds of heartbreakingly wonderful learning moments that spurred them into the profession in the first place.

Stroud again: ‘Quality teaching isn’t borne of tiered ‘professional standards’. It cannot be reduced to a formula or discrete parts. It cannot be compartmentalised into boxes and ‘checked off’.’

So what do I say to my son? I tell him that I understand how he feels.

 

 

 

 

Christmas

I’ve been re-watching Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing.

It’s Christmas Eve and The White House is elegantly stuffed with giant baubles, tinsel and carol singers, and President Bartlett is preparing to give a speech about forgiveness, tolerance and generosity at this time of year. But true to this series’ interest in the painful personal stuff as well as the idealised intricacies of good governance, Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman is diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress after having been shot by a loon gunmen a couple of episodes back.

I cannot stop watching this series. I am more interested in this series with its fast and brilliant walk-and-talk than anything else in the world. But this ep. gets me thinking about Christmas, about celebration in the face of trauma and how we grapple with grief at this time of year.

My friend told me this week that she doesn’t ‘do’ Christmas. What does that mean? I just don’t do it, she said. I haven’t done it in years. It’s just too hard you know, with the family stuff, the money, all the bullshit.

My friend does not ‘do’ Christmas anymore because it’s too painful. So what do you do on the day? I asked her. She laughed and said, what do you mean what do I do? I don’t have to do anything, that’s the point.

I get it.

I reckon I’d prefer to sit in front of the next 4 seasons of The West Wing until Christmas was done and dusted for the year. I’d eat and drink nice things while doing it, make some calls maybe, and I’m sure the odd family member or friend would join me at some stage during this, my day of the slaughter of the sacred cow of Christmas.

But I will do Christmas lunch at my place again this year for the sake of the kids and because it’s going to be a more open door affair this year. The more the merrier and diverse, the less the lonely and curmudgeon I say. As long as I promise not to get drunk and cry before 11am, like last year.

Plenty of people dread this time of year because it shines a light on the hard stuff and puts a high flame under what’s absent.

This Christmas we will again light a candle for my sister and set an empty chair at the table for the miserable, persecuted, neglected, absent or sick. You know, kind of like how they do at writers festivals when there is always that empty chair on the stage symbolizing the universal incarcerated writer in some repressive regime.

If you have a job you are real busy trying to get everything done at this time of year. If you have a job that goes on paying you during the Christmas holiday you are probably looking forward to taking some time out, having a well-earned break, winding down, doing nothing except sprout idiomatic chill-out clichés whilst lying prostate on a lilo in a pool somewhere. You will probably get bored after a week.

Plenty of us don’t have a permanent income though, and plenty others no income at all. Plenty don’t have family they want to be with or who’ll have them.

This time of year can really suck when you are caught up in the orgy of expectation and hype.

For the last few weeks I have been teaching Homer’s ‘The Iliad’ to my Classics class and Phillip K. Dick’s ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep’ in Literature. I asked my students what they thought of Christmas: did they look forward to it, what did it mean to them etc. The Classicists said that this time of year was cool because there were so many ancient myths all colliding with their contemporary incarnations it’s fun to try and make sense of it all.

The Dystopians said that Christmas is a desperate clinging to an anachronistic convention and that that no amount of cranberry jelly or gift giving can wrap up this increasingly warm and messed up planet of ours and make it look pretty.

Sorrow, personal or global, is particularly hard at Christmas.

Every Christmas since my sister’s death has felt kind of wrong. It is the fifth one without her this year. We will light a candle for her; we will lay a plate for her. We will pay extra attention to her little boy.

And after the day, and after the friends and the family all leave, I will watch Season 5 of The West Wing and eat all the leftovers. It doesn’t feel right to keep the party going for too long.

When a terrorist bomb wipes out a number of lives, in The West Wing, Martin Sheen, who plays the American President gives another one of his brilliantly written speeches and he says that ‘The streets of heaven are too full of angels tonight’.
It’s a nice line. Comforting. Even if you don’t really believe in angels.

(This piece was first published on ABC Radio National in Dec 2015)

AEU December Column

 

In this, our ‘culture of distraction’, many of us are bingeing on good and bad junk. I am forever on my son’s case about his screen addiction but perhaps I’m not much better?

 

‘Binge Viewing’ has became a part of the current lexicon so now I’m able to confidently self-identify as a member of this new club.

 

Some of us just have addictive personalities apparently, so shed one addiction, say, over-eating, alcohol or collecting blue bottle tops, and it figures that brain wiring like mine is going to need to re-fill those neural pathways with some new dopamine drenched activity.

 

So my latest binge of choice is a Danish series called ‘Rita’, that revolves around a Bolshie, opinionated, smart, dedicated and unconventional secondary school teacher and sole parent named Rita.

 

I could not stop watching ‘Rita’ until I’d finished the entire Family Block of three seasons! She teaches literature. Like me. She is brazen, Amazonian and crazy brave. Not so much like me, except for the crazy part maybe.

 

She and the rest of her less extrovert colleagues battle the vagaries of under funding, challenging students and work place conflict; the story had me hooked from the opening credits.

 

But while the writing is witty and fast and the characters beautifully acted, the plots are often implausible.

 

As if a teacher would get away with having her whole literature class back to her house for pizza and casual tuition. As if a teacher would care so much about a student that she’d put her job on the line. As if a teacher would have such a dysfunctional personal life and still be inspiring, compassionate and rigorous in the classroom.

As if.

 

When I was a student at a good and ordinary state high school in the 70s, who we my hero-teachers? I sure didn’t have a sexy, smart muckraker like Rita – but you know those Danish – but I did have a special literature teacher– Mr. Owen – and a fine drama teacher – Miss McIlwraith – who made life at school memorable for all the right reasons. You know the type of teacher? Maybe you are one of them and you just don’t know it?

 

But in primary school I had a memorable teacher for all the wrong reasons. One day she pinned a little piece of paper on a fellow student’s cardigan that said, ‘DON’T TOUCH ME. I’M DIRTY. The girl had sworn or something. Then this teacher had given me a cake of soap and instructed me to hand it to the girl so she could wash her mouth out. I refused and ran home to tell Mum who got that teacher sacked. Ah, those were the days…

 

Sure I remember those teachers that made us kids’ lives hell but let’s end on a positive.

 

Great teachers are everywhere. They may not all be as overtly extraordinary or highly visible as our radical Rita, but they are out there. I meet them every day and so does my son.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

October AUE Column

In the old days, school canteens sold big cream buns spurting ruby-red jam and kids used to stuff long white bread rolls with Twisties or chips for lunch.

Mum made my lunch every night before school right up until I finished HSC.  But I did get 50cents every Friday to buy my lunch at the canteen and boy, did I knock myself out on those cream buns.

It’s not healthy, smart or PC for schools to sell junk food these days but some things, like heartbreak and wanting to fit in, never change.

I first got dumped in Year 8.

When did he do it?’ asked my best friend in Science Period 4.

‘Lunch time’, I said.

‘Spewin,’ she said.

I was an arty-surfie-type, although such nomenclatures weren’t always straightforward. Sometimes the mean, cool girls were just clever, unhappy girls in-hiding, and girls like me into drama and International Women’s Day were the ones binge drinking on weekends and fooling around with boys. There was dope too, but I preferred the Styvos I’d occasionally steal from Mum.

The second time I got dumped it broke my adolescent heart into so many miserable shards; I’m still trying to recover the pieces. He was a ‘skatie’, the asphalt equivalent of a ‘surfie’, and his 16-year-old insouciance was confusing.

Before social networking, texting, sexting, on-line porn and mandatory bike helmets, Livin’ in the 70s was just an outer suburb of Melbourne, not a hyper-connected global village like today.

When Elvis died and Gough was sacked, our mobiles didn’t tell us, we had to wait until we got home from school to hear about it.

We girls hitched up our uniforms and converted loose, grey school jumpers into tiny tight cardies. If we went out – I wasn’t allowed after dark but sometimes I escaped – we wore high-waist flares, cork-wedgies and halter necks. We wore op shop dresses and sandals called Treads.

School-life-conflict was dealt with in the girls ‘dunnies’, and where you hung out at recess or sat on the tram going home, signaled your place in the pecking order.

Adolescence was, and still is for the most part, sadly, a world of stark and unforgiving binaries: you’re in or out, hot or not, smart or struggling, sporty or nerdy, etc.

 

By Form 5 we knew that a third of us would leave school to get a job or go to the local tech and only the rich kids went to private schools. Today heaps of my leftie middle-aged mates are sending their kids to private schools and this touchy hypocrisy has replaced religion as the no-go-zone conversation subject at dinner parties.

Last weekend while wondering around a small regional Victorian town, I spotted a tray of those magnificent cream buns in the window of an old-fashioned kind of cake shop. I stopped and stared and salivated.

If there hadn’t been a Back in 5 mins sign on the door, I would have succumbed to politically incorrect nostalgia for sure.

 

 

 

 

The Big Issue (Oct)

A SON. A FIRST JOB. THE PARENTS PITCH IN. ELLY VARRENTI EXPLAINS.

MY 13-YEAR-OLD son has just got his first job. While I applaud his initiative, I suspect that accompanying him three days per week after school to haul bags of catalogues up and down the streets of our town in the half-dark does not actually count as a ‘real’ job with any ‘proper’ responsibility attached.

Delivering junk mail under the cloak of sundown is not my idea of a good career move either. Already, a few mates have spotted me surreptitiously stuffing the luridly coloured items into the too- small slots. And while we have a good laugh at my expense, I hurriedly inform them that my son is doing the other side of the street and that it’s really his job, not mine.

“See? There he is, over there in the parker and beanie dragging that trailer- buggy contraption his father made him for the job. Look! It’s even got lights front and back.”

Is it even legal to employ a 13-year- old in this country? Yes it is, as long as he has his parents’ approval and the employer has procured some special permit. But nothing in the contract I saw mentions my son. Instead, it reads as if his own father is the employee.

Is this exploitation, or is it fine that our son does half the work and his father and I do the other half? Because there
is no way he can sort, collate, lug and deliver 300 fat-arsed catalogues on his own within the three-to-four hour time frame the employer reckons is possible.

This week I am delivering junk mail. Last week, I sang in our local pub for beer money and danced with a man wearing an eye-patch and a cowboy hat. This is life as an over-educated, under- employed, middle-aged woman living
in a large regional town 90 minutes out of a major city. Then again, I’ve had more jobs and more career changes than Walter Mitty, except that mine were real, so I guess I can weather this latest one.

As I scale our town’s hilly streets, using my mobile-phone torch to check for any No Junk Mail signs, I think about how to use the experience as material for a story, because otherwise I would just feel pissed off. Those hilly streets are often unmade roads. You try clambering up one of them with two canvas shopping bags full of freshly folded landfill.

My own first job was at 16, waitressing in a pizza bar during Year 11 (or Form 5, as it was called in the late 1970s). I used to get felt up by the blokes making the pizzas. Other blokes, customers, would patmeonthebumasIheadedtothe kitchen or slip crumpled notes into the front pocket of my little white apron. One of the notes said, Hi beautiful! Give me a call ’cause I wanna make you happy. He must have been at least 40.

I left that job for two reasons. First, I needed to study for exams. Second, one of the pizzamakers drove me home after work and put his hand down my shirt and called me a pretty little tease when I pushed it away.

After exhaustive anecdotal research I have concluded that women around my age were usually sexually harassed at their first jobs in the 1970s and that most men, in their first jobs, were usually sacked for accidentally setting fire to the fish’n’chip oil or for telling an employer to go jump. Younger women

I spoke to have similarly funny or exploitative stories to tell about their first jobs, but there is less mention of any sexual harassment.

Back in the day, kids did lots of tough jobs and started younger than they do today. Is this because we are just more careful with, and respectful of, kids now? Or is my tramping about with my son and his hundreds of catalogues after school just helicopter parenting in full flight?

My son’s father and I have not lived together for over 10 years, but this latest development in our son’s life has had us kind of hanging out together

in an almost-companionable way. My ex-husband sorts, I fold, our son packs. Just like a traditional little nuclear family – Mum and Dad helping their only son navigate his first job.

Our son looks baffled. Either because it’s one of the rare moments he has seen his biological parents in the same room cooperating like a Sesame Street sketch or, maybe, because he can’t believe his first job is so boring.

“As soon as I save enough money for a new computer I’m quitting. Okay? Mum? Dad?… Okay?”

» Elly Varrenti is a columnist for the Australian Education Union and is teaching writing at the University of Melbourne.