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February 18, 2002
The great cultural void
Taught a drama class on Saturday, and rediscovered that teenagers are very easily shocked. I revealed that (a) I've never seen Mary Poppins, and (b) I don't have a television. They were scandalised. Some were visibly upset. There was crying and wailing and gnashing of teeth. I was fine with that, but there was also agitated murmuring, and open doubts regarding my sanity.
Humph, I said, to them, wishing I had a more articulate response, and eventually I had to say Humph again, but a bit more loudly. Owing to them being readily shocked, two Humphs was enough to quieten their agitated souls, and we returned to some kind of drama activity.
Anyway - what's the big deal with Mary Poppins? Isn't it just Dick Van Dyke doing an outrageously bad Cockney accent and some hokey songs?
After the class, which was in St. Kilda, I walked home to Fitzroy via the Candle Records extravaganza at the Corner Hotel in Richmond. This distance is something like walking from Sweden to the moon, except it's harder on the feet. In retrospect, it was probably a mistake to walk the long way, which was via Sweden.
The Candle thing was good, and very good value: seven bands alternating on two stages, and all for the princely sum of $12. I liked The Mabels a lot, but I wish Darren Hanlon had been louder. What I heard was great, but I couldn't hear everything. I was amused that all the bands mentioned Chris Crouch by name, and usually with a large dose of obvious gratitutde. When I met Chris, half a decade ago, he was a mere slip of a thing: a Theatresports player who made completely unpredictable offers. And now he runs an empire. And it's a grass roots, community based kind of empire, which is the very best kind.
There's a lesson in there, somewhere, and I'm sure it's got nothing to do with whether or not you've seen Mary Poppins.
March 20, 2002
Old haunts and hold the taunts
On Sunday I went to the Kingswood College Open Day, and had a good look around. The school has changed in the twenty years since I left, but the essential spirit of the place is still very much there. And the spirit seems durable: a couple of years ago I met a few former students who'd been there in the forties and fifties, and they reported experiences very similar to mine.
The motto of the school appeared to be "if you find something that you want to do, then that's great, and we'll support you and encourage you in any way we can. And if you don't find something you want to do, then that's also okay, because we'll still like you." (I'm sure this would make an impressive school motto, especially in Latin.)
So Kingswood was one of those rare schools that seemed to actually like its students, and to care about them, and to be interested in them. It was a very open and tolerant place, which meant that I was in for quite a shock when I arrived in the adult world. But, over time, I've learnt to adjust to the adult world, and I remain very glad that I spent six years at Kingswood.
One quick story about the place. When I was in Year 11 or 12, the school screened Woodstock, the three and a half hour documentary-with-incredible-music that perhaps best captures the spirit of the Sixties. Max Edwards, one of the teachers, attended the screening wearing a hippie outfit, with a tie-dye tshirt and white pants with blaring headlines printed in random directions on them. Max, in case you're wondering, taught economics.
Not long after this, I started turning up at classes wearing a kaftan. This isn't recommended at normal schools, as it indicates an availability to have senseless violence aimed at your head. (And also at whatever body parts the kaftan covered, I guess.) But at Kingswood, it was fine, because no one cared.
Other people were wearing leather jackets and safety pins, and no one cared about that, either. It was a very easygoing and very tolerant place; a bit like Woodstock in capsule form. It was a little fragment of the Sixties tucked away in Box Hill South, where the Seventies wouldn't even think to look.
One of the things I did on Sunday was talk to various teachers, including Peter Alderton, the Media Studies teacher. Turns out that one of the things he teaches is story structure, which is a subject that I've been reading and thinking about for twenty years. And I had no idea that it was even possible to study such a thing, and certainly not in a high school. Peter is also in charge of a small television studio, and a bank of computers which run Photoshop and Dreamweaver. I was very impressed with all of this, but also duly noted that the small, self-contained building where he teaches is located in what used to be the Year 8 shower block. Omnia mutantur nos et mutamur in illis ...
At one point in my conversation with Peter I thought about how different my life would have been if I'd studied story structure at school. At another point I thought "this is what I should be teaching."
Wednesday night and the week's teaching is over, apart from the Saturday morning drama class. After my four hour class today I walked into the city, and then walked to Richmond, then bought a heavy pile of groceries, and then walked back to Fitzroy. Just trying to get fitter, and trying to get ready for the marathon walk that I'm doing on Sunday. I'm now completely exhausted, so that's an achievement of some kind, I guess.
Looking forward to being in Sydney next week. It's been a year or something since I've been there, and that's way too long.
March 22, 2002
The new wonder drug: fatigue
Blogs have been few and far apart for the last few weeks. I blame the silly professional skills stuff that I've been teaching. Most of the classes I've got tend to go for four hours, which is a long time to teach one lesson. At the end of each class I have to get the students to fill in a questionnaire, and 90% of the responses are along the lines of "classes go for too long." I'd put the accuracy of these responses at 100%, if only because I really struggle to find enough energy to do anything else afterwards.
At least the big exciting lesson is coming up this week: I get to film my students making presentations. This tends to be very time-consuming, but also a lot of fun. It's a good experience to guide a group of people from fear to excitement, unless I forget about the excitement bit and just leave them experiencing fear. Then it's exciting, but only for me. I also have a general notion that time is never wasted if there's a video camera or tape recorder running nearby.
Tommorow I've got my last drama class for a few weeks, and then immediately afterwards I'm driving to Bright, in NE Victoria. The next day I'll be climbing Mt. Feathertop, and then driving back to Melbourne that night, and starting six hours of teaching at 11am the next day. The Feathertop walk is at least 22 kilometres, and they're reasonably arduous kilometres. I'm planning on being even more tired very, very soon.
I'm trying to remember when I last did a really substantial walk in the mountains, and I think it may have been in India, when I was staying in Dharamsala. Gulp. That was three years ago.
March 26, 2002
Anger and frustration ... things I remember well
Aaaargh. The pain and fury of wasting time. I've just had a largely pointless day at work, which has (once again) brought home to me that I have to make some widespread changes to what I do to earn money.
Traditionally, whenever I've had a bad day at work, my standard response has been to get angry and frustrated. But I can't do that anymore. As they say on bad American daytime television, I'm over being angry and frustrated. I've finally figured out that it doesn't achieve anything. The real problem is that I'm teaching a subject which literally doesn't count for anything. It's an optional course with no homework or assignments or tests. Students pass the course simply by turning up to enough classes. And I've come to see that it doesn't count much for me, either.
Apart from one thing: it's given me experience and practice in teaching. And not all of today was bad: after a frustrating morning I then taught a class in which I filmed eighteen students making two to three minute presentations. After we finished that I gave them the choice: either leave now, if you wish, or stay back and watch your presentation. Fifteen students left, some at a run, and three students stayed. One who stayed had made the best presentation in the class. Did she stay because she wanted to relive her moment of glory?
Well, no. She stayed because she wanted to learn how to do it even better next time. So the four of us sat there, and watched the tape again, and traded observations. And it slowly became obvious that, contrary to first impressions, she'd actually been extremely nervous when she was making her presentation. So we talked about how she'd concealed that, and what specific gesture she did to give it away. And we talked about why everyone had listened to her with rapt attention. By the time she left, she'd gotten a glimpse of how she comes across to other people, and why she comes across so well. She genuinely wanted to learn, and did.
So, the upshot of all this is that I want to do more real teaching like this. I want to be teaching something I care about, and I want to teach students who are keen to learn.
And sometime real soon I'm going to start thinking about how I can do that.
So: a mixed day, all round. And yesterday I walked 11 kilometres along the Razorback to Mt. Feathertop, and the same 11 kilometres back again. Health report: legs are still on fire, and today's walk home from work took a recordbreaking length of time. But I'm glad I did the Feathertop walk: it was a beautiful day and it felt great being back in the mountains.
April 15, 2002
Scenes from the journey here: a moment in 1982
In 1981, I achieved my academic goal: I failed HSC. It required careful planning and a steady, unswerving vigilance, but I got there.
But my initial feelings of victory and satisfaction didn't last as long as I'd expected, and only a few months later I was bored and depressed and not sure what to do. I didn't really know who I could talk to about my options, or even if I had any options, so I paid a visit to my old high school to see Glenys Nall. Glenys had valiantly tried to teach me English the year before, and had underestimated the depth of my commitment to failing HSC. Of course, midway through 1982 I was older and wiser, and didn't want to hold that against her.
"I'm bored," I said. "What should I read now?"
"Well," she said, "do you want me to write you a list?"
"Sure," I said, "that'd be great."
And she wrote out a list of maybe fifteen or twenty books.
And then something else happened; something that I've always been very, very grateful for. Glenys gave me some advice. "When you read a book," she said, "make a few notes about it. If you can, write down what you thought about it - whether you liked it, and why. And if you do nothing else, at least make a note about how long it took you to read, and what date you started and finished it." (That last one is a trick, by the way. If you can get it together to record how long it took you to read a book, it's then much more likely you'll go on to add a thought or three about it. The hard bit is picking up a pen.)
I can't be 100% certain, but I'm fairly sure that she also planted the idea that I should keep some kind of journal.
So I started one. Possibly the same day.
In the twenty years since then I've been to 36 countries, and lived in more than 40 houses, and turned up, more or less on time, to a vast range of jobs. But the only thing I've consistently worked at has been writing down what I'm thinking about.
So part of what I'm doing with SoFo is trying to convince myself that I haven't actually wasted every minute of the last twenty years.
And the other part is simply continuing something I've been doing for a long time. But there's one difference, which is that I've found a way to share what I'm doing.
And, I have to admit, that feels good. And, in case I haven't made this clear, it's great to have you here.
April 26, 2002
Meanwhile, in the classroom
Taught another four hour class today, in which I had to film students making presentations. I asked them to talk about themselves, about interesting things they've done, things they're proud of, ways in which they're distinctive. One girl said "but I can't do that. Nothing interesting has ever happened to me, and I'm not proud of anything I've done."
I scratched my head in desperation and then suggested that perhaps she could talk about how she became the world's most boring person. "Hey," she said, "that's not a bad idea."
Time goes by. Everyone decides what they're going to talk about, and they prepare in a variety of ways. Some make notes, some stare at the ceiling, some make strange muttering sounds and stare at me in a hateful, enraged manner. Whatever works for them is fine.
After a while one student tells me that they're ready, and then so does another, and another. Once half the class are ready, I turn the camera on. The time starts to go quickly. Almost everyone looks comfortable up there and some of the presentations are very, very good.
But still to come is a girl who thinks that nothing interesting has ever happened to her. Eventually, it's her turn. She stands up, walks to the front of the room, and starts her presentation.
She begins by describing the circumstances of how she arrived in Australia. When she was two her parents tried to get themselves and their two children out of Vietnam, which proved difficult to do. Her father had fought in the war, which meant that he was known to the authorities. But he somehow managed to get out, taking her brother with him. She and her mother were left behind. Two anxious years later, under the most arduous of circumstances, she and her mother finally managed to leave Vietnam to rejoin the rest of the family in Australia.
It was spellbinding. Everyone in the room sat there thinking about how, or if, they would've coped if something similar had happened to them. And then she went on to talk about wanting to go back and visit Vietnam, the country she left when she was four, the country that her parents so often speak about, the country she was born in but scarcely remembers.
And she talked about wanting to visit other countries: lots of other countries. She wants to see as many as possible, and she had a wonderfully visual way of demonstrating this. She drew a globe on the whiteboard and then rapidly added random, invented countries, which she pointed to, explaining that these were all places that she'd get to one day. One of these new countries was about the size of Queensland, and completely circular, and located right in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Another was shaped like a triangle, and seems to have displaced China from its current position.
This bit of the presentation got enormous laughs. Partly that was out of contrast: her account of her early days was so traumatic that the ridiculous graphics seemed even funnier. In the midst of all this I was reminded of a phrase that one of those cricket commentators likes to use: it's all happening here.
So. One of the best presentations I've ever seen came from a student who had said that nothing interesting had ever happened to her, and who wasn't proud of anything she'd done.
Teaching is a wildly variable job. Sometimes it's a pain. Sometimes it's amazing. Every so often, you get to see a metamorphosis.
June 1, 2002
Walking home through Carlton on a Friday night
I've just done four days of honest work as an advisor in the Learning Skills Unit at Melbourne University. It's been great. Getting to sit down and work one on one with talented students is my idea of a wonderful job. Especially because I get to spend nearly an hour with each student. It gives me enough time to find out exactly where someone is up to, and exactly what difficulties they're facing. Then I can tailor my advice and feedback specifically to them, and for the situation that they're in at that moment. It's great. It's the only job I've ever had for which I've consistently turned up early.
While walking home I was thinking about what else I'm interested in and what else I could be doing with my time. And I suddenly thought of doing a spoken word CD, perhaps of the best entries of this blog.
About one nanosecond later, I realised what I'd call it: SoFo: SpoWo.
July 9, 2002
Queen's Gambit misunderstood
Today I sat down and played a game of chess with an International Grandmaster. This guy can beat most people in the world, but he didn't beat me. After half a dozen tense moves I put him in check, and he moved the board to one side and said "okay, now let's do the rest of the job interview."
"Hang on a minute," I said. "Can I count this as a draw?"
In the context of the job interview, that was probably a mistake. Those International Grandmasters can get a little touchy. They're also somewhat prone to psychopathic outbursts of ultracompetitive rage.
But I think I may have some kind of new career in the pipeline. I think I'm going to be a chess teacher.
July 24, 2002
The worst teachers have the strangest hair
I've been a chess teacher now for two days, and I'm impressed that I've made it this far.
Teaching chess to excited bunches of seven year old children is one of the weirdest things I've ever done. And I've ... well, never mind. I'm sure I'll come to that sooner or later.
But teaching chess has been an interesting experience, too. I've learnt that there's a substantial difference between being good at a particular activity, and being able to help others become good at that activity.
Some of the other chess teachers I've met are at the Grandmaster level. They're very, very good at chess.
But they're not so good in the teaching area. And they hit an absolute nadir in the hair area.
Apparently, Grandmasters just have to have weird hair. In this area of human endeavour, weird hair is somehow compulsory. Neatness, in particular, is strictly prohibited. Expansive afros are still popular in the world of professional chess players, especially afros which are naturally grey. And if you've never seen an afro on a fifty year old man with grey hair, it's quite a display of plumage. Especially if the man in question has a dramatically receding hairline, so the grey afro actually starts a good number of inches after it should.
At the moment I have relatively short, neat hair. As a result, I have now accepted that I will never make it as a professional chess player.
But I might still make it as some kind of teacher, though.
July 26, 2002
Report from the classroom
During the week I taught a chess class at a very small Catholic primary school. I liked the school: it was small and friendly and the staff had a very positive attitude. I was there with another chess teacher, and we had a bunch of twenty students between the ages of 6 and 9. Because there were two of us, we had the luxury of being able to split the class. We divided people according to age and experience at chess. The other teacher took the smallest, most inexperienced ones, and I took the rest.
We'd been told about one particular little boy who had a temporary hearing problem, but he was hard to spot in the sea of eager little faces. But I noticed that as the younger kids moved to one part of the classroom, one very young kid didn't go with them. And just at that moment I noticed that he had a bandage on one ear. And just as I moved forward to help him, I noticed something else.
One of the other little boys was looking out for this kid. As soon as this boy understood what was needed, he took the other by the hand and gently guided him to where he had to go. Then he came back straight back and waited for his own instructions.
I think that's one of the most remarkable things I've ever seen in a primary school. For myself, I remember those years as being a kind of Darwinian playground. The weakest kids were constantly mocked, sneered at, and roasted over a slow fire. Then they were sprinkled with salt, and eaten. This treatment only stopped if someone said "this is boring. Let's eat someone else."
For so many people, school is the Survival of the Angriest. And I've certainly seen evidence that this is still the case, but not at this particular school. One little kid being kind and compassionate - without being asked to, without having to be rewarded - makes me think that I should be spending more time in this environment.
All of a sudden, teaching little kids seems like a real job. I stumbled into it by accident, but I like it.
July 29, 2002
Schlepping from board to board
The main problem with teaching chess is the incompatibility of it with my current lifestyle.
I'm just living on the wrong side of town. All the schools that want chess teachers are not near Fitzroy. Fitzroy has other appeals, but proximity to expensive schools who provide optional chess classes is not one of them.
Another problem is the occasional, bit-by-bit nature of the work. I'm now teaching four days a week, but only one or two hours on each of those days. It's not really enough work to justify how much time it takes to get there. Today I covered for another teacher, and got to teach Three Entire Classes. By the standards of this industry, that's a full time occupation. By my own standards, that makes chess teaching a frustratingly weird industry.
I spent more time today listening to JJJ than I did teaching chess. Which is a fancy way of saying that I spent more time in the car than in the classroom. And I really don't want that. Goddang it: if I'm going to pay the rent by teaching, then I want to spend more than three hours a day actually doing the goddang teaching. It's early days yet, but I'm sure I could cope with, say, four hours of actual teaching. And I have the wrong kind of car for doing lots of driving around the city. Kombi Vans are not designed for commuting. Or parking.
But chess teaching is a little bit of teaching and a whole pile of schlepping. Drive a long way away: set up a board, show the kids something, observe as they play chess with each other. Then pack it all up and drive somewhere else. Usually somewhere else that's a long way from the somewhere else where you started.
Schlepping. That's what I'm doing here. I've been a chess schlepper for nearly two weeks, and I've just about had enough. Perhaps I could set up a few chess boards in nearby Edinburgh Gardens, and ask the schools to send the kids there.
Yup. Perhaps I could do that.
My feeling, at this stage, is that I probably won't. Those expensive schools in the Eastern suburbs have some very set ideas.
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