Monday, December 3, 2012

School What?

Is it just me, or is "school spirit" a crock of more than moderately runny shit?

I freely admit my own schooling was unorthodox. I did my first year or so in a two-room school taught by my mother. She mostly just pointed me at the school's library, and sat me near the grade 4 group, so I could listen in on their lessons while I read. That seemed to work. 

Seeing that it was a small school -- and in rural USA at that -- there wasn't a lot of fuss about school sports and competitions. We did our classwork. There was some music and art. And we got to play outside a lot, even in winter, with the snow more than a metre deep. In fact, that was when it was best!

So then I came to Australia, to rural far north Queensland. My parents punted me up a grade, so I eluded year two altogether. Grade three in Parramatta Primary School, Cairns, was puzzling. They tested my reading, decided I was somewhere above their testing limits (the tests ran to a reading age of 18. I remember stumbling over 'idiosyncrasy' and 'somnambulism' because I hadn't seen them before, but I finished the test. Apparently I wasn't supposed to be able to do that at my age. Who knew?) and then promptly put me into a reading group with a book that had four sentences and one picture per page. 

Happily, my teacher Mrs Trenfield quickly learned to let me sit down the back of the classroom with whichever novel I happened to be reading. (What can I say? It was the '70s. All that affirmative learning stuff had yet to be discovered. Back then, a kid who could read, write, and handle the appropriate level of math mostly got left alone if he knew how to keep quiet.) So all that was good... right up to my first school sports day.

Houses? What the fuck were/are "school houses"? I don't even remember the 'houses' at Parramatta, but I remember being arbitrarily divided into groups, asked to wear shirts of one primary colour or another, and to cheer frantically for the group to which you were more or less randomly assigned. 

I liked physical activities and games. I liked swimming. But I think it was there, at my first ever, School Interhouse Sports Day, that I gained my lifelong disinterest in organised competitive sports. Holy shit, what a moronic way to spend a beautiful day!

And so it went, through the next two schools. Up in Mareeba, they assigned me to "Topaz" house. The sports houses were all named for semiprecious stones of the Atherton tablelands. I remember Garnet, and Amethyst, and for some reason Emerald, which is neither semiprecious nor local to that area... but I guess that didn't bother them. 

Damned if I can remember my school house at the next primary school, back down on the coast. But I placed first in the high jump there, for my year. Yippee. Oh, and I had to wear a red T-shirt.

Now, I have to say that by and large, my few friends held the same views I did. None of this "school spirit" and "cheering for your house" shit seemed to matter. Even the competitions with other schools were really just an excuse to slide to the back of the crowd and talk amongst ourselves. It always seemed incredible that there were people taking the school cheers seriously, and getting wound up about which team scored more runs in cricket. (And I actually liked cricket. Still do. I even played it competitively at primary school. For a while.)

High school? Well, I went to a tiny little high school, now gone. It was small enough that there was no chance of intra-school sports competitions. But on Friday afternoons, we did the usual things: sailing, volleyball, table tennis, orienteering, swimming, etc. No coloured shirts. No "school houses". No "school spirit."

The first inkling I had that there were people for whom these ideas were important came at Uni of Queensland. At first, I thought the college lads I knew were joking when they talked up the inter-college rivalries. St Johns hated Cromwell. Cromwell hated United. Blah blah blah. But then, one day at a protest against a bunch of neofascist idiots who'd railroaded the student union, a big crowd of rugger-buggers in college sport uniforms turned up to support the babynazis.

I wasn't surprised, mind you. They were a lot of imbecilic mouthbreathers, those boys. The size of a house, with an IQ roughly matching their shoe sizes. They came from privileged backgrounds, with plenty of money and fine clothing, and lovely shiny cars their parents had bought for them. They were the kind of cretins who really believed that the union was better off without a radio station, an environment office, a women's office, or a women's rights library... and they turned up looking for trouble.

Unfortunately for them, those of us protesting outnumbered them about thirty to one. And so the college boys began to chant. However, we weren't stupid. For ever simple-minded chant they started, we'd add a few words on the end to alter the meaning, and quickly it began to sound as though everyone there was screaming for the union council to be chucked out. The college boys hated that, so they had a little get-together, and then with a look of excitement and determination, they all burst into a synchronised war-chant of considerable complexity. 

It went on for a while.

When it was done, we all laughed and applauded, and shamefaced, the college boys filtered away. 

To this day, I have no fucking idea what they thought they were doing. Did they imagine that their Mighty College Spirit would somehow intimidate all of us? Were they really so cretinous as to believe that their ability to chant in unison would somehow change the dynamic of the situation?

I don't know. But they chanted, and we laughed, and I got the impression their feelings were hurt.

So, here it is, many years later. My wife has firmly decided that Jake is going to Good School. (Read "expensive private school a forty-five minute drive from home".) I have laid my arguments out, and they have been rebuffed, so yep: Jake gets the almighty benefits of a Private School Education. Not only that, but the Mau-mau and Genghis are going too.

Not so much of a problem for the littler ones. Yet. But for Jake? Well, he already thinks the "school houses" system he encountered at Scottsdale was an utter farce. Now he's been assigned to a new 'school house' in his new school, and he's been given an official history of the new house, and he's been told it has a long and honourable tradition...

... and I'm playing all this with the straightest bat that I can. I have no desire to get in further trouble from Natalie. But what do I tell him? Honestly? 

I cannot bring myself to even try to convince him there is any form of useful, serious merit to these arbitrary divisions. I cannot even bring myself to argue with him when he tells me that it "just seems like a way the school is trying to divide the kids up against each other to control them." And I cannot explain to him why he is supposed to be proud of his uniform, and proud of his tie, and proud of his particular school. 

I can't do this, because I don't get it. I've never got it. Not at a school level. Not at a state level. Not at a national level, nor even a racial level. The divisions are arbitrary and random. Hello? The emperor's naked, folks!

I can see that this next year is going to present some intriguing challenges.


  1. Just tell him it doesn't make sense and won't make sense except as a form of sociological study. Or something like that.

  2. As an ex-NSW Queenslander that seems particularly relevant to Brisbane. I remember finding it really damn weird the extent to which old school affiliations persist into "adulthood" here. When I was playing local rugby, blokes in their 20's and 30's were still going to the annual "my old private school vs. the other old private school" match. And people still ask "Which school did you go to?" like that puts you in some box they understand. Fucking odd.

    Maybe it happens other places too, maybe it's a private school thing, I dunno, but it certainly wasn't a tradition in Newcastle.

    On the other hand I do remember school houses

  3. Hmm your early schooling sounds a lot like mine...i.e grab a book and sit down the back while we teach the numpties! Then I did two years in OC classes at a public years of all my schooling. All the kids in these classes were tested for IQ before being offered a place,and the program reflected our abilities. Changed by high school with the school houses etc (at my low spec private school)and learning stuff I had done two years earlier. Still, I enjoyed a bit of inter-school rivalry playing rugby! The school houses thing, well meh.

    I'm hoping my littlest bloke will get to go to my old school for years 5 and 6 - the OC classes. He's pretty bright, and reads at a higher age than his peers. But intelligence has different facets - he's different from your lad in many ways. Still, the public school he attends is a good one, and he is doing well. And while he enjoys his sport, I don't think he is so fussed over school houses either!

    1. Grab a book, sit down the back... yep. What does "OC" stand for, by the way?

      Inter-school rivalry almost makes sense. It might have worked if I'd had any reason to like my school, or feel I was part of some kind of valued group. Just being told to like my school had the opposite effect on me... still does, come to think of it!

      You're right about facets of intelligence, too. I've had to work hard trying to teach the kids to respect some of the kids around them who aren't so quick with words, but know how to use their hands and their eyes.

    2. OC...I never did find out the proper definition. I know the 'O' stands for 'opportunity'. I recal our headmaster at the time saying it meant 'opportunity confusion'! Part of it promoted independence, we would get a weekly work sheet to complete, and you would fit it in between standard things like Friday sport or Wednesday library, as well as random lessons through the day. Pretty good for a pack of bright fifth and sixth graders.

    3. And we had other things to extend us like tackling maths or science lessons more suited to year 8 or 9 students. High school was a massive come down after an environment like this!

  4. Oh, the littlest bloke is 7, and in 2nd class by the way. Incidentally, his three half brothers (live with their mum in the country) have lttle to no interst in team sports! And they too are brigh - eldest is aboutto start his last year of school and is motiviated. The next two are one and two years behind...they are brigth but need a boot up the arse to do the school work and PROVE they are as bright as they actually are.

    1. Boot up the arse is fine. It's the "Your School Is Your Family And Your Community And You Owe It Your Loyalty" schtick that gives me the shits.

  5. Mareeba?

    I went to primary school in a place called Mt Molloy and did junior high at Mareeba.

    Life only gets better after leaving Mareeba.

    As for school: I have my kids in a Montessori school. My youngest received this report a few weeks ago:

    "Occasionally Matthew can miss his mum and dad and feel a bit sad, though generally he is very happy and has a lovely sense of humour. Matthew enjoys teaching other children the songs he sings at home, as well as other valuable skills such as how to walk like a robot!"

    We pay 1000 bucks a term for this shit.

    And I'd gladly pay double that kind of feedback!

    1. Yeah, I did a term or so in Mareeba. Culminated in my only grade-school fist-fight. Fucked up place, that.

      The bottom line with conventional schools is simple: Teacher Is Boss. Teacher Knows. Teacher Imparts Knowledge. You Are Student. You Will Learn Knowledge From Teacher.

      This is known as the "transmissive model", and it's utter crap. Outdated. Ineffective. Not just useless, but actively alienating and disempowering.

      I note that the pedagogy of the Montessori schools (a quick glance at the 'Net) cites a Constructivist approach, mixes ages instead of isolating a cohort based on birthdate, and focuses on drawing from the students abilities, and extending them.

      That's a pretty good set-up, if they're actually doing it. Believe me: if there was a Montessori school available hereabouts, I'd be looking into it. And a grand a term is cheap compared to your classic private school...

    2. Montessori isn't perfect but we've found it beneficial not only to our kids, but to us also.

      It's nice meeting parents who seek 'kids first' education. Even if some of those parents are nut jobs! Plus, the teachers have to do extra training on top of their teaching degree in most cases. And... they earn less then their state and private school counterparts. So they really have to be committed to the pedagogy.

      On a side note, I discipline my 7 year old with threats like, "Get your backside into bed now or you will NOT be going to school tomorrow."

      My wife (who is a Monte teacher) and I always giggle about it afterwards but it works every single time!

      If you're ever going to be accused of joining a cult... then signing up for something that is centred around kids liking school is pretty hard to beat.

    3. I can understand the teacher's motivation. Working in an environment that actually fosters creativity, co-operation, individuality and genuine learning is addictive. I don't get paid to teach ju-jitsu, for example, but I do it for three reasons - my own health, my own children... and the interaction with a set of kids who are genuinely interested in learning something that extends them, and engages them, and helps them become stronger, more flexible people.

      It's a rush. For all that it's the kids doing the work, I still feel like I'm doing something valuable - even irreplaceable in this community.

  6. I'm an amateur Judoka so I can appreciate where you're coming from.