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.