Memories and musings from Caroline Rasmussen [Robertson] 1961 to 1966
Also See 'Notable Students'
My life at CHS begins and ends with a very long, grey gabardine rain coat. Getting the uniform for school was very exciting - but expensive - and despite my height, my mother allowed for growth in all items. She was entitled, perhaps, to assume that I might grow as tall as my grandmother - but I didn't!
As it happened, the first day of school in 1961 was very wet and as grey as our collective raincoats and felt hats. There we stood, forlorn and soggy figures, huddled before those forbidding, drawbridge-like doors wondering, in the case of new students, what we would find inside. For me at least it was an Aladdin's Cave of new things to learn - an inviting feast I never tired of eating, so different from the dreary boredom of primary school.
I had no intention then of becoming an historian, scientist had been my ambition for as long as could remember, but perhaps it is significant that Mr Clancy's classes in ancient history have remained among my most vivid memories of Form 1A. And art with Miss Clifford - soon to be Mrs Richards. Petite and warm and so easy to talk to, she was my form teacher too. We adored her and grew to appreciate her even more as our form teacher in Leaving year. And who could forget Miss Tiley with her dreadful hacking cough and totally unsmiling demeanour. I would take Latin all the way to university - but no thanks to Miss Tiley. I’m told we misunderstood her - but I’m not convinced, having taught the language myself for a time.
One of the most memorable events of that first year, for me anyway, occurred not long after we started. The Form Six boys had been agitating to little effect about the matter of caps which they contended, correctly in my view, were a ridiculous indignity at their age and height. Smoke billowing from the boys’ locker room on the western side of the quadrangle signalled they had taken matters into their own hands with a bonfire of caps. It was all very dramatic, with a good many stern words, but I noted that the caps were not replaced. The sixties had arrived and my instinctively rebellious self was gratified. After all, I had been contending the previous year that girls should not only be allowed to play on the football oval at Coburg North Primary School, but even to play football. I was not impressed with the segregated girls and boys yards at CHS either! And in 1965 I was part of a sit-down rebellion up on the walkway around the quadrangle in pursuit of the right to wear stockings rather than socks with our summer dresses on cold October days. We won that one too, I recall.
I was in Blue House, named the year we started I think for the distinguished former pupil Noel Bayliss. I was pleased to be in a house named for a scientist. These groupings did a lot to make us feel at home. They brought us into association with older pupils, especially older sisters who looked after us and encouraged us to try all sorts of things. I had been placed in the Latin class with no-one from my school I knew well, but I was lucky that there were a good number of people I knew from the Coburg Presbyterian church. Some of them were among the cap burners, so I got the background on that story first-hand.
I especially enjoyed the choral competitions and music with Mrs Field, but she did not appreciate the boys in our class, mostly especially not their rendition of ‘Tis my delight on a Friday night with a bottle of Richmond Beer’ at the back of the class to the tune of some classic folk song we were learning about! In Form Three though, she took us without them and later still introduced us to ‘The Daniel Jazz’. That was such fun and an exciting challenge. We did it for Speech Night in the Coburg Town Hall. And the following year brushed it up again for a television appearance! Like Mrs Richards, she was important for all the conversations we had outside formal class time.
Form Two saw us radically remixed according to our exam results and I was pleased to be back with some of my friends who had been assigned to French. I remain unconvinced by streaming, but 2A was a great class - even if our English teacher, the highly theatrical Mr Morgan, chose to write in my Echoes – ‘2A, Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing!’ Though he was a good teacher, we gave him a hard time but it was nothing compared to what we did as 3A to a series of teachers - most of whom sadly were not good teachers, though that was hardly their fault - victims as they were of the hiring policies of a government desperate to put someone, anyone, in front of classes.
3A worked their way through five Geography teachers. One torment involved a cue to Susan Reilly to slowly edge her heavy 15 inch ruler off the desk. The extra loud noise this made was signal for the rest of us to push our rulers off one after the other. Then there was the day we decided while lined up outside - I think room 14, the one at the top of the boys’ stairs with a glass sliding door - that we would enter one at a time and each slam the door behind - all forty or so of us. Mr Jowett was apoplectic but powerless. We seemed to be capable of unspoken decisions - such as everyone giving the same answer to a question, for example as to how to describe tropical vegetation. I remember many and varied answers of ‘lush’, following an inspired contribution from Jill Fiddes.
Upstairs in Room 15 [?] Miss Metazals was the target. On one occasion some of the boys slipped out the window to hide on the roof. We didn't know where they were? No, of course not! Then each time Miss Metazals turned to write on the blackboard one would slip back in - to her agitated bemusement. On another occasion we all contributed a shoe lace to be tied together into a tail and someone managed to pin it to the back of her skirt. Now that was a mistake. Of course she wore it down to the staff room - and we were subject to a severe dressing down. We deserved it - except that we were not being taught Maths at all - as the plummet in everyone's marks the following year made very clear. Fortunately 4A had Mrs West to the rescue. And Miss Metuzals disappeared. I found myself studying Russian with her later at University. She was as much a victim of the system as of us, but I still feel a bit guilty. And if the boys made life unpleasant for Mrs Field, then some of us girls made life pretty difficult for the dreary woman who came to teach us, rather coyly, Mothercraft. Connie Simmons and I were particularly disrespectful, but then again I still think the whole course was essentially disrespectful of us. And the boys were doing sport, which most of us would have preferred.
Other teachers could scarcely believe we were capable of this behaviour. We did not misbehave in most classes. Neither do I remember much draconian discipline. They taught us well and treated us with respect. They reminded us that being at school, this school in particular, was a privilege and gave us a glimpse of where education could take us. They made university seem a reasonable ambition and prepared us to get there with the best chance of success. They made us confident and independent learners. The most important for me were Mr Albiston and Mr Hannan. Gifted and inspiring teachers they seduced me away from science - about which I still have some regrets - but they also provided inspiring models for me later as a teacher.
Since I have read many school histories, and written a few myself, I am deeply conscious that the things most remembered usually took place outside the class room. At CHS the exchange trips with Brighton High School in Adelaide would rate as a peak experience for any one who took part. And it was possible for the precociously sporty to do that for three years. I pulled a spectacular coup by being selected as an emergency in the debating team to go to Adelaide in Form Four. I got to have all the fun, and not have to actually compete in anything! It was a marvellous experience from many points of view, but the rule about what happens on the tour stays on the tour should probably apply, except to recall that Marlene Schulenburg and I turned up at the social wearing the same dress, though a different colour. Probably the first intimations of a long and beautiful friendship.
Then there was the magazine committee with Mr Matters who, way ahead of his time, introduced us to off-set printing and modern magazine design from 1964 on. Three years of involvement in that played some part, I think, in the unexpected path my career took into writing books - books where I care as much about the design as the words. The desire to spend more time with Mr Matters was another element in my retreat from Science – the small intimate Form Five Art class was a significant learning experience on many levels.
I liked the uniform, especially the colour, but not the hat or the socks or the prefects policing of same. I ironed my felt hat with two creases along the side to create the cowboy hat effect so hated by Miss Essex. And Connie Simmons more or less won her point about tying her hair up with shoe-laces rather than ribbons, even though she was a prefect. But then Mrs Pearson was a modern and understanding headmistress in 1966 who didn’t bother to pick unnecessary fights.
Was there anything I really hated about CHS? Yes! The cold! I can still remember the pain of the cold in mid-winter and worse still the burn of the chilblains that afflicted me for months. Not just my feet, but my hands and ears. And the discomfort of trying to conceal layers of extra clothes under the flimsy uniform. Whoever was it who decreed girls could wear a blazer or a jumper, but not both at once? How we all longed for science or art classes where the rooms were properly heated from the boiler.
By Form Six in 1966 the original group had shrunk to a mere handful, our numbers augmented by Asian students, repeat students and new arrivals from nearby schools that still did not go to Matriculation. Most took maths and science subjects. French had shrunk to three, likewise English Literature which we did by correspondence. The two essays a week required under this arrangement was a critical learning experience - perhaps the most important of that year. I was the sole Latin student privileged to study in a small room alone with Miss Campbell (Mrs Siriani) probably by some arrangement that did not involve the Education Department to head off my threat to decamp to University High School.
We were still small enough to be a pretty cohesive group and life-long friendships were forged in these later years. The sense of connection among us and to the school was much enhanced by being in form six in the Jubilee Year and able to take part in all the celebrations - especially, the magazine for that year and the big ball where we even had a rock band. I think perhaps The Vibrants. Ivor Jones and I had a spectacularly good time. We met lots of distinguished former students - among them my aunt and uncle, Harry and Norma Rigby (Robertson). It helped us see where we might go.
We were generally treated as adults by most of the staff, but we were not big fans of the principal ‘Peanuts’ Russell, or his deputy. There were some rebellious elements, and a few silly individuals, but heavy-handedness was inappropriate. We were, in the main, diligent, good kids. It was not reasonable to cancel the end of year dinner because of the antics of a few. They were momentary lapses anyway, as subsequent careers have amply demonstrated. Collective punishments never are reasonable and usually defeat their purpose. At the very end we felt deeply aggrieved and rather let down by the school.
Which brings me back to that long, grey raincoat. For years I was painfully embarrassed by it, and so teased about it that I usually preferred to get wet rather than wear it. It spent most of its life rolled up in my bag. But after a while it became something of a badge. Something uniquely Carolyn. I was the ‘possessor of a very long grey raincoat’, as they said in my ‘Farewell to the Sixth’ paragraph in Echoes. And so, when on the last day of school certain boys discovered it was in my bag, they rushed off to hoist it up the flag pole! We left it there, fluttering an enigmatic farewell to the class of ‘66, as we set off on the next stage of our lives, truly enriched by a fine education.
At that moment, I also finally forgave my mother.