Friday, October 4, 2013

Memoir - Leaves 21-28 Reflections on Education

Leaf 21 “Once a miner always a comrade in arms” Parliament House Canberra 1999

I’ve always considered my veneer of civilisation as being very thin and a constant struggle to retain, largely because I want to preserve the great gifts of my background – a desire for plain talking, a preference for directness over excessive politeness and a capacity to understand or feel what is like to walk in someone else’s shoes. Sometimes, however, switching back to the ‘old me’ is also a very useful tool of diplomacy.

I was sitting in a committee meeting room in Parliament House in Canberra. Before me were several members of a visiting UK parliamentary committee on Public Administration investigating FOI. Most were typical angle saxon genetics - tall, thin and full of misdirection.   However one of the party was a gruff, short, stocky and no-nonsense Labour member, who was very unreceptive to my considered, measured and academic responses. He had the look, sound and temperament of an old time miner/union official. So I let slip that I was from a mining town and had spent time working underground. Bingo. Immediately he was very keen on this “FOI” thing that his newly  found comrade was advocating.

Throughout my professional encounters, I often feel like an emissary from a very different world. I have learnt the mannerisms, customs and speaking patterns of those I mix with but I am always on guard and wary. I understand the necessity for the customs, the social cues and the power in being diplomatic, yet it is often terribly frustrating not to simply call a spade a spade or to cut through the verbiage with a simple ‘bullshit’. I understand all the shortcomings of the class and era I sprung from – the heavy layers of sexism, racism, homophobia and the viewpoint that the rest of the world is filled with idiots because they don’t agree with you. Yet often I yearn for the refreshing bluntness of leaning over the table during a tedious university meeting and simply saying, “fuck, you are an idiot!”

Leaf 22 “College years” Hobart 1974-1975

When I left Queenstown for college, my sister Julie was about 11, my brother Keith was  6, and my sister Donna was 2. Infrequent visits home over the years meant that I missed nearly all the major events in their lives. I don’t know how my parents afforded my accommodation at Hollydene Hostel and while I was grateful for the extra spending money they gave me, it was never very much. Mum and Dad had little idea of what college or university entailed but they were certainly prepared to help me get there. Yet their lack of knowledge about further education meant they never pushed me.  I worked dilligently not to write home and ask for money but it was often difficult.  During one bus trip back to Hobart, I lost the money my parents had given me and things were looking bleak until a teacher offered me a gardening job. Over the next year, I seemed to strike it lucky and got the odd gardening job from two other teachers. In retrospect, I now understand these jobs were gifts and not lucky breaks for a fairly poor and irregular gardener.

By going to College, I started a journey that took me, with every step, deep into a world unknown to my parents or my forbearers. My mother had to leave school in Year 8 and my father never went past the final year in primary school. When Dad was about 12 or 13, his father died leaving behind 12 kids - three girls in high school and the rest in primary school or very young children. Dad’s brothers were sent off to the Boys Home, not a great time for them. We eventually discovered (and the banter about Dad being Nan’s favourite had more bite in it than we realised for many years) the wide scale abuse that occurred in state care during that time. Dad had stayed at primary school until he was old enough to start work at the mine to help support his family. His approach to life has always been a kind of ‘you do what you have to do and there is no use whinging about it or trying to change things’ approach. In many ways, he was an ideal man to take on the responsibility of two step kids in the late 1960s in a small mining town.

Sometime after I finished Grade 2 at East Launceston Primary School, Mum, my sister Julie and I moved to Queenstown to live with my grandparents. We shared a very tiny house in Arthur Street.  I have no recall of my bedroom or if I shared it with my little sister but I seem to recall sleeping on a tiny couch from time to time. 

It was a tiny house on the edge of town, in a small gully, in the shadows of the majestic Penghana – the mansion of the Mt Lyell Mine mangers that sat on top of a small hill.  And Penghana - with it’s secluded, off-limits, large well maintained gardens and grounds dominating the landscape - deepened the foundations of my future political beliefs and attraction to social justice issues. 

Two transformative events changed my life dramatically after moving to Queenstown. First, in Grade 3 I received some help from a government funded speech therapist that made my impediment more manageable. I still had difficulty correctly pronouncing words and tended to speak in monosyllables (later on I loved the liberation Bob Dylan gave me to stretch, twist and create new sounds). Yet the speech therapist gave me a handful of tricks that provided an escape from my self-imposed social isolation. Later, the flexibility and ability to manage the written word completely unleashed my freedom to express myself. To this day, despite two decades as an academic having delivered over a thousand lectures, hundreds of talks, including at international conferences to several hundred people and a few hundred media interviews, I still find the written word a more comfortable, ‘natural’ and effective way of communicating.

The other major change at this time was the entry of Keith Snell into my life. Sometime between Grade 3 and 5 my mother met the only man I have ever called Dad. Unusually for Queenstown, Keith had remained a bachelor till he met Mum who not only had two small kids, but was 4-5 years older than him. 

I gained not only a father but an extremely strict disciplinarian who insisted on neatness and order and short back and sides/crew cuts (at a time when long hair was fashionable, albeit against school rules). I think my life of clutter is a rebellion against that imposed discipline. You can always tell which is Dad’s car by the high polish on the outside and the look of the engine on the inside. The engines are always painted, sparkle and literally spotless. He has a shadow board for his tools. And even after all these years, away from home, I would be able walk through his house blindfolded. Everything will still be in its prefect place as it has been for the past forty years.

 In exchange for the exposure to discipline, for the first time in my life, I gained an extended family and a new surname. The Snell clan is a wild and rambling bunch.  I went from a small struggling sole parent family unit living on the edge with almost no history or roots, I was aware of, to being, by default, the eldest member of the next generation of a proud and very large family. I went from having a couple of cousins and a couple of uncles and aunties to having over fifty cousins and twenty or so uncles and aunties.  About the age of 8 or 9, I had gained a new name, a new family, a sense of belonging, a new family history and a new home town.  Around the same time I discovered a passion for reading and the treasure trove of the small (but at the time it seemed enormous) library of Queenstown Central Primary School. In many ways my whole life and sense of identity was reforged in this period.

By the time I arrived at College in Hobart I had embraced the persona of a West Coaster, a label I still attach to myself, but the remoteness of my ‘home town’ and the scarcity of other informed West Coasters allowed me to add my own meaning, history and sense of belonging to the name ‘Snell’. My college years allowed me to salvage what I wanted from my past and then allowed me to lock away and neglect the rest for another 35 years.

Leaf 23 “Inspiring families and friends” Mexico November 2008

I had tears in my eyes and gently held a small glass horse in my hands. The figurine had been given to me by Juan Pablo’s brother. The gift was made after I had spoken about my wife and daughter’s love of horses. It had been originally a gift from their father.

I had celebrated thanksgiving with Juan Pablo Guerrero Amparan, a Mexican Information Commissioner, his immediate family and a gathering of childhood (and neighbourhood) friends. Indeed most of the male guests at thanksgiving that day were the members of a neighbourhood band formed when they were young but who still get together to play and had produced a CD the previous year. In my neighbourhood we played cricket, smashed street lights and went bush; in Juan Pablo’s neighbourhood they played music.

I had met Juan Pablo briefly at a FOI and Privacy conference in Edmonton a couple of years earlier. At the end of the conference we had a spare evening and went out for a meal together. Over the meal an easy camaraderie developed. After returning home we shared emails, family photos and kept in touch.

A few months later, my 17 year old daughter Elise visited Mexico for five weeks and lived with this talented family – they all sing or play instruments with incredible passion and beauty. Juan Pablo’s wife, Johanna, is half Dutch and American and their sons speak Spanish, English, French and some Dutch. Johanna said having Elise around was like having a daughter and for Elise, who had her own quarters in a converted two storey stable, with maids to cook and clean for her, it was a very different cultural and social experience. 

During my stay with Juan Pablo I learnt the story of his mother, Lourdes Guerrero, who had died of cancer. She was a fiercely independent female journalist and well known figure in Mexico in the 1970s and 1980s.  She and Guillermo Ochoa had hosted “Hoy Mismo”, a morning program, on Televisa for many years, and before that she had acted in a couple of her husband's movies (Juan Guerrero)  Amelia (1966), Mariana (1967) and Narda o el verano (1970).  Lourdes was hosting on air on the  19 September 1985 when the 8.1 magnitude quake hit Mexico City at 7.19am. As the quake shook the studios Lourdes said “It seems we are experiencing an earthquake…”. (see Transmission ceased when a 10 ton antenna bent over and crushed parts of the Televisa studios. Most people ran from the building but Lourdes and another presenter, Maria Victoria Llamas, stayed sheltered under their anchor desks. Lourdes appeared on air the same afternoon broadcasting from another studio.

Leaf 24 “It’s not a house but a home” Queenstown 1973

A few days before the end of the school year, my Grade 9 Social Science teacher remarked that I had failed to hand in any homework for the year. If I brought it in next day he might mark it. I had scored very well in all our class tests, I always finished my class work quickly, in large part because I would be assigned to help some of the prettiest girls in the class finish their work. Yet I was totally slack with homework. I rarely did homework. Like many Queenstown houses, our house whilst huge in my memory, was actually extremely cramped with the six of us almost living on top of each other. Certainly, there was no desk in my shared bedroom and the only work area was the small table in the kitchen. I cannot even recall where I would have put school books except keeping them in my school bag. Any homework I attempted was at recess time in the school library but only if absolutely necessary.

Up for a challenge from the teacher, I sweet talked the girls in my Social Science class into lending me their work books.  I worked throughout the night, at the little kitchen table and on the lounge room floor, and after my first major exposure to endless coffees I managed to hand in, bleary-eyed, an impressive number of homework tasks. Every task was done with different biros to reflect the time period over which they should have been put together. Much to the disgust of the girls, I won the Social Science prize for Grade 9. My only major academic achievement in High School.

I never stopped to think about what it must have been like for Mum to be housebound in a small mining town with 4 children and unable to drive. Especially after my grandparents moved a couple of hours away to Hamilton.  The winters were long and constantly wet.  Dad built a drying area on the back of the house to help ease the problem with drying washing – a covered roof and the side covered with strips of wood separated by a couple of inches to allow airflow. Yet there was little for Mum outside her domestic role. Mum was an outsider both to the town and to the large Snell clan. Many years later I read Pete Hay’s poems and writings about Queenstown and the West Coast in Vandiemonium Essay. An outsider’s insights, but a sensitive outsider who had taken time to listen and understand. Pete wrote a poem capturing a female friend’s view and also brought to my attention other female stories of a sense of entrapment or living in, Pete Hay’s words,  ‘a barren space for women’.

Looking back I think it was indeed a barren space for my mother, with four young children, a husband who after long hours at work, spent endless hours working in his garage or doing up the house.  In a different world I think mum would have loved to have spent her time drawing, exploring, bike riding and watching movies at the cinema but that was a world that was foreclosed to her until very recently.

Leaf 25 “Whose subject is it:  the teacher’s or the student’s?” Conningham February 2002

A few days before the start of semester 1, 2002, the mid February sun was setting on the Introduction to Law Camp at Conningham. The camp was held every year by the Law Students Society to welcome first year students. I sat with a group of first year students in the twilight, at a large outdoor wooden table overlooking the bay. Late the year before, I had come close to resigning.  Heavy workloads, a very problematic first year student, a white hot angry Dean and budget problems stemming from student attrition, implicitly laid at my feet, and very few sources of positive support had taken their toll. Requests to take up invitations to speak overseas were never refused but were never approved. I had to deal with a ton of grief and stress and realised that career progress from this point might be a long slow road. I had taken most of January off and now intended to just go through the motions, do my job and think a little about my next steps and whether to leave a faltering career behind. A few years before, I had mentioned to Michael Field, a former State Premier and my English teacher in Grade 7, that I had no intention of teaching the same thing in the same way year in and year out just to have a job. It seemed I had now reached that exit point.

I sat listening to the students wondering why I was even there. As the last rays of sunshine retreated, a young blonde girl at the end of the table literally shivered and said “I have been waiting all my life to come to University and my first lecture is on Monday. I can’t wait.” 

My heart sank; I was going to be her first lecturer and my intent was to just to go through the motions. Her first lecture would be such a disappointment.

The conversation continued around me but I sat silent struggling with tears of disappointment.  I had allowed myself to become the type of lecturer I never wanted to be.

I left Conningham in the dark and as I wound my way to the Channel Highway. Struggling to find the dirt road in the dark, I tried to work out my options. I still felt like resigning but didn’t want to end on such a sour note. I decided to put my problems and frustrations to one side and follow the advice of Bruce Springsteen. He once said in an interview – “the fans don’t buy a ticket for next week’s show they have come to hear me play tonight.” I might not have been Bruce Springsteen but there was no reason why this young student or any of the others deserved less than my best effort. At the very least, I could perform my best effort for one last year.  One comment, one student and one refocused teacher.

Leaf 26 “When the subject just belongs to the teacher” Queenstown, Winter 1973.

In the middle of a wild, West Coast winter, the howling wind and almost horizontal rain lashed against and through the open windows of the small classroom. Eight frightened souls, doing French in Grade 9, were wedged up at the back of the classroom shivering near the open windows. At the front of the small class, wedged in the doorway, was the towering hulk of our teacher, a giant of a man with a titanic temper and bellicose attitude. He bellowed and launched his instructions at us. Some have described him as a heavy weightlifter gone to fat.  Yet, for us poor souls doing his subject, he was a walking nightmare. I spent most of Year 9 dreading our next class with him. 

In the future, this man would be my model of an anti-teacher. You were never right, only wrong to different degrees. His students could be seen stumbling around the hallways with a pile of books and other assorted items, at least 30 cms high.  In his class you had to bring every book, dictionary, pencil, ruler and other item he wanted or face a tirade, extra homework or detention or on a whim, a fearsome retribution of all three. If the next lesson was translation you couldn’t just bring the latest translation book you had to bring everything.

I did homework for him - unlike other classes - but I was never certain what I was doing or why and resented every moment.  Trips to the phone box, a few blocks away, to call up the smartest person in the class, who lived in Zeehan, were not helpful; in this class we were all in the ‘Dumb Zone’. There could be a test without notice, homework demanded for a class might not be collected or reviewed, but then we suddenly find that we should have done extra work for this class or brought the homework not collected last week.

In retrospect, I appreciate the unenviable task of teaching French to cultural and working class barbarians on the West Coast. It is a punishment akin to penal transportation for language teachers. But this approach to teaching, linked to my speech hurdles, removed any burning desire to learn another language for a lifetime.

Leaf 27 “Broken words are never meant to be spoken, Everything is broken” Bob Dylan. Sometime, mid 1990s Law School University of Tasmania

I stood in a small law school tutorial room.  Unusually for Tasmania, it was a hot day, and I was conducting a tutorial with over twenty students in a room designed for maybe a dozen. Extra chairs had been dragged in. Two or three broken chairs lay discarded in the left hand corner and may have been there for several weeks. Restrictive covenants was the topic - not the highlight on my property law teaching play list. The students had come confused from the lecture and had done no reading.  This was the last tutorial for the fortnight. Most of the students in the room were there out of desperation, but in the time honoured tradition of desperate students, there was still no need to panic and hit the text books and certainly not enough angst to feel the need to read the assigned cases even though  40% of students had failed the mid year exam, many by large margins.  Assessment was by 80% final exam, The students were unable to discover whether this topic could be avoided in the final exam. I was in teaching hell.

Leaf 28 “Must be somewhere out of here” Bob Dylan. Queenstown 1971-1974

Throughout high school, I threw myself into sports and other physical activity: running, badminton, cricket, basketball, volley ball, bike riding and when I had nothing else to do, I would take my cricket ball down to the South Queenstown Primary School nets and just bowl over after over at the stumps or targets I placed on the pitch. In part, this activity kept boredom and depression at bay; it helped offset the bookworm and four-eye labels; and it allowed my imagination to run riot about future sports glory for me and this town in the middle of nowhere. In retrospect, it also limited, along with availability and money, my opportunities to indulge in underage drinking and made my non-smoking a sensible choice. Even when I did hit the grog underage, the prospect of an upcoming sporting effort tended to moderate my drinking.

When I went on holidays, I often spent many an hour in backyards in Devonport, Whyalla and Hamilton playing solo cricket. I would throw a ball against a wall and then hit it in endless mythical test matches where I played the key role. 

A legacy left to the future me was a liking for sports metaphors and analogies when I started to teach. I often use the idea of a small town sports coach – the primary mission is getting people simply onto the field and engaged. A secondary task, is to work with the talent you have to improve their skills -- helping the uncoordinated press-ganged nerd move from being bowled every ball to being able to block most deliveries that might just give your team the edge. I don’t see the point of leaving it all to your players/students and simply jumping up and down on the sidelines bemoaning the hopeless cretins given to you in the last round/entry. Thirdly, you take those with some skill and help them to the next level, to become local champs or legends. Finally, your job is to find the rare and truly talented ones and encourage them to the next level and a better coach.

In the end, it was not sport but education that led me away from the valley. Unlike sports, the educational path was largely a mystery and seemed either beyond my control or at risk from my own activity: acts of petty theft, vandalism, underage drinking and lacklustre educational performance in some areas. I ended up drifting down to Level 1 Technical Drawing class (there were 3 levels for High School) despite being at Level 3 for all other subjects. My drift was due in equal parts to a lack of interest, a TD teacher who used T-Squares as a form of crowd control, a lack of care in my drafting and little space at home to complete my drawings. Most of the time my thoughts, when they drifted to the future, focused, like nearly everyone’s, on getting a job in the mine either as an apprentice or as one of the five cadets out of a hundred potential candidates each year (clerical staff). Just every now and then the idea of going to that unknown place called ‘university’ popped up. Yet the obstacles loomed large – the need to move away from home, choose a college (qualify to enter) and very few people to talk to about it (even if I had been aware of the questions to ask).

In the late 1970s, when I studied Ethnic Politics during my Political Science course and from my observations of my friends from Greek, Polish and Italian backgrounds, I was intrigued by their families’ focus on tertiary education. My 1850s Irish (mum’s side) and German and Irish (the Snells) background never saw education as a route to a better life. If education was ever mentioned, it was to unfavourably compare it with common sense and hard work. Three decades later, only some of my younger nephews and nieces the next generation have started to follow a route involving further education.