From Griffith REVIEW Edition 33: Such Is Life
© Copyright Griffith University & the author.
Written by Cassandra Atherton
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Cassandra Atherton’s biography and other articles by this writer
AT thirty-two I ran away from school. I left in the middle of second term. Severed all ties. Took my books and my Barbie pencil caddy. Rolled up my laminated Buffy posters and walked out. Before the bell. Before the day was over. Before I could change my mind. I never looked back. Until now.
It took me nine years to leave. It took me nine years to walk out of the gates one last time. Nine years. And yet, it didn’t take me long to realise what it was that I left behind in those classrooms.
Someone should invent a group called ‘Teachers Anonymous’, where teachers can gather to discuss every dream they’ve had about strangling those Year 8 students who drew nasty caricatures of them. Every fantasy about back-chatting the teenager who has called them ‘fat’ or ‘cow’ or ‘bitch’. I have my top five students: the top five who still haunt me. Every teacher has them. Every teacher secretly plots their demise.
This is about being overworked and underpaid. It’s about lying to people at parties and telling them I am anything but a teacher to avoid the stigma. Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach. Those who can, escape. Those who can’t, become jaded and embittered. This is dedicated to teachers everywhere who are sick of hearing how lucky they are to have holidays. How lucky they are to finish at 3.30 pm. How lucky they are. And finally, to answer the question I am asked the most by students: yes, we do talk about you in the staffroom. All the time. In fact, we bitch about you constantly.
I HAVE HAD a lot of first days at school. First day of prep, in my new pinafore and long summer dress, shiny innocence beaming from the photo in my granny’s brag book. First day of high school, with pimples and braces, this time in a maroon pinafore and a jumper. I didn’t want anyone to see my developing breasts. And, finally, my first day as a teacher; pink suit, new briefcase. I didn’t want anyone to smell my fear.
The thing I remember most about those early days is the smell of stale sweat in the classrooms. There is nothing kinky or sexy about teenage male sweat. It’s like sniffing the inside of a sock after it has been worn for a week and has gone stiff and is soiled in the toe crescent. Proust had his madeleine; I have teenage male sweat. Occasionally when a schoolboy stands next to me on public transport I am transported back to the late 1990s:,rows of boys with their shirts hanging out, ties askew, legs too big to fit under their desks. And me in my pink suit, standing up the front of the classroom with Lord of the Flies and a blue whiteboard marker. Wondering how I was going to write on the board without turning my back on them. The pack of smelly boys, smelling my fear over their body odour, waiting to tear me apart.
I GOT INTO teaching when I was twenty-three, because I come from a family of teachers. If you ask most teachers you will find a family connection somewhere along the line. A mother. A father. An aunty. Someone. Teachers breed teachers.
As a little girl I would pretend to correct my imaginary students’ homework and call the roll. Who knew that, fifteen years later, I would never bother calling the roll and students’ homework would become the bane of my life. I got into teaching because I didn’t really know what other jobs entailed. I got into teaching because I was told that no one could make a living as a writer. So, while I was writing my Masters on Nabokov’s Lolita, I enrolled in a graduate diploma in secondary teaching. I went on to get my PhD in Literature. My grandparents still brag about my teaching diploma more than my doctorate. But that is because teaching used to be a respectable profession. Or so I am told.
Now, at parties and social gatherings I avoid telling anyone I am a teacher. It just provokes one of three possible responses:
‘Did you get a crap mark in the VCE and couldn’t get into anything else?’
‘But the wages are so low in teaching, how can you bear it?’
‘You must love all the holidays, you slacker!’
It’s not worth getting riled up about, but just for the record: I got 98.75 in the VCE. I was always pretty happy with the wages; I was making about $75,000 per annum, more than you make as an associate lecturer at university. And the holidays do not nearly make up for the stress, being sworn and spat at (by parents as well as students), the Saturday school sport, the school camps and marking every night of the week.
NONE OF MY teacher training prepared me for the classroom. Instead of lectures about pedagogy and scaffolding and butcher’s paper filled with crayon flowcharts, someone should have told me what to say when you tell a student to stop talking and he says ‘make me’.
I was offered a job at an all-boys middle school on my third and final teaching round. I’d just been made redundant from my job as an archivist so it didn’t seem prudent to turn it down. Opportunity had knocked. I mean, how bad could it be? My teaching rounds had been relatively uneventful and both my supervisors had given me top marks for my teaching ability.
I still remember being offended that one of my supervisors, unable to come up with any real criticism of me, had written on my report that I should modulate my voice more in the classroom. Monotony is teaching rounds, not my voice. Monotony is handing your supervisor detailed lesson plans that you will never write again once you are a ‘real’ teacher. Monotony is teaching your supervisor’s classes all day, every day without pay, while she sits at the back of the class surfing the web. Monotony is mountains of your supervisor’s correction that needs to be marked before the next morning, on top of the new lesson plans that must be composed and submitted to her. And she won’t read them. In general, teachers don’t read any more than their students. In fact, some of them read less. Teachers can’t talk about books if they have never read any. So most teachers can’t talk about books. Unless they have been teaching the same one for a decade. Teachers can only talk about students, particularly the ones they hate. Monotony is teaching rounds. Round and round. Chasing my tail.
I’M WALKING ACROSS the quadrangle in my little pink suit, with my brand-spanking-new briefcase, in a brand-new workplace. My first day as Miss Atherton. I’ve never been called that before. And the pack has spotted me. The new teacher. The pink one. Their prey.
One of my friends refers to Limeley Grammar School as Stalag 17. The boys are like menacing prisoners surrounded by concrete. Big concrete steps framing the bitumen. Grey on grey. Four grey walls, and four grey towers. I am the Lady of Shalott. Doomed. Just give me a paintbrush and a boat and I will write my name around the prow and float down the Maribyrnong River.
I am trying not to listen to the spanking sound my heels make as I cross the quadrangle.
‘Hey Miss, will you teach me?’ some of the boys yell out in a seemingly amicable tone. But they are the same ones who try to make me cry later that week. They tell me later they have managed to make the last four female teachers cry. Two of those teachers have left. The other two now get ‘hand-picked’ classes to avoid problems. I keep walking.