When I was about six, my mother (a widow) moved with my sister and I to New South Wales to start a new life in Sydney with her new boyfriend. Although we lived in rented accommodation it was in a very up market part of town called Cremorne that had harbour views, and my first school in Sydney was in the posh suburb of Mosman.
My very first day at Mosman Infants School was memorable for the fact that I was beaten up by about 5 or 6 other kids. I suspect that no one told them that kids from well-to-do suburbs were supposed to be gentlemen. I also guess that because I had bright red hair and freckles, I was marked out as someone who all the other kids could pick on.
Years later I read The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosinski and I felt that I wasn’t alone. In the book a love sick game warden captures birds and paints them whenever the mad woman of the village he loves, will sleep with anyone but never him. The painted birds were released and the game warden gained some sort of solace as all the other birds would attack them.
I can remember my first few days at that school being quite miserable, as it seemed though the other children were competing with each other to see who could be the meanest to me. I guess one day, I just snapped. I had enough of the ill treatment and I turned around and started hitting back. I remember on one occasion, I walked up to a group of boys who are playing and asked them if I could join in.
My request was met with an aggressive push and a snarling, “NAH!”
Before I could even think, one of my fists had knocked out one of my antagonist’s front teeth. He ran off screaming with his tooth in his hand and blood running from his mouth to tell the teacher what I had done.
The teacher wasn’t interested in hearing what had happened and I was taken inside and caned. For those unfamiliar with corporal punishment in the school system in Australia during the early 1960s, I will explain what caning is. The pupil is told to hold out his (girls weren’t usually caned) arm outstretched with his hand open and palm up to receive up to six strokes with a length of rattan cane about a half an inch (about 12 mm) in diameter. Failure to do so would lead to a quick smack around the legs with the cane until the hand was held out to receive punishment. Boy-o-boy, I can tell you, it really hurt! I wouldn’t like to get caned as an adult, never mind being a little child.
There was also a code of honour in regards to being caned. It was considered to be unmanly to flinch and you were considered to be weak if you cried. Weak kids got picked on so it was not a good strategy to show how much it hurt. As soon as one is hit with the cane the automatic reaction is to shake your hand in the air, and quickly sit on them, which was bit problematic sometimes because more the one stroke was often administered. After being caned you were usually sent back to your seat, where you sat on top of you hands for an hour or so. There was no point in trying to write because it was impossible to hold a pen and control it until the pain went away.
When I look back on my early days in primary school, there weren’t very many days I didn’t get the cane.
My time at Mosman Infants School consisted of being terrorised by my teacher, the very butch and cane wielding Mrs Davies and fighting with my fellow classmates during recess.
There was one kid in particular, whose last name was Rose, who used to cause me non-stop grief every time we came across each other’s path in the playground. For reasons that I still can’t understand Rose used to attack me (not once did I instigate anything with him) every time he saw me, and by then I used to automatically fight back. He seemed to have it in for me and I in turn, hated him right back. The teachers constantly had to pull us apart.
On one occasion I was walking along when Rose, who had been waiting behind a corner, jumped me and started pummelling me. He got in a couple of good shots before I was able to smack him a few back. Before long we had our arms around each other’s necks in headlocks, and we were rolling around in the dirt by the time the teachers turned up. One of the teachers grabbed a hold of Rose, who was on top of me, and lifted him up off me. As soon as I was free of his grip, and I could see that the teacher was holding him, I ran forward and kicked him in the stomach. The teachers gasped at my un-sporting opportunism.
Rose was instantly released and I was dragged indoors and caned once again, and then told to go to the library. I was later told that day, after recess, that I was not allowed to play with the other children any more, and that I had to spend all my recesses for the next six months in the library. Every time I attempted to explain why I had been fighting so much I was told to be quiet.
Although the situation seemed horribly unfair, I soon grew to love my time in the library. I spent my time looking at books about submarines or aeroplanes and drawing pictures of them. When I wasn’t sketching war machines I experimented with various forms of calligraphy. It was a good day, when I could knock over a U-boat and some old Gothic script during lunch. Because I used to also read quite a few of the books in the library my reading skills quickly passed everyone else in my class.
By the time my six months in the library was up, it was the end of the school year.
I was looking forward to my second year in primary school. I wouldn’t have to spend all my time in the library and I might have a chance to make some new friends. But alas, that wasn’t to be as my bright red hair acted as a magnet for more teasing and bullying. I just kept on being picked on and as a result, I was involved in a lot more fights again.
I was never asked why I was in the fights and it was just assumed that I was a troublemaker.
Again, I was sentenced to six months in the library, for the safety of the other children. My sister and cousin also went to the same school and I can hardly remember ever seeing them in the whole time that I went there.
Another six months of drawing and reading in the library during recess, passed.
I was finally allowed back into the playground with a warning not cause any trouble. Needless to say nobody had spoken to that miserable little shit, Rose. Sure enough Rose attacked me once again and this time I got the upper hand and beat the crap out of him. Once again, the teachers were not willing to listen to what had happened and I was sent to the library again. When it came time to go home that day, I was presented with a letter from my teacher saying that I was to give it to my mother, and they expected her to sign it and I was to return with it the next day.
The letter was a summons for my mother to come into the school to discuss my behavioural problems. Poor old mum was told that I was an uncontrollable danger to the other children and she had to take me to a Department of Education psychologist to be tested.
That was all fine with me because it meant that I didn’t have to go to school and I’d get a trip into the city instead.
I enjoyed my time at the psychologist because I got to play with blocks and answer easy questions. It was a piece of cake and I thought I’d done well. The psychologist told my mother that I had the intelligence to be anything that I wanted to be, but I would never amount to much because I didn’t have any discipline.
When the psychologist heard from my mother about all the other troubles I was in outside of school (a story for another time) he suggested that I’d be put in a borstal (reform school) for two weeks to give my mother and the school a break. I was told years later by my mother that the psychologist asked her out for a date. Mum thought he was a creep and declined his offer.
I was sent to Cronulla Boy’s Home as a punishment, but in fact, it turned out to be the best two weeks of my first two years at school.
The age of the boys at the home was between six and about fifteen. Whilst it would be easy to jump to the conclusion that such homes were full of incorrigible juvenile delinquent brutes, my fellow inmates were in fact; all decent guys and they treated me well. Not once, was I bullied or picked on in the whole time I was there. The older boys either ignored me or treated me like a little brother. It was the first time I’d ever been in an environment where I wasn’t being subjected to constant harassment.
It wasn’t all light and sweetness as the boy’s home was run by very scary matrons (the only male staff we came into contact were the ones we saw during our daytime classes). The matrons wore starched white nurses uniforms, and they enthusiastically wielded metre long (about 1 yard) rulers constructed of a leather, steel and leather laminate. In hindsight, I suspect that these were some kind of tradesmen’s straight-edge used for guiding blades when cutting things like carpet.
The matrons and their rulers terrified me. I had seen them hoe into some of the boys with such gusto that they had me fully convinced that I didn’t want the same treatment. The nearest thing I can think of that comes close to describing the matrons is the Queen of Hearts in “Alice in Wonderland”. They were the sort of people that one would paint a bush pink for, so as not to come to their attention.
Every morning began with a bed inspection and woes betide any boy foolish enough not to have a perfectly made up bed. The beds had to have the sheet pulled down to exactly the right place and the blankets had to be tucked in, neatly with what were known as “hospital corners”. The matrons had me so frightened that I didn’t dare ask them how to do a hospital corner so I used to just fake it and I would to spend a lot of time and effort frantically trying to make the corners of my bed “look” exactly as they wanted them. I never learned how to do it properly, until years later.
Aside from the scary matrons, the only other thing of my whole time in the boys home that I didn’t enjoy was after dinner when we got to watch television. All the older boys insisted that we watch “I Love Lucy”. I hated the show as a child and I still hate it to this day.