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Tram shame

My days as a school teacher at Boyd

13 Sep 2015

My days as a school teacher at Boyd Image

Special feature by Goldie Alexander

The latest home for the ‘Australian Book Review’ (ABR), that most literary of Australian magazines, is the building known as Boyd. This is because this building was once the home of J.H. Boyd Domestic College for Girls. In late 1967, this school was my introduction to 25 years as a high school teacher.

A single mum with two small daughters recently arrived from Perth, I was desperate for work ... any kind of work. Back then, the Victorian Education Department was equally desperate for staff. They were so desperate that any prospective employee had only to prove that she or he had four university subjects, even if no teacher training, and low and behold, she or he had a job.  

Desperation breeds fearlessness. Filling in the Education Department’s application form, I declared that I could teach everything, except maybe maths and science. I was even capable of teaching music. Someone’s eagle eye alighted on this and, sure enough, I was sent to J.H.Boyd as its music teacher.

Back then J.H. Boyd was notorious for containing the most difficult girls in Melbourne. It was also known as a “punishment park” for any teacher who broke departmental rules. The Year 7 to Year 10 students were the daughters of Port Melbourne dockside workers.

Back then, Port Melbourne had a pub on every corner and streets of factories, warehouses and decrepit wooden cottages with outside loos. J.H. Boyd’s students knew from an early age that whatever they learnt in school wasn’t going to serve them when they were old enough to leave. For these girls it was a splendid way of socialising until sooner or later they would find a job.

J.H. Boyd Girls High School was constructed in 1884-1885 as State School No 2686 and in 1932 was renamed the JH Boyd Domestic College after its patron, a successful grazier, bequeathed a large sum of money for a school where “women should be taught to manage a home correctly”.

Domestic arts schools developed in the years during and after WWI – a time when there was a concerted push for “mothering” education. The truth was that by then it was hard to find good servants.

To give these schools their due, they expanded girls’ secondary education at a time when state governments were reluctant to provide post-primary education.

At the time I knew nothing about the school’s history. All I had in my repertoire was the ability to read music and thump out a tune on a discordant piano. The music room was a portable with no heating or cooling.

The girls were frankly terrifying. Think St Trinians and the most ferocious fems in Hunger Games and you’ve got it in one. So it was most unfortunate that the principal (let’s call her Ms Mitchell) had great aims for these children. She had visions of them learning notation, perhaps even discovering some latent female Mozart. She certainly visualised them trilling Nymphs and Shepherds – maybe even Scarlatti, Vivaldi, and Johann Sebastian Bach.

Well. I tried. I really did try. Meanwhile, the girls occupied themselves by chucking stuff around the room and continuing feuds that started and ended in the quadrangle. Their undisputed leader, a lass of 13 called Pat who towered well above my five-foot-two, must have felt sorry for me, because at least she ensured that nothing actually hit me unless accidental.  If I asked for help from other teachers, all I got was a sniff and a shrug. Anyway, given I was tucked away in the furthest portable, no one cared.

One day I had the inspiration to ask the girls what they would like to do? “Sing,” I was told. It turned out that what they wanted was early karaoke. So I took myself into the city and bought multiple copies of The Sound of Music, Fiddler on the Roof, Camelot, some of the early Beatles hits and other popular 50s and 60s songs.

It was a raging success. From a classroom of raging St Trinians I suddenly had groups of girls singing their little hearts out. And when we went to see Sound of Music as a school excursion, there wasn’t a dry eye in the cinema.

I wish I could say that I turned the teaching of music upside down. Unfortunately, Ms Mitchell got wind of what I was doing and called me into her office. There, she coldly pointed out that I had not been employed to lead early karaoke sessions, but to teach the girls notation and what she called “more suitable songs”. She said: “I’m so disappointed in you. I’m afraid I cannot recommend that you continue your career as a teacher.”

Looking back, perhaps she was right.  I should have used the opportunity to go into advertising, television, or film ... anything that would have given me more money, status and led me earlier into my chosen career as a writer. But there were two daughters to be housed and fed.

To cut a long story short, I persuaded the Education Department – using lots of tears and other feminine wiles – to send me to another school the following year where I would teach English and history. No music. There, my first task was to check the roll for period one where every child had a six syllable hard-to-pronounce Greek surname.

So now this spanking community hub in Southbank is open, I sincerely hope that there might be some echo of the 60s ... hope that someone might occasionally hear a dim rendition of  If I Were a Rich Man, Climb Every Mountain and even 16 going on 17. If this should happen, please let me know as I would then feel that my very short career as a music teacher was not entirely wasted.

Goldie Alexander is an award-winning author who has had over 80 of her works published in Australia and overseas. She currently resides in Middle Park.

She will be speaking at the inaugural Sunday School on Sunday October 18 at the Boyd Community Hub. Bookings are essential – contact Natalie Mason at Boyd on 9658 8300.

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