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A CHALKIE OF THE STATE

chalkie cover
 

An eight-year-old boy in the mid-Fifties sets his sights on becoming a teacher and embarks on a dramatic, funny and heart-warming six-decade journey from schoolboy to probationary teacher to deputy principal, finally escaping back to the classroom again.

“Chalkie” is a compelling, richly entertaining story of great teachers and charlatans, lovely children and exasperating miscreants from a dozen state schools.

At times gut-wrenching and hair-raising, it is an eye-opening account that is a guaranteed reading adventure for anyone who was ever a teacher, student or parent in an Australian secondary school community.

 

In Store Price: $AU29.95 
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ISBN:   978-1-921919-76-3
Format: Paperback
Number of pages: 283
Genre: Non Fiction

Cover: Clive Dalkins

Author: James H. Mannell
Publisher: Zeus Publications
Date Published: 2013
Language: English

 

AUTHOR BIO 

 

Jim Mannell, a teacher-actor, as if there were any other kind, is an English and foreign languages graduate of Sydney University who taught in 10 different state secondary schools before he reluctantly retired in 2006. His experiences as a teacher and deputy principal, amusing, bizarre, incredible, produced in him a compelling urge to write this story for the entertainment and edification of his readers.

1 – The Blooding

 READ A SAMPLE:

I

 didn’t think it was too much to ask for: English Assistant at any co-educational high school in the Western Suburbs area of Sydney. I wasn’t exactly applying for a blue ribbon district.

But the departmental letter of appointment I’d found in the letterbox that day had directed me elsewhere, emphatically.

Modern Languages Assistant. Brighton Bay Boys’ High. St George Area.

No... Surely Those in Charge of Staffing had stuffed up and would quickly move to correct Their awful blunder. And it really had been a blunder. On the first day of my teaching career, for some unaccountable reason, They’d sent another first-year-out teacher to fill the same teaching position, a girl from my 1966 Dip Ed group who had the same teaching methods. The principal of BBBH, Mr Flower, got Them to look into the matter for a couple of days, during which my hopes were raised that I’d be reappointed.

But suddenly my female competition for the position was whisked away. She quickly resurfaced in Tumut in the deep south of the state, to teach English at its co-ed high. She got my position! But then, before she could even prepare her first week’s lessons, she died in a car crash. Was she sent to her death because I was a better graduate? Was it because I was a married man whose wife was doing her Dip Ed in Sydney in ’67 after having a year off? Or was it just because I was male? I’d never know and They didn’t have to explain. In any case, I had a teaching career to hurl myself into.

Like a kid adjusting to first year at high school, I adjusted quickly to my role as a French teacher with one token English class. I was thrilled with my first pay cheque in 21 years, $105 per fortnight. I was a teacher. I had classes of my own. Professional status. A selective school with a high percentage of students who were classified Q1 in intelligence. A school that still clung to tradition, even if it was going just a little to seed as the Seventies loomed. Rows of honours boards. A school anthem. A bold motto: Step Out With Courage.

At first Mr Mannell of the Modern Languages department was overawed by it all. A chalkie of the state. Proud to serve. But after a while I began to see that the times, they were certainly a-changing. Out in the unreal world American astronauts were dying so that the USA could be the first to put some clown on the moon. Indigenous Australians were being allowed to vote for the first time. Charles Perkins became the first black uni graduate, following my wife and me up onto the dais to get our scrolls. The reporters were ready for him. But they also noticed two kids in cape and gown clutching their degrees and a six-month-old baby and rushed us for a photo shot and the story. The Bachelors Are Married. I let out an audible snort and a couple of boys looked up from their exam. I mouthed sorry.

Here at Brighton Bay Boys’ in 1967 there was a sixth form for the first time, preparing for a Higher School Certificate, to supersede the Leaving Certificate, now as defunct as the old Intermediate Certificate. Successful candidates no longer passed with Honours, As and Bs in their final year, they gained passes at first, second or third level. And their hair was getting longer.

I had my own desk. I’d inherited it from a line of predecessors stretching back to before the war. I shared the languages staffroom with six others, four of them men. Never again would I work in a foreign languages faculty where males were in the majority. After Brighton, the balance would swing dramatically and permanently back to females. For now, there was Kevin Penny, a rotund ex-rugby player who spoke like Chips Rafferty but taught the poetry of Ovid and read Caesar’s Gallic Wars out loud in Latin.

And there was Fred Kearns, who was sharing this exam supervision with me. Tough as teak, bloodshot eyes, chain-smoker, very old school, a veteran of 28 years of teaching at BBBH, a feat I already suspected I had no desire to emulate. Fred set high standards and made sure his boys achieved them. To this end he had a remarkably unique approach to the teaching and learning of French. He gave unbelievably difficult dictée, but to make sure his boys could handle it, he pronounced the silent endings of the more challenging French words, thus bringing a whole new meaning to the use of phonetics. To counter what Fred saw as the wretched new development in French teaching that required you to actually teach the students how to speak the language, he’d come up with his own ingenious pedagogical approach. He gave written conversation exercises and tests in which, in his inimitable Aussie accent, he asked a question and gave the boys a few seconds to write their answer. No student voice ever had to be heard.

“Look, Jimmy,” he drawled at me, irritating me by calling me that name, “this modern aural-oral bullshit’s too airy-fairy. If ya want to know if a kid can do French, just get ’im to write down the French for ‘three beautiful red apples’! Trois belles pommes rouges.”

I looked over at Fred, who was getting antsy for a cigarette. He was still a Westlake’s French Grammar man, who was utterly convinced that the real measure of success in French was to be able to get grammatical agreement right, to put the ees and the esses in the right place.

Back in the staffroom for recess, my tension began to rise as the minutes ticked away to the antagonistic 4D French. I sucked in a few deep breaths and tried to steel myself for another double period with them. I tried to look relaxed when the austere and upright languages mistress, Olivia McCreedie, came in with Mary Coleman, our popular and attractive teacher of Indonesian, closely followed by Madame Brouard, a charming Mauritian who spoke very little English and a dialectal strain of French we found hard to follow. She was old enough to be an experienced teacher, but was effectively a first-year-out teacher who was destined, even at an “academic” high such as BBBH, to be chewed up and spat out by her rambunctious students.

Serious of purpose, heavy of make-up, Miss McCreedie was a good boss, but I’d never forgiven her for switching me from 4C to 4D after a few weeks of teaching. Thrown me to the wolves. The bottom class. This was done to spare the late arriving Mme Brouard, who Olivia instinctively knew wasn’t the person to stand in front of O’Byrne, Braid, Ingersoll and Warner.

I was.

The 4D class would’ve been delighted if they knew how much I still dreaded each of my five periods a week with them. They were the only class I didn’t enjoy teaching. My early lessons with them were still painful to think about. I began with the enthusiasm and the confidence to teach them well, but with 4D, I soon realised that teaching and learning would have to take a back seat to discipline. On the first day they did their utmost to destroy my lesson. Before greeting them, I put my books and chalk box on the teacher’s desk out on the dais-style teaching platform, unaware that they’d precariously balanced the front legs of the desk on the edge of the dais. When I plonked my stuff on the teacher’s desk, it toppled forward, crashing onto two of the less offensive boys sitting right under my nose, hurling my books and chalk in all directions. Haw, Haw, sir.

“Oh yeah,” Kev Penny said when he heard about it, “we shoulda warned you about that one, Jimmy.”

I picked up my stuff as quickly as I could, leaving enough pieces of broken chalk for the likes of Warner and O’Byrne to pelt other boys with. When I finally began the lesson by greeting the class, introducing myself and commenting on the weather, all in French, they went ape-shit. Some applauded jeeringly. Some stared at each other and laughed.

“Parlay English!” hollered the revolting Jason Warner.

A boy down the front fell onto the floor, feigning a mental breakdown. Others passed racist remarks about Frogs and Wogs. I tried asking simple questions in French. Either they didn’t understand or refused to give serious answers. I tried to get simple conversational French out of them for 15 minutes, before giving up in misery and writing an exercise on the board, more to calm myself down than to introduce variety.

They did the exercise, but continued to talk and make facetious comments. I asked them to work quietly. I ordered them to work quietly. I bellowed at them to work quietly.

“Oooooh...” they jeered.

Subsequent lessons went the same way. A constant arm-wrestle. My careful lesson plans disintegrated. They knew they were getting to me. I came out of 4D French feeling angry and exhausted. But I was also determined to control if not subdue them. By the time first term ended I’d tried an array of disciplinary measures. I appealed to them. It fell on deaf ears. I set extra homework, which had no effect, as half the class didn’t do the normal homework anyway. I resorted to the old-fashioned strategy of imposing 100 lines. I rejected this very quickly: some boys owed up to 1200 lines after two weeks. I kept the class back at lunchtime. That was abandoned, because it was unfair to the less unruly ones. Detaining the main offenders (a third of the class) wasn’t a real deterrent. It just punished me. Referring an offender to a higher authority, such as my subject mistress, was tempting, but in a sense another defeat.

Halfway through second term I cracked and got physical.

It started with my first 4D lesson of the week. I stubbornly began the lesson in French as always. Same response. We jockeyed for position. Again I curtailed the oral work and, nearing the end of my tether, I set them exercises from A New French Course Book III to kill the rest of the lesson, inviting them to put their hands up if they had trouble with any of the sentences. Instantly 36 hands shot up. Then when they were finally working, or simulating work, a boy near the front raised his hand.

“Yes, Beddoes, what’s your question?”

Beddoes held up the dismembered leg of his desk.

“What should I do with this, sir?”

Guffaws and floor stamping. Vandalism of furniture was nothing new at BBBH. The wags regularly removed the screws from the desks and chairs.

I was losing, but chose to ignore Beddoes.

Halfway through the lesson I wanted to clean some work off the board, but saw at once that they’d swiped my duster. I knew it was futile to ask for its return and I knew they were really attentive now that it was obvious I needed the duster to clean the board. Then an inspired hunch: I remembered that a favourite prank from my own school days was to slip the duster up onto a ledge at the back of the blackboard.

Now with the eyes of 4D boring into my back, I stepped up to the board with my stick of chalk. I tutted rather theatrically to the board work that needed erasing, then bent over enough to be able to hold one hand underneath the chalk ledge and gave the lower part of the board a thump with the ball of my closed fist. Not one but three dusters fell out, one landing in my open hand. My 4D oafs stared in open-mouthed disbelief. So did I. But I managed to feign nonchalance. Eyes registered grudging admiration. A ripple of applause caused me to make the mistake of grinning.

The applause got louder. Whistling. Catcalls. Foot stamping. They wouldn’t stop when I said enough. I couldn’t make myself heard, so I pretended I wasn’t worried that teachers in neighbouring classrooms were wondering whose class was running wild. I turned my back on my miscreants and began to write French on the board. They finally settled down and actually listened to my explanation before opening their workbooks and textbooks to do written exercises. For a while. Then the hand of Daniel O’Byrne, the self-appointed class mouthpiece, went up. I closed my eyes in dreaded anticipation.

“Mr M’nell, sir... May I ask a question?”

That sickeningly sardonic, unequivocally manufactured courtesy. And the intentional emphasis on the mispronunciation of my name. 4D knew I hated it.

“Yes, Daniel,” I replied with due weariness and resignation.

“Sir, I must say I like that shirt you’re wearing today.”

A few derisive snorts and general chortling.

“Especially the fashionably frayed collar. Can I please have it when you’ve finished with it, Mr M’nell, sir?”

Adolescent braying and thigh slapping.

Despite my anger, my riposte was quick.

“Are you planning on repeating a couple of years on your way to a possible pass in the HSC, O’Byrne?”

Chuckles from most of the boys. Half a point for Mannell.

But O’Byrne had done it to me again without realising how hurt I felt by it. Yes, I was wearing a worn-out shirt, simply because we were on a tight budget at home. I couldn’t believe O’Byrne had noticed something like that. I vowed never to wear that shirt to school again. And my tormentor was already putting his next question to me.

“Sir! What did you and Mrs. M’nell do on the weekend? A bit of slap ’n’ tickle? Do you think the wife’d like me to join in, sir?”

Somehow I concealed my shock. This was being said by a schoolboy! I was his teacher! In my own years as a schoolboy I’d never heard the like! What had happened in just a few years to the image of a teacher as a god?

O’Byrne’s supporters and other rogue adolescents were having a ball. Some of the less offensive boys looked uncomfortable. I glowered at my tormentor and set my jaw.

“Just askin’, sir,” O’Byrne grinned.

“Why don’t you ask me that out in the street after school, O’Byrne,” I growled, “and see how I answer you then?”

It was out before I could help myself and I winced at my impulsive response to the baiting. Most of the class now backed off a little. I was certainly no weakling; the isometric exercises I’d been doing for the past couple of years had filled me out. I was a solid, broad-shouldered sportsman, fitter than I was ever likely to be again.

O’Byrne’s hand went up again.

“Excuse me, sir, but I think you’ll find that, according to the Teachers’ Handbook, you can’t threaten your students.”

I wanted to beat the snot out of him. Somehow I got through that lesson, which had fortunately been a single rather than a double period. But before the next 4D lesson I knew I was in a dangerous mood as I walked along the top floor corridor to where they were lying in wait for me. This time I didn’t even greet them. I just began to write work on the board. I was in no mood for small talk in French and their defiance to it. I wanted to complete grammar work I’d been unable to finish last lesson. I didn’t smile as I instructed my miscreants to copy it all down and then moved around the room to check what they were doing. My first targets were fooling around and writing nothing and they didn’t notice me coming up behind them.

“Write!” I bellowed in their ears.

It temporarily deafened them and the boys around them. Half the boys in the room jumped with fright, whether they were mucking around or not. Now they were all working, or pretending to, except Curran who was doing something suspicious under his desk, which turned out to be unwrapping Saos and cheese. I glided up from the back of the room and pounced.

“No eating in class!” I roared from right behind him and thumped his desktop with my closed fist.

The desk, without the screws that once made it a piece of furniture, just fell apart and collapsed to the floor with a loud crash, taking Curran’s snack with it. There was a moment of shocked silence as I stared in disbelief at what I’d done. Half the class stared at me without a word, wariness in their eyes. Then I saw the funny side of it, even though Curran had begun to gripe about his scattered Saos. Some of the boys started laughing, but I moved on without dwelling on the disorder and was even successful in suppressing a smile. Without being ordered to do so, Curran cleaned up the mess and even pointlessly rebuilt the screwless desk, before sitting somewhere else.

“Keep writing!” I ordered the others. And they did!

A rare period of quiet industry began. They listened as I explained how to use the imperfect tense. They did work from Horan & Wheeler with a minimum of resistance. I deserved a rest and returned to my desk, to sit down and relive a triumphant moment. Whenever a head came up, I eyeballed the owner. For a moment I was in total control.

But then, just after I began some chalk-and-talk on the imperfect tense, Leon Braid came in with a late note. I took it without comment because I was explaining a tricky point to the class. Without taking the first available desk, Braid headed straight for where Shawn Ingersoll was sitting. He was a brooding, lumbering giant whose record card carried a reference to a stabbing attack on another student with the point of a set of compasses 18 months earlier. Years later I heard a rumour that he ended up in a Queensland prison for murder. Now he was in my classroom, looming ominously over Ingersoll.

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