His mat of curly snow-white hair his most distinctive feature,
he wore his pelt upon his head like some lanigerous creature.
A trial to this innocent lamb was that daily battle
with his unruly students who milled around like cattle,
and because he was a gentle man who never used the belt,
they never knew precisely how horrible he felt.
Still, tongues can drub as lethally as bludgeons or as bats
to destroy a weak opponent. So, without a doubt, that’s
why he walked out on eighth period, and what he did instead
was to resolve the problem with a bullet through his head.
In the early seventies, with its schools grossly understaffed, the Australian government started recruiting abroad, offering airfare and a “settling in” allowance to any chosen foreign teacher willing to emigrate to Australia. I jumped at the chance and days after my graduation from college, I flew to Sydney for a week-long orientation session, then went on to Wollongong where I finished out the school year as a supernumerary teacher in a special school for the top students in the area, taking over a few classes from each overburdened teacher until I could be assigned to my own schedule the following semester. What happened, however, was that after a few months, I was reassigned to replace a teacher who had been fired for smoking pot with his students at a school in a government migrant housing district in the middle of the steel mill area.
The classes were not only overfilled, with 38 students per class, but they were also ability-grouped, with top students in the A group and the lowest-performing students in the D through F groups. As a new teacher, I was assigned mainly to these low-performance classes which in truth meant that I was also teaching the classes with disruptive students who displayed the most behavior problems.
So it was with Charles, another teacher recruited from the states—an older man who after flying to Australia and furnishing his apartment, one day in the middle of an especially confrontational class session with his 3F class, walked out the door, packed his bags and flew back to the states that night, leaving off the keys to his apartment at our apartment on his way to the airport, directing us to dispense with its contents as we saw fit.
I was reminded of this on Facebook today when a fellow-teacher marked the 50th anniversary of that wild year by sending me a photo of kitchen utensils they had culled from Charles’s apartment—which they use to this day. My roommate and I scored his dining room table, a single mattress which we put on the floor in our living room to use as a couch, and a woven tablecloth we hung on the wall above the “couch.”
Although some of the details have been changed to allow the prompts to be used, (our Charles was bald and thankfully figured out a less-violent solution to his problem) this poem was inspired by the memory of his action. I, on the other hand, finished out that year and re-upped for another, completing that year as well before becoming one of the notorious “Berkeley 14,” who prompted a district-wide walk-out in protest to teaching conditions. But that is a story for another day, another prompt.
Here are the only photos I have of my Australian crew of friends, all of whom taught at the school where I taught as well. You can see Charles’ table, his mattress (floor couch) as well as his bedspread we hung on the wall in our dining room. My friends did not always dress this strangely. This was a Bazza McKenzie party–and guests were to come dressed in the worst possible taste to reflect Bazza’s stereotyped Australian personality. The guy in the “revolutionary” outfit complete with steel-wool beard and pineapple grenade (compiled by us, to reflect his anti-Bazza personality) is Chuck–one of the instigators of the Berkeley 14 protest. Can’t remember how many others in this group were part of it. I think I’ve explained it in another post. If so, I’ll include a link.