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Sunday, October 24, 2010

Making Choices for a Lifetime [Part 2 of 2]

[Continued from Part 1]
‘No, sir.’ This was surely not a time to fudge the truth. Right then, ignorance was the best defence, or at least, a fair delaying strategy.

 I was still standing in front of the table he sat behind, my knees knocking slightly. He would have known that for sure if he could have seen them, as they were pretty knobbly, but maybe his view of them was shielded from sight by the table. Or perhaps, he chose deliberately to ignore it.
   ‘Gatton College is a place where students can go after Grade 8, to learn about farming. It is the most highly regarded agricultural college in the state, equal to any in the whole country.’
   Learn about farming? What was there to know I didn’t already know? From sunrise to sunset I knew all I thought I needed to know about farming. But this line of questioning was now easing my mind somewhat, and I guessed that, at least, Mr Sugars was not on his way with the handcuffs.
   The truth was that our farm was managed pretty much on nineteenth century principles, not modern ones. My father had learned farming in a purely pragmatic way, and my mother applied her considerable intelligence to it when the Grammar School girl married the local farmer. However, there was no real science to it, and my father was set in his ways most of the time. Attempts to improve herd quality, while well meant, were sometimes totally counter-productive. Like most farms in the area, it was pretty inefficient and, not the fault of the farmers, production was poorly managed, even by 1950s standards. 
   I did not of course understand that then. I was thinking only of the bits I didn't want to be a part of my future life.
   ‘At an agricultural college like Gatton,’ he went on, ‘you can learn the things you really need to know about managing a property. Beef, dairy, sheep, poultry, grain, fruit and vegetables, animal husbandry….’
   Animal husbandry? I didn’t want to be the husband of any animal, or learn to manage husbands for them, if that’s what he was on about. We already had way too many 'husbands' on our farm, and if they were roosters I had to chop their heads off, or if they were bull calves.... let's not go there right now. Still, this lecture was way better than a caning, and the likelihood of that was receding every minute.
   ‘As a headmaster in a rural area, I am asked by the Department of Education each year for my recommendation for a full scholarship for one boy to study at Gatton College. Do you know what that means?’
   I didn’t have the faintest clue, or how it was relevant to me, but I was pretty sure I was about to find out.
   ‘If you were selected….’ Ahhh, the penny dropped, very quickly, ‘you would get four years of schooling, particularly in agricultural science, you’d be given an allowance, all your fees would be paid, school uniform, transport to and from Gatton by train for the holidays, you would live in a dormitory with other boys during term time….’
   My head continued to reel. I took in very little of what he was saying.
   ‘I know this is all very new to you. I can tell you that if you want to do this, I have little doubt you will be selected, even though you’d be a bit younger than the other boys in your year. What do you think about it?’
   I didn’t know what to say. There was a long pause, because I was thinking hard, and the prospect of giving the wrong answer weighed heavily on me. But like the prospect of hanging, it did tend to concentrate the mind.
   ‘Do you think you would like to do that?’
   I hesitated again. Finally, I spoke. I had no choice but to nail my colours to the mast.
   ‘No sir.’
   He gave me a really long stare this time. I thought he’d be angry, but the look was steady and non-judgmental. There was no anger there, just a question mark.
   ‘Why not?’
   I then made the most definitive statement of my life to that time, and one of the most important I would ever make.
   ‘Sir…. I don’t want to be a farmer. I want to be a teacher, sir.’
   Both statements were true. Now, I admit that I had seen Old Jim many times ticking the Attendance Register and totting up all the figures neatly on each page, and I was worried that I would never be able to perform that task as a teacher, as it looked so complicated, so I feared I may not have made the grade on that account. But we bypassed that serious obstacle to my teaching career for that moment. Other issues suddenly loomed much larger.
   Again he stared at me, and there was a softness in his eyes that I had never noticed before. Actually, it was always there for us kids, for he was a good man and very far from the monster that I might have unjustly painted him as in earlier tales, but we often failed to see it. As children, you only see this tall imposing figure, lined and severe of face, with a booming voice and quick temper. And, of course, never very far away, that omnipresent instrument of torture, the cane.
   At home in the school house, which was part of the school complex, he loved his family and the peace and quietness of his garden, and a pipe of tobacco. He had been in Japan for some time during or after the war – in what capacity I don’t know - and every now and then a large parcel would arrive at the school. 
   He would open it there and then so we kids could see what was in it. Invariably it contained beautiful Japanese pots or plates and dishes, often black as I recall but gracefully decorated; fairly formal and none of it raku in style, but more suited to the western tastes of the 1950s than styles that became fashionable later in the century. You could see in his eyes how he loved these objects.
   But, back to the conclusion of my story.
   ‘I see. Well, talk it over with your parents, and I’ll then talk to them again.’ He might have said, you foolish boy, you are wasting a huge chance. You could learn what you really need to know to live on the land, on one of the best blocks in the district. You would be making life easier for your family in these times of drought – we were having terrible droughts at the time – but he did not attempt to influence me in any way. 
   Nor, I must say, did either my father or mother when the matter came up again at home. If I didn’t want to be a farmer, then there would be no emotional blackmail laid on me by either of them. Mum would certainly have taken a bullet rather than steer me into a career pathway I did not want. There was only one thing in my mind. The idea of milking 60 cows twice a day, rain, hail or shine for the rest of my life was ghastly. Hideous. And neither of my parents wanted a farm life for me if I showed no enthusiasm for it. 
   Of course, Gatton might well have changed my outlook on farming totally, but I was having none of it. And I’m not sure what four years of living away from home in a boarding school would have done to me as the youngest child in a tough group of male adolescents, many of them straight off big properties, but I think it would have been a total disaster for me. Like Billy Boys on the property next to ours, they could slit the throat of a calf or pig, hang it up by the hocks and have a cup of tea and a sandwich while the blood was draining out a metre in front of their noses, but I couldn't even kill the green frog that was living up the pipe in the milking machines, even though commanded to by my father. I just whacked the ground behind it with a stick and pretended to be trying to hit it. 
   Later on in life, Mum told me how much amusement my attempt to save the frog's life had given them both as they watched my feeble pretence at despatching it, knowing that my stick was never going to go within cooee of it. My point is that both of them knew at heart that I wasn't cut out to be a farmer because - and I hope if you're a person with romantic notions about farm life you get this right between the eyes - farming is as much about killing your livestock as it is about rearing them. Mostly you, with your own axe or knife or gun, with your own hands. In my mind there was a distinction between a frog that had chosen the wrong place to set up home and a vealer that had to be killed and butchered.
   I didn’t know it then, of course, but at the age of 10 or 11, I had just made the greatest decision of my life in terms of my future. Amazingly, nine years later, I would be standing in that very same room, teaching a composite Grade 5 and 6 class, the school now filled with the children of my childhood playmates locked in that game of rounders while I was refusing, point blank, the Gatton College once in a lifetime offer.
   That was 1958, when I was in Grade 7. Less than a decade later, as a teacher in that same classroom, I only had to look out the school door to see in the distance the house I had lived in all my childhood, as well as the farm around it. My world and that of all my family had changed radically - had been torn asunder, even if that sounds too clichéd and melodramatic. My father would have been dead for two years, destroyed in his late forties by the misery of droughts, depression and constant handling of the lethal farm chemicals that had poisoned his body. The farm and the house were sold, the property now cut to pieces. My mother, Kay and I now lived in Gladstone and I commuted to Calliope daily in the new Datsun 1000 I had saved and paid for in cash after two years teaching. Jan and Lyn were married, and I had been an uncle to their children since before Dad had died.
   And at one point, early in 1968, I would have had a letter in my hand from the Federal Minister of Education. Well, signed for him by a pen-pusher in his department…. 
 Dear Mr Wright, based on results you have obtained in four years’ part time study at the University of Queensland, we are pleased to inform you that you have won a Commonwealth Government Later Year Award, to continue your university studies on a full time basis for the duration of your degree.
My primary teaching career ended with that letter, and yet another new chapter in my life had begun. Within three years of that date, I would have gone from teaching primary school kids to teaching Asian cultural history at the University of Queensland, showing first year undergraduates Japanese pottery not unlike those exotic pieces that came out of the boxes in the Calliope schoolroom. Thanks to the profound influence of Devahuti and Damodar and an eccentric American historian of Chinese culture, Clayton Bredt, I would be viewing the world illuminated by something extraordinary: the brilliance and depth of Oriental philosophies. Would that I had been able to extract their wisdom decades before I really understood them and apply them to my life, but you can't put an old head on young shoulders, and regrets are not only useless but destructive.
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  1. I like this account very much. It explains a lot about you. Perhaps why, of all the lecturers I've ever been taught by, you were the most accessible, the least self-consciously academic, and with the sort of technique that (I now realise) is honed only in school classrooms and not the halls of academe. Perhaps all university lecturers should learn to teach in a school classroom before being allowed to teach adults! (And thank goodness you didn't opt for Gatton - even though I personally have the hugest admiration and affection for it as a source of ag/hort learning. Oh, how I wish I'd done history instead of all the other things I've done. It was always where my heart lay, but I never had the courage to pursue a career in which, really, the only way to make it pay is to teach).

  2. Thanks for the nice comments. It was always great to have students who were prepared to put their views even when [especially when] they were at odds with the lecturer's views, and you were never afraid to do that. I was always so disappointed when students tried to work out what they thought I wanted in tutorials and essays and stick to the 'authorised' version, when all I wanted was for them to have a go at thinking for themselves.
    Gatton simply wasn't for me. Even if I had gone there and learned everything they could teach me, I would never have been satisfied that I had done what was right for me in life. I really believe I could never have made a better choice for me than I did, and that's why I have no resentment against the circumstances I am now in. After all, who in hell would I blame???


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