I can remember my first day at school. I was 6 years old, dressed, by my mother, in strict accordance with the Australian schoolboy uniform of the 1960’s (though I fear little has changed) of black shoes, soon to be scuffed, grey and maroon long socks that would always struggle to stay up, steel grey wool-knit shorts that would never be quite warm enough in the winter and be a constant sweaty irritation in the summer, a blue short sleeved shirt that would not stay tucked in, despite the constant nagging of teachers and mothers (your own or someone else’s), a school tie designed to catch the tomato sauce dripping from your meat pie, and, the ubiquitous short back and sides hair cut.
Once we had all been seated, in a most uncomfortable boy-girl arrangement, the teacher had each of us stand up, state our name, our birthday and answer a few, what would now be considered politically incorrect, questions, beginning with “What is your religion?”
I was so glad to have been seated towards the back of the classroom. This gave my 6 year old brain some time to think. As far as I knew I was of no religion. I had a vague idea that Jesus and Santa were some how related. I could only remember hearing my father mention the word God in a sentence that one time. It was after he had slipped and fallen in the back garden and grazed his knee.
A curly red headed girl with freckles was the first to stand, “My name ith Thally Thaunders,” she said politely and with a pronounced lisp, her two front teeth missing from the top row, “and my birthday ith Theptember the twenty firtht,” and pushing her chest out as far as it would go she declared, “And we are… Church of England.” She sat down proud as punch. The boy next to her, a spick and span kind of kid with brill creamed hair stood up too quickly, so desperate to equal Sally’s performance, and banged his knee into the desk. “Sorry Miss…Ouch.” He whimpered, rubbing his sore knee. “Ah… My name is Peter Jenkins and my birthday is October the 2nd, and I’m Church of England too.”
Most kids, it would appear were of the Church of England or C of E faith, the oft preferred abbreviation of our common variety of Australian Christian; a most casual species of the church goer who, other than funerals and weddings, would attend perhaps no more than twice a year, at Christmas and Easter.
There was a smattering of Greek Orthodox, Presbyterian and Baptists kids in the class and one Catholic girl who sat in front of me. Even back then I knew that it was odd for her to be in our class because, as my grandmother would so often graciously explain it, “There is perfectly good Catholic School down the street for that lot.”
It was a boiling hot January morning and, being so scared of having the other kids laugh at me I began to sweat in my wooly shorts, making a right puddle in my wooden bench seat. If I had known what my parents really believed in I might have stood up and announced to the world, “My name is Chris Falson, my birthday is December the 9th, and I am an Atheist.”
But a girl a few desks to my left would come to my rescue. She had described her religion as being Methodist… and this stirred up a conversation that had taken place around the dinner table at Christmas a month earlier. My grandparents, as would often happen towards the end of a meal, had argued heatedly about their branches of the family tree and, at some point my grand mother whispered in my ear, “Don’t listen to him… you and I… we are Methodists.”
“We are?” I replied not knowing what a Methodist was.
And so, when it was my turn, I stood bravely, and after stating my name and birthdate, and, what would be the first of many lies spoken to teachers over the coming years, said, “I… am… a… Methodist!”
There was no cheering or claps on the back, but I was in and felt extremely relieved to be just like all the other kids. Then the teacher said, “OK boys and girls… starting again with,” having a quick look at her notes, “Sally… Saunders. Tell us… what does your father do for a living?”
The pressure to fit in would fall upon everyone, at one time or another. I would discover, some years later the anguish experienced by the pretty girl sitting next to me that day. Annie Parrot didn’t want anyone to know about her home life and so she created a father and gave him a job in a far away workplace. She stood up, her perspiration soaked skirt sticking to the back of her legs and told everyone, in and that singsongy voice of hers, “My Dad, Harold Ian Parrot… he works on an oil rig in the Tasmanian ocean. He’s away all the time… that’s why people haven’t seen him.” She was so afraid to tell the truth; that she had never known her father or his real name or that her unmarried mother, Sandra Parrot, was the bread winner, (an anomaly in our neighborhood in the 60’s) and that she worked as a cleaning lady at St George’s Hospital to support Annie and her younger brother Tim.
It would soon be my turn again ‘to share’; the other boys and girls having all stood, and, in varying degrees of certainty or self importance, declared to the world that their father was a banker, a doctor, a builder, a butcher, a fireman, a plumber, an electrician, a shop keeper, a welder, a salesman or a garbage man (now called ‘Sanitation Worker’). When I stood to say, not thinking there was anything peculiar with his profession, that my Dad was a musician, the place went wild.
“Your dad is a magician, Woweee…” Screeched the boy to my right. “No he’s a musician” I yelled but no one was listening.
“Does he wear a cape?” the boy behind me asked.
“Could you get us free tickets to the circus?” Another girl screamed excitedly.
“I bet he has a big twirly mustache and a top hat for rabbits and a wand and lots of other cool stuff,” yelled a boy up near the front of the class, now standing up and acting like was the great Harry Houdini himself. The teacher laughed along with the other kids and for some reason thought it wise to ad, “Imagine boys and girls, what it would be like to have a friend in your class who’s Dad was a real live magician.”
“Yeah” shouted everybody, as they turned all their attention towards me.
“Maybe the magician could drop by and show us all a few neat tricks.” Cried the teacher, giving us her OMG face.
After she had waved down a second chorus of ‘yeahs’, ‘wows’ and ‘wouldn’t that be terrrrrrrrific’ the teacher, let the air out of everyone’s balloons, including mine by saying, “But sadly,” Doing her own impression of a sad clown face, “Christopher’s’ father is not a magician… but a musician. Isn’t that correct Christopher?”
“Yes miss,” I replied meekly, my head pointing down towards the desk.
“Ohhhhhh!” A wave of disappointment rippled through the classroom.
“What’s a musician?” One boy asked, speaking on behalf of all the other confused boys and girls.
It was a strange sensation to be the cause of that let down, and to experience such highs and lows… on my first day. While my celebrity may have been awarded under false pretenses, I had been really enjoying all the starry eyed attention.
My brief moment of glory gone, the class was soon back on track and we would all, in that awkward instinctive behavioral pattern that schoolchildren seem to follow, begin to worship our very attractive blond teacher by the name of Miss Tonks, who’s slim figure and shapely long legs, my father would tell me years later, were very much wasted on that room of 6 year olds.
By the end of the week I would be crossing my fingers to wish, once again, that my father had an ordinary job like all the other Dads for when Miss Tonks discovered that he was a music director on one of her favorite TV shows she started to give me extra special attention, right there in the class room… in front of all the other kids. Leaning over my desk, drowning me in her preferred fragrance of musk, she’d playfully pinch my cheeks and say “How’s that handsome dad of your’s going hey?” Or…”Tell our Ronnie that I loved last night’s show. Will you tell him for me?”
“Yes Miss Tonks,” I would have dutifully replied and, when she was in her happy playful mood she’d give me a little thank you kiss, leaving a big red lipstick mark on my cheek.
As if it wasn’t torture enough to be kissed by your own teacher in class, the other kids would, literally put the other boot in during the lunch break. A circle would form round me in the playground and an ever popular chant would begin “Now we know your girlfriend, now we know your girl friend” repeated ad nauseam. I had not developed my quick draw McGraw library of comeback lines back then and would foolishly retaliate with the not so savvy retort of “She is not!” A few more demonstrators would join the picket line and a louder chorus of “Now we know your girl friend” would echo around the school quadrangle, smothering all of my feeble counter attacks of “She is not” and “That’s a lie,” and dashing any hope I may have had in the power of denial; that my rebuttal alone could ward off this libelous accusation. Then someone, usually one of the bigger boys, though sometimes it was tall mean girl by the name of Vicki Turnbull, would step forward and push me and then I would… of course… push back. It would soon be a scuffle, there’d be some other name calling, some scratching and maybe even a round house or two and, if a teacher had to intervene, we’d all be herded off to the head master’s office. The punishment, if the melee had caused the tearing of uniforms or the breaking of skin, would be a good old fashioned caning for all… girls included.
Those were the days.