I HATED SCHOOL – absolutely hated it – and almost from my very first day there couldn’t wait to get out. There were lots of reasons for my loathing and I’ll be first to admit that as my school years crawled by a lot of the things I hated were magnified by my own pig-headedness, but a lot weren’t; they were irritants engendered by a system still operating in the past and geared to deal only with privilege, the status quo and blind acceptance. I’ll also concede that I started my academic non-career at a bad time. Early on many of the teachers were probably dragged out of retirement to fill gaps left by those who were away fighting the war. These servicemen and women then returned to teaching no doubt finding it difficult to cope with a world far removed from the one they had known since 1939 – maybe since 1929. All that aside, I still hated it.
On my very first day I was involved in a Disturbing Incident (more of that another time) but it was literacy that was the real wellspring of my bitter gall. Yes, literacy. You see, I could read tolerably well by the time I was four and more than tolerably well by age five. I’m not sure how, I think I taught myself by linking words to pictures in books being read to me, but I can still vividly remember the day the penny dropped. I was being taken out for a walk by Mum’s younger friend and one of my pantheon of major heroes, Bernie Jamieson, who at the time would have been around 16 or 17, give or take. Mum worked on the metropolitan buses as a connie – bus conductress, i.e. ticket seller – during the war and Bernie and my equally young Aunt Tina baby sat me after school, and at weekends if Mum was working and Nana needed a break. Bernie had a beautiful mind, and as she pushed me around in my stroller or walked at a pace befitting my short legs we would make up stories based on the names of the streets we travelled. “Violet Grove was a shy, reclusive girl who longed for great adventures,” I can still hear her saying as we turned into the little street bearing the name of that imaginary pale beauty. Then one day – I wasn’t much more than three – I pointed to the street sign above us and said: “This must be where Robinson Crusoe lived.” Bernie didn’t bat an eyelid: “It is little known, but in his declining years, Robinson Crusoe kept a house in Shenton Park, in the street that now bears his name.” We were, indeed, in Robinson Street. It was, I realised years later, A Huge Mistake.
Why? The upshot of it all was that when I got to the Reading Primer stage at school, it all came crashing down. Come my turn at reading aloud and I opened my book and began: “Sam, can you see the ball? Rover (or Spot, I can’t remember, but it was a half-pie border collie-looking thing) can see the ball.” And on I went at my usual storytelling speed, reading for punctuation and all as I’d been taught when reciting poems at home. I’d only got to the bottom of the page when the pedagogue spoke: “Sit down, Francis, no-one likes a showoff.” I was crushed.
Doubly so. Not only had I thought I was doing what I was supposed to do – despite the stupid storyline – but she had called me by the wrong name. I was Frank, registered as such in Official Government Documents and one of a long line of Frankish-eyed men in the Clan Hwfa, and not Francis. By the time I was a teenager, I swore to refuse to have anything more to do with any girl who asked me “Were you christened Frank or Francis?” It was a vow I didn’t keep, but back to my tale – that was that for primary school, and it went downhill from there on in. Salvation came just a few months shy of my fifteenth birthday, in the form of a classified ad in the West Australian:
APPRENTICE HAND COMPOSITOR
Position available in Fremantle at small jobbing printer.
Apply to Mr R. Wade at
Fremantle Printing Company Pty Ltd
cnr Cliff and Phillimore Sts.
Next day, and without a word to anyone, I went into Fremantle instead of to school in West Perth. Cocky as a bantam rooster, I fronted up to the office counter in what is now a heritage-listed building and asked to speak to Mr R Wade. Ron, as I later knew him, sat me down in the tiny front office, asked me a few questions then, to my delight said: “You’ve got the job. When can you start?”
“One o’clock this arvo,” I promptly replied, and then overrode protests that there was no need, that I could start Monday – it was a Thursday – or in two weeks or whenever; but I was insistent, here was my chance at liberation. I was going to take it. Now! I caught the train back to West Perth and, as I’d expected, was grabbed by the headmaster. “Why are you late, Povah?”
“I’ve got a job and I’m startin’ terday. I need a letter sayin’ I’ve left school.”
“I’ll do it and glad to. You’ll never amount to anything, Povah, you’ll be a nothing all your life.”
“She’ll be right,” I replied. Failure I might be, but I was after all an Australian.
An eternity of long hours later and I was back in Fremantle to begin work as a probationary pre-apprentice. I got home a couple of hours late that day and was immediately bailed up by Mum: “Where have you been? What have you been up to.”
“I’ve been at work.” “Work? Work? What do you mean work?” and I told her.
And that’s how I became a hand compositor. I’ll tell you about the job and the people I knew another time, but I still get a thrill when I recall how proud I was to be a Probationary Apprentice beginning his six-year journey as an Indentured Apprentice on the way to becoming a Tradesman Hand Compositor and still later a Journeyman. Years later, Ron – who’d been a navigator in Lancaster bombers in wartime – told me he was so flabbergasted by my cocksuredness and the fact that I’d fronted up on my own and full of confidence (the ad had been running for a few days before I saw it and several other applicants had arrived with parents) that he’d had “no choice”.
The headmaster was right, of course. But I’ve had a better life than he ever did I’ll bet.