As luck would have it, my Mathematics teacher was Mr Moalem. Now one would think that having a Mr Moalem as a mathematics teacher was neither here or there in terms of mathematics teachers, wouldn’t one? After all, how could a mathematics teacher named Moalem distinguish himself from Mathematics teachers named Smith, or Jones, or Shepherd? Quite easily, actually. Mr Moalem, you see, actually wrote the textbook that the NSW school system used to teach all of its students. I was using his text book in Sydney Boys High and now I got to use his textbook under his direct, unwavering, and committed supervision, in Fort Street.
Which was somewhat problematical, as day by day I grew dumber and dumber when it came to maths – a fact which caused Mr Moalem, and by extension, me, no little amount of suffering.
“Turn to page 62 in your textbooks. Algebraic Fractions,” he would state in his colourless monotone. “Mahklaklavak, if you add three ex over eight to four why over seven, the answer is…” and he would look into the middle distance over my head as he waited for me to provide an answer to the nonsense he’d just uttered.
“I don’t know, sir,” I would mutter.
“The answer is fifty-three ex why over fifty-six, Mahklaklavak, isn’t it?”
“If you say so, sir.”
“Look at it again”, he then droned, scrawling hieroglyphs on the blackboard. “Three ex over eight is the same as twenty-one ex over fifty-six, plus…plus…plus? Mahklaklavak?”
“Plus what, sir?”
“Go and wait outside the Maths staffroom.”
So I would go and wait outside the Maths staffroom until the end of the period, whereupon Mr Moalem would come and cane me twice for not paying sufficient attention in class. Fortunately, he didn’t pick on me exclusively. I was not an island in terms of mathematical retardation; there were a few of us in that idiot archipelago, and Mr Moalem was all about sharing the cane around.
I think what it came down to was that he took our dumbness personally. After all, he wrote the textbook. What could be better for the student than the author of the textbook teaching him the contents of the textbook? It would be like having Shakespeare explaining Lear’s madness to you. Except it wasn’t. And it wasn’t Mr Moalem’s fault. I actually don’t blame him for caning me and the other imbeciles. We could certainly have paid more attention. We could certainly have applied our allegedly gifted minds to algebraic fractions, or the even more impenetrable concept of Pi. But we didn’t. What we did was decide that this shit was way too weird, failed to understand where any of this esoteric mathematical absurdity could be used in our allegedly uncertain futures, and promptly switched off.
I actually think I gave up on mathematics in its totality when I was confronted by the unassailable Pi.
Each time I divided twenty two by seven, I got three with a left over one. That was it. That was the answer as far as I was concerned. I was content with that. It made perfect sense. There were three sevens in twenty two, with the number one left over. Finished. Done. Right? Apparently not. Mr Moalem explained, at length, that Pi was an infinite number. A transcendental number. It equaled 3.14159 26535 89793 etc. It apparently also equaled three hundred and thirty three over one hundred and six. And most appallingly, it also equaled big see over little dee.
Which is the precise moment I told it to go fuck itself and started spearing my green eraser with my compass point instead.
The only thing I could agree with was that Pi was indeed an irrational number; in that it made me irrational when I tried to contemplate it.
There was an equal amount of irrationality when it came to my lack of sporting prowess. Just like Sydney Boys High School, Fort Street had a glorious sporting history, and its students excelled at cricket, rugby union, and rowing – all throwbacks to the English school system and all of which I was impossibly crap at.
My father had long ago given up any hope that I would be the next Pele, and despite many hours of practice in the local park in Glebe as I was growing up (which I quite enjoyed), the moment he signed me up for a team (Fivedock Under Sevens) it all went to shit.
I was grossly short-sighted, and since I couldn’t play in glasses, pretty much everything that was going on more than 10 metres away from me on a soccer field was a hazy blur. After a few training sessions, the coach decided the only possible position I could play without screwing up any chance my team had of ever winning a game, was Left Full Back.
I took to it with a will and each time the colourful blurs that were my team and the other team got closer I would prepare myself to defend the goals like the Russians defended Stalingrad. And now and again I was successful, but most of the time the other Full Back and the goalie would bail me out. Happily, my team had a crack striker or two, so we did well despite my spirited but ultimately pointless defense.
As a result, I quickly figured out that team sports, and indeed any sport that required 20/20 vision was not where I was going to excel.
Fort Street was having none of that shit, and before second term was over, I had tried out for the cricket team and failed, and was thus permitted to wander aimlessly about one of the two basketball courts and back playground with the other worthless non-sporting cretins during Wednesday afternoon sport.
Term Two had me being taught Rugby Union every Wednesday afternoon. This was an exercise in brutality and madness the likes of which I had not yet encountered in my young life. As luck would have it, the teacher who coached rugby at Fort Street was also the woodwork master, Mr Clarke. And Mr Clarke had once played for the Wallabies – Australia’s national rugby union team.
This meant that we had very good rugby union teams at Fort Street. And I was not a part of any of them ever. But because this was First Form, and it had been decreed that First Formers experience all the sports the school prided itself in doing well at, we were going to play rugby for shits and giggles – which is to say among ourselves and not against other schools.
Having watched me spazz about Petersham Oval for longer than he could bear, Mr Clarke decided that my skill-level was perfectly suited for the position of breakaway.
“Michaylokok, you’re going to play breakaway,” he explained, dragging me over to the side of the unformed scrum where the breakaway was meant to stand.
“Now then,” he explained, his massive hand leaning heavily on my shoulder, “If the other side wins the scrum, you are to tackle the half-back. Understand?”
“Yes, sir,” I lied. I was far too scared of him and the game he was trying to teach me to bother asking him who the half-back was. But I felt that if I leapt upon the nearest bastard from the other team at the same time others were leaping upon their allocated bastards, I’d be alright.
I was wrong.
“Michaylokok!” he shrieked as I crashed headlong into one of my unsuspecting classmates the second the scrum dissolved. “What the bloody hell are you doing?”
“Tackling the half-back, sir!” I panted.
“That is not the half-back. That is one of the forwards. And he does not have the ball. You are not to tackle people unless they have the ball! Do you understand?”
“Yes, sir,” I nodded.
But I didn’t. Not really.
The whole game was beyond me.
I understood and had played touch footy in the park in Glebe, but the differences between that happy chasings-like game and the stark, flesh-crunching reality of Rugby Union were just too vast for me to bridge. Gifted as I was, the intricacies of the game were simply lost on me. I was too busy trying to survive to concern myself with the rules.
Consequently, I would not let go of the ball when I was tackled.
I would also not pass the ball when it was passed to me.
I kicked it when I should have run with it, and ran with it when I should have kicked it.
I tackled people I should not have tackled, got in the way of my own players, and fell over my own feet when I tried to avoid being tackled myself.
At the bottom of a ruck, I screamed and howled like a horse being crushed in a meat-press. People kicked me with impunity. They kicked me in the face, they kicked me in the neck, they kicked me in the stomach and they kicked me in the back. The ones who weren’t kicking me were enthusiastically raking at my sweat-soaked flesh with their studded footy boots.
And then they all shook hands, smiling and back-slapping each other at the end of the game and went off to have a shower.
I didn’t get any of that at all.
I had just had several shades of shit maliciously stomped out of me and I was somehow expected to pretend we were all buddies again when the whistle blew?
And then, to top it all off, we were all expected to go back to the boys change-rooms and shower together.
In the nude.
The mere thought of showering with my class-mates filled me with cringing horror.
In my wishful mind’s eye, I could see myself looking like a Marvel comic-book superhero, perfectly proportioned and mightily muscled. In my bedroom mirror I could see a pear-shaped fat kid with thighs like porridge and boobs that wobbled alarmingly on the rare occasions that I ran somewhere. Having other kids see me naked and commenting on my belly, or boobs, or God forbid the size of my penis, was certainly not on my list of things to do.
I was at the age where I wasn’t happy for anyone, including my mum, to see me naked. Especially after she walked in on me masturbating furiously in the bathroom one evening, a musty US-edition Playboy magazine splayed before me on the floor.
She made a strange eeping noise, slammed the door shut and spent some time in her bedroom talking to God that night. The next day we both pretended like nothing had happened, but something fundamental had changed in our relationship, and she did start knocking on any doors I might have been behind after that.
My wog upbringing was entirely devoid of any information pertaining to sex. So all I knew was what I had been told by older kids, who snickered and whispered and revealed not much at all. Like karate and motorcycle riding, sex was something you really had to learn by doing.
And the entire concept thrilled me, appalled me, and confused me in equal measures. I had no idea if my parents had sex and I have no memory of ever hearing them or accidentally walking in on them making the beast with two backs. I was living proof that they had had sex at least once more than a decade ago, but there was no evidence the old man was getting his leg over now that I could see or hear.
I certainly knew, in theory, what sex was all about and how, again in theory, the process was meant to work. I had seen magazines and pictures and I had played some steamy spin-the-bottle games at various friends’ places while our parents were busy at the dinner table. So I understood perfectly well how wretchedly arousing girls became when they stuck their tongues in your mouth. I had also figured out that everything proceeded from there, but it was all just wild speculation with lots of blanks.
And absolutely none of that speculation included me showering with my school mates.
Surely the school didn’t seriously expect us all to get naked, wet, and soapy in the cavernous multi-headed shower stall?
But it did.
And while three-quarters of the class seemed fine with it, tearing off sports uniforms and getting under the shower spray, a quarter of the class seemed to share my position.
“Why are you lot not showering?” Mr Clarke demanded as he stomped into the change-rooms and saw us mincing about still wearing our sports uniforms.
“They’re dirty wogs, sir!” yelled someone from the communal stall.
I looked around at my fellow non-starters and it was quite obvious that it was indeed mostly the wog kids who seemed to be totally averse to this outrageous communal washing business.
Mr Clarke ignored the jibe, but there seemed to be traces of sympathy in the look he gave us.
“If you lot want to sit in your own sweat for the rest of the day, that’s a matter for you. But I want you out of those sports uniforms and back in school uniform before the bell rings. You have two minutes.”
He left, and we quickly got changed, our ears filled with the hoots and catcalls of derision our freshly-showered classmates directed at us.
Every week for the rest of term two, this scenario would repeat itself and while most of the class eventually gave in and joined in the communal showering, a few of us managed to maintain the rage.
I maintained mine by learning how to forge my mother’s signature on a note that excused me from playing Rugby Union because my ankles were weak. My ankles were, of course, as sturdy as ankles could possibly be, but Mr Clarke never questioned a letter signed by a parent. No teacher ever did – which was something I filed away for later reference.
So I got to sit out the rest of the term’s rugby union lessons, but Mr Clarke made sure I was kept busy fetching training balls, tackle mats, and water.
The following term the whole communal showering thing had gone into abeyance – and I was introduced to volleyball, softball, and a range of athletic disciplines like shot-put, discus, javelin, hurdles, long jump, triple jump and my old favourite from Sydney Boys High, cross-country.
I was shit at them all.
This was a tad disappointing because I originally imagined I would be rather excellent at javelin. My ancestors were warriors, after all. I loved weapons and I reasoned that this love would assure my success in this very cool-looking discipline.
And how bloody hard could it be to chuck a bloody spear, I told myself?
Pretty bloody hard, as it turned out.
The throwing bit I had down pat – and the javelin would leave my arm with ease. But then it would fly a far shorter distance than I would always hope and invariably fail to stick into the ground like it was meant to.
The same went for shot-put and discus. The wretched shot was far too heavy for me to ever throw it more than a body-length away from myself and the discus was just too damn discussy for me to pitch any worthwhile distance.
As for the running and jumping stuff…well, I certainly did make every effort. The pools of vomit I left all over Petersham Oval were a mute and smelly testament to my determination, competitive spirit, and the fact I had a physique far more suited to eating butter biscuits than belting around a field.
But my first year at Fort Street was not all failure and despair.
I loved English and seemed to have a handle on the classwork – tearing through the ubiquitous SRA reading and comprehension program like a fat girl necking donuts. The language I had only learned to speak seven years ago was now my language. I argued in it, thought in it, and wrote terrible poetry with it. The books I was given to read for English filled me with delight. Heller’s Catch 22, Orwell’s 1984, Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, Golding’s Lord of the Flies, and Melville’s Moby Dick were simply unputdownable. I read them in a kind of frenzied madness, wishing they would never end, but when they did I would eagerly search out others by the same authors, incidentally discovering that some of those authors were very much one trick ponies when it came to great books.
History was interesting, Geography fascinating, Science mesmerising and my experiences with woodwork, metalwork and technical drawing where mildly enriching without being brilliant. My woodworking skills were certainly no better than they were at Sydney Boys High, but Mr Clarke’s expectations of me were not very high and certainly not based upon my genetic ancestry. And he seemed to accept the fact that just like rugby union, woodwork was clearly not one of my strong suites. I was mildly better at metal work, but that was only because First Form metalwork consisted of enamelling bits of copper – a simple process where you got a bit of copper, cut it into a shape (usually a wonky triangle because that was simpler to cut out with tin-snips than a square or a cross or a star), and filed the edges a bit so you wouldn’t cut yourself. Then you’d sprinkle coloured enamel powder onto the shape and heat it with a Bunsen burner until the powder became a hard ceramic-like coating in all the pretty colours of the rainbow. Even a retard like me could carry off some really spectacular-hued abstracts, and I’d proudly hung my first handmade triangular medallion around my neck on a leather shoelace after the first enamelling class. It didn’t last past lunchtime the next day when a dank-haired Third Former saw me showing it to Sanjay and Ian and used it to choke me until the lace broke, whereupon he threw it onto the school’s roof, called me a “wog poof” and stalked off.
As the school year wound down, two final systemic shocks awaited me, capping off a year that was heavily laden with all sorts of benchmarks and beatings.
The first shock was Muck-Up Day, the last day of school for the Sixth Formers.
The Sixth Formers finished up about six weeks before the rest of the school, with the theoretic intent they would then spend a few weeks studying for their Higher School Certificate exams. In reality, many of them would head for Bondi Beach with a case of beer under their arm and a bag of dope in their pocket, and spend their study time getting pissed, stoned, and sunburnt.
Of course, there were a minority of students who did study and achieved HSC scores which covered them and the school in glory, and who went on to become barristers, doctors, and accountants.
I had, as yet, no idea which of these two camps I would find myself in when the time came, but there was no question in my mind that I would be having the greatest Muck-Up Day the world had ever seen.
The name itself was rather unambiguous. On Muck-Up Day Sixth Formers mucked up. Big time. From dawn until boredom overtook them – which was pretty much about an hour before lunch.
No other form was allowed to participate, or retaliate. What was expected of you was that you were to endure.
The first thing I noticed when I came to school that day was that Meleager was wearing a pretty frock and had a dildo glued to his mouth. His canine companion had been painted pink and the pig’s head by his side was sporting silver tinsel.
Shit, I thought, someone is gonna get into trouble for fucking with the school statue like that.
And then I was suddenly drenched with a vast bucket of cold water and pelted with several paper bags full of flour, all to the accompaniment of shrieking, laughing, and running feet.
“Fuck,” I muttered, trying to blink the floury paste out of my mouth. “It’s fucken Muck-Up Day. Fuck…”
We had, of course, been told that Muck-Up day was happening. Mr Barraclough had made a point of it in the last school assembly. I, of course, had immediately forgotten what he had said, primarily because it made no sense to me, had nothing to do with me, and seemed only to concern the Sixth Formers and their last day, and blah, blah, blah.
As I made my way further into the school, clots of manically joyous Sixth Formers were pelting each other and every student they could find with water (either from buckets or with balloons filled from the many taps) and flour. I quickly realised the bannisters on the stairs had been greased with a combination of Vegemite and Vaseline, as had the toilet seats (which was especially insidious given the toilet seats were black, as was the Vegemite); toilet paper was ribboned everywhere and all of the classrooms were mare’s nests of jumbled classroom furniture which had been wedged together with brute force and rat cunning. Many of the hallways were blocked with over-turned lockers and more furniture, and water-and-flour bombing squads had been stationed at strategic vantage points.
It was simply the most fabulous few hours of my life.
I had never before seen anything quite like this unbridled, and admittedly not at all malicious, revelry.
The few teachers I saw were smiling and very careful not to present themselves as targets, because the Sixth Formers drew no distinction between students and staff. We were all fair game on this day.
When the nine am bell rang for classes to start, the Sixth Formers were afforded one last opportunity to pelt us with a variety of missiles, which forced many of us to spend the morning looking like floury buns of made of damp schoolboy.
The teachers made us put the classrooms to rights, and apart from a single water-filled balloon sailing through an open window and some yelling, the Muck-Up Day festivities tapered off around recess.
The departure of the Sixth Formers left a noticeable gap in the school’s population. And it caused the Fifth Formers to walk a little taller and make all sorts of things their business. There were no prefects left, so there was a certain sense of lawlessness in the air. Not that any of the First Formers could take advantage of it. We were still First Formers – the edible plankton of the school, and as such were to be as unnoticeable as possible to the larger predators.
The balances of power within the school were being re-aligned and re-positioned now that the all the most senior Alpha males had departed and Muck-Up Day was followed by a period of unrest, which was followed by a week of exams. The exams did the job they were intended to do, calming and refocusing the remaining student body on its curricular failings and inadequacies.
I struggled with Mathematics, but managed a bare minimum pass and did well in most of the other subjects, much to my personal surprise. I was, at this stage, deemed to be an average student, who showed promise, but would benefit greatly from paying more attention in class.
I explained this all to my non-English-reading parents, and if I embellished certain comments the teachers had made, then no-one was any wiser. But the marks out of a hundred were what they were. And while mum and dad might not be able to read English too well, they had no trouble with numbers.
“Muttematika iz not good,” my father observed, peering at my report card.
“It was very hard,” I explained.
He put down the report card and fixed me with a look as if to say: “I could not even begin to describe to you what ‘hard’ is really all about, you fool.”
“I promise I’ll do better,” I chirped, figuring he’d be more up for optimistic promises than mewling excuses.
Mum was far more kindly disposed to my result and glowed with pride at the comments my English teacher wrote, which basically described me in very diplomatic terms as some kind of sycophantic, smart-arse suck-up. The nuances were lost on mum, and she gave me five dollars as a reward for my obvious scholarship.
As the school year wound down, I also developed an interest in photography. But the fact that I had to spend an inordinate amount of time in a tiny makeshift darkroom with Ian and Sanjay (who shared this interest) developing and printing woeful monochromatic images, all of which stank of indescribable chemicals, left me with the impression that it would not be a long-term passion.
And thus we came to the final assembly. And the second big shock of my first year of high school.
We did not sing anything as we entered Fort Street’s Memorial Hall like we did at Sydney Boy’s High. We entered the space murmuring, and inevitably a little awed by the imposing oil portraits of fabled former headmasters arrayed on the walls. The teachers quickly shushed us into silence and then the masters entered and took their places at the front of the hall, while the Deputy Headmaster, Mr Barraclough, and the Headmaster, Mr King, swooshed onto the stage in their black robes.
We all stood and sang the school song, and then sat back down again with a scrape of chair legs upon the parquet floor.
“I have a special announcement to make,” Mr King intoned. He was a far more measured and dignified individual than his ear-ripping deputy, and we attended his words with great attention. He didn’t often speak at assembly, so whatever he had to say was clearly important.
“There will be great changes to the school next year. We look to complete the building works of the new gymnasium and library by the start of the third term. But what will no doubt be the biggest change in this school’s long and varied history is the fact that we will be, from the beginning of next year, a co-ed school.”
The sudden cacophony of sound that greeted this announcement took almost twenty seconds to quell, and had Mr Barraclough poised upon the edge of the stage demanding quiet and looking as if he was about to leap bodily upon those who could not stop talking.
“I can see that you’re all quite excited by this news,” Mr King continued when the student body had settled. “And it truly is a very big change. And just to make sure the shock is not too great for you all to bear, the ladies from Fort Street Girls will be joining us in two stages. Next year we shall have First Form and Sixth Form as co-ed classes, and the following year will see the two schools become totally integrated.”
We all started talking again, but were quickly silenced by Mr Barraclough’s parade ground bellow.
“And there is one more thing I have to tell you,” Mr King resumed. “I shall be retiring at the end of this year, as shall Mr Barraclough, and your new Headmaster will be the Headmistress from Fort Street Girls, Mrs Rowe. She will be assisted by her Deputy Headmistress, Mrs Pickering.”
And then he paused briefly and looked pointedly around the hall.
“And I fully expect you all to behave in a manner that befits all Fortians, and welcome the ladies with your best behaviour. It will be a big change for everyone and it will take some time for everyone to adjust. Now please stand to sing the national anthem.”
Five minutes later we were outside the hall and clustered in excited knots all over the quadrangle, chattering about the news we’d just been given.
Fort Street Boys High School was now Fort Street High School.
Girls were coming.
This was huge.
This was life-changing.
I could not wait.
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Boris is a writer who has contributed to many magazines and websites over the years, edited a couple of those things as well, and written a few books. But his most important contribution is pissing people off. He feels this is his calling in life and something he takes seriously. He also enjoys whiskey, whisky and the way girls dance on tables. And riding motorcycles. He's pretty keen on that, too.