Life’s Lessons and Leaving School

As three of the moderators are very busy, and as moi is slacking, we have a second Guest Author this week – Gorgeous Dunny, with one of his Memoirs of a Country Employment Counsellor. Many thanks, GD!


Now home to the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, this was the home of the St. Moritz Ice Skating Rink in Hindley Street, Adelaide
(Image credit: icelegendsaustralia

Inspiration and life lessons can spring from the most unlikely sources. One of the most significant moments for me occurred when a group of us young men went along to the then new San Moritz Ice Skating Rink at Hindley Street Adelaide in the early 1960s.

None of our group knew anything about ice-skating. In fact, I was the only one that had even been on roller skates. After getting our skates fitted we ventured on to the rink. The surface to my feel seemed very fast, as if the ground was slipping away from under you. It was totally unlike roller skates. The others were as intimidated, and like the hundreds of other new skaters, we cautiously made our way around clinging firmly to the rails. Not so, Carnesy, another member of our group.

He astonished us by going straight out into the middle of the rink, immediately falling flat on his back. That’s another thing about ice, too. Once he hit the rink, his clothes became soaked with water. He was rescued by officials and placed on dry ground, but was quite undeterred. As soon as he’d wiped enough loose water from his clothes, he went back and repeated it: out into the middle of the rink, falling straight away onto his back, and carried off.

Again he was soon back, varying the procedure only by occasionally falling forward or sideways. He was tall, and with arms and legs outstretched as he lay face down on the ice, he took up quite a bit of rink space. At one point, another passing blade skater went straight over his hands, leading to blood everywhere -on the rink and on Carnesy’s hands and clothes. After a little first aid and drying off, he resumed. It was as before, going out into the middle and almost as quickly falling over.

To us, he was proving a greater entertainment than the attractive young girls in their brief skating outfits. Certainly among the crowd making their way around the rink rails, he was a big attraction as he found new ways of crashing. But one strange thing happened towards the end of the night, and since I hadn’t noticed any change I was truly astonished.

That is, by the end of the night Carnesy could skate, not perfectly, but definitely skate. We were still clinging to the rails. I found that amazing, and thought about it then and later. (Post-Carnsey speed skating)

The lesson seemed to me that if you wanted to learn something, you had to leave the safety of the rails. So what, if you made a fool of yourself and were laughed at? Nothing much could be learned from the safety of the rails and the security of your friends. Falling over and getting yourself soaked is nothing if you can learn and take something from it.

I applied that lesson in the two major careers of my life: tourism and counselling. In tourism, it helped because my quiet nature was not what you’d expect in sales-type work, where extroverts were predominant. All the time I encouraged myself, leave the safety of the rails, never be afraid of falling over if you can reach towards your end goal.

It was similar when I entered labour market and then employment counselling work. Never be afraid of mistakes. Always be clear on your end purpose and goal, regardless of where you might be at the moment. Often, of course, that end goal might not always be clear in detail. In counselling, that required a sharing of goals with the client. Often it did need considerable questioning, interviewing and research before we could reach an agreement on what was attainable.

The school leaving age had been a vexed question over a long time. In the 1920s, my grandfather pulled my father, then aged 13 years, out from school. By the time I was at primary school, the minimum school leaving age was 14 years. It changed not long after to 15 years. The curriculum was loosely derived from the English Preparatory Schools model. That is, examinations were set at a standard considered likely to prepare a student for university study.

Not only that, a student could only progress to a higher grade after passing the required level at that grade. Some students never did. It was not uncommon for some students to be up to three or four years older than the average class age.

The consensus right up to my school days was that those students should be pulled out of school as soon as was allowed. The aim of supporting parents was to try to place such a person in a job where he/she might obtain reasonable skills and secure employment.

That could involve low and semi-skilled occupations such as railway firemen and porters right through to trades apprenticeships.

Often it led to very good employment outcomes for students that performed poorly in a prep school-type environment. Their particular skills were simply not suited either to literacy or abstract concepts found in a prep school curriculum. But give them something tangible to master and they could be highly functional and competent.

Over the years it has led to opposing views on the merits of early school leaving. There has been an assumption, in this post-Keynesian age of higher unemployment and greater uncertainty, that retention at school is better. Employers, often having too many applicants for their vacancies, take the simplest method of screening, such as looking at school-level attainment. Those completing year 11 or higher were assumed to be better qualified, than those only getting to year 9 or 10.

It created a vacuum for early school leavers. Many aged 15-17 years could get low-skilled work, often at take-away food outlets, because of the low pay for their age. But once becoming older, they were no longer wage-competitive. Other younger ones took their positions, while they often did not have the skills or experience to compete with older workers.

In South Australia, my department and TAFE looked at this problem. They came up with a system of offering pre-vocational trades training courses for young unemployed people. These courses were an excellent introduction to the trades. Those completing them were successful as trainees, gaining apprenticeships and thus skills and secure employment. So much so that employers actually preferred them to those finishing year 11. It saved the employer a lot of time on elementary and supervised tasks that they’d usually have to give to first year apprentices.

With employers only wanting pre-vocational trainee graduates, pressure was soon applied to open such courses to all comers. As a consequence, the competition for places was intense. Most places, apart from a small quota for severely disadvantaged unemployed, went to those completing year 11 or better. So it was almost back to where it was.

Those types of considerations were at work when Paul’s mother saw the Hamilton CES Manager and then was referred to me. The situation was a little complicated. After an unhappy first marriage she was determined to make her second one work.

Equally, she was determined not to neglect her son by her first husband. He had settled uneasily into the new household, complicated also by the troubled times of early adolescence.

Paul was not openly hostile, but rather silent towards the stepfather and his mother. He had alarmed her recently by declaring that he intended to leave school as soon as he turned 15 years next January (it was July then). He was only then completing year 9, and she thought it was far too early for him to be leaving school. She had not shifted his resolve, and she asked if I could talk to him. I agreed and arranged to interview him.

Paul looked even younger than has 14 years, confirming to me his mother’s anxieties in his leaving school this early. Although he was quiet, he was quite clear in his resolve to leave school. I went through the usual run of employment anxieties associated with early school leaving. In particular, I expressed concern about how he could compete in a poor labour market. But none of it swayed his determination to leave. I left it unresolved for the interim, but felt I needed an alternative plan if I was to reach some sort of agreement between mother and son.

I contacted Paul’s classroom teacher, who was empathetic and gave me a very detailed briefing on Paul’s position. He’d described Paul as an average student in the lower-performing spectrum of classroom students, but neither struggling nor badly-behaved at school. He said he believed that somewhere Paul had made up his mind that there was nothing further he could learn in a school environment. He believed that given Paul’s attitude that he was right to want to leave. It was an unexpected response from a professional educator, giving me further food for thought.

Paul was my case client, but my sympathies at that point were with his mother. I had worked not much earlier at Elizabeth CES, scene of the highest rate of youth unemployment in the country. I believed then that you needed to take advantage of every chance to compete for scarce job/career opportunities. And if that meant passing year 11, so be it. But since I could convince neither Paul nor his teacher, I needed to try another approach. I felt I would need something different to achieve an agreed outcome.

At that time, I had dealt with several apprenticeship placements. I was impressed by the training approach of on-the-job work and learning, combined with block release to TAFE workshops and classroom to get the formal qualifications and theoretical knowledge. Never be afraid to do something different if it will achieve the desired goal.

I wondered it we could work the converse of the apprenticeship approach. That is, have Paul on ‘block release’ from school classroom activities so that he could attend workshops where he’d work specifically with machines and tools.

At that time Skillshare Hamilton had recently acquired some metal lathes and woodturning machines. A retired tradesman was in charge of the machines, teaching interested young people in how to use them to make things. I thought that possibly we could re-ignite his interest in learning by working at the practical task level. I discussed it with his teacher, who liked the idea, but cautioned it would have to be approved by the school.

I called Paul in. He immediately liked the idea. He agreed to the only condition I put on it, that he’d be open to the option of staying on at school the following year. I put it to Skillshare, who were happy to oblige. I then went back to Paul’s teacher, who explained that what I proposed, although excellent, was unprecedented. He said it would need an expert opinion in writing to the Principal. Even then he doubted if it would be approved, but he’d support it as Paul’s classroom teacher. I knew it would take a special effort from me.

In this country region, I was the nearest thing to an expert on vocational matters. Even so, I was neither Australian Psychological Society (APS) accredited, nor formally qualified as an Industrial Psychologist. In my Sydney days in the 70s, I’d been a successful poker player. One of the keys was to know when to fold early if the cards dealt offered only a small chance of improvement. Mostly I had a reputation of not bluffing. It was not strictly true, but disguised by my penchant for only continuing when I knew I had good cards.

I resolved to try a bluff with the principal, helped a little by my English major and my ability to use language well. I would word it in such a way to give the impression of being an expert on the labour market, education and training. On the letterhead, I used a Department of Employment Education, Training and Youth Affairs (DEETYA) logo, not the branch Commonwealth Employment Service (CES) Hamilton one. I even used similar tactics with my own name.

I didn’t cheat on my title as Employment Counsellor, but after my name I did the unprecedented of putting in BA (New England). That was more pretentious than I liked to be, and in any case the BA was a double English major. But that was essential to the bluff.

If not looked at too closely I would pass muster as a qualified expert offering a recommendation for a student concerning his future. None of what I put in that letter was a lie. It was just done in such a way to give the illusion of an expert giving a professional opinion. And in another sense it was that.

I proposed two hours release two days a week. The classroom teacher rang me and was delighted to inform me it was approved. I quickly alerted Paul, his mother and Skillshare to the decision and the days and hours of the release. All were pleased.

After it was started, I called occasionally at Skillshare when Paul was there. Paul seemed happy enough, even if more interested in his Skillshare mentor than me. The mentor was convinced that he could get somewhere with Paul over the next four months to school’s end.

Two months later, Paul’s mother called in to see me. She was delighted with the progress Paul was making. She said it was almost impossible to stop him talking about what he was doing working on the machines. That alone was a huge transformation from his nearly silent position previously. On a personal level, Paul’s interest in machines and tools had led to a warmer relationship with his stepfather, who as a farmer was very handy and had a range of tools and machines on the property.

She believed that he would still probably leave school as soon as he turned 15 years, but she was no longer worried about his future. She was satisfied that he knew where he was going and would get whatever employment he sought. I gained similar information from his teacher. Paul was quite positive in school classes, but his heart was in the machining work.

At the end of the school year, I called in Paul. He confirmed these points and expressed thanks for what I had done. He was definitely leaving but was satisfied he’d looked at all the issues. He actually had a job offer, thanks to his mentor at Skillshare, who had passed on his details to a prospective employer. The mentor was sure he was placed in good hands.

The employer was a journeyman tradesman based a long way off at Sealake. He’d already met Paul and his family and given them assurances on his accommodation and support. It was not clear it could lead to an apprenticeship, but Paul believed that he would learn enough to have a good future.

It was not exactly the outcome I’d been directly hoping for when I made this unusual arrangement. Yet I had to be pleased about it overall. He had a purpose in wanting to leave school. He knew what he needed to learn to get the type of work he wanted and could do. A clear vocational direction drawing on a person’s talents and potential is about all I could reasonably expect.

Today, over twenty years later, the situation has improved for those students not needing an academic preparation. In Victoria, students can elect to take Victorian Certificate of Applied Learning (VCAL). It allows them a chance of obtaining more tangible skills that they can use in going for and obtaining work.

In an interesting postscript ten years later, I suggested a somewhat similar plan to a friend who was deeply worried about his stepson’s progress through secondary school, and remained pessimistic about his chances of passing up to year 11 or 12 and getting a job of any kind given his shyness. Here, the lad had a passionate interest in computers and almost nothing else. At least the school system was more flexible by then.

What I suggested was that he seek a release from secondary school to attend an information technology course at TAFE. The level of the course could be accredited towards his VCE anyway. Again there was a transformation once it was approved and he was released. He not only scored highly on the course, but at secondary college, his marks and his enthusiasm for other subjects improved, especially English. He got a good VCE score, and won an IT cadetship at his first application.

None of this answers the question of the ‘right’ school leaving age. If anything it suggests that it will vary with the individual. But it does suggest that the traditional school environment is not suited to all, and that a lot of lessons can be learned in other parts of life. Even from something as simple as an ice skating rink.

Epiphany

Patrons of The Pub, it is my pleasure and privilege to introduce yet another delightful, thought-provoking reminiscence from Jaycee.


(Image credit: Skydive Ramblers)

An interesting phenomenon can happen to a young person when they reach their mid to late teens: there is a moment of awakening to the situation around them, the life they are living, the social circle and familial surroundings that guide their every-day movements and decisions. They can have a sort of psychological epiphany and either fall totally in-line with the accepted dogma of society, or they can totally rebel and reject the boring-as-batshit lifestyle of their parents and peers and go off in a completely different direction. Some of the baby boomers famously did just the latter. I was one of those.


(Image credit: obamawerds.com)

Now, let me explain the three different phases of baby-boomers. There are those born directly after the second world war, The more inflexible of these grew up with the mind-set of their parents – conservative, militaristic, socially servile. The second wave from the start of the fifties to the middle fifties were expected to follow such sentiments as their older siblings, but they did not. Oh, they did for a while, as tender youths, but then they rebelled! The third wave, till the early sixties, are the misguided conservatives we have in power now. They have leapfrogged back to the fifties in a caricature of what they perceive as their parents control mechanisms and are an exaggerated version of that conservatism. Hopeless!!

I am of the middle set of boomers, and man! did we ever rebel! It wasn’t just a case of, Oh, I think I’ll go in a different direction. It was an emphatic I’m outa here!, and I can remember the exact moment when I stopped being the aspiring apprentice carpenter and became the son from hell.

There were three things that awoke the liberating spirit within me, the first was a book, the second was music, and the third that sealed my fate was an incident.

Let me enlighten you.

I was an avid reader of books in my early teens. You probably know the type of books: crime, mysteries, war, adventure – that sort of thing. I was a regular “young boys own” kind of fellow, till one day, in the mid-sixties or so, whilst about to catch a train, I was looking at a bookstand for something to read, and in a hurry, I bought this book that had on its cover a war theme. I bought the book and caught the train. The title of the book – Catch 22. I fell in love with that book. I still love it! I’ve consumed it so many times, like one consumes a lover, a hunger unsatiated till you next see them, when touching is not enough and total immersion is demanded. A beauty!


(Image credit: Fin Fahey)

In 1967, The Beatles released their Sgt. Pepper’s album. Talk about a bombshell! Never, never before in the world of music had such a magical mix of bizarre and sublime sounds been cast upon the masses. You cannot honestly tell me that you can listen to that album and not be swept away with the mesmerising musical magic. And that moment when the calliope lilts in Being for the Benefit of Mr. KiteAnd of course Henry the Horse dances the waltz. Glorious, magical, marvellous! To HELL with Elvis! And then came Hendrix and The Stones. Fucksake!! who wants the crappy crooners!? Pass me the joint, maaan!


(Image credit: EMI Music)

The third incident was the defining moment, when the combination of the first two awakenings jelled with the third and I went home to sleep on a new and exciting desire.

Again, it was 1967. the end of that year, I was nearly seventeen, it was summer. I don’t suppose the name Bodo Skrypek means anything to you? Why should it?. But just roll that name around and off your tongue a couple of times – obscure? abstract? intriguing, isn’t it? But I kid you not – it is a real name. As a matter of fact, he nearly got into a punch-up with a copper one night who thought he was having him on giving a name like that!

Bodo was a Rocker – these were the days of Mods and Rockers – and Bodo was a Rocker of the first order. The BSA Golden Flash motorcycle, the black leather jacket and chrome chains, black stove-pipe jeans with Ripples shoes, the tatts, the snarl, blond flat-top haircut, and the sartorial exactness of a Jimmy Dean but with the aggro of Chopper Reid, if Chopper was around in those days! You’d understand what I mean if I tell you that he used to clean his motorcycle, engine and spokes, with a toothbrush! That machine was a black and chrome beast, an android extension of his personality: he could toss it around like it was a twirl of his fingers. It was totally phallic. Bodo WAS the fifties personified. We adored him. We feared him!


(Image credit: Sophia Akrofi)

One summer night, at the top of Brighton Road, three of us gathered near the monument: a column, still there but moved a little to one side of the road, a testament to war. Three of us were there. Pommy Len with his Honda, Ron Parker with his 350cc Beeza, and myself, the youngest by a couple of years, with my Yamaha. It was the early days of the emergence of the Japanese motorcycles, themselves a bone of contention amongst the motorcycle purists who mostly scorned the Jap-crap for British machines, of which, amongst the Rocker brigade, Triumphs and BSA reigned supreme. Norton was acceptable, but just – the intellectual’s choice. The rest were, in the vernacular of the times, poofter bikes.


(Image credit: MidAmerica Auctions)


(Image credit: Motorcycle Specifications)


(Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)

We were there, at the S-bend, at the monument, just milling about, dead-still night, nothing to do and no intention of doing it! and then Bodo rolls up on his Beeza. Sees us, does a U-ee and pulls up and parks with one automatic quick-flick of the side-stand whilst simultaneously dismounting. He lit up a cigarette. (Where did it come from – magic! there it was, the lit match already somersaulting away into the night). He stands, we gather around to the flame. Moonlight and streetlight, phosphorus, man and machine – memory fixed to time and place. Did I know it was the end of an era? Jacta alia est! My senses were alert. I don’t know, something was stirring in me, a portent? Did we talk? Don’t remember. Did we animate? Don’t remember. But next thing, another motorcycle comes around the S-bend and pulls up. I do not know him, but Bodo does – even some sort of respect. He rides a Suzuki Hustler, the quickest bike off the mark for those days.


(Image credit: Suzukicycles)

His pillion is a blonde girl – long blonde hair. They are both about nineteen or twenty, no crash helmet, no shoes, just T shirt and casual denim jeans. But maaan! they looked so cool and relaxed, they didn’t get off the bike, just straddled it and conversed with Bodo who, after some little time in discussion on the merits of particular motorcycles, tired of the conversation and tried to hit on the blonde girl pillion who, with a disdaining toss of her blonde hair, seemed to scorn him. A new ideal, a new generation! I saw it – the vulnerability, the loss of attitude. The young man started the motorcycle and with a casual adieu – and that’s what it was: an adieu – they turned and accelerated down Brighton Rd with such amazing speed and unity of line that even Bodo paused in the action of putting his cigarette to his lips. I Iiked that look of cool denim, the girl, the bike, the attitude. An Epiphany! I wanted it!


(Image credit: Favim)

There seemed like a long, long silence between the departure of those two prophets and any action on our parts. That machine and its passengers just went whoosh – no thundering roar of engine, no aggro from the young man toward Bodo’s facile attempt on his pillion, just a swift, smooth departure from the point of disturbance toward serenity, the red tail-light a point of distinction fading into the distance.

“I wonder,” said Bodo suddenly, “how fast I can get up to coming down that road?” He was turned, gazing up the new stretch of bitumen of Ocean Boulevarde. None of us commented, it was a rhetorical question, for he had no sooner said it than he had flung his smoke away and mounted his bike and still with the kick-start at the nadir of its stroke, the motor throttling, the side-stand snapped as he leapt the bike out onto the road.

We three moved our bikes and ourselves down the road a little to where the bend straightened out toward Seacliff. We stood on the edge of the kerb and waited.

You could hear him before you could see him as he came thundering down that boulevarde. that Beeza was screaming, a throaty howl. Christ he was flying! Then he appeared just as the road went into that long, broad sweeping bend. He was already pitched at a low angle as he went into it at a speed of at least a hundred miles an hour. He floated toward us, the bike howling with a spraying shower of dazzling sparks shooting from the muffler and foot-pedals as they bounced and scraped on the bitumen, Pommy Len and Parker leapt from the road edge to the back of the footpath. I stayed where I was. I don’t know why, except I was mesmerised in the theatrics of this performance. For that’s what it was – a statement of bravado in the face of total rejection. Bodo had lost face with that girl, with that young man, with us, certainly with me. I wanted nothing of it, no more big-noting, no more aggro, no more warrior tactics. I wanted liberation from that whole social network – screw them all! Though of course, I couldn’t voice those specific thoughts as I stood there rooted defiantly to the kerb. I wasn’t going to respond to the automatic fear. I know now: with mortality being the only certainty, the whole world runs on bluff.

Sure enough, Bodo swept past so close to me I could smell the engine oil and feel the heat of that motor. He was still braking as he neared the Seacliff junction. but I couldn’t care less, for I had already mounted my Yamaha and was quietly making my way home. I had a lot of thinking to do.


(Image credit: Zazzle)

As I lay abed, thinking about that young man and his girl, the fact that they didn’t get upset or angry, they just “walked away”. And that is what I did to that life back then. To my job, to my parents, to my home, to all the expectations of that boring-as-batshit society. It’s what we all did, a whole generation, almost spontaneously. I didn’t get angry, I just walked away!

Friday the Fifth with Friends

ZOMG, just remembered The Boss asked moi to put up the Friday thread, so moi had better get moi’s skates on PDQ.

It has been a strange week. We are all at various places in our journeys, but with each others’ friendship (which includes those difficult virtues of patience, forebearance, and tolerance) we will get there eventually. Though where “there” is, who knows?

Meanwhile, gather round the fire,

order your beverage

and nibblies

and kick back, sharing your favourite music with your fellow Pubkateers

Finally: