The Godfather: Peter Corris on breaking bounds
While I enjoyed and profited from my 13 years of schooling, I was aware that in some ways school was a prison. Some people felt this strongly and left as soon as they could. I felt it only faintly and occasionally. But you were there from 9 am to 3.30 pm and woe betide you if you broke bounds. I found the uniform irksome. At Melbourne High it was simply a grey suit with white shirt, tie and cap. But the pettifogging rules – caps to be worn between school and home and ties to be drawn up to the top shirt button – were annoying. What six-foot 17-year-old wants wear a school cap? I envied the American students, who I knew from films and television could attend school in mufti.
So avenues of escape, or at least times when the strictures were relaxed, were welcome. The school was divided into four houses, which competed against each other in sports, dramatic presentations (Max Gillies was the outstanding performer there) and choir singing. I’ve always loathed choir singing and my tuneless voice was not an asset. The rehearsals at school, with me mouthing the words, were a torment but the final competition was held at the Melbourne Town Hall. We boarded the train for the three-station journey and then walked the several blocks to the Town Hall. It was child’s play to sneak off into a shop or an arcade. There was no head count and I and a few other delinquents had the pleasure of a free afternoon.
When I was in the fifth and sixth forms (now boringly termed years 11 and 12), I was obliged to study science subjects when all I wanted to do was History and English. I opted for Geology and Geography as the furthest away from Maths, Physics and Chemistry as possible.
The upside of these choices was the excursions. We were permitted to arrive at school wearing our ordinary clothes, a great concession for anti-uniform me. For Geology we went, among other places, to Lilydale to study limestone deposits, and to somewhere else to look at volcanic pipes; a Geography excursion took us to the Bogong Mountains west of Sydney and other places which I forget. We scrubbed around in our jeans and desert boots and teachers were dressed casually and smoked, which they never permitted us to see when at school. Their staff room must have been in a perpetual carcinogenic fog.
I enjoyed the excursions for their inherent interest and the feeling of freedom involved. I did well in these subjects, stimulated in part by these outreach moments. I got first-class honours in the Matriculation examinations.
I’ll have to wait until a few of my grandchildren are old enough for me to ask them how they evaluate the school experience and whether they have these moments of release. I hope to hear of fewer rules, but my 12-year-old grandson, in the first year of high school, tells me that the students, tieless for the first four years, are obliged to wear a tie – that ridiculous, constricting hangover from the stock and cravat – in years 11 and 12. Why the hell is this? Are they being trained to be politicians?