The principal of the private high school I attended had a signature that looked like it said “Cheers”. And thus, thanks to my Dad’s inimitable sense of humour, that is how he was known in our house.
My first meeting with Cheers was when I had to attend an interview before being accepted into the school. Cheers interviewed all new students and he remembered all their names from then on – or that’s how it seemed to me. When I was there it was a school of about 400 students so, although it wasn’t huge, it’s still a lot of names to remember.
Cheers sat behind his desk in a generous office with long narrow vertical windows along one wall. They looked out over a stretch of lawn and then the gravel loop of drive where the buses came and went.
The wall behind him was exposed brick and on it was a handsome wooden rendition of the school’s coat of arms. Cheers had a moustache but a clean shaven chin with a dimple in it and he wore half spectacles which loomed down towards the tip of his somewhat flared nose. The hair on his head was brown but heading towards ginger and I remember it as quite wavy and thick. His accent was distinctly British and he was proudly British. I remember him musing, at a weekly assembly (also known as Chapel) that Australians are so odd how they don’t use umbrellas, but would rather run through the rain… or even just get wet. Of course, this is a massive generalisation (in that not all Australians are the same) but perhaps in Britain it is much more common to carry umbrellas. Personally, I dislike umbrellas. They get wet and then you fold them up and have to carry around this cold, wet, ungainly thing for the rest of your journey, even if it only rained for 5 minutes of the day. I am sure the weather trends in any country inform the attitudes of the people towards it. Perhaps far more Australians are likely to wear hats and rashies at the beach as our sun has a particularly vicious reputation.
Anyway, I digress. So there I sat at the tender age of 11, being interviewed by this man who, to my mind at the time, held huge amounts of power over my life. I don’t remember a lot of the interview but, right near the end we must’ve got around to my reading habits. I was always an avid reader. My family had never had television and where other families may have relaxed in front of some show in the evenings, we either sat at the dinner table conversing (generally with somebody’s choice of music playing in the background) or retired to our rooms to do homework or read.
So, when Cheers leaned forward, peering over his low-slung wire-rimmed spectacles, and asked me “Are you the kind of girl who keeps reading after your Mum has told you to turn off your light?”, I could only respond with a quavering “yes”.
He leaned back and grinned. “Good. Keep doing it! That’s exactly what I wanted to hear.”
In fact, I didn’t enjoy my time at that school. Although I was academically above average and enjoyed the class time, I didn’t fit in well socially. Perhaps I wouldn’t have fit in anywhere and it was that fear that kept me there, even when opportunities presented themselves to move. Isn’t confidence a fickle and tricksy thing? We sew ourselves into boxes with so little evidence to support our inner voices.
Once into the school, other than the weekly Chapel meetings, I rarely came into contact with the principal, but he was generally regarded as a benevolent influence. I never had reason to fear him as I was definitely a goody two shoes. I think the worst punishment I ever received was a verbal reprimand for chatting in class once or twice. My reports always said “Worms is a pleasure to teach” and other such benign remarks which are code for “she doesn’t cause any trouble so I barely notice her”. And year in, year out, it became a standing joke that I would get the “try-hard” award at speech night.
It was the PE teacher who usually took us for our religious class. Under his tutelage, the religious class usually involved being read to from the autobiography of some poor human who had been through absolute hell and had turned to God for consolation and their lives had improved markedly as a result. It wasn’t a bad relaxation class but it wasn’t terribly informative and my Dad’s habit of poking fun at… well many things… meant that the poor PE teacher copped a bit of a beating for his randomly made remarks about his own belief systems. The school only claimed to be “Anglican by inclination” so I guess they weren’t pushing too hard.
Anyway, one day the PE teacher was away (perhaps at a state sports event or something) and we had Cheers for our religious class. I must admit, when he walked in, upright and smiling, I was a little concerned. I thought he might expect us to recite verses from the Bible or some other thing for which none of us were prepared.
Instead, he spent the whole class talking about the physics required for humans to have feathered wings that would allow them to fly. In other words, he was questioning the physical possibility for angels to exist. I am sure he was religious himself. In fact, I googled him recently and I believe he became a minister of religion after leaving our school. And so, in retrospect, I am muddled about what conclusion he drew at the end of the lesson. In any case, it was a fascinating class and a fascinating insight into his approach as a teacher.
And so it is that this man, in whose physical presence, I probably spent less than a week in total, has quietly impacted my life so that I find myself using my fingers to imitate his half glasses and encouraging my son to read in the same way as he encouraged me. And I continue to be intrigued by people who take a topic which has a particular expectation around it (like religion) and find a way to approach it from a totally different angle. And yet some people who I have known all my life (if similarly distantly), would fail to arouse any such stories in me.
So… cheers to good principals!