It seems that the new home for the ABR is to be the building that once held J.H. Boyd Domestic College for Girls. In late 1967, this school was my introduction to twenty five years as a high school teacher.
A single mum with two small daughters recently arrived from Perth, I was desperate for work… any kind of work. Back then the Victorian Education Department was equally desperate for staff. They were so desperate that any prospective employee had only to prove that she had four university subjects, even if no teacher training, and lo and behold, she had a job.
Desperation breeds fearlessness. Filling in the Education Department’s application form, I declared that I could teach everything, except maybe maths and science. I was even capable of teaching music. Someone’s eagle eye in the alighted on this, and sure enough I was sent to J.H.Boyd as their music teacher.
Back then J.H. Boyd was notorious for containing the most difficult girls in Melbourne. It was also known as a ‘punishment park’ for any teacher who broke departmental rules. The Year 7 to Year 10 students were the daughters of Port Melbourne dock side workers. Back then, Port Melbourne had a pub on every corner, and streets of factories, warehouses and decrepit wooden cottages with outside loos. J.H. Boyd’s students knew from an early age that whatever they learnt in school wasn’t going to serve them when they were old enough to leave. For these girls it was a splendid way of socialising until sooner or later they would find a job.
J.H. Boyd Girls High School was constructed in 1884-1885 as State School No 2686 and 1932, and renamed the JH Boyd Domestic College after its patron, a successful grazier, bequeathed a large sum of money for a school where ‘women should be taught to ‘manage a home correctly’. Domestic Arts schools developed in the years during and after WWI, a time when there was a concerted push for ‘mothering’ education. The truth was that by then it was hard to find good servants. To give these schools their due they expanded girls’ secondary education at a time when State Governments were reluctant to provide post-primary education.
At the time I knew nothing about the school’s history. All I had in my repertoire was the ability to read music and thump out a tune on a discordant piano. The music room was a portable with no heating or cooling. The girls were frankly terrifying. Think ‘St Trinians’ and the most ferocious fems in ‘Hunger Games’ and you’ve got it in one. So it was most unfortunate that the principal, let’s call her Ms Mitchell, had great aims for these children. She had visions of them learning notation, perhaps even discovering some latent female Mozart, and certainly trilling ‘Nymphs and Shepherds…’ Maybe even Scarlatti, Vivaldi, Johann Sebastian Bach….
Well. I tried. I really did try. Meanwhile the girls occupied themselves by chucking stuff around the room and continuing feuds that started out in the quadrangle. Their undisputed leader, a lass of thirteen called Pat who towered well above my five two, must have felt sorry for me, because at least she ensured that nothing actually hit me unless it was an accident. If I asked for help from other teachers, all I got was a sniff and a shrug. Anyway, given I was tucked away in the furthest portable no one cared.
One day I had the inspiration to ask the girls what they would like to do? ‘Sing,’ I was told. It turned out that what they wanted was early Karaoke. So I took myself into the city and bought multiple copies of ‘The Sound of Music’, ‘Fiddler on the Roof’, ‘Camelot’, ‘some of the early Beatles hits and other popular fifties and sixties songs.
It was a raging success. From a classroom of raging St Trinians I suddenly had groups of girls singing their little hearts out. And when we went to see ‘Sound of Music’ as a school excursion, there wasn’t a dry eye in the cinema.
I wish I could say that I turned the teaching of music upside down. Unfortunately, Ms Mitchell got wind of what I was doing and called me into her office. There, she coldly pointed out that I had not been employed to lead early karaoke sessions, but to teach the girls notation and what she called ‘more suitable songs’. She said, ‘I’m so disappointed in you, I’m afraid I cannot recommend that you continue your career as a teacher.’
Looking back, perhaps she was right. I should have used the opportunity to go into advertising, television, film… anything that would have given me more money, status, and led me earlier into my chosen career as a writer. But there were those two daughters to be housed and fed. So to cut a long story short, I persuaded the education department – using lots of tears and other feminine wiles- to send me to another school the following year where I would teach English and History. No music. Here, my first job was to check the roll for my first class of the day where every child had a six syllable hard to pronounce Greek surname.
So once this spanking new community hub in South Melbourne is opened, I sincerely hope that there might be some echo of the sixties… that someone might occasionally hear a dim rendition of ‘If I were a rich man’, Climb Every Mountain’ and even ‘Sixteen going on Seventeen’. If this should happen, please let me know as I would then feel that my short career as a music teacher was not entirely wasted.