Reviewed by Gerard Healy
What a fascinating, controversial and notable memoir/political manifesto by John Marsden, the well-known Australian author of the Tomorrow When the War Began series. In this book he looks back over his own schooling, his long teaching and writing careers and his establishment of two independent schools in country Victoria. Quite a few sacred cows are lined up and shot at.
If Marsden seems to be in a relatively happy place now in his life, his childhood was anything but. He didn’t fit in at Kings, his Sydney private boys’ school in the 1960s, where the prefects ruled using corporal punishment. However Marsden, who was a day-student, preferred it to his home. Later on he chronicles his bouts of mental illness and a stay in a psychiatric hospital. Ironically, the first patient he met was a King’s old boy.
However, years of teaching children, doing book promotional tours and running schools have given Marsden a wealth of humorous stories. There’s the young girl who liked sticky-tape pudding or the boy being driven to school by his dad, who swears at a fellow driver. “No dad, it’s not f**k ya , it’s f**k you.” the lad informs him. Another good one is the dingo story from outback Queensland (357). Such moments of light relief are most welcome in this, at times, sombre account.
There’s the section on men being such vindictive partners when a relationship breaks down or the effort some wives have to expend on dealing with the immature male in their life. Sadly, the children would often times be the pawns in this adult struggle.
While the awful physical or sexual abuse of children can at least be noticed by professionals, Marsden says it’s harder to detect other forms like emotional neglect or overindulgence. He agrees with therapist Claire Miran-Khan, about children having to learn how to cope with disappointment to grow towards maturity (339).
Marsden has an unusual approach to school staffrooms- he doesn’t have them. He has seen too many around Australia “with their obsession with coffee-cup ownership and clusters of sour, burnt-out teachers”(88). One of the reasons for the sourness is the increasing expectation that schools can and should solve many of society’s problems. He says that this has created such a burden that “teaching can be recognised now as an essentially impossible profession.” He adds it’s a factor in the high turnover of teachers and the failure to attract the best and brightest to the profession (133). Another drag on teachers is “the weariness that comes from the endless barrages of criticism from parents” (85).
A few other targets of Marsden’s pen are committees, organised religion, the middle class and bureaucracy. The brain-dead language of much of its interminable output drives him nuts (and he‘s not alone) and he cites Don Watson’s Weasel Words for further examples of this blight. It’s unlikely readers will agree with every target he selects but he does make you stop and think and that’s what good educators do.
There are some very interesting chapters on what makes a good school. A positive example from Marsden’s first school, All Saints College, Bathurst, was when each year everyone in the school deep dived into an Arts subject for a whole week (255).
He was Head of English at Timbertop, the Geelong Grammar campus in the Victorian high country and tells a good tale about sharing a room with Prince Charles. Marsden is a big fan of its extensive outdoor education program, where teenagers were guided and then given responsibility for planning and carrying out arduous hikes across the hills. Marsden thinks we risk something important if we try to avoid physical harm of any kind to young people.
In inner-city Melbourne he was impressed by the Fitzroy Community School. There was an air of calm confidence, the teaching was extremely thorough and academic standards were high. The students were friendly and were expected to interact respectfully. Also, there were lots of camps but without the busy agendas of most schools’ and it seemed to work. Marsden modelled his own school Candlebark on the FCS, but adds that it is somewhere between Steiner and The Simpsons.
What about the principal? Marsden says it is fundamental to how good the school is. Sarita Ryan impressed him as a teacher at Candlebark and she became the first Principal at Alice Miller. Marsden said she had the intellectual capacity, interpersonal skills, adventurous spirit, work ethic, creative mind and personal integrity for such a position (214). That’s quite a formidable list when you think about it. Think of some of the managers you’ve had over the years, would a majority pass that criteria?
I would certainly recommend this interesting and engaging book to anyone with an interest in education. He also provides numerous other titles to explore later.
John Marsden was born in 1950 and went to many different Primary schools in Victoria. He has written over 40 books, mainly for children and teenagers, with world-wide sales of over five million. His adult novel South of Darkness won the Christina Stead Award for Best Novel of 2015. He went from being the reserve for the lowest rugby team at The King’s School to Head of P.E. and Sports-master at his first teaching post in Bathurst.
by John Marsden