On Stress Leave

I sat next to him on a bench at the shopping village….a young fellow who should have been at school. After asking him, in a friendly way, where he came from and what school he ‘attended’, I then asked why he wasn’t at school, and why he had come down the line to this rail station. He grinned and said that he was on stress leave and had decided to explore new places on his own.

I shared the joke with him, told him that I used to be a schoolie, and asked him why he preferred to be hanging around the village. After a while we got along very well; I liked him and he opened up.

Without being patronising, he suggested that we schoolies did not know much about learning. He reckoned that he would not learn anything if he didn’t want to do so, and even if he was at school he wouldn’t. I think that he suggested that it was just a chalk-and-talk-subjects kind of day, today anyhow. Teachers thought that he should learn things because they said so. He emphasised that he did not feel like learning anything today because the school did not have anything that was learning-attractive. There was some sport; that was all there was of interest.

We talked for nearly an hour about the importance of literacy and numeracy. He knew that these things were important and said “Yeah”. Mum didn’t care as he would get a job okay in a few years time. The school had lots of tests and pre-trial tests, it seems, that reminded him that he wasn’t much good at anything. It was a pity, he said, as he thought that he could be good at school. He’d like to learn better.

He reminded me of Huck Finn, not possessed of academic grandeur, but a smart cookie just the same. Huck, remember, said that he knew the times table up to 6 time 7 made 35 and there wasn’t much more to be learned at school, if he lived for ever.

My new-found acquaintance smirked at the idea of shops not serving him during school hours. Bi- Lo back in his suburb was doing that. So what? Also, he would not be able to play week-end rugby if his attendance record was poor. So what? Everybody, especially the government, he said, was trying to punish him for not being good at passing tests and not going to school much. Some teachers were on his back about those May Napalm tests and he was ‘letting the school down’.

It seemed such a shame. I felt so inadequate and helpless. He didn’t seem to deserve to miss the opportunity to be a pupil. He was being treated as a student and that is very different.

Australia’s new hard-nose system did emphasise failure and fear. He said that in his own way. I suspect that he knew that he was a victim of this new schooling but did not know why it had changed.

I thought of the schools that I used to know that surrounded pupils with happy, hands-on, purposeful ways to achieve. Achievement challenged them and they hated missing school. Some even hated holidays. They knew what schooling was for and why they went to school….to learn as much as they could. My mate didn’t.

I recalled, also, Susan Ohanian’s story from the test-ridden USA system which Australia is copying. It’s a system in which the tests set the national curriculum despite all other curriculum words written. One Vermont lad, according to Susan, wrote on his paper, “You f———a—-holes , I have been taking these f—-ing tests since first grade and I’m f——ing sick of it. I know I can’t spell and you know I can’t spell. I have more important things to do than this bull——test.”

She said that there were pages of expletives and rage and pain and mourning for lost learning. To make it worse he was suspended; and could not take a test [they are everywhere!] on the following day to qualify as a lumberjack.

Susan says, “One size does NOT fit everybody. Why are we so determined to ruin the lives of so many?

Phil Cullen

Phil Cullen is a former Director of Primary Schooling in Queensland. See his website Primary Schooling

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