At the end of the school year – last year, bloody hell how did 2014 become last year so quickly? – my beautiful boy got a lovely report card which reflected how much he enjoys learning and being in the milieu of a busy classroom. I was particularly pleased to see that his ‘best’ result was for ‘The Arts’ which back in the olden days we used to call ‘Music’. He has been learning piano for almost two years now, and at the ripe old age of 6, can read music confidently and knows his Beethoven from his Mozart. Because my husband is a teacher and I learn lots about education from him, I know that music training has been shown to enhance spatial-temporal reasoning (the ability to picture a spatial pattern and understand how objects can fit into it) and mathematical ability (I know what it is, but I sure as shit don’t have it). But I think of equal importance is the positive impact that an appreciation for music and art and literature has on us as individuals, and our society as a whole.
I loved music as a child, and by the time I was in year 6 (in those days the second last year of primary school in Queensland), I was in the school choir and fife band. I stood in the back row of the choir, because I was very tall for my age, and would sing my little heart out in glorious almost-harmony with my classmates. The fife band was my real love, primarily because it involved a fancy uniform of gold jacket with epaulettes and a box pleated green skirt with knee-high white socks and shoes. We also got to march in the town’s annual parade, and go to various marching band competitions around the state, which was almost exactly like an episode of Glee except that we were all actually school children with mediocre talent and not 25 year old professional musicians, and the grooviest song we ever got to play was Mull of Kintyre, which let me tell you, despite what the title might suggest, is not a song that’s going to be covered by Kanye West any time soon.
Like my son, I loved school and school loved me. I was a bright kid who got away with chronic laziness by being blessed with a ridiculously good memory. I was good at sport (represented the district in both softball and basketball), and was happy, well-adjusted and liked to do the right thing. In May 1980, the local eisteddfod was held, where hundreds of children from all the schools in the area would compete in musical and dramatic competitions. Our school choir was entered, and we rehearsed our two songs for months before the big day. Our event was held in the evening at a big local church hall, which smelt of felt tip pens and 4-7-11 because it was mostly used for bingo.
There were about 15 schools competing, so those schools waiting for their turn were sat in rows in the audience. In the row in front of where I was sitting was a crew of boys from another school who were turning around and pulling faces and saying nasty things for what seemed like interminable hours. I finally reached the end of my tether with these boys, and decided to retaliate by working up some static electricity by rubbing my school shoes on the carpet vigorously, and then zapping them in the back of the neck with my finger. Just as I did this to the first tormentor, our music teacher and choir mistress Mrs Hooper appeared at my side to lead us up to the stage. She became so instantly enraged by my behaviour that she leaned down and did one of those whispering yells into my ear, where there was hardly any sound but spittle flying everywhere. She told me to stay in my seat because my appalling behaviour meant that I would not be allowed to perform with the choir. So there I sat, as the rest of the choir filed onto the stage, devastated and sobbing silently to myself.
You might think that’s where it ended. Fairly significant punishment right there and then for what was probably a pretty minor incident. But you’d be wrong. I hardly slept that night, full of remorse and sadness, but went to school the next morning thinking that it was over and done with. As I was walking across the school yard towards my classroom, I was confronted by Mrs Hooper, who still appeared to be as angry as she had been the night before. She stood looming over me, with her big 1980s hair, and proceeded to deliver to me, an 11 year old child, a torrent of terrible abuse. She told me I was ‘a stupid, fat, idiot girl’ who was ‘an embarrassment to myself and my school’ and should be ‘ashamed of myself’. She then summarily kicked me out of both the choir and the fife band, and told me that I would not be missed because I had ‘no musical ability anyway’. I am not making this shit up, and I am not taking liberties. 34 years on, I remember her words exactly – I remember her face, her voice, and her complete and utter contempt for me.
I walked straight to my classroom, but I said not a word to anyone, such was my shame. I was shaking with fear and the utter humiliation of it, but got on with my work, which to rub salt into the wound, was maths. Long division, or in my case, very fucking long, and usually wrong, division. Somehow though, my classroom teacher, the wonderful Mr Moor, found out about my run in with the hideous Mrs Hooper. He took me aside after morning tea and asked me what had happened. When I told him, his face kind of melted into a mask of poorly disguised anger combined with sorrow, and he knelt down so he could look me right in the eye, and told me that I was ‘a good person and a good student’.
I’m not sure what happened after that, but probably nothing, because this was 1980 in a public school and you’d have to set fire to the principal’s poorly-disguised wig before your parents would be called, so Mum and Dad were none the wiser. Mrs Hooper continued as the music teacher, so I would see her every week for a half hour lesson with the rest of the class. She never spoke to me, or even made eye contact with me, and I remained utterly terrified of her. I never again sang in a choir or a played in a band, although the following year, when I was chosen as School Leader, I felt that maybe she had been wrong about me.
Today, as a 45 year old woman, I know she was wrong about me. But I can still recall those words, and the sentiment behind them. Music teacher’s revenge – the ultimate ear-worm, her words got into my head and I’ll probably always carry them with me.