I have been thinking about all the school leavers, celebrating, beginning or continuing jobs, waiting for results, and how so many years later startlingly clear memories of early days at school still come back to me. I look at photos of me now, and I can still see that school child, as well as the middle-aged person I am now. I see this same double image of friends I know from school as well. This is an aspect of time and memory that is so beautiful and strange. Perhaps it is a little like living in that fast growing body of a child, and looking down on the pencil marks and dates on the back of a door that recorded your height so recently. Feeling transformed over and over again; outgrowing clothes that still seemed new. So I thought I would share School Colours, which was published in the Canberra Times many years ago.
I also remembered School Colours when I saw Kurzel’s Macbeth (you will see why). I recalled sitting in the cinema with my class mates and English teachers watching Polanski’s Macbeth, and being taken out of my everyday life onto a cold beach with the three weird sisters. It remains one of my great film going memories, when I felt my world crack open, and I found myself somewhere new (and somewhere very old).
Jack Frost’s fingers reach around the blackboard, touching the letters and numbers. His ice crown drips, the chalk snowflakes stick to his long blue nose. Stalactites (pull up your tights) grow along the bottom of the board. Our Kindergarten teacher draws the seasons. The blackboard monitor, duster trembling, reaches on tiptoe to erase Winter. Chalk flowers bloom in Miss Heath’s hands.
Brush rasp on shiny paper, the hairs bend into the surface. Blue sky, green grass, I bend low so they are all I can see. A red drop falls into the picture and bleeds into the sky and grass. I wipe my nose on my hand and the colour is there too. The colour from myself.
All the junior girls sit cross legged, giggling, hands on heads, teachers clap, and a Television rolls in. Television at school? In the middle of the day? It’s because of that man in the moon. Tiny men bounce, stopping lessons. One small step for a man … The moon is blue. The teachers say to remember this day. I will remember the big TV in the wooden box.
North Sydney Olympic Pool, chlorine blue and salt eyes. Luna Park leers over the wall, at speedo cut crotches, escaping pubes, and breasts sizes A to E. Changing underneath a towel, skidding on the slimy floor, why am I on the end of the highest diving board, with a ladderful of laughing girls behind? The sky, the water, the air, impact, and sudden pain like the humiliation of a twanged bra strap.
Nobody goes into the end toilet. In there is a smoking incinerator, its door ajar, waiting. Everybody watches. Napkins in brown paper bags stuffed in lockers. Red stains. The reticent group of girls who don’t go swimming that week. A smeared pad in the middle of the floor, kicked under the desks.
Leaning forward into the mirror, I check that the blue halter bikini top shows, and undo another button to make sure it does. A hint of beach weekends, and boyfriends with long blonde hair, (nobody knows the bikini is home made.) Silver star sign around my neck, vaseline lips and eyelashes, strands of bleached hair, I wait at the bus stop alone, gripping my pass.
The teacher lays the drama out for us, ambition, betrayal, murder, the natural order turned and the elements exploding. She prowls the class conjuring the story so its poetry will be ours. It begins with the witches, on a cold beach, digging in the sand. They pull from the pit a blue fleshed hand, and ask ‘When shall we three meet again? In thunder, lightning, or in rain?’ We think our teacher is a witch, with her thick lips and dark hair. Does she sway naked in a fire lit cavern like these witches? In the coven I see a girl, her woman’s body newly formed.
The apple is my breakfast, my lunch. Dinner I eat while Mum watches. But the apple, its red skin, white flesh, is my desire for the day, all I will allow my body.
Blue eyeshadow heavy on her sculpted lids, white lipstick, leather mini, long red hair, leaning forward we devour every aspect of her. The disapproval of the Canteen Mothers whispers across the playground, as she explains dialectical materialism, perched on the edge of a desk.
Perhaps there was a story, with a line drawing it through, a thread pulled from the weft for embroidery to embellish. I remember the finger prick, the red stain on the white cloth, my incomplete patterns held up for ridicule.
At the reunion school-day fables are retold, all those triumphs and subversions, characters and jokes. The teachers we hated. I don’t really remember. Incidents shatter as I grow older. I see myself now as the persecuted teacher. A woman earning a hard living.
The mirror turns on itself, corridors of reflections, and a crowd assembles. After ten years the girls are women, each with a life carefully held together. I see the plain girl is beautiful, the stupid girl accomplished, the bright girl dull. But we pretend to be the same for this night, and we are told into a story again.
Afterwards I hold my intensely coloured pictures, my only true memories, and find another, and another within myself, then shuffle them away again. My hands reach out empty and open, at last ready to receive and understand the teachers’ gifts.
Sarah St Vincent Welch attended SCEGGS Redlands, Cremorne (Sydney) from 1966-78. For those 12 years she wore blue, and at night all her dreams were set in school. She was in Roseby house, whose colours were red and white.