And now for something completely different.
In the 1960’s, Australian public school was still very much based on the system for preparing future factory workers from the Industrial Revolution onward, churning out good little citizens who didn’t question authority, followed instructions and didn’t make waves.
Collaroy Plateau Public School had classes at three different levels. Class A was the highest level of a grade, class B was average, and class C was the lowest level. Because I came from another school at the beginning of second grade, I was placed temporarily in class 2B, to see how I did. After about four weeks I was told that I would go to class 2A because my handwriting was so neat. That’s when Miss Best became my teacher.
She was in her early sixties, approaching retirement, is my retrospective guess. Her hair was her most striking and fearful feature. It was purple. This was not uncommon among Australian ladies of her age, but this was the first — and only –purple-haired woman I ever knew personally.
Her hair was the only thing colorful about her. It was heavily sprayed and kept in place by an almost invisible hairnet. Although I don’t think there was any specific dress code for the teachers, she dressed in grey or dark blue, perhaps to match our drab uniforms. I remember her hands, always holding a ruler, too close for comfort, correcting my work. They were old and dry and rather coarse, with long, not quite clean, yellowish nails.
During one of my very first weeks in class 2A, Miss Best told me that I had no head for arithmetic and that placing me in her class just because of my handwriting had been a big mistake. She made it sound as if the mistake was mine, and I was an intruder. It was also in one of the first weeks that a boy threw a cricket ball to me from what seemed to be the other end of the playground. As the ball sailed my way, Miss Best was yelling to me to catch it. I did, but it slipped through my fingers and bounced off again. She called me “butter-fingers” in front of the whole class. Resentful child that I was, I decided that I didn’t like second grade and I didn’t like Miss Best.
The classroom was organized according to performance. Our desks were placed in sets of two, four rows of five or six sets long. Miss Best sat at the far right, facing the class. Every three months she would evaluate the pupils’ performance and rearrange them accordingly. The two best pupils sat in the front of the far right row, their desks touching hers. The two worst pupils sat in the back of the far left row, the furthest she could possibly place them from herself. Moving forward meant that Miss Best approved. Moving backward meant being dismissed. I was halfway the third row all year.
Miss Best taught us to be good little minions. At the beginning of the day, we would march into the classroom — “Left-right, left-right” — and come to a standstill next to our desks. Miss Best, in her purple helmet, holding her ruler, would stand in front of the class and we would say in unison “Good morning, Miss Best.” Of course, this sounded extremely unnatural and rehearsed. So she had us do it again. “And this time, boys and girls, make it lively.” After we said “Good morning, Miss Best” in a sufficiently lively way, she would say “Good morning, children.”
This was our cue. I wish I could say that we would sing with heart and voice, but in my memory we usually started a rather whiny “God save our gracious queen…” Miss Best did not sing along. She would stand there, looking regal, letting the words flow over her. “Long to reign over us…” Once we had dragged ourselves through the national anthem we could finally sit down.
Miss Best taught us arithmetic. She wrote “351 + 624 =” boldly across the blackboard and we were supposed to understand that the right digit of the left number (over here) was to be added to the right digit of the right number (all the way over there). The middle digit of the left number was to be added to the middle digit of the right number and the left digit of the left number was to be added to the left digit of the right number. In an attempt to clarify, she would link the matching digits by big loops, which crossed each other and became an intangible knot in my panicking mind. Miss Best would write such a sum on the blackboard and ask a pupil what the answer was. Oh, save us all! A wrong answer was usually punished by a crushing sneer, and then she would ask one of the two far right front row pupils to please tell us what the correct answer was.
Miss Best taught us to read. She had a vision that would send her victorious into teaching history. When the school inspector came to visit her 2A classroom, all her pupils would take turns reading from their textbooks as if they were television news anchors. We were to only glance at our books briefly at the beginning of each sentence and look at the inspector most of the time, having memorized the rest of the sentence from that quick glance. I was terrified. I was seven. I had only been reading for a year. How could I possibly read like a television news anchor? And what would she do to me if I didn’t? To my intense relief none of my fellow pupils could read like television news anchors either on the day that the school inspector came, and since she couldn’t possibly punish us all, I was safe.
Miss Best taught us obedience. During one sports hour in early fall, we were all told to put on our cardigans. I did not have the uniform cardigan yet, but I was afraid to say so. Instead I told her that I wasn’t cold. Frustrated at my confounding cheek, she sent me home to get my cardigan. My parents worked during the day and the house was locked, so going home didn’t do any good, but I went anyway. At home, I sat on the front step for a while in aimless desperation. Eventually I went back to school, still not knowing what to do. A solution presented itself, however. The class had gone back inside and some of the uniformly grey cardigans hung on the coat hooks out on the veranda. I slipped one of them on and walked into class. Miss Best called me to the front, took out her ruler, and slapped my knuckles for not having had my cardigan with me before. That afternoon I had no opportunity to put the borrowed garment back unnoticed, and I was too angry to care anyway. I threw it in some bushes on the way home, only vaguely realizing that one of my fellow pupils would be in trouble that night.
Miss Best taught us art. I usually enjoyed art, simply because I was good at it. I would sometimes even get an approving pat on the back from a chalk-dry old hand. One spring day, art hour was dedicated to giving us subtropical Australians an understanding of the changing season. We were all to paint a grey-blue sky and a bare tree. Later we would make pink, white and yellow tissue-paper balls for our trees, representing fruit blossoms. I was painting my sky blue when I became aware of some excitement to my left. Since everyone was doing it, I decided it was safe to get up from my chair and see what was going on.
One girl had accidentally made the most beautiful teal-blue sky. Nobody had ever seen a sky quite that beautiful. We didn’t even know any words yet to describe such a sky. I was acutely aware that none of us would have been able to make that color on purpose. It was a miracle. It seemed to shine, even when the paint had dried. The sun could never set in a sky like that. We all wished that our blue had turned out that way.
Miss Best came to see why everyone was crowding around one desk, breaking numerous rules. “No, no, no, a sky is never that color,” she said, and before our eyes she took some white paint, mixed it in with the teal in the girl’s paint cup, and with big efficient brush strokes she quickly corrected the mistake, destroying the most beautiful sky in the world and turning it into the dull gray blue we were supposed to have.
So my initial dislike of Miss Best gradually turned into a sullen fear and hatred.
Then, one fine morning in April, we were to bring flowers to school for Anzac Day. The flowers would be picked up at the school by a bus and taken to a memorial statue in Sydney that none of us had ever seen. We rehearsed walking back and forth in an organized line, so that our 2A class would stand out from the chaotic scattering of other pupils. When the bus arrived, we all started carrying the flowers from the classroom to the bus as we had practiced. I was walking two pupils behind Miss Best. I felt quite safe. She was in a good mood. As long as I stayed in line nothing could go wrong. However, I kept my eye on her just in case.
She was carrying the largest bouquet, undoubtedly brought to school by one of the two far-right, front-row pupils. Suddenly I saw her hairnet get caught on a big, stiff red warratah. Nobody else seemed to notice it. I could warn her like a good little girl. Would I? I hesitated. It would mean stepping out of line and talking to Miss Best without being addressed. Following her across the playground to the bus, I expected her to notice the unfolding catastrophe herself. She didn’t. Now the noble net had come away from her hair completely, and it was hanging from the state flower like a torn spider web. It had pulled her hair to one side, and because of all the hairspray, that’s where it stayed. I watched her hand the bouquet to the bus driver, and I still said nothing as the hairnet disappeared into the bus. I followed her back. On our classroom veranda she energetically bent over to get another load of flowers. Still nobody else noticed the absence of the hairnet, or Miss Best’s sprayed purple hair now coming undone in crazy, thatchy tufts. This was the last load of flowers. I watched her while she waved cheerfully at the departing bus. “Look children. Smile and wave like me.”
Since she was the 2A teacher, she made sure to wave the longest — keeping it up until the bus had turned a corner in the distance. Not until she lowered her arm, her face still all happy and glorious, did she begin to realize that the excited tittering coming from her pupils was not caused by our national pride. “Miss Best, your hair!” one girl finally squealed. Miss Best’s hands shot up, finding anarchy. If Queen Elizabeth had realized halfway the changing of the guard that she still had her rollers in, she could not have looked more compromised. We were rushed back into class willy-nilly, one of the far-right front-row pupils was put in charge with a few short words, and Miss Best ran out, presumably to the bathroom.
She came back a few moments later, face flushed, her purple hair somewhat un-thatched, but still distractingly different from her usual controlled helmet. For the rest of the day, she was forced to teach like that, and in my memory we never stopped gaping. Her head seemed smaller. Her hair seemed thinner. I was worried for quite some time that she would somehow sense my delinquency and punish me for my knavish tricks, but as time went by I felt strengthened by the power of my secret. It was still the longest year of my entire education, but after the hairnet affair I was slightly less terrified of Miss Best.