An eastern suburbs high school, Melbourne, 1977
We were a couple of cheeky buggers at school. Smart arses. Clever dicks. Chronic gigglers. Spotty-faced irritants. Semi-subversive, easily distracted, trouble-makers. You get the picture. Always up ta something. Takers of the piss. Me and Pete.
Which is not to suggest that our years in high school were a total waste of time. Nah. No way.
In English, for example, we invented and refined a complex, pigeonesque language based on our fluid working knowledge of spoonerisms, intentional malapropisms, non-standard abbreviations and imaginary acronyms. That this language was spoken and understood by only two people on the planet, only added to its specialness.
In music, for example, we mastered a whole orchestra of challenging instruments; air guitar, air drums, air keyboards and… kazoo. Our chief instrument of choice, however, was the mouth guitar. Which is a bit like mouth trumpet, but with added phlegm.
In French, for example, we were fluent Franco-phoniques of the first order. We learned, and can still recall, important French phrases like; Voulez-vous coucher avec moi, ce soir? And, Itchi gitchi ya ya da da.
All these academic achievements were attained without paying any attention, whatsoever, to the curricula of the English, Music or French classes. I’d call it Independent Learning, but our teachers labelled it something else, with our reports littered with language like “could try harder”, “talks incessantly” and “appears comprehensibly unable to concentrate on the tasks at hand”.
Now, there are stories I could tell about what we learned about football tipping, blowfly harnessing and fart collecting in our metal work, science and history classes (respectively). But I won’t. Instead I’ll tell you about what me and Pete learned in (and out) of maths class.
Our mathematics teacher, Miss McLain, was kinda unique at our high school. She had a way of limiting all our usual curriculum-contorting activities and marshalling the combined attention of the class on, well…mathematics. Who’d have thunk that? Put simply, you didn’t muck up in Maths. She had a frightfully cool and unflappable demeanour. She had a death stare that could weld cold metal. She rarely smiled, never laughed and stayed on message in a way that meant that Maths with Miss McLain was a quiet, serious, quadratically-equational affair…for everyone, even me and Pete. True dinks.
How did she teach such studious Maths classes? We had lots of ideas. And we had no idea.
Faced with this vacuum, what could two perennially distracted teenage boys do but fill it with an imagined vision of her existence. We projected onto her a life that was clinically controlled, conservative and cognitive; precise, pristine and perfect in every way. Teetotaller, Liberal voter, church-goer, early riser, clean liver, calculator, meditator… levitator (?)
One lunchtime, me and Pete found ourselves wandering around the staff car park, as you do, and found ourselves standing at Miss McLain’s car. As we did.
“Hey, let’s check out what’s in her tape player”
“Huh, probably Vivaldi.”
“Classical bloke, like Bach”
“Ha, you’d be barkin’. Hey, I bet she shimmies to James Last.”
“Nah, too raunchy. My money’s on Roger Whittaker”
We pressed our greasy noses up against her car window, thinking we’d find something that would, by comparison, elevate Muzak to a celestial art form. On the passenger seat was a cassette case. We focussed in on this case, expecting Andre Kostelanitz, Percy Faith, or Pan Pipes play Puccini. Instead, the title of the cassette in Miss McLain’s car was …
The Suzi Quatro Story.
Stone. The. Bloody. Crows.
For once we simply looked at each other and stared, back and forth and back and forth, wide-eyed in dumb disbelief. Mute and muted. A pair of stunned mullets. Until one of us, and then both of us, started giggling. Uncontrollably. We pissed our pants and cacked our dacks with maniacal, jaw-aching, stitch-inducing, kookaburra laughter. Like a couple of drunk asthmatics, we stumbled breathlessly and tearfully around and around the staff car park for the remainder of lunchtime. Like you do when your teenage world view collects such a radically revisionist hit for six.
We now had a stack of post-discovery rewriting to do. In our eyes, Suzi Quatro was unbearably sexy, while Miss McLain was decidedly not. As two boys with more hormones than brain cells we somehow had to reconcile these two visions. It soon became crystal clear to us that Miss McLain was obviously leading a double life: By day, she was a mind-mannered Maths teacher… by night, a maniacal, sex-crazed, drug-affected, wild woman, who, clad in see-through leather lingerie, slung her bass guitar low on her hips and snorted rat’s blood.
Our second reinvention of her imagined life was probably as off-the-mark as the first, but it helped us stay sane, stave off the boredom and keep the laughter coming.
I believe just the thought of Miss McLain driving out of the school grounds while thumping out the opening drum pattern of Suzi Quatro’s Can the Can on her steering wheel, or, throwing back her head and singing along with Suzi while leaving a trail of smouldering tyre rubber in her wake, or, playing air bass guitar while poutingly gunning her engine at the lights, caused me to drop out of Maths at the earliest possible exit point.
But that’s probably an invention too.
The author, as a schoolboy…