Yesterday Is Not All That Far Away

Having Been Taught Go Forth And Teach

Old age is not a preparation for dying. It is a time when your database of life should be shared. Wisdom doesn’t grow on trees. It comes best after you have tried the alternatives. Made the mistakes that make life such an uncertain thing. And if you are lucky, had the little triumphs that justify your existence.

In other words, we ancients all have a story to tell. The joy is we are still alive to tell it.

So here I sit at my desk. I speak with my hands and this much loved computer. How different things are from fifty years ago and that typewriter with all that liquid paper!

So let us roam through some memories. Share the experience honestly. All systems go.

Suddenly I am back in a school for the blind where once I taught drama. I was a visiting lecturer in education from Nepean College Of Advanced Education who used Friday afternoons for this joyous task. Lower primary first for an hour or so, and then upper primary.

My main emphasis was on dramatic improvisations although I did write some plays which were written up in Braille. The great teacher Dorothy Heathcote used to say that child drama is giving children the chance to stand in other people’s shoes.

We stood in a lot of shoes. Animals’ paws too. I shall never forget a dear Vietnamese refugee child who had no idea what a cat’s purring was. There just weren’t any cats amid the napalm of Vietnam.

I got into a little trouble with the upper primary group. A very knowledgeable boy had this to say to me: “The Pterodactyl did NOT fly, it glided.”

So what did we do with drama to share life with these children? We did improvised role play especially. The younger ones moved as different animals and went through various life situations such as posting letters or crossing the road. The upper primary were interested in dinosaurs especially, hence my problem with the Pterodactyl, so we mimed and improvised prehistoric scenes as well as life situations such as getting help from a policeman.

I was at the time in tune with such figures at Peter Slade and Brian Way, as well as Dorothy Heathcote so the children and I improvised with great joy along the lines these figures suggested. It’s around fifty years ago now so the expanded details are not with me.

An associated joy I have was a student theatre company I founded at Nepean CAE. It was called The Phoenix People and performed in schools with support from teachers. Here are some pictures of them at the school for the blind.

In 1965, the Belgrade Theatre Company of Coventry in England formed the first ever Theatre in Education (TiE) company, dedicated to using theatrical performance and drama workshops to explore issues of cultural, social, political and moral significance as part of a free service to schools and the young people of Coventry. The Belgrade Theatre was built in 1958 as part of the reconstruction of Coventry after World War II.

My company at Nepean sought to follow the same pattern set by the Belgrade group. We sent letters to neighbouring schools seeking subjects to write plays about. We then wrote the plays and performed them in the schools. The actors were all education students (in a BEd program) and the drama they were involved in was clearly linked to their future teaching careers.

Memories of the plays still linger forcibly in my mind. One was about King Arthur and his conquest of a dragon. I remember an infant getting right behind King Arthur. “Come on King,” he cried standing up with genuine support during the fight with the dragon.

Another was about Billy Button, a convict boy who was transported to New South Wales and ultimately killed. The Emperor’s New Clothes is another memory that remains. The performances took place in the 1980s.

Here is a scene from the Billy Button play. Billy was only fourteen. The young woman who played him was so convincing.

We dressed the Emperor in very funny underclothes. He marched through the audience accompanied by Verdi’s Grand March  from Aida. Ludicrously funny. Unforgettable.

A funny thing about memories. You can never tell when they are going skip into your awareness. Just now I am remembering my one-teacher school experience: 19 children K to 10 plus me.

It was a remote school that, in the hills of the Hunter Valley in New South Wales; just a school building, a church and scattered farm houses. No electricity, no water laid on, a pit for the toilet and a narrow, dirt road with lots of bumps and potholes.

Three of the seniors were studying by correspondence and had to attend school until they turned fifteen. I taught reading, writing, mathematics, social studies, music, art, craft, natural science and cricket at lunchtime. We had a garden too that had a lemon tree. Parents looked after that garden in the school holidays. The lemon tree was invaded by gall wasp and I had to cut off the infected stems and burn them.

Those people have stayed in my mind down the years. The farmer’s son who got rid of a snake for us by chasing it with a stick. He was a fine human, a good runner. I gave him a pair of running shoes. There was the head of the parents’ association who was very helpful with some of the inevitable challenges. He was quite an old man, constantly doing what he could to help “the teacher.”

I have come to see, since those formative years of mine, every classroom as a dynamic stage. It is a unique place. An infinitely variable combination of lives. The teacher’s task is to belong to that place. To make it a sanctuary of peace, comfortable efficiency and inspiration.

Those children are still with me. There was a little child with an iodine deficiency who had to be given thyroxine before school started. She was a sweet little doll. There was the teenage daughter of the parents’ committee head. She was so serious and something of a mother figure to the younger ones. The boys were all sons of farmers. With the older girls they did the milking before they came to school. I hope they are all still alive.

I was inspected by a school inspector during my two tears there. A fine mentor he was named John Archer. He died quite young but he is still alive for me. I still heed his advice and am glad to name him. The opening line of his report said: “Mr Levi is a young man of high ideals.” Two years after that visit, at a subsequent inspection, he promoted me to the First Primary Promotions List. 

The replacement of the inspectorial system with show piece CVs and interviews has been a sad loss for education. Where should teachers be judged? In the classroom. That is where the magic of teaching happens, not in a back room committee meeting or on a flamboyant self praising history.

Memories are like naughty children – rather unpredictable. I’m having memories just now of a city class I made a film with. It was about time travel. I wrote this song as the stimulus for the action.

I Was Born About Ten Thousand Years Ago

I was born about ten thousand years ago

And I’ve seen more things than you can ever know

Archimedes in a bath Aristophanes raise a laugh

I was born about ten thousand years ago

I was born about ten thousand years ago

And I’ve seen more things than you can ever know

I saw Hitler’s ugly mo and Mussolini stub his toe

I was born about ten thousand years ago

I was born about ten thousand years ago

And I’ve seen more things than you can ever know

I saw Cook who took a look and Darwin write his book

I was born about ten thousand years ago

I was born about ten thousand years ago

And I’ve seen more things than you can ever know

Though time has passed me by yet I will always try

To see more things than you can ever know

I don’t have a memory of the other verses. We used the song as a prelude and again as a finale.

Now this class of 28 was a class of under achievers from Year 8 and Year 9. As an experienced teacher I was given the task of achieving something with these under achievers. I didn’t teach them calculus. 

But going back through history: wars, revolutions, plagues, volcanic eruptions and discovery of a new world, got them in. We had the Professor, the inventor of the time machine, and an assistant scientist. The rest had the task of creating historic events. We travelled back through time in the film.

That class met in Room 28; the Chips Rafferty Theatre was its name as Chips had once attended that school. We met once a week for two forty-minute periods. Filming had to be spread over two weeks.

In the first week we were back in Ancient Greece when the filming stopped. We planned to film the return journey to the present the following week. Then came a major problem. 

The Professor and time machine operator was expelled from the school. So we had to rewrite the script, having the Professor called back on government secret business and the assistant scientist rescued by a reserve model time machine.

Those children and I were important to each other. We shared a common cause. I have discovered since that one of them now works for the Australian ABC. I remember him so well as he was noticeable in that group. Full of the energy we all felt in that wonderful time lapse place.

I end this part of my memoir with a poem I wrote in April, 2004. It links up with time and how classrooms go on in your mind when you teach there.

Rock and Roll 

You must remember this
A kiss is just a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh.
The fundamental things apply
As time goes by.

“As Time Goes By”

Music and words by Herman Hupfeld

I taught my music class Rock and Roll today, 

Gave them the themes from a long time away, 

Felt the beat grab them, shake them and shiver them, 

Saw the words wrap them, post them and deliver them, 

Heard the old ghosts like sirens of the sea 

And recalled when they sang the same songs for me. 

I heard current laughter and present time cheers 

The attention still lingering across the years, 

Bill Haley still rocking across the clock’s face, 

Big Boppa yet fingering Chantilly Lace, 

Buddy Holly still loving his sweet Peggy Sue 

And the Marcels still claiming that the moon is blue. 

I taught my music class Rock and Roll today, 

Gave them the themes from a long time away, 

Felt the beat grab them, shake them and shiver them, 

Saw the words wrap them, post them and deliver them, 

Heard the old ghosts like sirens of the sea 

And learned that such things will last longer than me. 



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