When I was a kid we had plenty of time for recreation.
Television didn’t arrive in Brisbane until 1959 and, even then, was limited in programming and broadcast times. So, unlike today’s youngsters, much of our time was spent outdoors.
My parents decided, when I was about eight years old, that my recreation periods should have some semblance of organisation. I found myself learning to play the piano, attending elocution lessons and learning to play tennis.
Piano lessons took place before school on a Friday morning. This meant that, by the time I had had my lesson and walked from the teacher’s house to school, I missed the Friday morning school assembly. I didn’t mind that. Assembly or “Parade” involved the entire student body assembling in class groups on the parade ground at the front of the school. We did this every day, weather permitting. Each class of about 40 students stood in three straight lines, in the ‘at ease’ position, feet apart and hands behind backs, until called to Attention. Then the National Anthem would be played, the flag unfurled and the Pledge of Allegiance to Queen and Country was recited. After the Headmaster made any necessary announcements, each class would make a smart right turn and march like soldiers to the classrooms. Anyone not marching properly would be chastised, with the whole class likely to incur a lunchtime marching practice. Oh no, I didn’t mind missing out on assembly.
I quite enjoyed my piano lessons and kept it up for about six years before the work load of high school and the advent of the Beatles caused me to lose interest.
Tennis lessons were fun too. Once I had learned for two years, I realised I knew enough to enjoy a game but that I was never going to be the next Wimbledon champ. Why waste my Saturday mornings and Mum’s money on the lessons for any longer? Anyway Saturday mornings were when I made my extra income from collecting bottles. (See I is for Income.)
Elocution lessons were an after school event. On a Monday afternoon I was to walk to the teacher’s house, have my lesson with about six other kids, and then walk home. Elocution lessons were, according to my mother, supposed to teach me how to speak “like a lady”. These days I guess they would be called speech and drama lessons.
I was a shy child. Within my family I was fine, but in the world at large I felt very small. I lived mostly in my own head, in the world of the stories that I read. In that world I was comfortable and capable. I would have loved to have been popular and to have been the centre of attention and have had heaps of friends. I looked at some of the girls at school who seemed so self assured and I would wonder why I couldn’t be as relaxed and confident as they were. I tried to melt into the background so that nobody would notice me, because I felt there were always eyes upon me, judging me and finding me wanting. When I met new people, I had a tendency to put my head down and speak to my shoes. When I had to present a project before the class, I would be physically ill beforehand.
At elocution lessons I was given a role to play. I didn’t have to be me. I could be this new character and it was wonderful. At the end of each semester we put on a performance for the parents. I just loved it.
Later, when I was a teacher (yes…me…the kid who used to throw up if I had to stand before the class), I used stories and drama as a base for many of my curriculum units. I found that, just as it had for me, the drama brought quiet strength to the shy students and allowed them to show themselves to the group without being judged. The children loved it and threw themselves enthusiastically into their learning. It was a most successful method of engaging my students.
I did, twice, skip elocution lessons. I spent the two shillings Mum had given me to pay for the lessons on a bag of lollies, and met my friend Carol in the park. We sat there under the big Moreton Bay fig tree and gorged ourselves. I was caught, of course, and threatened with immediate removal from the class. Yikes!
Those lessons were a drain on my free time, but they gave me something far more precious. They gave me a sense of Myself. They helped me to see that I could be whoever I wanted to be. I was still shy. I was still awkward and self-conscious, but I could step into the world with more confidence. Many times I approached difficult situations as if they were roles I had to play. After a while, I would find that the mask of the actor would slip away and I, myself, was coping with the situation.
To this day, I give thanks that my mother made me take those Elocution lessons and I hope that, for her sake, I speak like a lady.