In 1989 I had come to the end of my primary school career, and had the great fortune to continue my education by washing up on the shores of St Francis Xavier's Catholic College. This was somewhat unusual as my primary school was configured as a source of feedstock for Hammond College - an educational institute just down the road. Hammond however was famed for sports and St Francis's (God knows why in retrospect) for its arts program. So, presented with a choice between pottery and football I waved goodbye to my friends and set off for pastures new.
The journey from my home to St Francis's was a long one, requiring either a lengthy car trip or an even lengthier train and bus journey. Fortunately I lived immediately adjacent to a train station and over time the initially vast trek became quite routine. The afternoon trip home even became enjoyable once I acquired a suitable group of cronies. The morning journey had its own problems however - chiefly that of locating the correct bus to catch from Central Terminal at the other end of the train line.
Central Terminal was (and indeed still is) a run down train/bus interface. At the start of my high school career the trains were still diesel burning behemoths which, combined with bus exhausts, fumes from the adjacent train workshops and exhalations from the nearby brick factories made the air so thick most mornings that you could chew it. A never ending parade of buses would spin around and around the central island before being thrown loose by centrifugal force and coming to rest at one of the platforms. The buses for St Francis's stopped right at the end of the platforms, directly opposite the shopping centre we were all banned from visiting. Naturally several other buses also stopped here, so it was important to check the number on the front lest one be carried away to parts unknown and be eaten by hillfolk.
Personally I never discovered the correct bus number. I merely stood around amongst all the other fools in ridiculous uniforms and joined the stampede when a likely looking bus arrived. My usual waiting spot was on a patch of dirt beneath a sickly-looking olive tree - forsaken by all the other, cooler students - where my companions were discarded shopping trolleys and chip packets.
Getting back to the terminal in the afternoon was trickier. A flotilla of buses would assemble outside the school around three in the afternoon, and when the final siren went ten minutes later a horde of students would pour out of the gates, all desperate to reach their bus in time to secure a seat and thus avoid the indignity of having to stand in the aisle. To make matters even more urgent the buses would only wait for about five minutes, meaning that the slightest delay in grabbing one's bag and books would result in having to walk two kilometres to the terminal instead. Further complicating matters was that only some of the buses went to the terminal. The rest served the needs of local students by fanning out into the surrounding suburbs. The local and terminal buses were supposed to display different numbers but the drivers (probably having been assigned the St Francis run as some kind of dreadful punishment) usually neglected to change them. Pick the wrong bus and you'd end up stranded in the middle of nowhere, desperately searching for a recognisable landmark or public telephone to call home for rescue.
St Francis's itself was made up of a mixture of 1950's asbestos and fibreboard, and more modern 1970's red brick and raw timber. The main entrance opened into the "quadrangle", a vaguely square courtyard paved with crumbling bitumen with a two story maths building on the north, and a similar science building on the south. The library (with a biology room full of animals in bell jars on the second floor) was at the west end, and the oddly shaped Administration and arts block at the east. The entrance was cunningly constructed so that anyone walking through it would pass by the Vice-Principal's windows - which made sneaking in late rather difficult.
A strange tower was isolated at the eastern end of the maths block. The bottom half held the school's telephone switchboard and for some years a pay phone usuable by students. On its upper floor it contained a stifling cell used for solitary detention. This had one circular window high up in the wall, and probably contravened every United Nations treaty on the rights of the child. The side entrance to the quadrangle was also in this building, a passageway cutting through the block, and coming out through the bottom of a puke green stairwell. At the western end of the building was a dank, cavelike undercroft, lined with cracking concrete and lockers. This was eventually walled in and converted into classrooms, but they never really lost their cthonian atmosphere.
The lockers at St Francis's were gunmetal gray boxes each only slightly larger than a bread bin. Even without the puzzling internal shelf (placed no more than an inch from the top) there wasn't even a remote hope of fitting your schoolbag inside one - you had to leave it dumped on the ground underneath leading to a plethora of placement rules intended to prevent one's fellow students tripping over them and cracking their heads open on the concrete. Bolted onto the walls in rows two high they had no-built in locks, students had to obtain their own padlocks and and loop them through the catches. Combination locks were generally discouraged as they were thought to provide a challenge for locker thieves.
The procedure for obtaining a locker was baroque to say the least. On the first day of school each year, each PAG ('Pastoral Advisory Group', St Francis's elaborate term for 'homeroom') was issued with a range of lockers, identified by the tiny numbers engraved on the equally tiny metal plates riveted to the locker doors. In alphabetical order you were called up to select a locker from the numbers available. It was impossible to determine a locker's location from its number, so the entire process was something of a lucky dip. Once the locker was registered in your name, you could leave the room, search for your locker and (if you could actually locate it) lay claim and attach your lock.
Naturally lockers in good locations were in high demand. As such many students attempted to pre-empt the system by putting their locks onto desirable lockers before the assignment process commenced. The schemes of these queue jupers were regularly defeated by the Vice Principal, Mr Gardner, who would patrol the school during the allocation session with the official Vice Principal bolt cutters. Anyone foolish enough to claim a locker before assignment would come out to find their lock cut open, the locker thrown open, and any contents strewn roughly onto the ground.
The bolt cutters were a prized possession of the Vice Principal and a powerful symbol of his authority. If anyone lost the key to their lock, they would go to visit Mr Gardner and request his assistance. He would sign melodramatically, and with great ceremony remove the cutters from their home down the side of his filing cabinet. The supplicant would then formally escort him through the school to their locker, where he'd begin the ritual by asking if they were certain that they couldn't find their key. Once assured that this was the case he'd proceed to the next question, asking whether the locker in question was definitely theirs, and not that of a neighbour, an associate or a hated enemy. On confirmation of this, he would place the cutters around the lock, and provide one last chance, explaining that once the blades were wielded the lock would be useless forever more. Once the student confirmed that they understood, and were willing to take that risk, he would stretch his muscles, and operate the cutters, slicing through the lock as if it were made of soft lead. The lock would be removed and handed to the student, and Mr Gardner would issue a reminder to transfer the contents of the locker elsewhere, before heading back to his office and placing the cutters back in their shrine. On rare occasion the bolt cutters would be used for other purposes, but they were primarily reserved for the locker opening ceremony.
There were many more lockers at St Francis's than there were students, which meant that most lockers were open and empty. Or at least they were empty at the beginning of the school year. Empty lockers were considered fair game for disposal of any item you wished to get rid of. This usually consisted of fruit, and plastic wrapped sandwiches. The cleaners refused (for obvious reasons) to deal with the lockers, so the foodstuffs would sit inside for months, until they produced such a stink that there was no option but for one of the staff to put on rubber gloves and clear them out. They usually press ganged students on detention to deal with the worst cases. Some lockers were sealed up by the simple expedient of violently kicking the catches until they bent over and held the door shut. The contents of these lockers remained a mystery right up to the renovations of 1992-93, when the lockers were ripped out and replaced with modern yellow units, able to hold more than five textbooks at a time.
The highest point in the entire school was an observation tower stuck on top of the main stairwell in the quadrangle. A full three and a half stories above ground level it provided a good view of the city, and was home to the school rain gauge. In later years it was a great honour among the Geek Underclass to be entrusted with reading the gauge, mainly because it gave you a legitimate reason to climb the tower, which was normally padlocked and off limits. It also gave you the opportunity to empty the gauge over the people below, although that required more guts than most Geeks had.
The school stretched out to both the west and south from the quadrangle. To the south, through the large undercroft of the science block, was another courtyard servicing the canteen. The canteen was a one story addition sticking out of the administration building. On top of it was a strange cement platform which was never used for anything in the least bit useful. Students weren't even allowed to hang around up there, presumably in case they fell over the 1.5 metre solid concrete railings, and plummeted the deadly four metres to the ground below. The undercroft created by this cement absurdity was divided up by metal rails, creating a number of runways up to the service windows. In order to buy food you lined up in an orderly (Ha!) fashion and waited your turn. Unless you were a teacher, in which case you could barge your way to the front as often as you liked. If the pushing, shoving and yelling in the lines got too much, Nora the canteen lady would scream incoherently at us and slam the windows shut for half an hour. This did nothing to calm anyone down, but at least dispersed the crowd.
If you wanted to buy a prepared lunch from the canteen, you went up at recess and paid in advance. In return you'd be given a round plastic token, which you'd redeem at lunch in exchange for your food. The canteen staff (who were mostly parents press ganged into it with notices mentioning that they were showing a lack of "school spirit") figured out how many meals they had to cook by counting the left over tokens. The system would have worked great, except for a number of factors.
First of all, food is a valuable commodity among teenagers. Thus there was quite a trade in tokens, particularly the blue ones which represented hot dogs. A lot of students had a few stashed away for trade purposes, or just in case they forgot to bring any food with them. This meant that the canteen staff were constantly cooking too many meals and would have a whole load left over at the end of lunch. No sooner would they recalibrate the system to avoid waste, than students would start cashing in their spare tokens, and they'd run out of food.
If that wasn't enough, there was also a problem with counterfeit tokens. The school had a plastics workshop, and it was the work of a few minutes to find a plastic offcut of the right colour and cut it to shape on the electric saw. The plastics teachers were always too spaced out on solvents to notice, so long as you were quick. It was best to have a token on hand to copy, so that you'd get the thickness right. Nothing was worse than handing in a token that didn't meet up to Nora's standards. Rookies quite often made the mistake of handing in their newly created, pristine token. Old hands knew you had to kick it around on the floor for a while to get the correct patina of age.
So the upshot of all this activity was that if you'd paid at recess for a prepared lunch, you had to race to the canteen as soon as the lunch bell rang. Any delay and, your lunch would be snapped up by someone else, and by the time you got there they wouldn't have any left. Nora would also make the simplistic assumption that anyone handing in say, a hotdog token, when she'd already sold all the hotdogs, must be a counterfeiter. Overall, if some bastard had got in early and stolen your food, the best thing to do was to wait until tomorrow, then you could get in early and steal someone else's.
Beyond the canteen was the gym. Easily the biggest building in the school, it could hold the entire student population of about 800, if you made them sit on the floor, cramped up in rows like sardines. This was the normal procedure for all school events, chairs were provided only for staff and visiting dignitaries. If the event was a school assembly, which took place on a weekly basis, everyone would sit facing the north wall where there was a stage. For a school mass (of which there were an excessive number) everyone would sit facing the east wall. Rolling back some panels here would reveal a sickeningly 1970's style altar and tabernacle, with extendible steps.
The area underneath the stage was used to store chairs. It was a vast dusty expanse, and persistent rumours said that a student had once skipped Phys Ed. by sneaking in there when the teacher wasn't looking. There were also a couple a rumours about ghosts down there, but no one (apart from really gullible years eights) ever actually believed them. Off to the side of the stage was a grimy chamber known as "The Green Room". Whether this was because of it's role as backstage for school plays, or just because it was painted green is something I never actually discovered.
A few classrooms were scattered around the gym, all upstairs. For obscure reasons they were mostly used for Religious Education. Above the change rooms at the western end of the gym were a number of strange little cells, barely big enough to contain eight people at a time. They were known as the music rooms, although no one actually seemed to know why. Their only purpose seemed to be a place to stick the loudspeakers on sports days, their windows looked out onto the oval.
Beyond the gym was a basketball court, and beyond that a patch of scrub. This area wasn't of much use, until it was occupied by my particular section of the Geek Underclass several years later. This led to several battles with other factions in the school, but more about that later.
Beyond the scrub lay a square of crumbling netball courts, enclosed by a tall chain link fence. I never actually knew them to be used. Beyond the netball courts, at the very edge of school property, just before the ditch that separated the school from the old people's home, was a strange wooden construction. It was a tall, narrow, wooden platform raised about three meters above the ground on poles. The climb up was made difficult (at least for Geeks) because there were only four widely spaced rungs, and the whole thing wobbled unsteadily once you were up. The end opposite the ladder had two uprights, as if something (perhaps a fireman's pole) had once been supported there. This curious construction, along with a few other wooden relics scattered around the edges of the oval, led us to the conclusion that the school had once had an SAS style obstacle course. Sadly the platform was destroyed in the massive renovations of 1992. The thing was strictly off limits to students, presumably because the chain link around the netball courts made it hard to see exactly what kind of drugs they were using.
The western arm of the school was a heterogeneous mixture of styles. On the northern side was the newest area, the home economics block. This had been burnt down by arsonists over the 1988-89 summer holidays, and hadn't been totally rebuilt when I started. The arsonists had probably been students of Mrs Founder, the totally psychotic Food and Nutrition teacher. She was enough to drive anyone to property destruction.
The middle section of the arm was taken up by a building known as the MPA or Multi Purpose Area. The title was a misnomer in every respect. It was a large, awkwardly shaped enclosure, with strange partitions, doorways and side chambers all over the place. It was as if someone had brought up the stock of a salvage yard and attempted to put it together into a single building. The main use of the MPA was for "singing". Singing was two periods a week when there weren't enough teachers or rooms available to run classes for every student. So the entire year would be herded into the MPA, and made to sit on the floor, boys to one side, and girls to the other, to avoid any unseemly behaviour. The school's resident nun, Sister Vi, would then appear, and with the aid of an acoustic guitar and an overhead projector, force us to sing hymns for an hour and a half.
Sister Vi was a 1970's model Nun who thought the best way to get the kids back to the church was to make religion fun. To this end she wrote her own musical parts for the mass, and made us do actions as we sang along. She also took year 8's for "music", which was another pointless time filler, where students would be made to listen to crackly tapes and vinyls of classical music and then have to write about their feelings. This involved actions as well, all in all she was quite action obsessed. In year 11 one of the guys in my year actually got her to cry, which was considered a major achievement by everyone. She left the school soon afterward, and singing was taken over by the rest of the staff, who didn't like it at all. The next year it was replaced by study time, at least for the seniors, which was a much more sensible option.
Singing was at once the most reviled, and most enjoyed class in school. We all hated being herded into the MPA like sheep and being forced to sing religious propaganda, and the segregation of sexes really sucked. But everyone had a great time making up their own words. Two in particular stick in my mind. The hymn Lead us to Hope became Lead us to Dope
Lead us to dope, Oh! Lead us to dope,
Lead us to dope we pray-ay!
So we can sing not fear for the day,
Lead us to dope we pray!
Where is your Song my Lord? became (predictably) Where is your Bong my Lord?
Silent we've been for so long,
Help us in making your bong,
Shine like the sun in our days,
The air will be filled with our praise!
If you'll make us a bong!
A most beautiful bong!
A most wonderful bong!
Full of mull! Full of dope!
So give us a bong for this day,
Where is your BONG! My Lord!
(Where is your bong?)
Where is your BONG! My Lord!
(Where is your bong?)
Where is your BONG! Bring us your BONG!
Bong for this day, My Lord!
The teachers were perfectly aware that we were singing the wrong words, but they had a hard time catching us out, because as soon as they got near, we changed back to the official ones. It was like chasing a willow-the-wisp, as soon as they got near to the sound, it would shift somewhere else. It was rather amusing to see Vice Principal Gardner walking up to the worst offenders and sticking his ear up to their mouths to determine what they were actually singing. A few members of the Rebel Class would continue singing about sex and drugs even when Mr Gardner was listening to them, they were always caught, but of course didn't care. I was particularly good at telling where the staff were, and when to start singing properly. I only rarely sang the real words, but in Year 11 was asked to join the school choir (an offer that - cognizant of my precarious position in the school's social heirachy - I rapidly declined).
Those who were caught singing inappropriate lyrics were almost invariably issued with a "White Card". This was in fact a bit of white paper with spaces for the issuing teacher to fill in the students name, and their particular crime. A carbon copy was sent to the office for filing, and the card was sent home to be viewed and signed by the parents, before being handed back in at the office. As a Geek I was always terrified of white cards, and managed to avoid ever getting one, so I'm not actually aware of the procedure when a student didn't return one signed. In the old days, when the system was set up, they probably would have got a canning. Corporal punishment was outlawed a few years before I got to St Francis's so, deprived of it's central deterrent, the whole discipline system was running around like a headless chicken. In addition to the fearsome white card, there was it's good cousin, the "Blue Card". The blue card was like the white card except it was issued to you when you did something really good, like handing in an excellent assignment, or dobbing in a drug ring. I got a worrying number of blue cards during my time at St Francis's.
But back to the MPA. Adjoining the MPA was the Chaplain's office. For the first few years I was at St Francis's the Chaplain was some old guy who you never actually saw out in sunlight. He retired (or someone stuck a stake through his heart) and he was replaced by Father Jack, a Franciscan monk. The Franciscans have always been the looniest of the Catholic Orders (much as the Jesuits are the scariest), and Father Jack was no exception. He had a dog that he took with him everywhere, even up on the altar while he was saying mass. This made mass a little more interesting, but sadly the dog was always really well behaved. Father Jack was an alright guy, so long as you didn't talk to him about drugs, sex, death metal, religion, or anything important at all.
The school also had a counsellor somewhere. Apparently she was another Nun, but I never actually saw her. I would have regarded her as entirely mythical if my friend Iggy hadn't claimed so vehemently to have met her once. I was always really suspicious of a Catholic Nun giving teenagers advice, she'd surely have been pushing a religious agenda. In any case I never actually found out anything about her.
Also adjoining the MPA were three classrooms used for languages and "social studies". The only language taught at St Francis's was Italian, which was actually nothing but a way to get the grades up because the area already had a large Italian population. I took Italian in year 9, it was there that I learnt I have no ability with languages. I scraped through with a low C.
To the south of the MPA was an area of gardens and two demountables. The smaller one, Room 18 was used for religious education, In the summer it's lack of insulation and windows acted as a reinforcement for lessons about Hell. The other was much larger and had windows, I think it was used for geography and history. There were also two puzzling constructions here, a box like cage, and a trellis. The cage looked like it had once contained budgerigars or something, and the trellis looked like it was just waiting for a grape vine. Along with the nursery between the Maths and Home Ecc block, they gave the impression that St Francis's had once been some kind of agricultural college. The whole area around the demountables was levelled in 1992-93, in preparation for further construction.
To the west of the MPA was another block of generic classrooms and a small oval. Known as the Back oval it was quite often off limits for no reason I could ascertain. It may have had something to do with the fact that it was next to the bus bay and rubbish bins. The classrooms were amongst the newest at the school and were actually quite pleasant. They were used mainly for geography and other "social studies". The area between these rooms and the Manual Arts section was a brick paved piazza with small coniferous shrubs down the middle. It looked nice, but was like an oven in the summer.
The Manual Arts section consisted of two buildings. The larger of the two was divided into metalwork, woodwork, and technical drawing. It was full of all sorts of fun equipment, like a magnetic vice that could crush your leg to jelly. The woodwork teachers had a habit of cutting up unclaimed projects for firewood on the last day of term, which just about gave my friend Sean a haemorrhage when he went to pick up his prized house sign (which he'd been working on for over a month) and found it chopped into bite size pieces in the refuse bin.
Across the way from the metalwork building (as it was known, despite it's other functions) was the plastics building. In fact to call it a building was an exaggeration, it was an unventilated metal shed. The air inside was always rich with the aromas of solvents, resin and burnt acrylic. It's chief advantage as a plastics workshop was that in the summer you didn't have to use the heater to soften the material. On the hottest days the teacher used to place a sprinkler on the roof in a vain attempt to cool the place down. It decreased the temperature by about half a degree. I heard that it finally got air conditioning in 1993, although I don't believe it.
The most easterly building at the school was a shed used by Frank the Gardener. It was built as a lean to against the back of the plastics shed. I never had much to do with Frank, be he seemed to be an alright bloke. A lot of the Rebel Class had a real problem with Frank, probably because he was the only adult at the school they could pick on without fear of retribution.
Between the two wings of the school lay the oval, a huge grassed expanse that transformed into a shallow, swampy lake when it rained. It was an old and well respected joke, rolled out with great tradition each winter, that the school didn't need to install a swimming pool. The oval was also prone to inversion smog from the nearby brickworks on winter mornings. A running track was marked around the edges, and football goals stood at either end. There was no fence on the south and west sides of the oval, so there was nothing to stop students wandering off into the bush or old peoples home whenever they wanted. The theoretical western boundary was a row of trees, a power line and a gravely track. The southern boundary was another row of trees, and a weed choked metre deep ditch. It was actually quite effective because it looked exactly like the kind of place that snakes would like. I think Frank deliberately left it alone exactly for that reason.
You weren't allowed to take food out onto the oval, in case you made a mess of all the mud. People invariably did smuggle food out there, usually in the massive pockets of the winter blazers we had to wear two terms a year. Whenever the staff noticed anyone eating on the oval, it would be made off limits to the entire student body for a few days by locking the gates. This did nothing to stop people taking food out again when they unlocked the gates, and in fact made the Rebel Class more determined to do so. They could only keep the oval shut off for a few days at a time, because it meant cooping the students up in an area a third of the size they were used to. Territorial disputes and bullying skyrocketed.
On top of the administration building, with its maze of rooms and corridors, was the arts block. It looked like it had been built on as an afterthought, and the internal architecture, with its oddly shaped rooms and abnormally narrow hallway added to the impression. Apparently it had once been accommodation for nuns, obviously one of an order who took a vow of architectural inconvenience. Or who at least were only four feet tall. There were only five rooms, linked by the aforementioned very narrow hall. From south to north they were the art room, which was the largest, but was still cramped from the strange layout and vast amount of equipment kept there (pottery kilns, tracing tables and wobbly stools for the students to perch on accounting for only part of the contents). The clutter was reduced a bit in 1990 when the useless concrete abnormality above the canteen was covered over and turned into an auxiliary art room.
Next was the art office, which was a sordid little hole, generally inhabited by sordid little art teachers. Next along was the photography room. This was oddly constructed with lighting rails around the top of the walls, and narrow benches around the bottom. I only ever went in there twice. The first time was to watch Ferris Buelers Day Off on the last day of term in 1990. The second was to watch a video on Freudian Psychology, when the art teacher Mr Feverson decided that it had a lot to do with surrealism. Half the class freaked out over the Oedipus complex, and had to go off and recover in the art room.
Next was the dark room for the photography students. I never actually went in there, or even saw it with the door open, so I don't know what it was like. The last room, at the end of the hall, was an oddly shaped chamber used for storage. Despite the fact that students were banned from the buildings during lunch and recess (presumably because they might learn something on their own), my section of the Geek Underclass managed to convince Ms Blanche (the ultra-feminist English Teacher) that we were responsible enough to hang around in there. We had a great time, isolated from the other Classes, playing Super Uno (the rules of Super Uno will be covered in another chapter). We were periodically kicked out by other teachers (notably the fearsome Mr Fische), but always came back the next day.
Perhaps the most interesting feature of the school was the old drive-in theatre over the road. It was quite surreal, a vast bituminous expanse, pockmarked with the holes that had held the speaker posts, all arranged in curved rows sloping down to an invisible screen. The theatre was owned by the school, and was used as a car park. At the back was the old drive in cafeteria, it's windows permanently roller doored shut, it's gardens going wild, and it's swings and slides slowly rusting. Because the Home Ecc block was still undergoing repairs when I started in 1989, all the Home Ecc classes were held in the cafeteria. It was dirty, cramped and had only two ovens, which probably didn't work. The benches were lined with sewing machines for the fabricwork classes. Mrs Founder, unable to teach the practicals of cooking in such a greasy little hole, made us imagine that we were cooking while we read the instructions on the handouts. Hunter S. Thompson himself couldn't have come up with stranger scene.
The next year the drive in was torn up, and turned into a new oval. A shame really, it generated a quite gothic atmosphere of decay, which made arriving at and leaving school a bit more interesting.
So this was the madhouse that I found myself in seven hours a day, five days a week (with the exception of school holidays) for the next five years. Boy was I in for it.