Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Buzzing not Broken

So I am back from my tour of the Wimmera. 42 degree days. 100s of kms. Libraries, classrooms, council chambers. Kids, teachers, librarians. I didn't expire somewhere on the side of the road. It was an amazing, intense experience and I still haven't processed it all, which is why I haven't written about it yet.

Camping at Hall's Gap was fantastic and our most successful camping trip with the kids to date. I think even though the hot weather can be hard work and we were all wilting, there's a lot to be said for sleeping in a warm tent and being able to get up into a mild morning. It cools down quite a bit in the Gap overnight, so it wasn't unbearable, there was a reprieve from the forty degree days.

I told Frederique on the Monday morning that I wouldn't be going home with them, that I was going to stay and work in the area for a week. Twice she asked me, quite concerned 'Are you still going to be part of this family?' (then she stuck a knife in my heart and twisted it around a few times). It was very strange, saying goodbye to them all after they'd dropped me in the motel in Stawell. I felt a strange sense of freedom and sadness as I watched them drive away. I missed them that week, but I didn't yearn for them - to be honest, I missed them less than I thought I would. It was too busy to miss them for a start, but I also really enjoyed being on my own, being a writer more than a mother. Having said that, I realised how much of my identity is tied up in motherhood, how invisible I felt away from them. How middle-aged I felt, how drab and ordinary (in my twenties when I was alone I always felt vaguely exotic and interesting, like some kind of rare-coloured bird). During the week I ate most of my evening meals alone in a cafe in Horsham, and it was such an antithesis of my regular life, that I felt like I was watching myself doing it, that I was constantly observing myself, a specimen removed from her natural environment.

The sessions were amazingly varied, partly because I felt like I brought something new of myself each time. Partly because the venues were so different - for example Birchip's public library is in the school grounds, which seems a really successful arrangement. St Arnaud's library had a separate room, like a seminar room, which was a really good space. In Stawell, Warracknabeal, Dimboola and Horsham I was in the children's areas of the local libraries, and each one of them was different from the other, each librarian offering their own perspective, energy and personality to the space. In Edenhope I was in the council chambers (the library was also in the council buildings) and in Kaniva, I was in a grade nine classroom. With some groups I did workshops, with some I gave presentations.

There was another difference too and I don't know if it was due to the teachers, the community or the kids themselves. But some groups were switched on, happy to be there, interested in me and what I was talking about. And some groups were frankly depressing and shocking. In one, after half an hour of talking to restless, blank kids I finally asked in desperation 'Hands up who reads.' One hand went up straight away. Fifteen LONG seconds later, another drifted up into the air. In a room of about thirty kids, two boys and no girls were willing to admit to being readers. I looked at those two kids and thought you are the bravest kids in this room. I'm not worried about you. Not just because I think reading is important but because they're not afraid of extending themselves, they're not afraid of where reading might take them. With this same group I asked them to write down a lie about themselves. The girls I looked at had written, as their lie, 'I am gay.' It seemed to me these girls were scared of their interior lives, of their feelings betraying them, of being different in any way. No wonder books scare them.

Another thing from bizarro world I came across out there was impending Deb balls, quite a few of the students were doing them. As in debutante. It struck me as such an odd anachronism. These girls buy what are basically white wedding dresses, have several hair trials and make up trials, spend hundreds, even thousands of dollars and it all seems so bridal and old fashioned. When I said that to me it sounded like a very old fashioned concept I got blank stares in return. They were a part of Martin's upbringing in Victoria (he didn't go to one, but his sister Annemarie did her Deb). I never did one, I doubt I would have given the opportunity - it wasn't really me. I'd love to know if anyone reading this has done one or wants to do one or wanted to or did one and hated it. While I was away I was thinking how it would make a great basis for a novel, at first a realistic novel (like a Girlfriend) and then I thought maybe something more screwy and surreal. And then, the day after I got back to Melbourne I read Margo Lanagan's short story Wooden Bride from Black Juice, which makes total sense if you read it as if it was about the Deb Ball.

I want to thank everyone I met in the Wimmera region, all the librarians for being so welcoming and friendly and especially those english teachers who showed real enthusiasm and energy - you could see the difference in the kids when they had great teachers. So there John Brumby, who claims that Victorian schools have the best resources as a justification for Victorian teachers being the worst paid. The best resource any school can have is their teachers, and that should be acknowledged through fair pay. Finally thank you to the kids, I hope I was able to bring something to the experience for you, and for those kids that stuck their hands in the air and said 'yes, I read' I'd like to give you a standing ovation.


  1. Absolutely a standing ovation to the 2 reading boys. I love that kind of courage. It's so internally motivated. It's one of the main things I would like to impart to mmy kidlets.

    Sounds like a fascinating tour. Glad it went well.

    The Deb Ball was 2quite an institution at my school. I think the majority did it. I didn't though. I couldn't be stuffed. I was having more fun drinking, playing pool and smoking pot in the small caf by then.

    (and just so you know, I've moved to

  2. Anonymous8:44 PM

    It's funny you mentioned the debut. At poetry discussion today Megan who emigrated from South Africa in 1961 said many Tasmanians were very interested in their daughters "coming out" ball. To her and her husband it was old fashioned in South Africa then.

    Most of the girls from my school class who were debs did so in 1960in Launceston. (Your cousin Ann L was a star. Her photo was in the window of a Launceston florist for months.) Most left school in 1959 and mainly went nursing. I was still at school doing matric then I went to Hobart to uni. I had the choice of money for deb dress and all that jazz or money for a trip at Christmas. I went to Brisbane with a group from uni - much better for me.

    I didn't really think that were still deb balls around. I'm glad you had such a great trip and met interesting kids to give you lots to think about.

  3. Anonymous9:46 AM

    Love that description of what it felt like to be away from your children.

  4. What a great post! That's fascinating about the deb balls ... I thought it was a very American thing. And yes, please, use it in a book. I love that idea.

    And your writing about the experience of being away from your children made me nod. Yes, it's sometimes liberating (with lashings of guilt for feeling that way) because you're just YOU, not 'Mum'. For me, I often get very quiet and take the opportunity for alone time, and to write and read and think. But there is also, for me, that empty feeling, of something missing, of a huge part of my identity being missing, and a kind of 'who am I, then?' And that's from someone who experiences it every second weekend. I thought you captured it well.

    And Fred's comment ... arghhh ... twisting the knife, indeed.

    And YES to the teachers thing - a school can cope without material resources but with good teachers far better than the other way round.

  5. I am from a semi-regional farming community ('farming' being the more important). Deb balls were seen as a way for the girls, who have little money or experience to get out and do 'big city' stuff, to have their princess moments before a lot of them disappeared back into said regional-life again.

    For me, though, it was all about the dress and dancing fancy with the cute guys.

    Hope that helps ;)

  6. Anonymous4:20 PM

    wow. what a full on week. good on ya for getting out there - with teens I figure 'blank' is the face you put on for any stranger ... I'm sure you made an impact with some... whenever I do a school thing and a kid asks the money question I get that sinking feeling and think the world is fkd ... but then I also think why should they be interested in me? in today's climate why should they be interested in anything ...
    oh dear!
    Except - that human beings are naturally curious ... maybe being a teenager is all about internalising that curiousity... and then I was in dimboola on the weekend and all I could see was a burnt out pub and an old person on a motorised wheelchair.
    I am curious to know ... did you drive??

  7. Anonymous4:25 PM

    BTW Pen, I just tagged you for a meme

  8. Simmone - I didn't drive, I was chauffered! Dimboola were a good group of kids, but yeah, it was pretty quiet. I saw the pink lake on your blog, we stopped at the pink lake too and peered at it for a while. Very bizarre place.

    Thanks everyone who shared their experiences of the Deb ball. Mum, I did wonder if you did one.

  9. Penni, we really enjoyed your visit to Birchip and hope that we made a reasonable impression. I will definitely add your writing activities to my bag of tricks.

    I have enjoyed reading your blog so much that I plan to get the kids who you saw start their own blogs next term and dedicate one lesson a week to writing a weekly entry. Hopefully it'll encourage some
    creative writing.

    Oh, and yes, country kids live for the day they can do their deb.
    I have prohibited my Year 11 students from talking about their deb. It is just another event where the popular get flashier and the poor, plain, unpopular kids fade further into the background.

  10. I did my Deb in 1989. It held no great significance for me, other than it was widely recognised as having the biggest after-party of the year. It was an excuse to spend an afternoon with a group of girl friends, get into a big dress and snog with my then boyfriend into the wee hours of the morning. Any symbolism or tradition of such an event was truly lost on the likes of me.