‘Precocious’ – Chapter 21

Michael gives a speech likely to ruffle some very specific feathers.

21. Heretical Ideas
His second run at a first year of high school education was a different kind of gift. His eyes, wide open to the ideology and class consciousness of the place, had been distracted by the magnitude of the grounds and the intimidating nature of the process when he had first gone through it. His decision to defer his HSC exams for a year took the administration by surprise, including the head, Dr Rogers, who had Michael extracted from his morning English class for an out of character one-on-one.

‘I’d like to understand your thinking about this choice of action, Michael.’

The granite-faced headmaster, bronze-tanned and distinguished greying temples, could have played the President of the US in a Superman movie from the 50s. He had that look to him – part commercial real estate salesman, part Chesty Bond model. Not one hair on his head was out of place. His grooming was immaculate, his suit made of Italian silk. Michael had never spoken to him in his life, much less sat in his office, which was as cold as a mausoleum and replete with as much charm. To fit the bill perfectly, Dr Rogers had a rich, red leather desk-set with fountain pen holders. His desk was mahogany, or oak. His voice was as rich, but came from his mouth with a viscous, honey-like pulse.

‘It’s not the right time, sir.’

Dr Rogers looked towards the window pane, at a blue sky and a place where his thoughts would rather be.

‘Do you like attending Wellings, Michael?’

‘I do, sir,’ Michael lied.

‘We’ve established ourselves over many years, longer than you and I have been alive, as one of the premier places a boy can be educated in the state. We know what benefits there are in a Wellings education, and we have worked very hard to ensure that everyone in the state, and for that matter, the country knows about it.’

Michael nodded.

‘There are schools, Michael,’ Dr Rogers continued, slipping into publicity mode, ‘in this city, in socio-economically less … advantaged areas, which cater to a, shall we say, less … desirable clientele.’

‘Clientele…?’ Michael couldn’t help but question the word. He had never considered himself a client. His parents, probably, were more befitting of the moniker.

‘You see, ours is an institution of repute. The badge of honour you wear upon finishing your secondary education here, it opens doors. That phrase, ‘the future leaders of Australia’? It’s not something we just bandy about. We mean it, because the present leaders of Australia, they’re from Wellings. They’re in business, and government, and the clergy, and to a lesser degree, the arts. Our country needs leaders.’

Michael nodded. This man looked, for all intents and purposes, heavily medicated. If he wasn’t sedated, he needed to be.

‘Where, Michael, do you think we should mould our future leaders? The outer west? The south? Do you think a future prime minister will be from Mount Druitt? From Cronulla?’

What proto-fascist bullshit.

‘Michael, we are very proud of you and what you have achieved at Wellings. We know that with the proper stewardship, a lad like you, equipped with the best example of quality secondary education under your belt, can go on to achieve untold greatness. We would think that a bright lad, such as yourself would hold it dear that he received such support and encouragement. We’ve never had a boy graduate Sixth Year as young as you would be. It would be a great triumph if you did – for you and the school.’

‘Yes, sir. I wouldn’t doubt it.’

‘We need the world to see what and how independent schools can benefit a young person’s life. What Wellings can do is continue on this trajectory of excellence for generations to come, and be the gold standard in maintaining academic, social and cultural traditions. We believe in education, discipline, tradition and order. We believe that things are the way they are because they are meant to be that way.’

Michael was again lost for words. Dr Rogers stood up and walked around his ark of a desk to sit on its edge in front of his young companion.

‘I received a call a few days ago asking that you be submitted to compete in the state’s public speaking competition. They’ve selected you because of your exceptional performances on the debate team, and would have you pitted against a very astute young lady from the lower North Shore. She will be speaking on behalf of the state system, you on the side of the independents.’

‘Dr Rogers, I’m not…’

‘You will,’ he cut Michael off, ‘speak on the part of the independents. It’s important, Michael. There’s a lot of loose talk in certain political circles about federal funding being cut, and we need to silence it. If you speak on behalf of the school, if you speak on behalf of independent, Higher Anglican institutions like ours, the nation will see how a well-funded school such as ours can produce exceptional young men like you. Young men that the nation needs.’

Michael’s eyebrows were raised, and frozen on his forehead. He had no clue what to say in response.

‘Mr Sutton has the details and dates. I look forward to seeing you excel in the competition, and in your further tertiary studies, next year.’

There it was, apparently.

‘Thank you, Mr Curtin.’

Michael paused, breathed in, and gingerly got out of his chair. Dr Rogers watched him leave – the room silent but for the ticking of the antique grandfather clock in the corner of the room. Michael closed the door behind him, and stepped back into whatever it was that passed for reality.

He suddenly formulated a plan. It was bound to annoy the establishment, and if he caught wind of it, Hank.

*

Michael swindled his way into two days off regular classes, which were mostly about revision for the HSC exams he was probably going to have to wing his way through. He found his way to the NSW Public Library in the city, and started some old fashioned analogous research. He had some names in mind, some famous speeches, and a small likelihood that he would be checked for plagiarism.

He had made a few subtle inquiries with Mr Sutton about some of the more extravagant purchases and activities of the school. Sutton, well and truly on his side, had his own axe to grind with the administration, for his own reasons and agendas, and was only happy to do a little digging on his protégé’s behalf. He took a certain lurid thrill out of biting the hand that fed him.

*

The contest was held in the stately surrounds of the Sydney Town Hall. The room was packed with a mostly adult audience. For reasons he couldn’t fathom, when he entered the auditorium with his family, there were print and electronic news media waiting for his arrival. He smiled and nodded, batted away microphones as Clive and Sylvia shielded him from the encroaching fourth estate mass. Sophie enjoyed the attention, and smiled a large, metallic smile at whichever lens was pointed in her direction.

From the entrance, to the foyer, and the grand hall itself, the scene became curiouser and curiouser. Michael spotted some well-known individuals, and was taken aback when they seemed to spot and acknowledge him, too.

At one corner of the room, the Prime Minister stood in conversation with his comrade and former Prime Minister. Suddenly, the media attention made sense. It was a sight worth noting, and one that suddenly instilled in Michael a seriousness to the proceedings that made him think he was, in the words of Hunter S Thompson, either going to shit or go blind. He considered for a moment that Hank may have been right, and his actions had altered the past. Under what circumstances would the PM and former PM be in the same room for an event as ‘small potatoes’ as a high school speech making contest? The depth and curiosity of the rabbit hole was becoming increasingly daunting.

‘Big night, my son,’ offered Clive, taking in the ambience and thinking the moment larger than any he’d ever experienced. ‘Hope you don’t drop your guts.’

‘Clive!’ interjected Sylvia.

‘Thanks, Dad.’

The parents were shown to their seats, and the hundreds of spectators and dignitaries took theirs. A polite instruction and welcome from the Governor of all people was followed by a short speech by the NSW Minister for Education. Michael sat in the glare of the spotlight, wearing his stupid uniform, including his itchy grey shorts, and could think of nothing more appealing than a gin and tonic. His nerves could use it, but it would be unlikely to be on his side in such an environment, given the apparently fragile state of his liver.

He turned, and saw his would-be opponent – a nice looking, if furrowed brow-sporting girl in her late teens; red hair that was wild and curly beyond control, looking as Nicole Kidman did at the time. She, Katherine McNeil, tried her best to reflect on the contents of her notes and made small, almost-subtle-but-not-quite gestures with her hands in a manner that suggested her forthcoming spiel was well-rehearsed.

Michael had no clue what the Education Minister was talking about. His thoughts were elsewhere. He wondered if the ghost of Edward R. Murrow was watching and would give him a great haunting for what he was about to do to one of his more famous bits of editorialising.
He heard mention of something of the virtues of a coin toss, and that the first student to speak would be the representative of the Waverton High School, Katherine McNeil.

She was shocked to the point of her looking like someone had set fire to her wardrobe. She stood, brushed the front of her school uniform dress to the top of her thighs, and approached the podium to polite applause.

Although he was tuned out for most of her speech, he couldn’t help but agree with the points she was occasionally making.

‘A great society,’ she said, ‘is made up of many component parts. And we should not neglect the whole at the expense of propping up the disproportionately advantaged. The great achievers in our nation’s history came from all walks of life, of all socio-economic backgrounds, from all ethnicities, cultures, creeds and philosophies.’

It was good, stirring-if-standard stuff, bound to be lapped up by the Left. Beneath the glare of the lights, Michael noted where the PM was sitting in the front row, could make out where the former PM was, and also spotted Dr Rogers, as well as Sylvia, Clive and Sophie. A small, tinnitus-like ringing began to sound in his ear, but Michael put it down to the after effects of the mild cold he had forced himself through in the previous week.

Katharine made her final statements, concluded on a positive note and ended her speech well. Michael contemplated she’d make an excellent lawyer or corporate CEO one day. The Minister returned to the podium, thanked Katharine, and introduced Michael. ‘Noted enfant terrible, the source of multiple accolades and not without controversy, I might add. From Wellings Grammar in Wahroonga, Michael Curtin.’

He approached the podium with feigned confidence, drawing on his reserves of experience and training. His shoulders back, his head up, his tie straight and his shirt tucked in.
The median and polite applause died down as he stacked his blue note cards on the podium. He looked up at the hall, lowly lit by orange light from the bulbous fittings suspended from the ceiling. The bright spotlight on him, but not so bright as to eradicate the sight of the Prime Minister in the front row. Michael’s sole concern was that his precarious hormones would not betray him and that his vocal chords would remain in check.

‘Prime Minister, Your Excellency, Minister, ladies and gentlemen.’

‘This might just do nobody any good,’ Michael began. ‘At the end of this speech, a few people may accuse me of fouling my own very comfortable nest, and this whole competition may be accused of having given hospitality to heretical and even dangerous ideas. But I can assure you based on the fact that I stand before you as nothing more than a child of the 1970s on the eve of our bicentennial year; that the elaborate structure of private education and institutionalized religion will not be shaken or stirred in the manner of Mr. Bond’s martinis. It is my desire, if not my duty to try to talk tonight with some candour about education in this state, and this country, and if what I say tonight starts a few fires, I alone am the one holding the lit match.

‘We have a built-in allergy to unpleasant or disturbing information, and while you may expect me – as a participant here, young as I may seem, to speak volumes about how hopeful the future is as I paraphrase inspirational songs or the speeches of President John F. Kennedy or Dr King, the truth is about to be a trifle more hard-edged and grounded.

‘The fact that my private education, which includes weekly religious education classes and chapel sermons, is funded by my parents and then again subsidized by the federal government is a vehement obscenity which cannot be quantified.’

Upon uttering this, Michael hoped that Dr Rogers had quietly shat himself. Unperturbed, he continued.

‘My own school in the last year purchased a second grand piano, completely surplus to needs, so as to maintain their budget for the 1988 academic year. Meanwhile, there are teachers working at various schools in Sydney’s outer west who are forced to pay for their own photocopying after the latest round of funding cuts.

‘This all seems to stem from the impetus of the NSW Right of the Australian Labor Party. It does, in its genesis make a degree of sense. Catholic education was originally the recipient of federal government subsidies as a means by which to provide those constituents with the education for their children which they sought, but did not have the financial means to support. The conservative coalition, sensing a means by which to even the ledger for the religious education of their own key, core constituents, supports such funding so as long as it goes to Protestant schools. Herein lies the eventual dilemma.

‘A Catholic school will, statistically and historically, cater to the needs of financially marginalized students. A Protestant school will not. Through various political machinations, the end result is a broad spectrum of scholastic funding, ignoring the very real, albeit American virtues of the separation of church and state. It was this year, in May as part of his party’s ultimately unsuccessful election strategy, opposition leader John Howard promised increased funding to private schools. I presume this was part of an effort on his part to shore up support he was in little danger of losing. Call me cynical, you wouldn’t be the first, but it struck me as the quintessential act of preaching to the choir.

‘My own school advertises itself to prospective ‘clients’ as being the breeding ground for the future leaders of Australia, and it is within those hallowed halls that an alarming deployment of class warfare in reverse is in operation. We are, every one of us, party to indoctrination, both subtle and direct, that we represent the best of the nation because of birth right and socio-economic standing. That we, as part of a Higher Anglican institution constructed less of bricks and mortar than the abstract constructs of tradition and old money have within us the very future of the nation in our hands; that such a future cannot be left in the hands of the sort who live within earshot of the federal seat of Werriwa, whose former MP is I believe in our midst tonight.

‘Good evening, comrade.’

Murmurs of polite laughter.

‘This very notion, alarming as it is may well be worth debating on its own, but within an educational institution whose existence relies on public funds, then something needs to be done, and soon. It’s a cultural problem at the very fabric of this beast itself. One where the working classes, the less than ultra-privileged ‘westies’ are held at a distance, with disdain in a manner which contravenes not only the Christian principles on which the school was founded, but the school’s own doctrines of fairness and social justice. This is not to say that socio-political elitism is a part of the core curriculum; more an overriding philosophy among the student body that has been the product of indoctrination and a lack of dissuasion by faculty.

‘I am the product of a respectable upper-middle-class upbringing, but my parents have with the best intentions sent me to a private religious school under the misapprehension that somehow my education will be better there. Indeed, given the vast sums of money it costs them, the pressure to succeed academically is there, and a most constant presence at that. But I have learned the faults and demerits of this fallacious brand of thinking, one which detracts from the superlative work being done, or at least attempted to in our criminally underfunded public school system.

‘Several factors remain constant here. One, the teachers in the private and public sectors are paid the same award rates. Private school teachers are no more qualified than their governmental colleagues; each of the faculty at my own school were awarded degrees at universities of no greater or lesser repute than the staff at the local equivalent high school. Secondly, the private system does not teach to a different curriculum. The standardized testing that we all are subject to at year 12 level is administered by the state education department; the HSC is not awarded in separate colours or separate values determined on the uniform you wore while taking the tests.

‘Much like many of my fellow students, I have grown up in a secular, progressive household, so the religious instruction I received at Wellings is such that it operates in tandem with the values my parents and family instilled in me from an early age. And my success on the sporting arena bears little scrutiny.

‘The guiding principle, misapplied as it has been for many parents of similar middle class households, is that discipline is the factor that weighs most heavily on their choice of private schools. And this notion, misapplied as it may be, stems from a daunting and unpleasant social elitism directed at those from less privileged backgrounds. It is the myth that the public system is a hell-scape much like those depicted in the inner cities of the United States, over run with gang activity and violence. But let’s not get carried away by Hollywood fictions.

‘Parents of less than spectacular incomes may not be able to afford private education should federal funding be stripped. If that is the case, then I say fine. Allow the elites, the truly elite to have their academies turned into ivory towers. The funds re-directed to public education would turn the stellar public schools of our own North Shore to veritable palaces, where academic achievement is of paramount concern. Let us dream of a future where education is played on a well and truly level playing field.

‘Education, ladies and gentlemen, is the silver bullet of social ills. Crimes and misdemeanours, both petty and violent committed by people of wealthy, privileged background and beneficiaries of quality education are statistically infinitesimal. Should the hundreds of millions of dollars being funded by the federal government into the private school system in this country be channelled instead into the public system, it would begin to turn around what I, and many of those on the left see as the grotesque inequity that still grips our society, even in the advent of a socialist government.

‘And while I am tolling the bells of permanent revolution, let me say that a teacher who has consistently taught for twenty years, no matter what their stripe or collegiate fraternity, should be in the same income bracket as a lawyer who has practiced for twenty years. Academic prerequisites for Bachelors or Graduate Diplomas of Education should be as stringent as those for medicine, engineering or law; the courses should be just as competitive and the income and job prospects upon graduation should be just as substantial. The field of education should be one sought by the best and brightest in the nation, and their salaries should reflect this. It should not be – under any circumstances – the domain of failures in other fields. We should not have teachers who chose it as a backup profession because their chosen ones fell through for whatever reason. Nobody, on either the left or right side of the political spectrum can argue the merits of education. The system should be reformed, it should start with teacher salaries and public funding directed to public means. King George College has itself a rifle range. Despite a patent lack of need, they receive public funding.’

When constructing this anarchistic recitation, he had allowed himself to wander from his plagiarized source material for a spell. Figuring a need to bring it home, as it were, he had returned to it for his conclusion.

‘Our history will be what we make of it. And if there are any historians about fifty or a hundred years from now, and within Hansard and cabinet documents that would become available, they will there find, recorded in print and audio, evidence of social inequity unrivalled anywhere in the free world. Those of us in the upper echelons of society enjoying the comparatively obscene privileges of the affluent middle class live as Renaissance princes and princesses – wealthy, fat, comfortable, and complacent, suckling on the teat of a welfare state whose benefits would best be funnelled elsewhere. The subsidized funding of private education is Exhibit A in this particular case. So unless we get up off our fat surpluses, and recognize that public education funding needs to increase by values that would make the Hancocks, the Holmes à Courts, Packers and Bonds of this nation blush, then the social ills which both sides of politics bemoan will increase by factors too alarming to comprehend.’

He looked up towards the roof, feigning puzzlement.

‘If only there was someone within earshot who could do something about it…’

There was a small verse of nervous laughter from the back of the room, which quickly rolled in a wave towards the front of the auditorium. Michael looked in the Prime Minister’s direction. There, he sat in repose, his arms folded with his left hand on his chin; a solitary finger resting over his mouth. Michael saw the neutral look become a knowing grin. The statesman that he was, the PM knew the number of eyes and cameras that were trained on him, including his wife. He briefly closed his eyes and nodded.

‘I’ll look into it,’ he said in a shouted whisper.

Michael smiled. ‘You will?’

‘Tomorrow morning. Is that all right?’

Michael had his moment. He breathed in, paused, and…

‘Yes, Prime Minister.’

The room erupted in peals of laughter. A shot of adrenaline exploded through Michael’s body. He knew he had the room, no matter if they agreed with his petulance or not.

He glanced in the direction of his earnest, entirely decent opponent, whose positive demeanour from her successful speech had changed significantly. Now downcast and defeated, she had lost the spark she was all but brandishing earlier. Michael felt a significant pang of guilt.

The room quieted once more, and Michael turned to his final note card.

‘I appreciate the opportunity to speak tonight, at this most august location. I have in the past year or so developed a genuine sense of civic pride and can think of few locations that would best serve as venues for its expression. I’m also grateful that we live in a democracy, and in a society where ideas can be heard and received as they are – simply ideas, and that the very leaders of this nation can hear them, even if they are spoken by an over-indulged agitprop teenager. I’ve simply had some thoughts, and as the Shakyamuni Buddha said, ‘We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts we make the world.’

‘I just want to make my corner of the world better. That’s my thought. Thank you,’ Michael said.

Then, in tribute to the man whose words he had stolen, ‘Good night, and good luck.’

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