Written by: Henry Vyhnal
Were some things that much better in the old days?
You might be surprised at how much better they were.
Educational theory and practice at Huntingdale Technical School during the 1970s and 80s make current thinking look Neanderthal.
There’s a big black cement X in the middle of a small grey concrete slab just south of the cream 70’s brick veneer monstrosity that passes for the Junior wing at my school. It’s the marker for our school’s time capsule. It would have been laid around the mid to late 70’s when creating a thermos flask of memory was considered ‘voguey’ in the State education system.
I wondered what was inside. A 1976 VFL Football Guide perhaps? A Chiko roll still in its wrapper? The school manifesto? I would never know. Nobody had ever seen the document that specified the date as to when our time capsule would again see the light of day. So it remains entombed until the new building works enforce the sacrilege of disruption.
My arrival at the school post-dated its insertion into the hard yellow clay by almost 40 years. Those that witnessed the burial of the time capsule had almost certainly passed. You can still see a blurry low-res scan of a flyblown picture of the principal of the time holding the time capsule while a minion is turning the first sod. If you were really interested, you could find it in the database of school images on the infonet by typing https://images/school/history/1976/july/all of school projects/funding/report/time capsule into any browser.
Within our own heads, there exists a fading narrative of our own past. It fades because our consciousness is seldom recalibrated by evidence that includes images, sounds and stories of the time narrated by the actual participants. However, 21st century social media has reconnected many communities with their collective times past and, in that way, the shared stories, images and sounds become their virtual time capsule.
One such instance is the Facebook (FB) page of Huntingdale Technical School (HTS) – my first school as a teacher. HTS closed around 1990 when it was amalgamated with South Oakleigh High.
It wasn’t just HTS that ceased to exist but the Technical system generally. The Tech system was all about teaching kids the trades. The Department requirement of Tech teachers was that they had to have worked ‘in their industry’ for a significant period into order to qualify. Consequently, teachers in the Tech system were often passionate tradies who saw every kid as an opportunity to pass on their industry experience hoping all the while the kids didn’t make the same mistakes they did. When the arts of music, film, painting, photography and drama were added to a traditional Tech school student offering at HTS, the curriculum smorgasbord groaned under the weight of colour, quality and combination. The Arts teachers quickly threw away their berets and bullshit, rolled up their sleeves, got a few power tool tips from the tradies and went out and built stuff. They didn’t just teach and learn about it. The cacophony and clutter of cross-curricular chaos became the normal at HTS. Everyone wanted to be involved. It was so much FUN!
When I arrived at HTS in 1982 was in its second phase. HTS phase one had been a circle of prefabs on a disused golf course. Ten years earlier, the founding principal Tony Delves described HTS as a coeducational secondary school seeking to develop the relationship between school and community on a scale not previously attempted in Australia, and within a curriculum framework which is highly innovative and which seeks to refine completely the term ‘school’.
The HTS I walked into was an enormous brand spanking new two-storey complex that looked more like an office block than a school. However, when I walked past the indoor garden next to the principal’s office and through to the enormous the futuristic open plan subschools and I climbed the stairs to the state of the art television studio with its two storey high blue screen wall and a control room that looked to me like Starship Enterprise, I knew HTS was not just some place to send the ‘bad’ kids. They took their teaching and learning very seriously.
Very soon after I arrived, I was introduced to Nick – a taciturn giant of a 14-year-old kid who had made a short silent monochrome movie called ‘The Mad Hacker’. In its eight minutes there were at least 8 ‘murders’ – each more gruesome than the last. The Hacker’s weapon of choice was a huge medieval axe which he wielded with great skill and a great sense of accomplishment. Little kid’s guts being chopped open were represented by heaps of baked beans or offal that suddenly appeared on the stomachs of their now prone forms. Bodies were run over by cars, thrown over cliffs and simultaneously stabbed and drowned in Beaumaris’s backyard pools. HTS film teacher Varsha had suggested to Nick that it needed a sound track and that the new music teacher was just the person to help him with it.
Try as I might, I could not get Nick to tell me what he wanted and he didn’t react to any of the many ideas I threw at him. In desperation, I told him to vocalise any sounds, dialogue or music he wanted, dub them onto the video and I would use that to base my sound track on. When he showed up after the weekend with the sounds added I was intrigued. He certainly wasn’t shy when he was playing the ‘Hacker’. He wouldn’t shut up. A continuous commentary of the Hacker’s stream of consciousness took up almost all the sound track. Nick was an extremely skillful mimic of the sounds of heads being ripped off and victims pleading for mercy. In fact, his sound library was so terrifying, we agreed to leave all of his vocalizing on the final track. I composed a sparse but suitably scary soundtrack using rhythmic textures created by the manual sharpening of a knife. I slowed the recording down to a quarter of its original speed so that it sounded closer to the sound of the Hacker’s enormous axe being sharpened on a giant stone wheel.
The unifying principle of HTS’s pedagogy was that ‘every kid will succeed in their own terms’ (even Nick’s). If the existing curriculum and teacher talent pool could not satisfy this principle, then the system was reconfigured to make it happen. This created the excuse for the development of dozens of bespoke units: cooking for boys, surfing for girls, automotive for girls, bass playing for girls, singing for boys, drums for girls, electronic music for everyone. My teacher college construct of a classroom music teacher evangelizing on Beethoven and dotted crotchets flew right out the window. I had surveyed the kids before I started creating the curriculum and with remarkably few exceptions what they all wanted to do was play in a rock band.
As a teenager I had run away from the cloistered confines of classical music to the circus that was rock and roll. Since five years of age, I had soaked up the essences and ethers of the classical tradition, but ten years later when asked to play with a bunch of pimply Jimi Hendrix wannabees who could not read music and had no interest in learning how to, I looked like I’d never ever picked up an instrument or knew anything about the music they played (which I didn’t). Ten years after my first band I had relearnt music from the same perspective as any ‘ear musician’. The only way I could do it was to admit to myself that I knew nothing and would have to start again. Five years later, I was surrounded by HTS kids who demanded I teach them the music they wanted to play and then teach them in a way that would allow them to teach it easily to other kids. It was just like the days when I wrote songs and had to teach non reading musicians firstly how to learn them and then how to play them as if their lives depended on it: call and response learning, chord charts, lyric sheets and lots of listening to recordings.
Three decades later, around the time I converted my VHS tapes to Mp4, I discovered a Facebook (FB) page had been set up by fellow HTS teachers Doug Stark and Ken Young. They’d organized two previous reunions of HTS teachers and students at the Melbourne Botanical Gardens in late January when the weather was warm and people were up for a drink and a chat. The Facebook page amplified the fondness that many students and teachers still felt for their HTS days – decades after they’d left. Thanks to the energetic and generous photography teachers, the FB page had many monochrome photographs of smiling eighties kids on school camp, surfing and in the yard – especially in the area known as the ‘smoking area’ because at HTS, kids were taught and encouraged to photograph their own worlds.
The ‘smoking area’ was a small semi weatherproof awning with metal seats along each side where both teachers and students were allowed to smoke cigarettes. The HTS thinking was that it was better to confine smoking to one area rather than allow smokers to slink off to distant parts of the grounds and possibly set fire to the shrubbery that surrounded the footy ground. If you could get over the serious health risks, the smoking area was probably the area of the school that best demonstrated the closeness between teachers and students.
The smoking area attracted the best and most creative minds in the HTS community. A shared addiction meant that students ‘botted fags’ from teachers and vice versa. The smoke united the mob in the same way as it had united the French intellectuals like Sartre and Marcel Duchamp. Many little Patti Smiths, Ian Curtis’s and Axel Rose’s contemplated the state of the world over shared cigarettes. It was not lost on students that this indulgence was special. While some private schools had smoking rooms for senior students, HTS allowed everyone to light up. The privilege made HTS feel very special and that they were part of a unique experiment.
When I put on a couple of young HTS bands in the smoking area during lunchtimes it created a sensation. The kids were seduced by the danger of loud thrash metal and cigarettes. It took me back to my then recent punk days when bands who were denied venues because of their musical peccadillos set up on footpaths, derelict buildings and car parks and played to small bunches of die hard fans. The fans pumped just as much adrenalin as the bands because they shared the delicious illegality.
It was not until many years later that I became truly appreciative of the ‘out of this world’ experience I had had. Many teachers judge the various schools they pass through according to the experience of their first school. I am no exception. None of the schools I experienced since HTS have come close to the lust for learning I saw first hand at HTS. It was not until a kind school librarian with a similar interest in converting those old VHS tapes you accumulate transferred my dusty old ‘Bongo’ tape of some of the music videos, cross curricular presentations and assorted talent show clips made at HTS in the years I was there.
I posted the now digitized videos to the HTS FB page and very quickly there was a wonderful reaction. A couple of the television students had also archived clips that I had not and they added their gems to mine. Many people were still able to name their friends in the photos and the videos. Some people who had not seen each other for decades suddenly resumed their school time relationships. Many had had children who were now about the same age as their parents when they were at HTS. Seeing their parents as young musicians, actors and dancers created much laughter and debate from their kids.
When I contacted ‘Mad Hacker’ Nick about including his film in the content I planned to upload to Facebook, he seemed very circumspect. Between leaving HTS and when I saw him he had become a very media savvy successful author and illustrator of children’s books. He worried that ‘The Mad Hacker’ might cost him future employment. Pleasingly, he was still in a band with several of his HTS schoolmates – thirty years on. When I asked him more about his HTS musical collaborators (I was really asking about former students of mine) he told me that not only were many of them successful musicians but (like him) many were still playing together.
When I finally attended my first HTS reunion, I saw that the HTS values and humour had not deserted my students and fellow teachers. In some cases, I saw it also in their teenaged kids. The kids that I had taught who had come to HTS because they were ‘bad’ or ‘troubled’ had blossomed into wonderful adults, parents and grandparents. Many had graduated to impressive careers. As well as Nick I counted university professors, wild life officers, musical instrument builders, health workers, lots of happy tradies, doctors and nationally acclaimed film makers and musicians amongst the throng. All of them acknowledged their HTS years as the years that ‘made’ them.
Time travelling back to the present, it struck me how different things are in schools now: bigger class sizes, more accountability, fewer subject choices, less streaming, more contact time, less requirement that teachers spend time earning a living in their specialist fields before they teach.
For most of the 70’s and 80’s, schools like HTS had more autonomy and were not bullied by Naplan and On-demand data and the Orwellian league tables. The curriculum was far more open and flexible and the arts (particularly music) were integrated into the broader curriculum instead of being that scared weird little guy too afraid to say anything. Being allowed to smoke, not wear school uniforms and calling everyone by their first names just added to the strong sense that everyone was an individual and had a right to be respected and looked after.
In 1987, the year before I left HTS, things began to change. A new principal arrived and although outwardly she seemed supportive, soon teachers were asked to justify their class sizes and teaching styles in ways they had never had to before. HTS had low class sizes because of the incredible numbers game that Tony Delves and his immediate successors played with the State and Federal bean counters. The disabled were integrated into all classes and this allowed smaller class sizes. Student support services and aides for the disabled meant when these personnel were now included in teacher numbers, the student to teacher ratios were far less than the national average.
Talk at the Victorian Education Department level began to include discussions on the dismemberment of the Technical School system through amalgamation with neighbouring High Schools. The much loved blue collar style Technical School way of delivering learning was then rapidly displaced by the stated High School aspirations of University education for all. Many Technical schools were sold by eager real estate agents to developers – keen to demolish the school halls and classrooms, video studios, laboratories and welding stations to make way for housing developments. In a couple of decades, there was scant evidence that any of the vibrant and creative Technical Schools that pushed the progressive education barrow ever existed.
Time capsules exist to remind future generations of what came before them. Usually when time capsules are opened, their contents are so quaint and disconnected from the present that they are regarded as oddities that no longer have relevance or meaning. Perhaps they are designed to be very superficial because if they truly represent an experience that is better than the present, then they will challenge us to ask why. And that’s not a good thing.
But I’m going to ask anyway. Why is it that many young people see musical success as defined solely by the number of Facebook likes or Youtube views? Why is it that X factor and the Voice present music as a reality show?
Why is it, in a society that touts itself as committed to continuous improvement that we are less willing to accommodate diversity and celebrate the obscure and at the same time so willing to reward compliance and denigrate individuality. Why do we accept the economic rationalist’s view that we simply cannot afford to indulge ourselves with schools like HTS when our prisons are bursting at the seams with young offenders whose schools could not provide them with the success they desperately needed?