I was rifling through old photos the other day to scan and try to preserve them. One was a faded photo of my graduation at Monash University, the only photo I had of the day. Then I found a shot of my grade one class, 1958, Huntingdale State School. Yes, I am definitely a baby boomer.
I peered at the photo and tried to recall some of the names and faces. They all looked rather daggy and a motley group. The only boy I remembered, sadly, had a cleft palate – that was the one salient point I could grasp from my memory. On closer inspection, all the kids had something in common. They were all wearing hand-knitted school jumpers, some looking worse for wear, with an assortment of white shirts underneath, the collars at strange angles and often far too big for their small faces. They were probably hand-me-downs from older brothers or sisters or scrounged from older cousins.
I counted the number of students in the class and was horrified to realise that I had shared grade one with 43 other kids.
So, what am I leading to, I hear you ask? Well, I am a little weary of the attack on baby boomers and feel that some things need to be put right, particularly in the area of schooling.
We had horrendously large classes and, as a teacher, I cannot fathom how my teachers then managed a boisterous class of 40-plus. I whinge about having 25 students. I assume that some of those 40-plus students fell by the wayside, unable to fully grasp the nuances of reading and maths. Many would not have gone to university and, from my memory, a good deal of pupils I knew then did not matriculate. They were often expected by their parents to ‘get out and get a job’ to help support the family, many leaving school after Year 10 or Year 11. We had fancy names for those two years, your intermediate certificate for Year 10 and your leaving certificate for Year 11. Clearly, aspiring to higher education was for the lucky few.
It wasn’t just large class sizes that spring to mind about my boomer schooling. Woefully inadequate teaching is my memory of school hours. Hours spent reciting multiplication tables by rote and teachers hitting student across the knuckles with a ruler were commonplace. The rowdy boys were often ‘given the strap’ – a whack from a leather belt across their palms. I still remember their hands outstretched and then being savagely hit, often multiple times. We didn’t do projects or sit around inventing inquiry questions that might take our fancy. We did what we were told and learnt to be meek.
None of the students I went through school with were indulged. We all made do with stationary and pencils from Coles, but there were no replacements to be had if you lost your set. All the pencils were sharpened to oblivion and every page of an exercise book was used. We brought lunches to school in brown paper bags with the sandwich, mainly Vegemite on white bread, wrapped in greaseproof paper. Lunch orders were a rarity and icy poles or, later, Sunny Boys, a treat to be saved up for.
Holidays were just the school breaks, with kids hanging around the neighbourhood, finding tadpoles in the local creek or playing tennis or football on the street. Cars rarely bothered us and hardly anyone owned one. Overseas holidays were an impossible dream and, for most of the parents of the kids I went to school with, a desire none of them had a stomach for. They had escaped from Europe after the war and had no intention of going back. They wanted a better life here for their children.
We had few distractions and the phrase most often used by parents was ordering us to “go outside and play”. Television had only just been released in Australia. My best friend down the road had a set and I would wander down to her house on a Sunday to watch Disneyland, the height of excitement for a young boomer.
Our clothes came from our mother’s sewing machine or a kind relative or were hand-me-downs. Target and cheap clothes did not exist and to whinge about what you wore was to invite a quick smack across the legs or a stern rebuke for not being grateful for what you had.
So, for many of today’s millennials who attack us for squeezing them out of the housing market and generally ruining their world for them, our early life wasn’t exactly a bowl of cherries either.
Do you have a response to the millennials’ ‘OK Boomer’ assertions?
Dianne Motton teaches English at a secondary school in Melbourne, has always had a passion for travel and writes quirky stories about what she observes.
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