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FROM A TEACHER'S PERSPECTIVE

John Walch (ex Bro Anthony and former Patron, Secretary and Treasurer of SBOBA)

BABE IN THE 'WOODLANDS'

The Brothers all made an annual retreat together during the long Christmas holidays and part of the deal was an interview with the head or Provincial.This was the time when any changes to appointments were made also. I remember asking at the beginning of 1952 “When do I head back to Dubbo?”. " You don’t; you’re going to Katoomba. They need a French teacher". "I haven’t studied French while I was in Dubbo”. "I told you to.”

So off I went to Saint Bernard’s as a French teacher. My first Leaving class had two pupils: Fred Cox, who had got first class honours in the subject the year before, and Yves Offlaville, a native speaker from New Caledonia. Teach them?? I was lucky enough to strike up a friendship with the language master of Katoomba High School whose advice to me and the two leaving candidates was priceless. He was able to give us quite a few pointers based on his successful experience as a language teacher.

The Principal of the College at that time was Brother Cassian Corbett who in his time there had raised the profile of the college enormously and who was forever battling with anyone and everyone to get a better deal for the pupils. He put me in charge of Second Form. This group included two Chinese boys from Rabaul, two sons of European immigrants, and two native French speakers, from New Caledonia, who had ill-disguised hysterics every time I read a sentence from the French text the class had to study. This made me realise what a lot of work was in front of me if I was to cope adequately. They were both extremely helpful in my learning and I was later able to visit them both when I went to a course in New Caledonia some years later. Steep learning curve ahead, I realised, aside from trying to fit into a new environment, new school and community. At least it was a start and a good one since by the time I retired I had been for several years a member of the group who set the HSC French paper and also in charge of a team who corrected part of it as well.

My initial impression of St Bernard’s was its unity and sense of purpose. The staff was never more than six or seven, all Brothers, which meant we lived together, prayed together, studied together, had meals together. The school was our life; we had nothing apart from that, very few social contacts, no days out, no after class drinks at a suitable venue as many teachers have. Perhaps this unity communicated itself especially to the boarders who were on site all the time. When I first went there the group of boarders consisted of many from Sydney, a number from country towns of New South Wales where there was no Catholic secondary school, a handful of Dutch speakers, several others whose parents were still in camps for European migrants, and a number from overseas mainly New Caledonia, Hong Kong, Macau and Papua New Guinea.

Later there were many from Malaysia, where the Brothers ( a world-wide organization) ran many colleges, and the Solomon Islands. All irrespective of background followed the same daily time-table, ate the same meals at the same time…in short, lived together and there was not a lot of attention paid to individual differences.

The building itself struck me as Spartan, strictly utilitarian no space wasted: second floor sleeping area: 3 dormitories for the boarders with showers, lockers and washrooms, a study for the Brothers and their individual bedrooms most facing south (not the best orientation in Katoomba!); ground floor,chapel, principal’s office, four classrooms, and kitchen and dining rooms and a room for treatment of small ills, cuts and bruises.There was a qualified nurse on hand as Matron all the time. Other buildings were the science room and a smaller classroom attached, a recreation hall and a cottage for domestic staff. Also on the site were two handball courts ( always associated with Irish founders and Catholic schools, and which were perhaps a forerunner to squash courts of later years) three tennis courts, two cricket practice nets and a bit of other open space where games could be played.

Resources also were very limited. All costs involved in the school had to be covered by fees paid by the students’ families…and in a boarding school the costs are considerable. We teachers had a blackboard, chalk and text book nothing else, certainly no wages! Things were not then at the stage where you had overhead projectors, handouts for pupils, access to top printing facilities. The only printing we did was for exams and all this was done initially on a Gestetner duplicator which meant typing on to stencils, and hoping to goodness German technology would hold out till you got all your papers done. There was no college secretary then. For those of us who weren’t good typists it was always a struggle to get the typing done and for me especially since I had to print out stuff in French and Latin I was always accused of presenting the pupils with 3D exam papers (Well ahead of the times). In later years we used a Fordigraph machine where you typed onto some kind of wax paper and printed off that; hardly an improvement and in my case only heightened the 3D effect and kids were always being sent to me to find out what a particular word on the exam paper should have been. The alternative was to write the exam on the blackboard and let that be the exam paper but it had its drawbacks. It is testimony to the enthusiasm of boys and teachers that they had done so well at their school work and later studies as so many went on to University in spite of these not very auspicious beginnings.

The Brothers used to have to take it in turns to supervise the boys as they did their evening study. I had just turned 22 when I went there and after six years of enclosed training with the Brothers and two years teaching in Dubbo, then quite a distant and pretty simple school, I was supposed to keep an eye on the chaps in the Leaving class who to a man knew far more about life and had seen much more of life than I had…they were all wonderful and co-operative chaps, but I knew I was miles behind them another learning curve coming up!

A second impression was the size of the school. The College was never all that big: boarders numbered about eighty in the senior school, and the college was also attended by boys from the Katoomba/Leura area and from the lower mountains and west to Lithgow. These numbered about 120. The versatility and commitment of the kids was amazing. In sport they had to compete with boys from Katoomba and Lithgow High Schools (and early on Penrith) all of whom had far greater numbers to choose from in rugby league, cricket, swimming, athletics and debating. The dayboys had to make a lot of sacrifices to take part in training and then get themselves home. The same kids had to take part in all these various activities. In each of these they held their own and often outshone the opposition especially in swimming.

Two really big days in the week were sports day and cadet parade day. Bro Leo Beasley was the hub round which the school ran. He was sportsmaster and also the Officer Commanding the cadet unit. Most of the pupils, being in the secondary school, belonged to the College cadet unit. This was quite a remarkable part of the curriculum. The training was anything but war-like as some have criticised the movement for. What it did was train a whole group to act as a unit, to accept orders and to carry themselves well. It was interesting. Everything: uniforms, weapons, supplies was furnished by the Army. Quite a number of boys also took it on themselves to attend specialist courses often in their own Christmas holidays often at Singleton, not the best place in summer. Doing these courses let them increase in rank from mere cadet to a non-commissioned rank and sometimes beyond that. When school resumed they were able to pass this information on to the rest of the cadets. Quite a wonderful training for leadership, and certainly those in the unit who reached more exalted rank such as Cadet Under Officers were fine leaders in the school. The Army also arranged for the unit to have instructors. These were serving members drawn from the Australian Regular Army and were present most parade days. The knowledge they passed on was considerable. There was also a variety of courses offered. Many were interested in the signals and radio type communication gear, quite a few did a medic course which some pursued in later life, a couple with the Army in Vietnam.

The drum and bugle band would have to be one of the big successes of the Unit. Each group, drummers and buglers, had its own instructors and the skill, commitment to self-improvement, and sheer hard work of the cadets paid off as for many years the band of St Bernard’s was the champion band of the Cadet Brigade. Some of these competitions were held during the Annual camp others before the Waratah Festival in the city in which the band also marched. This was due in no small way to the leadership and enthusiasm of the boys who became the Drum-Major. At one stage Brother Eric Thompson who had been on the staff of the junior school was transferred to the senior staff and joined the Cadet Unit. He was something of a musician himself and set about improving the dress and technique of band members and put them on the way to astonishing success, given the size of the unit. The band always led the march through Katoomba streets on Anzac Day and went to the local RSL to sound the Retreat at night, a ceremony which brought tears to many of the hardened veterans who recalled former comrades at that moment.

Ceremonial parades

When Brother Eric joined the Unit he was instrumental in starting the cadets on a Ceremonial parade. This was quite a big deal. It entailed an inspection by a distinguished Army person, a set of complicated drill manoeuvres and demonstrations. It took an enormous amount of practice, but the boys brought it off well. The first one was on the oval of the Junior School "Clairvaux". Later ones were held at the Katoomba Showground. In due course I joined the College Unit. Brother Eric had been transferred and it was too much to expect Br Leo to run the Unit on his own so I offered my services. Another Babe in the woods experience.

There had not been the occasion to do any of the usual courses you were supposed to do before joining and Brother Leo and I set out with the Unit for the annual camp at Singleton. I had my uniform but little or no knowledge of how things operated at camp. And in the best Army tradition (just do it, don’t consult anyone and don’t consider all angles!), after we had been there for a couple of days, Brother Leo was sent out to places unknown to be an umpire for an exercise the cadets did called Contact. So there I was with our cadets, who weren’t involved in the Contact exercise thing, and not a clue in the world as to what was supposed to be happening. Luckily we had an exceptionally talented boy as Adjutant ( Mike Yeo ) who ran things. We did have an inspection by an officer from another unit who trotted down in his kilt and all had a look round and said to me “Your lines aren’t very good”, before poncing back to where he came from. I had no idea what he was talking about, but you learn. This was my first experience with Singleton- or Army-speak. One of the regular Army chaps was checking on something in our area when I noticed his eyes looked in a terrible way. Wanting to be helpful I asked “What’s wrong with your eyes? They look awful” Wasn’t quite ready for the answer “Conjunctifugginitis” “I get a bit of the same trouble living in the Blue Mountains”, I said ,”but I’ve got some of these tablets which might help a bit”. Saw him next day. "That stuff do any good? How do the eyes feel?" “Fanfuggintastic”. “So glad of that”.

When the Brother in charge of the Junior dormitory was transferred I was given the job. It was not terribly onerous but it meant sleeping in a room beside the dormitory and that effectively you would be woken up in the case of some sort of emergency. A couple of the lads in my time were very bad asthmatics and you’d get a knock on the door to let you know one of them was having an attack which meant getting up and pumping his lungs to try and get some breath back for the poor kid. The boy himself knew from past experience what needed to be done and told me what to do. It was still a bit scary and troubling to see a boy struggling for breath. A few used to have nightmares and these too had to be calmed and reassured. One experience I remember vividly was one night there were sounds of giggles after I put out the lights and sounds of slippers being thrown about. I thought to myself that it was not worth getting up and that the kids would settle down after a while and that I’d catch the miscreants in the morning. Each morning they used to spend a bit of time making beds and straightening up counterpanes and such and stand by their beds till I dismissed them. This morning I said “All those boys who were out of bed last night throwing slippers stay behind”. Everyone started to troop out. That didn’t bother me as there was all day to catch up with the baddies, so I buttonholed one of the remaining few and said “Why didn’t any of them stay behind?” I got that look reserved for not-totally-stupid-but-very-close-to-it persons and was told, “You said those who were out of bed, none of us was out of bed”. Quite amazing the team technique…each boy knew instantly how to get round the problem. At any other time you could explain something far less involved till you were exhausted and still they mightn’t catch on but when it was a question of survival the response was magic. Boys 1 Teacher 0 and teacher had learnt something for the future. No good saying “What I meant was ‘All those making noise’”. No, the moment had passed and the kids had won the day!

Another group venture I was amazed at was a time when the motor racing circuit opened at Catalina Park. These kids knew it well because we often used to swim there and they had seen the track being readied...I was supervising them at lunch and at the end of the meal I said “The races are on at Catalina. You might like to see a bit of it. If you go in the main entrance it is going to cost you ten shillings. Tea is at six o’clock”. Such stories they brought back...pursuits by a chap on horseback trying to stall gate crashers and other narrow squeaks. Quite an interesting meal that night!

Annual School Magazine

An initiative that I am very pleased with as I look back was my idea to resurrect the Annual School Magazine in 1958, which I kept going until 1962 when I was transferred from Katoomba. It was an enormous amount of work, which I hadn’t realised when I started but I felt it was worthwhile to keep it going. The biggest problem was the cost. Because pupil numbers were so small it was necessary to get a lot of advertising from local firms, parents who ran a business, and firms which were suppliers to the school. This was a very necessary chore but beneficial in the long run. The books have become quite a useful reference point in gatherings of past pupils and have even been used in a court case! The printers were past pupils of the school and I was even able to help with the compositing in a few of the later editions, though it was hard with the linotype as was used in those days. Still, you learn.

One very satisfying aspect of time at Katoomba was the rapport the staff of the College had with the teachers from Katoomba High School. A number of them had sons at the College and we met them occasionally but any contact we had with other teachers was always very cordial.

As I look back I am extremely grateful for the friends I made amongst the pupils. It is very satisfying not only to meet them socially but to know how so many of them have realised their potential and made quite a success of whatever career it was they undertook. I guess this is what education means, and fundamentally what a teacher’s life is all about.






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