The typical upper-class Englishman is as near to a Perpetual Schoolboy as can be imagined. At Harrow, they go in for the following expression of lacrimae rerum:
Forty years on, when afar and asunder
Parted are those who are singing today,
When you look back and forgetfully wonder
What you were like in your work and your play,
Then it may be there will often come o’er you
Glimpses of notes, like the catch of a song;
Visions of boyhood shall float them before you,
Echoes of dreamland shall bear them along.
(Refrain): Follow up! Follow up! Follow up! Follow up!
Follow up, till the field ring again and again
With the tramp of the 22 men!
(The reference “22” denotes two cricket teams, it being almost impossible for an upper-class Englishman to differentiate reality from cricket, as it is totally impossible for numerous Americans of every class to differentiate reality from Hollywood.)
In even the most Anglophile of Australian boarding schools, such singalongs are probably unknown. Nonetheless, the particular pathos that clings to the end of a school year knows neither economic boundaries nor geographical limits. A modified version of it can afflict even that lowliest of educational phyla, the Melbourne school crossing guard. Which is where I came in.
As I write, the Southern Hemisphere is now experiencing early summer. (It would be a useful exercise to ascertain just how many policy wonks at the State Department, how many presidential candidates, have discerned this simple truth.) This means that the Australian school year finishes in December, and the great chunk of down-time which Americans and Europeans associate with the middle of the calendar year is in Australia inextricably tied with Christmas. (Australians have no Thanksgiving, the concept of gratitude being basically so alien to the national ethos as to resist all attempts—however otherwise successful—at Coca-Colonization.)
Sports teachers get six weeks of paid recreational leave, mathematics teachers get six weeks of paid recreational leave, science teachers get six weeks of paid recreational leave, history teachers get six weeks of paid recreational leave, so what does the mere school crossing guard get? If he is lucky, he will get a Yuletide bottle of wine and an invitation to the school barbecue.
He is paid solely for the hours that he works, so when there is no work, there is no pay. Not altogether surprisingly, this increases in his eyes the general end-of-year pathos.
That the school administrators have expressly informed him of their desire to have him return in 2017 does not noticeably ameliorate his financial unease. He hopes that enough office-cleaning employment or some other remuneration in the service industries will tide him over until the little tykes trudge back, protesting, to their classrooms on January 31.
What, then, have five months as a school crossing guard taught me about life, the universe, and everything? In my answer to this question I can do no better than quote Neville Chamberlain’s Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax, who, in a supreme expression of what Alistair Cooke once called “diplomatic fuzz,” responded to an urgent inquiry with the words “It depends.”
Perhaps, though, a few disjointed thoughts can, if expressed in point form, do duty for a reasoned disquisition on the topic.
That silliest-sounding of 1960s bromides has surprising validity still: “The kids are all right.” I have not encountered a solitary instance of genuine rudeness directed at me by kids at the school crossing. Actually I have encountered very few instances of genuine rudeness directed at me by anyone, but I had previously assumed that with the youngsters there might be a Lord of the Flies—or, if female, Mean Girls—element controlling their behavior. After all, Victoria’s education system did not need Lake Wobegon to convince it of the insane fallacy that “all the kids are above average.”
Not a bit of it. I made a particular holiday in my heart when one boy, who appeared to be no more than six or seven years of age, told me (apropos of absolutely nothing) “You’re doing a good job, keeping people safe on the road.”
But the single most memorable, and most moving, comment directed at me came when, one afternoon, another lad—also no more than six or seven—saw me putting away my STOP sign and my children-crossing flags. Mindful of the fact that in Australia (as in Britain) the STOP sign’s similarity to a gigantic lollipop causes the school crossing guard to be colloquially known as a “lollipop man”—or, if female, “lollipop lady”—this lad grinned from ear to ear and yelled: “HELLO, LOLLIPOP DUDE!”
You can fool adults, and goodness knows you can fool millions of American (or Australian) voters purporting to be adults; but as every actor, conjurer, and daycare center manager knows, you cannot fool kids. General James Wolfe, famously, is supposed to have said that he would rather have written Thomas Gray’s Elegy in a Country Churchyard than conquered Quebec. I would rather be known as a Lollipop Dude than as any kind of writer, however lucrative, or any kind of guru, however worshiped.
Most Melbourne drivers appear to have obtained their licenses from cornflakes packets. Many of the mothers I encounter, far from validating the myth of female drivers as indecisive and slow—a myth which has more to do with the ancient Bob Newhart comedy sketch about driving lessons than with the visible world as it turns in 21st-century Australia—are the most consistently reckless behind the steering wheel.
To watch these mothers careening past is to recollect P.J. O’Rourke’s description of the car horn as “the Egyptian brake pedal.” Often their motoring aggression will be exacerbated by the way in which they have only one hand on the wheel, the other clutching a cellphone.
The existence, clearly signposted, of a 20-kilometers-per-hour speed limit at this school crossing —as at all Melbourne school crossings—is not for a moment suspected, let alone perceived, by more than about 10 percent of drivers. I fail to understand why Victoria’s cash-strapped left-wing state government does not simply conceal a speed camera at the school, thereby assuring itself of endless revenue-raising. It need not fear a political backlash, since no-one in the relevant suburb will ever vote for a left-wing administration anyhow. The locals’ idea of financial hardship tends to involve after-hours repair costs for a malfunctioning spare jacuzzi.
At this school crossing, angry white men have stopped being angry white men, but they still can’t dress properly. The more bizarre sights afforded each day to a crossing guard in this neighborhood include the spectacular contrast between the women and the men in terms of attire. Granted, the difference is more apt to reveal itself in Australia generally than it is in America. In my experience of American environments, males and females dress either equally well (as in the average Beltway office) or equally badly (as when pillaging Walmart).
Yet where I serve as guard, the contrast becomes fantastically well marked. One is tempted to wonder how sexual congress between the two categories can be tenable at all.
With a few exceptions, the kids’ mothers look as if they are doing a good imitation of Taylor Swift. Never is a hair or a fingernail out of place; never is a blouse un-ironed; seldom will even the most cynical eye be rewarded with the sight of a wrinkle. And then we have the male of the species, whose limited grooming, usurious debt to the national tattoo industry, Hieronymus-Bosch-like notions of dental hygiene, and (in many though not all cases) vast expanses of pallid midriff bursting forth from under torn and dubiously washed shirts all suggest the mindset of a Trump voter whom the Trump voters are afraid of.
Whilst there are males who do not conform to this stereotype, you need to look for them. Only after several months did I solve the mystery.
These males—invariably amiable, I must point out—were not, as might be concluded from their appearance, escapees from a Queensland public-housing project. They had very demanding jobs, far more demanding than any which I have ever performed. The advertising on their vans proclaimed them to be welders, tilers, road-menders, electricians, plumbers, and swimming-pool installers. But of course. Outside politics, the legal profession, the highest reaches of certain sports, and maybe the more glamorous types of medicine, these are the only fields in present-day Australia where one can earn enough money to pay the school’s fees in the first place.
My school crossing career, it will be appreciated, has thus far been marvelous in the strict sense of that word: superabundant in marvels, even when unpleasant ones. Any danger of growing jaded at it came to an abrupt halt when, near the term’s end, I found myself introduced to the school’s headmistress.
First of all, she was slim, no more than three-quarters of my height, and looking like a slightly insomniac 34-year-old. Second of all, when I addressed her as “Ms. [surname],” she immediately responded: “You can call me [given name].”
This is not the type of headmistress I am used to. This is not the type of headmistress any Australian of my age is used to. Our upbringing bore an uncomfortable resemblance to the old joke (Billy Connolly’s?) about the Glasgow slums, where mothers were proverbially so tough as to scorn even breastfeeding: “Yer mammy would jest hand ye the milk-bottle and tell ye to git on wi’ it.”
Accordingly our notions of what constituted a headmistress were—I was about to write “spartan”, but that would suggest a groupthink incompatible with any example from our own predominant Social-Darwinist experience. The main visual qualification for being a headmistress in our day was the ability to interest Central Casting as a candidate for the next biopic about Gertrude Stein. (Some would say that the main temperamental qualification for being a headmistress in our day might have consisted of fantasizing about life as a guard at Dachau, but we won’t go there.)
To be bandying given names with a headmistress … it’s all very well for the whirligig of time to bring in his revenges. But can’t the revenges be at least a bit predictable?
See you at the school crossing in 2017.
R.J. Stove lives in Melbourne.