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Itís September and that heralds the start of the new school year. Iíve barely given my job a thought over the last few weeks, preoccupied with other things to the exclusion of all matters educational. But as the start date now beckons Iím looking forward to getting back. Itís always the same. By the end of the school year Iím so utterly exhausted on every level that I wonder whether Iíll ever recover my professional enthusiasm but after a few weeks spent in an entirely different head space I return to form with a renewed sense of interest and vigour.
Some shy away from the idea of work. I remember a good friend once telling me how he intended to retire by the age of forty. At twenty, the idea of having to earn a living is still somewhat foreign while forty seems over the hill. Anyway, true to form he did retire at forty and for the first few weeks was happy to extol the virtues of the leisurely life but it wasnít long before he was climbing the walls with boredom. As for me, I was still a spring chicken at forty.
In many ways I still am.
My first ever job was counting out and bottling drugs at the local chemist. My sister worked there and managed to convince her boss to hire me for an hour after school each day. I was 14 years old. My responsibilities were twofold. I had to count out the correct number of tablets for a script and then hop on my pushbike and deliver them to the local residents. It seems slightly outrageous now that a 14 year old boy would be entrusted with prescription medicines but at the time I thought it was the coolest job in the world.
For my services at the chemist I was paid a dollar an hour which in 1973 seemed like a princely sum. It gave me an appreciation of the value of money. More significantly, I discovered the pleasure of working with others. I was always comfortable in the company of older people, more so than with my peers and the pharmacist himself was a jolly fellow who enjoyed having a young kick-start to side with him when teasing the female staff. He was a kindly man and no one took umbrage. It was all in good spirit and I liked that.
The thing about earning money is that eventually you begin to wonder how to earn more. When I turned 15 I wandered into the local KFC and applied for a job, thus kick-starting my fast food career. Not only was I working more hours but my hourly rate of pay shot up to $1:24. I was entrusted with breaking up chicken pieces to make them more malleable, dipping them in milk and then covering them with a coating of flour mixed with Colonel Sanders secret herbs spices ready for frying; pretty high status stuff for a 15 year old lad.
There were real perks to working for KFC. I was with other people with whom I got on well; we could listen to the radio; we could have a laugh and still get the job done; we could have a free meal on our break and at the end of the night we were able to take any leftover chicken home, although after a while I discovered there is only so much leftover chicken one can eat without getting sick of the stuff. In short, it was hard work but it was fun and it allowed me to earn cash.
When I turned 16 I got my first set of wheels, a pristine í59 Beetle (which before long was rather less than pristine). This made getting to work much easier but soon landed me in trouble when upon finishing my shift one afternoon I managed to put a huge dent in the duty managerís car while reversing out from the car park. To add insult to injury the parents of one of my best friends were parked patiently behind me to take my place. The manager was unbelievably gracious but for the next few months took most of my pay.
Gracious though my manager may have been his assistant was a self opinionated prick. Taking me to account one day for refusing to do a double shift, I became so incensed that on my break I went next door to Pizza Hut, filled out an application form and was promptly given a job. It was with immense satisfaction that I returned from my break and told him that not only would I not be doing a double shift I wouldnít be doing any more shifts thereafter. The look of his face, combined with the satisfaction of trumping him, was priceless.
The move from KFC to Pizza Hut was a fortuitous one. Not only did my pay go up from $1.24 to $1.42 an hour I was now working in an actual restaurant. It took a little while to become accustomed to being on view but once that hurdle was crossed I soon found myself making new friends and acquiring a range of social skills I hadnít previously had. Before long a couple of good friends had also come on board, as had one of my sisters. I even discovered that pepperoni was not a vegetable as previously imagined but meat.
I developed many life changing skills during my pizza making career, like how to lock someone in the cool room for five minutes without being discovered; how to disappear around the back and devour three slices of over-cooked pizza in 30 seconds without the manager seeing; how to open a tin of pineapple with my bare hands (a feat culminating with me having a half dozen stitches in my left hand) and how to clean up at the end of the night in record time so we could all pile into the back of the Beetle and hit the town.
There were down sides to the job as well, like the time when my sisterís ex who was harassing the family came and sat on table 24 with a clear view to where I stood making pizzas and stared unflinchingly at me for a full hour and a half with an expression that could have cut through stone, or when some tiresome new manager made his first entrance, or the mornings after the night before when without the aid of No Doze tablets I would have been completely unable to function let alone make pizzas and be civil to customers.
Juggling work, art school and a hectic social life was no small feat and I was frequently ambivalent about attending art school. What should have taken me four years to complete took seven due to a variety of factors and I remember at one point seriously considering a career in catering. Pizza Hut offered management training that would have allowed me to quit studying, earn cash and support my nocturnal lifestyle. Looking back now I realise I was looking for easy options but at the time the dilemma was a real one and I was sorely tempted to ditch studying.
I remained with Pizza Hut for five years, during which time I found jobs for some of my friends and even one of my sisters. And while my achievements at art school may have arguably been greater had I not worked, the regular contact with people completely disconnected from the self opinionated and self elevating world of fine art kept me suitably grounded and connected to the real world. It also taught me to manage my time more effectively in order to meet the never ending stream of project deadlines that my lecturers were so unwilling to grant extensions for.
I was six years into my on and off studies when I decided to opt for the radical alternative. My personal life was in a shambles and I was looking for a way out. I hopped on a bus one day, read a brochure about the Trans-Siberian Railway, got off at the other end, doubled back into town and booked myself a ticket. The sense of liberation was extraordinary. Within three weeks Iíd deferred art school, reducing all my worldly possessions down to what I could fit into a rucksack. It was singularly the most audacious thing Iíd ever done.
In the end I opted out of the Trans-Siberian. Instead I flew direct to Europe and for six months lived frugally off the proceeds of my savings. I went to the top of Norway to see the midnight sun; I went to East Berlin to see how the other half lived; I went snorkelling in the Red Sea; I got drunk at a Munich beer festival; I stood on the Golan Heights and listened to the sound of distant bombs over the horizon; I got lost in Venice; I got spooked in Belfast and I broke my heart in Stockholm.
After six months of travelling my finances evaporated and I had two clear choices: find work and stay on or head back home. With the southern summer in mind I opted for the latter. I subsequently completed my studies, qualifying as an art and drama teacher and spent the next couple of years having more fun than Iíd ever imagined possible in such a role. To my surprise I discovered I had a natural flair for inspiring kids and I revelled in the professional respect that such skill engendered. I also revelled in the professional income I was now earning.
True to character, I eventually became restless again so I decided to quit teaching and pump beer in order to focus on becoming a painter. My colleagues were speechless. They werenít used to someone giving up full time professional work to pump beer. I took a job in a hotel patronised by the local biker fraternity. Iíll never forget the night a group of friends dropped by to wish me happy birthday. In the five minutes it took me to blow out my candles in the next room the barman who stood in for me was beaten to a pulp.
My painting career soon stalled. Despite spending many hours in a warehouse studio I rented with several other prominent artists I found myself bathing in their glory rather than achieving anything of consequence myself. My bar work on the other hand took off well and I soon secured a position as weekend bar manager in a suitably arty music pub in the city where for a while I enjoyed the late nights and three row deep crush at the bar late into the night. But this too had a shelf life and I was soon planning my next career move.
I returned to part time teaching at a Christian Brothers school where I one day invited a childrenís book illustrator to come and talk about her occupation to the kids. As I listened to her describe her working day it occurred to me that while I may be no Picasso I might certainly succeed as an illustrator. Within a month I had successfully applied for a degree course in graphic design, complete with accreditation for my first year based on my previous qualifications and spent the next three years pumping beer by night and studying illustration and design by day.
Once newly qualified I said farewell to Adelaide and I decamped to Melbourne where my first priority was to fill my coffers which had become severely depleted during my three years of re-training. I saw what looked like an easy job with a small outfit called The Menu Novelists creating chalk illustrations for restaurant menu boards. My portfolio served me well and I started soon afterwards only to discover I was singularly inept at drawing bread rolls and fruit under pressure. It was with shared relief amongst all that I resigned before being given the boot some two weeks later.
With dented pride I took to waiting tables at a popular Italian restaurant where I soon found myself with a new network of friends. I also began to source a lot of illustration work, including a couple of childrenís books, but I had no desire to return to teaching. It used to amuse me how people would react when they discovered the waiter serving them had two university degrees.
ďWhy do you work here then?Ē they would ask incredulously.
ďBecause I like it,Ē I would reply honestly. And I did. Serving tables kept me grounded.
It also paid the rent.
In 1992 I again threw caution to the wind, selling up shop and moving to London. My reasons for doing so were spurious at best but as usual once there I landed on my feet. With the recession biting hard there I once again fell back on my teaching qualifications. I took a contract at a school in Kent to tie me over and rediscovered the pleasures of teaching. Realising I was filling the shoes of a recent retiree I applied for the job and ended up as head of the art department.
And I loved every minute of it.
It was in London that I met the person I was to spend the rest of my life with, thereby vindicating my decision to move there in the first place. Unable to remain in London for a variety of compelling reasons we moved back to Australia where we both ended up serving tables at Papa Ginoís. In time I applied for a teaching position at the Melbourne School of Art. When asked during the interview if I knew how to use a computer I said of course! When told I had the position I promptly went out and bought one.
Given how computer savvy I am these days it seems incredible to think how illiterate I once was. It took me a full week to figure out how to boot up my first Apple Macintosh as they were referred to back then. It had a full 32mb of ram and a 500k hard drive which, I was assured by the salesman, would be ample for my needs. When I started the job I wasnít able to hide my ignorance for long but once they forgave me for that I embarked on one of the steepest learning curves Iíve ever known.
I wore many hats at the Melbourne School of Art. I was a lecturer, a course coordinator, an in-house designer, a public relations officer, a receptionist and a gallery curator. I also coordinated weekend classes for kids. Despite its auspicious title it was in fact a private venture run by two delightfully eccentric women. I revelled in the variety of roles and I loved the social atmosphere of such an environment; however the pay was less than stellar and after a couple of years I applied for and secured a teaching post in one of Melbourneís more prestigious private schools.
I never imagined I would end up working in a church based, all girls private school. Such a notion had always seemed both elitist and politically unsound. The four years I spent doing so however were a revelation. I was again in charge of an art department and the quality of work produced by the students was outstanding. I also made some wonderful friends. Having to wear a tie and jacket wore a little thin, especially during summer and the headteacher ran the school with an iron fist, albeit in a silk glove, but the positives far outweighed the negatives.
One of the more absurd responsibilities foisted upon me was being entrusted with the task of patrolling the platform of the local train station after school to ensure the girls were all still wearing their boaters. I dispensed this duty by entering the platform and gazing first at the sky and then down at the ground in order to give the girls sufficient time to pull their hats from their bags and have them in place before proceeding down the platform with a conspiratorial grin and a wry nod of acknowledgement before exiting the platform and returning back to school.
After four years it was time to move on again, this time back to London where I accepted a job in a pupil referral unit catering for disaffected adolescent s excluded from mainstream education in South London. It was about as far removed from my previous role as it was possible to get and for the first little while I was in shell shock while the kids ran rings around me. After a few months I moved back into mainstream education, teaching in a predominantly Muslim school. This coincided with the events of 9/11 which was in many respects fortuitous.
It would have been so easy to slide into uninformed generalisations and stereotypical thinking during the aftermath of 9/11 but working in a predominantly Muslim school prevented me from doing so. The kids were as freaked out as everyone else was. I learnt a lot about the Muslim faith during my time there, something I am forever grateful for. I also worked with some of the most amazing kids Iíve ever known. As for teaching classes where the girls wore head scarves I couldnít help but be amused to discover that some of them sported the logo of Calvin Klein.
After a year I went back to teaching disaffected kids and have continued to do so in a variety of settings ever since, most recently as a key stage manager with a pupil referral unit. Another year and Iíll be heading back Down Under. Whether or not Iíll remain working in this area remains to be seen. For all I know I could well end up pumping beer or serving tables again. What I do know is I enjoy working and relish the challenge of striking out in a new direction, jumping off the deep end and swimming like crazy.
The Tip Jar