The Weekend Australian - Review - - Viewpoints - JU­LIA O’ BRIEN

MY son at­tends a no- uni­form high school. There are 1300 stu­dents. When I pick him up af­ter school and all that life force pours out of the build­ings, th­ese stu­dents look, to my mid­dle- aged eyes, like the dag­gi­est bunch of young peo­ple I have seen: all hair, cleav­age and clothes that don ’t fit.

They carry back­packs that will surely cause them back prob­lems, and black in­stru­ment cases. Th­ese kids are in bands of all kinds: sym­phonic, jazz, stage, con­cert.

My son is in the train­ing band. Ev­ery Wed­nes­day at 7.15am he is one of 100 Year 7 stu­dents who turn up at the school for prac­tice.

How do you get 100 or so 12- year- olds to play in an old- fash­ioned orches­tra? Surely this is not cool? Surely this is cause for ridicule and teas­ing? Surely young peo­ple to­day don ’t do mu­si­cal in­stru­ments? But no, not at this school. They do it all. It ’ s not cool, it ’s not un­cool, it just is. Well, this par­ent thinks it ’ s a mir­a­cle.

A mir­a­cle, but not that much of a mir­a­cle that the mu­si­cal di­rec­tor could an­nounce the train­ing band ’ s first pub­lic per­for­mance two months af­ter they had started mu­sic lessons. Those of us who had lis­tened to our chil­dren strug­gle with their new in­stru­ments were star­tled by the an­nounce­ment. What was this man think­ing? Had he not heard them play?

The an­swer didn ’t mat­ter be­cause the night was set, the chil­dren were dressed to ri­val the Melbourne Sym­phony Orches­tra, and a cou­ple of hun­dred par­ents and friends turned up to wit­ness this cen­tu­rion ef­fort. The chil­dren

Frere Jac­ques , Baa, Baa, Black Sheep and played Old MacDon­ald Had a Farm , but the par­ents heard Stravin­sky ’ s The Rite of Spring per­formed by the Vi­enna Phil­har­monic Orches­tra. They sounded good, very good.

The re­sponse was ex­plo­sive. Au­di­ence mem­bers didn ’ t just clap, they cre­ated a ruckus that would make the Rolling Stones proud. While the band was a pic­ture of deco­rum, the par­ents were an un­ruly mass who wouldn ’ t stay in their seats. Some just sobbed with joy. Could this hall con­tain all of this parental ela­tion? What was this about? Well, pride and joy — our chil­dren in an orches­tra — but much more than that. Ev­ery day a child rep­re­sents their years of ef­fort, joy, frus­tra­tion, hope, fear and love. That night the par­ents were re­warded for the ef­fort in ways we hadn ’t been ex­pect­ing: a faint but in­sis­tent mes­sage from the fu­ture that our chil­dren were go­ing to be OK in this world. Look at th­ese chil­dren. Look at what they could achieve.

The mes­sage from the present was loud and clear: it ’ s the teach­ers, stupid. Th­ese teach­ers and the mu­si­cal di­rec­tor give up their morn­ings, af­ter­noons, evenings and some week­ends for this mu­sic pro­gram. And along with teach­ing the chil­dren to play mu­si­cal in­stru­ments, they throw in per­se­ver­ance, pre­sen­ta­tion, per­for­mance, pride, co- op­er­a­tion and ca­ma­raderie. The mu­si­cal di­rec­tor had pushed them for­ward, ready or not, and that ex­pec­ta­tion of readi­ness had made them ready. Ex­pect the best and get it. While some of the par­ents had been un­der­es­ti­mat­ing their chil­dren, the teach­ers had not.

This school is 80 years old. The hall in which this band per­for­mance took place is old and dank. The school grounds are small, and if schools were judged on their build­ings this one would win an ugli­est school com­pe­ti­tion. Ah, but what goes on inside, what goes on inside.

Pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion may be on the way out, but at Eltham High it ’s go­ing out scream­ing. Take a bow, Mr Water­worth, take a bow.

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