As a member of the School Council of the public primary school in suburban Melbourne attended by my two boys, I supported my fellow councillor’s motion to arrange for a sex education speaker to give a talk for parents on how to speak to their children about sex. The speaker in question came highly recommended and on the night itself I arrived early, introduced myself, helped her set up, and took a seat in the front row. Then as she began, eager for her to feel welcome, I gave little nods of encouragement whenever she glanced my way.
I sat back a little, however, when as part of her review of the literature available, she held a book open to an illustration of a couple engaged in the act, and, seemingly because this illustration had the woman on top, recommended it as an authoritative text. I sat back further when she explained that when describing the sexual act to children, we are no longer to say that the penis enters the vagina, but that the vagina receives the penis. Then my nods of encouragement fell away altogether when she branched off to talk about domestic violence. With her presentation showing text and images indicating that domestic violence was all the fault of the male, I raised my hand and commented that domestic violence is complex and that often the woman is at least partly to blame. She then spoke about masculinity, saying that whilst toxic masculinity is one thing, regular, non-toxic masculinity can also be problematic. I raised my hand again, saying that the male suicide rate in Australia is significantly higher the female rate, and to this, possibly piqued by my second interjection, she said “maybe that’s because of this”, pointing to her slide about toxic masculinity. I walked out early, at a loss as to how to instil in my boys the sense of self-worth that is needed to love and be loved.
At the April School Council meeting we discussed a campaign by parents to change the school’s House Names. The school’s four Houses are named after figures from Australian history, all white males. One of them, incidentally, is John Batman, the founder of Melbourne. But this campaign was not concerned with changing just that one House named after Batman, which would have followed the example of the Australian Electoral Commission when it changed the name of the federal seat of Batman on account of cruelties by Batman towards the aboriginal people, renaming it after the aboriginal activist William Cooper. Rather, this was a campaign to remove all four of the names, with new names to be decided afterwards. I said to the meeting that removing the four names would send a message that we are ashamed of our history since 1788. Came a reply, “we’ve got plenty to be ashamed of”.
It was not until later in the year that a motion was tabled to survey the school community on the question of whether the four House Names should be changed. No one spoke in favour of this motion. The fact that the objective was to avoid having all four Houses named after white males was seemingly unmentionable. But in speaking against the motion, I said “the argument in favour of change appears to be that all four Houses are named after people of the same ethnicity and gender, and that there is therefore no diversity of ethnicity or gender or other characteristics”, and I argued that that is not a good reason to change the names and that there are other ways the school can celebrate ethnicities and cultures without having to overturn this part of its history.
The motion was passed ten to one, only for the subsequent survey to be botched. The administrator who designed the survey mistakenly framed the question in the positive: ‘should the school continue with the existing House Names?’ It should have been in the negative, for people wanting the names changed to vote ‘yes’. The administrator changed the question mid-survey but because some votes had already been lodged, the survey had to be abandoned, to be re-done at a later date.
The agenda for the August meeting included an item referring to a parent campaign to change the lyrics of the national anthem as sung at Monday morning assembly. The supporters of this campaign wanted the song to be sung with the same melody and title but with the completely new lyrics written by the indigenous elder Kutcha Edwards. I said I thought the national anthem was a matter for the Federal Parliament in Canberra, not a primary school in suburban Melbourne, but the majority were in favour of the new lyrics nonetheless. The School Principal, however, pointed out that the school is restricted by the guidelines of the Ceremonies Policy of the Education Department, the relevant portion of which reads: “Ceremonies should include: … singing the Australian National Anthem, Advance Australia Fair”. This wording suggests that it would be permissible to sing a different song altogether, or no song at all, but does it permit a different version of Advance Australia Fair?
The following day I phoned the Department seeking a ruling and I was told that I would receive a response on email. When it came three weeks later, however, that response simply circled back to: ‘the school is bound by the Ceremonies Policy’, without more. Clearly the question was too difficult for the Department, and whilst the uncertainty continues, the kids continue to sing “young and free” at Monday assembly.
The year ended with a dinner-dance fundraiser for the school community at a nearby hall and, as the beer and wine flowed, parents took to the stage, waving their arms and dancing to chants of ‘Extinction Rebellion’. Sitting at the back, my wife and I could only marvel at the fact that on May 18 the school had served as a polling station in the federal election that had returned a government supportive of fossil fuels.