Shift happens, or does it?

When I was a girl, my younger sister was a rebel. The third one of us girls to go to our convent school and following in the footsteps of two older goodie-two-shoes sisters, she might have thought it the only way to assert herself.

Every Friday afternoon the head nun wrote a list of Marks beside the names of certain girls on the main blackboard outside the concert hall. Marks gained, black marks given, against a girl’s name for things like application – when you failed to hand in homework; punctuality – if you were late for class; order – if you were messy in your work or dress; and finally, deportment – for rudeness. Deportment was the big no-no.

At the beginning of each week, each girl was given an imaginary shield. A shield consisted of ten points. The idea was to keep your shield for as long as possible. It was rather like the demerit system of points against a driver who breaks the road rules.

Here in Melbourne we can only lose ten points, I think, before we lose our driving licence, three points for speeding, three for driving while using a mobile phone, a certain number for not wearing a seat belt and so on.

At my school we lost one point each for punctuality, application or order, but five points for deportment. In my year nine class one girl once swore at a teacher and she lost her shield instantly. Double marks for deportment.

This particular year, the year my sister was in year nine, she and a girlfriend changed the wording on the black board from ‘Marks’ to ‘Remarks’.

Not such a heinous act I’d say. Even at the time, even in my most self righteous do-gooding days, I did not think it such a terrible crime, but the nuns did, at least the head nun did and once my sister and her friend were discovered as the culprits – you could not hide much in our small school – they were publicly shamed.

They lost their shields, double deportment plus the points they had already accrued for application and order.

This brings me to today.

These are the last days of my youngest daughter’s education. In Melbourne, we have a ritual called ‘muck up day’, the final day of school, a rite of passage.

Most schools celebrate in this way. The school leavers love it, the teachers shudder. A day when the year twelves, the school leavers run riot across the school. They throw flour, water bombs and put up banners, streamers, balloons. A celebration. They dress up and occasionally harass the younger students, but there are strict limits around such activities.

Schools tend to come down heavily on students who deface buildings, damage property or hurt people. Egg throwing at innocent passers-by in the streets before or after school is discouraged, though it still happens.

At my daughter’s school the girls are told to leave their blazers at home during the final week as a protection against excess laundry bills. The egg throwers are generally thought to be from other schools, not ours, no never. You see signs of smashed eggs on the footpaths and against buildings from time to time during this tumultuous time.

Muck up is the ritual that stands between the completion of their final school year and their exams which are yet to come, and between their so-called freedom after thirteen or fourteen years of school before they enter the next phase.

At my daughter’s school the teachers are fairly vigilant. They clamp down on any activity other than tame projects like dressing up, with threats that if the girls muck up badly they won’t be able to sit their exams at school. They will have to sit them at the dreaded Show Grounds.

Our girls dressed up for a Harry Potter day and divided the entire school into houses and then gave the younger students lollies. In my daughter’s view they were gentle but there have been years, one I remember from an older daughter’s time, when each student walking in at the gate was told to hand over one of her shoes.

You can imagine by mid morning the pile of shoes, hundreds of identical shoes, except for size and condition, in the middle of the quadrangle. The hours spent retrieving individual shoes, many of them unnamed. But it was essentially harmless.

This year at Presentation night the week before last, the principle gave a talk on advances in technology, among other things. She told us about social networking and about the way the world has changed for our children. How different it is today and how it will continue to change in unprecedented ways.

She put up a youtube clip entitled ‘Shift happens’. You may have heard of it. A fascinating journey through societal and technological progress over recent years. Our principle had adapted the clip to reflect her concerns

At the words ‘shift happens’ the audience tittered. The principle seemed to give no sign of recognition. Needless to say, ‘shift happens’ is a play on the expression, ‘shit happens’.

This was on the Thursday night. The day before, two girls, allegedly on their own account, had spread yoghurt and sticky stuff around the toilets.

The ‘shit hit the fan’ and the year twelves were told their final year activities could not go ahead. In the end the principle modified her threat to a warning of behave or else…

On the morning of that final day, sometime over the weekend, though it might have happened on the Monday morning itself, someone, some unknown person or persons wrote the words ‘shit happens’ in bold graffiti paint on the windows of the concert hall. The words were as high as a person.

No one discovered the sign until the whole school was due to assemble for the year twelves’ final presentation to the entire school, which traditionally is a comedy presentation for the benefit of all year levels and is followed at 11.30 am by the Leavers Service where year twelves are each offered a testimonial and parents are also invited.

The principle when she discovered the graffiti hit the roof and threatened to cancel the morning. The girls were hysterical and rang their parents.

Staff managed to clean the windows, ‘with strong chemicals’, the principle said, though my husband reckons they probably only needed Windex. In any case, no damage was done except that of wounded pride, chiefly the principle’s pride. She saw the graffiti as a personal attack.

The point of this long ramble is the degree to which a few words out of place, my sister’s ‘remarks’ all those years ago, certain unknown persons’ message that ‘shit happens’ can give rise to hysteria that borders on the stuff of wars.

Why are we so sensitive to the written word. And really, over fifty years, has that much changed?

54 thoughts on “Shift happens, or does it?”

  1. Can I just say this was fascinating to read. So different from schools in California. As though from another time and place…yet children, teens are all the same in reality.

  2. I think that when we SEE some word for which we have completely negative connotations, or which seems in direct opposition to some expressed feeling–it's different from hearing it. One can always weasel out of the spoken word and say "You didn't hear it right." Or we can do that for ourselves.

    But when it is in writing? Well. THERE it is. And now, the thing that I believe has changed, is that we cannot rip it up and know that it is forever gone. If we have written it online, it can circulate, be cut and pasted and moved all over the world.

    I think it has all gotten worse with instant accessibility. Instant gratification. We hit enter and if no one answers quickly? We are hurt. We are angry. We are lost.

    (I'm using a metaphorical we here. I am happy to NOT use some technology and remain inaccessible when I choose.)

    I'm with you. I don't think it has changed; it's been exacerbate.

    Interesting–I learned something about the Australian school system. I don't think Muck up day would work here–we don't seem to know much about civility and simple conventions. Let alone respecting public or private property!

    Then, too, some people are just too full of themselves I think. They are puffed up and a tiny pin prick and they deflate, flying all over the room out of control. That may be an exaggeration… just a tad.

    Oh, dear. I had better go to bed, but I saw you had an entry and I simply had to read! But it's near 1:00 AM and I have things to do soon enough.

    Take care, Elisabeth.

  3. A very interesting read but also a situation I am not comfortable with. I think the teachers are afraid to loose control on these schools as they rule by fear. I am not familiar with the strictness nor with the rebellion of defacing buildings and damaging property and I think the latter is also a result of the strictness in the way of teaching. Both alien to me.
    The system in Holland is different and also the schools my kids go to in NZ

  4. The written word has permanence. A child at assembly could mutter a swearword that starts all his friends tittering and no one would have known but even the minor act of defacement you talk about – changing ‘marks’ to ‘remarks’ – is bestowed at least a degree of permanence.

    We have nothing like ‘muck up day’ here in Scotland. I remember very little about my last few days at school. I do know that it was that last week was the first time I plunked [skipped] classes; we went down to the pitch and putt on the low green and amused ourselves. Not like me at all but all the exams had been sat and we were just waiting for the last official day of term. I do remember physically leaving because my friend Tom and a boy we knew called John stood in a line – okay a very short line – and we all walked out of the gate at the same time (my idea); I never returned but they were back later that year to do their Fifth Year. It was all quite anticlimactic really.

    When I find myself in need of feeling nostalgic the years I find myself looking back to with most fondness are the four years I spent at the Academy. I did a lot of growing up in that time.

  5. I cannot see why it is considered ok to deface buildings, to write graffiti, and to place offensive messages. I have had frequently to remove graffiti from the outside of my home, and, I assure you, strong chemicals which damage skin, are necessary. Why is it considered ok to do this to people they have nothing to do with and who have done them no harm? Flour bombs, yogurt and sticky stuff, or whatever, still need to be cleaned up, by other people, so why is it considered ok to do it? Why is their fun or sense of self-expression considered to override all other considerations?
    Having had the same order of nuns for my own education, I well remember the marks system, and the rigidity of interpretation and application, but I think in such matters the pendulum has swung far further than pendulums normally do. For every action there is an equal reaction? Not any more, it seems. So what did Newton know, anyway?
    Sorry (so to speak) obviously I must sound like a rigid and boring old fart, but I believe we should consider the effect of our actions on others, and not feel entitled to inflict nuisances on others.

  6. this is both very different and much the same as I have known, though more like my own school days than now.

    We have nothing like Muck Up Day, and it is all rather more strict than I have known recently, but what is the same is the rather idiosyncratic scale the teachers have of the relative seriousness of the various offences.

  7. I agree the graffiti was a personal attack on the principal, probably in response to the threat of cancelling muck up day.

    What I don't agree with is muck up day itself. All that egg throwing, (I've walked past splattered eggs on my way to and from work, it's not nice), flour and water bombs etc, just seems wrong to me, messy and wasteful too. Surely there must be another way to celebrate?

    WV = eparti -how appropriate.

  8. It all sounds very different from when I left school. We just left. We would never have been allowed to do any of the activities that you described. Maybe I am old fashioned but there are some things that have not changed for the better.

  9. Can't help feeling there is a generation gap here between the head and the girls. Also maybe a little bit of lack of humour! In my day it was considered quite risque enough to throw our school hats in the local river on the last day.

  10. elisabeth – i'm very much appreciative of legacies as markers of a transition. there's something to be said for a leaving that encourages a sort of "in your face" event. however, i wonder at the energy that goes into and is created by a leaving such as you describe. it has nothing sustainable about it where something more constructive and purposeful and maybe even helpful might. steven

  11. It is extraordinary how different our cultures can be across the world, Ellen but as you say, children, and adolescents in this case, have universal tendencies, as do adults I might add.

    Thanks, Ellen.

  12. I agree Jeanette: 'One can always weasel out of the spoken word', less so the written. Thanks for your wonderful comment so late in the night, or should I say morning.

    As I said earlier to Ellen, it's extraordinary how much school cultures across the world differ, but somethings remain the same.

    As for the speediness of access and the rise of technology, I'm sure these things can both help and hinder, as can most innovations.

    I can scarcely remember what life was like before mobiles and computers, but it still had a vibrancy then as now, it was just different.

    Thanks, Jeanette.

  13. The principle had not the wit required Glenn to change the letters of the graffiti as you suggest, nor would she have wanted to. Once in a rage she lost it. The righteous road is a dangerous one, but hopefully she'll have settled down by now.

    Maybe even she, with others, can laugh about it.

    Thanks, Glenn.

  14. You have picked it up correctly I think, Marja: too much repression leads to an unhelpful level of rebellion that is probably quote different from the system in Holland and even elsewhere in Europe. I'd have thought it was similar in NZ but it's probably different at different schools. Your children's schools might be more progressive.

    My daughter's school is progressive in many ways but not in this instance, I'd say.

    Thanks, Marja.

  15. It's obvious, isn't it Ruth, to change the 'm' of muck to 'f', but no one said a word about it, at least not in my hearing.

    Thanks, Ruth. I'm glad you connected.

  16. It's obvious, isn't it Ruth, to change the 'm' of muck to 'f', but no one said a word about it, at least not in my hearing.

    Thanks, Ruth. I'm glad you connected.

  17. Most profoundly I agree with the earlier comment: What interesting power the Head could have shown in adding an F to the shi*t. Everyone could have known the release of laughter.

  18. There are some lovely traditions at my daughters' school, Jim, a school one or other of my children have attended for twenty four years. I thought I might shed the odd tear when I stood up at the final assembly and sang the school song for the last time. I did not. I think I was too overtaken by al the dramas of recent days. still it put e in mind of my last days at school. I hated finishing school. It had been such a haven for me.

    I still remember my own school hymn too. It follows:
    With hearts uplifted and joyous,
    we greet our school in happy song,
    Vaucluse all though the passing years
    our love for you is firm and strong.
    The future lies before us,
    Its joys and sorrows too.
    But as loyal girls of FCJ
    we'll faithful be and true.
    To higher things
    our motto now and ever
    will guide as onwards through each
    Yes onwards, Ad Altiora
    Through life until eternal death.

    Wow, I haven't written down those words before, at least not since my school days. They seem quite corny here, but in my head and when accompanied by the music, they are still stirring, at least they are to me.

    I'd best be careful not to get too nostalgic here. I still enjoy the school motto, to higher things, it encourages a degree of striving that's worth maintaining.

    Thanks, Jim.

  19. Not a rigid and boring here at all, Persiflage. You make good and solid points. The two girls who spread the yoghurt and sticky stuff wound up cleaning up their own mess. The culprits who wrote the graffiti have still not been identified. If they had, I expect that they too would have had to hurt her hands with whatever solvents were required in the clean up.

    I'm with my daughter and her friends in so far as I believe it was unfair to penalise some ninety students for the actions of probably at most one or two. Even so I also agree with you that it's not okay to deface or damage anyone's property and even yoghurt as you say can make a mess, but a water bombing event on the oval among willing participants on a hot day, could hardly cause damage.

    Interesting that you should remember the marks system under our nuns. Perhaps all FCJs did it. I'm not sure how they encourage good behaviour these days.

    Thanks, Pesiflage.

  20. So often in these situations the punishment does not fit the crime, Dave, but people in authority, particularly teachers, understandably get anxious about their roles as custodians, educators and carers.

    It's a tough call, especially for the principle because I suppose the buck stops with her.

    If she were too lenient there'd be any number of parents or other teachers who'd give her curry and now given her over reaction she gets it from the other side: she was too harsh.

    It was less dramatic in our day I suspect because the teachers had more authority. Parents tended to side with the authorities but these days we are all so much more aware of rights and responsibilities etc etc. Things become more transparent. It's harder to hide behind one's role.

    Thanks, Dave.

  21. I agree, River, if only there were more positive ways to celebrate. But it seems for young people to be able to celebrate there is a need to subvert the order of things if only in some small way.

    It happens at university too but universities are more used to it perhaps and can often handle it better.

    Thanks, River.

  22. I know it sounds grim, Cheshire Wife, but maybe it reflects something of the tensions that exist today. When I think of the pressures that today's students in year twelve experience, the need to do well enough to get into the course of their choice etc, the fantasy that their whole life depends on their final score, I can understand some desire to let fly, if only for a moment.

    As a society we expect a great deal of our young folk. It's always been that way, I expect.

    It was hard when I was young but I think it's harder today. Though perhaps it's not. Perhaps in context, it's appropriate to where society is at, but still from my vantage point, I'm glad I'm past it. And that has to mean something. Both about me and also about the way things are.

    Thanks, Cheshire Wife.

  23. Fancy throwing your hats into the river, Pat. As you say, how risque. In my day I remember nothing of the sort, no antics, only getting one another to sign our 'autograph' books and the occasional holy picture.

    Thanks, Pat.

  24. As a teacher, you'd been particularly mindful of these sorts of transitions, I imagine, Steven, and I agree it's a pity we can't be more creative as parents and as teachers in our endeavours to help our children get through these times with better outcomes.

    At the same time I have a suspicion that had it all gone smoothy it would not provide our children with quite the growing experience that it has.

    Certainly it has been helpful in some ways for my daughter to be part of this conflict and to get through it.

    Thanks, Steven.

  25. To have been able to release the tension with laughter, as you say would have been so much better, Enchanted Oak. A pity it didn't happen at the time.

    Thanks again.

  26. have to say I love the idea of the shoes in the playground.
    Re the word plays and power of the written word – in both of your instances the words were up in public, so I guess it was a face saving exercise coming down hard on the culprits.
    good luck to your daughter!

  27. The written word can be a sword of a balm, depending on the hand that wields it. I had a similar tradtion to your daughter's year 12 celebration. And with the same rules: no defacement, no destruction of property. Taking into account that we were always told that there was no such as property in Cuba because it belonged to the people we made a mockery of what the schools authorities said.

    Lovely tale about words and the effects they can have on us. Many thanks.

    Greetings from London.

  28. Words are and always have been, powerful; that is why I love them so …. 'the pen is mightier than the sword'.

    I really enjoyed reading your post which brought together past and present, causing me to reflect on both my schooldays and my time as a teacher.

    Thank you for putting so much thought into your post!

  29. I have to admit I am with Persiflage on this one. I think it is grossly unfair when anonymous perpertrators fail to think beyond their own fun or revenge. They always have the daring to act out but seldom the guts to claim responsibility. For all our liberal thinking and values it seems we have failed to teach people how to deal with authority that we think is unjust.
    Just a little aside here, but perhaps a relevant comment, I have a small issue with today's lack of meaningful traditions and rituals which are more often seen as dusty relics of a feudal or religious past.
    In fact they often served as both an acknowledgement of the place a person had risen to in society along with the responsibility that came with the position.
    These days it seems everyone has the 'right' to do anything, but responsibility lies with no-one.
    The most useful piece of advice I was given as a young parent learning to set boundaries for my children was "When they can accept adult responsibilities, then they may have adult privileges."
    Sorry if I have gone off on a bit of a tangent. I don't think I have really addressed the topic.
    I am not a total wowser and admit to laughing out loud at some of my kids pranks that they don't think I've seen.
    Karen C

  30. Thanks for the good wishes, Isabel. Words can be bullets indeed. Let's hope my daughter manages to fire a few choice ones in her English exam in a couple of days. It's such a tough time.

  31. The shoes in playground were an amazing sight, Niamh, and yes, despite their nuisance value they were collected in a playful way.

    I agree with you, too, that words in public tend to attract a far greater reaction than words issued in private, even when written.

    But on second thoughts I've been inflamed by and managed to inflame others by the odd privately written communication. In these instances the written word seemed to pack more clout, though not always. Sometimes a few well chosen words spoken well or badly can attract a passionate response.

    Thanks, Niamh.

  32. The shoes in playground were an amazing sight, Niamh, and yes, despite their nuisance value they were collected in a playful way.

    I agree with you, too, that words in public tend to attract a far greater reaction than words issued in private, even when written.

    But on second thoughts I've been inflamed by and managed to inflame others by the odd privately written communication. In these instances the written word seemed to pack more clout, though not always. Sometimes a few well chosen words spoken well or badly can attract a passionate response.

    Thanks, Niamh.

  33. I imagine in Cuba the issue of property, who owns it ad who gets to use it as a statement of revolution are different from here, Cuban. It sounds as though you enjoyed your boyhood transition.

    Thanks for the appreciation.

  34. Well, Aguja, as a teacher you'd have seen both sides of the debate and your response here seems quite modest.

    Perhaps when you connect with what it was like during your own school days and relate it to the experience of kids today you get a more balanced perspective.

    Thanks, Aguja.

  35. It can be hard as you suggest, Karen, to set a good example for our children, especially when we see them behaving in unhelpful ways, but don't want to preach or become too heavy handed.

    I think the best way to teach is by example. If we set a decent enough one it goes a long way, irrespective of what we espouse.

    Thanks for your asides, too, Karen. I'm sure there are many like Persiflage who agree. One trouble is the written word within the blogosphere can sometimes seem either too harsh or too soft . And therefore it's not always easy to represent your point of view as we intend.

    Thanks, Karen.

  36. I understand what you are saying, Elisabeth. I have sometimes become a lightening rod when expressing a different viewpoint, but then again I am well known for my contrary opinions and the expressing thereof.
    I once found a statement that best sums me up.
    "When all around you are losing their heads and you have managed to keep yours, you have obviously misunderstood the situation".
    As for the rights and wrongs of parenting, my youngest (20) recently admitted that he had re-thought child-rearing after a recent experience and believed that I had done a good job and he would do exactly the same.
    High praise, indeed!

  37. Since I'm not a native English speaker, many words and expressions in the English language are still a mystery to me. Why are they sometimes so similar, but some make a strong impression, whereas some just make you laugh? I understand that it's a matter of mentally, and, for the past 11 years, I've been trying to study the language and all that is behind it.

  38. I remember when I was in high school, there was a spate of toilet bowl bombings. Somebody would throw a firecracker or cherry bomb in and BOOM, cracked porcalean. For a couple of weeks, I held it in until I got home from school. Didn't want my ass to get blown off.

    We had Senior Prank day when I went to school, but it wasn't sanctioned by The Powers That Be. If you were caught, they threatened to withhold your diploma. An offially-sanctioned prank may have occured the year after I graduated. My sister was one year behind me, and came to school toward the end of her senior year to find an old car welded around the flagpole. Some kids in shop class had done it. According to my sister, the principal and teachers were amused by the prank, and in fact mentioned it during the graduation ceremony. Here's why I think the teachers were in on the joke. The car was welded to the pole over night. The school was around the corner from a police station. It would have taken a while to accomplish this, especially as the car was welded in a way so as to look like the flag pole was coming THROUGH the car. The had to have been broken in pieces to do this. While all this welding was going on, a police car MUST have driven by. The school must have informed the cops and asked them just to ignore it.

    Forgive me if this sounds like an ignorant question coming from an ignorant American, but do they celebrate Halloween in Australia? It seems kind of a coincidence that Muck Up Day should fall so close to a holiday where pranks play a major part.

  39. Hi praise from your child, Karen, that you have done a good enough job at parenting. I wish my children could say the same for me, but I'm not sure they would, at least not yet.

    As for the business of keeping our heads while all else are losing there's and thereby misreading the situation, perhaps misperceptions are necessary sometimes, or not so much misperceptions as different ones.

    It's amazing to me how much things can change when we look at something from other angles.

    Thanks yet again, Karen.

  40. Olga, I especially admire you for your ability to write in English when it is not your native language.

    Many of us English speakers, though of course not all, can only boast one language: English, but you have mastered at least two.

    Please do not apologise for your English, but rejoice in it, because you also can speak in your mother tongue as well, and that's more than I can do.

    Thanks, Olga.

  41. There are many people who celebrate Halloween here in Australia, Kirk, but mostly they are young or American ex-patriots.

    I have only noticed Halloween in recent years. It's not something I feel inclined trio celebrate, but I enjoy reading about the historical significance, All Hallows Eve, etc.

    It sounds, as you say, like this particular prank, the car welded to the flag pole must have had the blessing of the teachers and maybe even the police as well. Not every one is opposed to pranks.

    As for muck up day and Halloween coinciding here, that's a function of the fact that our academic year ends between October and November in readiness for our long holiday season from Christmas through till February. We are entering what you might experience in June/July.

    I take it you've never been to Australia. It's a long way away from you but it's worth a visit.

    Thanks, Kirk.

  42. Judging from your daughter's school, I'd say that nothing much has changed!

    However, when I was at school there was no such thing as 'muck up day' and only around 50 from the original 300 students had lasted at school until the matriculation exams.

    Graffiti was rife and the year after I left, they introduced sniffer dogs to check lockers and bags….. *sigh*. Now makes me realise that 50 out 300 was a pretty terrific result!

  43. The issue (or issues) of control are what I believe to be at the heart of most conflict. When/if we can surrender our extreme need to have things be the way we want them, such rebellious acts would lose their power. Daily I seem to be reminded how small is the portion of human existence over which I have control…myself and my attitude, that's about it. And I am very glad that I never had the responsibility of teaching or running a school. I'm sure I would have been a shrieking lunatic most of the time

  44. That was some school you went to, Kath. Fifty out of three hundred. What sort of attrition rate is that? A high school perhaps in a large country town, or an inner-city impoverished school. Or was it in the days of Kennett's assault on schools?

    The idea of sniffer dogs to weed out so-called wrong doers in a school sounds tragic. It's a pity not much has changed.

    Thanks, Kath.

  45. Schools are like microcosms of broader society I suspect, Marylinn, and I, like you, am glad I never had to manage one. To that extent I also have some compassion for the principal.

    At least she was trying.

    Thanks, Marylinn.

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