Gateway to the Outback

“Where on earth is Tutye?” I gasped.

“I don’t know,” said my principal, who had delivered this news at Sunday midday. “Apparently the children there are out of control. You take over tomorrow.”

Young teachers, who hadn’t gained a permanent appointment could be sent anywhere at any time. I had been informed of my move to Mildura just three days before I began teaching there, but this was ‘a bit of a roughie’.

At Mildura I had been teaching a grade of forty-eight Grade 4 children plus ten children of varied ages who had learning difficulties. The desks, which adjoined three walls of the under-sized room, were packed in so tightly that I could only sidle along aisles. More desks were on the teacher’s platform – in all a tough task for a beginner teacher. By taking as many lessons as possible under a tree in the pleasant winter weather of Mildura, I had managed quite well.

Outside school hours I had several friends including a beautiful and vivacious girlfriend, attended an active church, played A Grade tennis on superb lawn courts, was a V.I.P. at the local square dances, where I helped train a set of dancers to compete in the Australian Championships, and thoroughly enjoyed my guesthouse accommodation. At first I was rather annoyed at having to leave because of a group of misbehaving brats, but then I remembered that my dream had always been to teach in a farming community. Perhaps this was meant to be.

As it eventuated, I did not leave until Wednesday, having to introduce the teacher who had lost control of the 32 children at Tutye to my class, as we were to swap positions. He was 23 years of age and 6ft3ins tall. What were these Tutye children – man-eaters? With only three months teaching experience, I had just turned 19, was 5ft 7ins tall and weighed 9 stone, wringing wet. I should have been terrified, but surprisingly was quite buoyed. He had an expressionless voice and no zip to his body language – hardly inspiring teaching material.

At 9.30pm on Wednesday, the 9th October 1953, I boarded the Vinelander for Ouyen, where I would change to the one-carriage diesel heading to the South Australian border. Finally, I had located Tutye, fifty miles west of Ouyen in the north-west Mallee District of Victoria, sometimes referred to as ‘The Gateway to the Outback’.

At 11.15pm, I found myself alone and freezing on the Ouyen station platform with six hours to wait. In nearby scrubland, I gathered firewood, lit myself a fire in the waiting room, using all the station toilet paper to start it, and slept on a hard wooden bench seat. Dawn unfolded as we rattled west, with undulating countryside materialising through the window. Suddenly I was staring at the Tutye sign on a small siding. Quickly alighting I was confronted by one middle-aged lady.

“Are you the new teach?” she asked.
“Yes I –"
“Do you play football?”
“Do you play tennis?”
“You don’t square dance too, do you?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Good. That last bloke was dead wood. Come and have some breakfast.”

I did wonder if I would have been offered breakfast if my answers had been no.

After a quarter-mile walk along a bush track, I caught my first glimpse of my tiny one-teacher school building through the mallee scrub. Something else appeared too – a large 13 year-old boy filled the gateway, chewing a piece of long dried grass, glaring expressionlessly, and showing no sign of moving. Here, I guessed was the leader of the pack. “Win this one, Don,” I said to myself, “or else get back on tonight’s train.”

I quickened my pace. He showed no sign of making way. “You’re blocking my way, son!” I grated, slowing not at all. At the last moment he jumped aside with a grin. “So I was, sir.” Followed by my new shadow, named Ken, I unlocked and entered the school-room. Involuntarily I gasped in horror.

“How do you work in this mess?”
“Oh, we don’t work, sir. We just muck around.”

I sensed the challenge. “Alter that Ken, to, ‘We used to just muck around.’ There are about to be big changes around here.” He tried but failed to stare me down, then turned and hung his bag on a hook, saying, “How can I help, sir?” Both working diligently, we tackled the imposing task.

Eventually the school bus signalled its imminent arrival with a crash of grating gears. I met it to welcome the exuberant multi-aged horde that poured out of the bus and raced over to Ken with stage-whispered, “What’s he like, Ken?” I didn’t hear the answer, as old Hughie, the farmer-driver waddled out, shook hands, then sat on the step of the bus, rolled a cigarette, and handed me the makings. I hunkered down country style, and we settled in for a chat.

“You’ll have to stand on them, or they’ll run all over you,” he said with a mournful shake of his head. “I’ll stand firmly, if it proves necessary,” I assured him.

It was necessary later that day. Peter in Grade 4 refused to pick up the lunch rubbish he had thrown away onto the ground. Regretfully I strapped him lightly on the hand – he was quite small. That night, as the bus pulled away, I heard, floating on the breeze, “Ha! Ha! It didn’t hurt!” It did hurt at assembly, in front of all the other children, next morning. The strap then went into a drawer, rarely to be used again at that school. Once they understood that I would take no nonsense, they not only accepted it, they welcomed it. Children actually like to understand clearly what they can and cannot do.

At the end of the second day of unaccustomed effort, one girl’s gasp, “I’m worn out working,” was greeted with sighs of general agreement.

“I’m disappointed that you have only just finished at home time,” I responded. “I like to end a day with sport. Of course, the day’s work must be finished first.” Old Hughie had told me that they loved their sport.

Their ears pricked up – they swallowed the bait. Rarely did any day end with less than half an hour’s sport, with the day’s work fully completed first. To encourage them, I included quite a deal of acting and singing, two other loves of both theirs and mine, throughout the day. Before long, pride in their performance of all activities, gradually started to return.

Young Hughie in Grade 5 mournfully asked, “Do we still have to empty the dunny cans?” My ears pricked up – it was them or me.
“Tell me about it, Hugh,” I suggested.
“Friday lunchtimes Kenny, Kelvin and I have to dig a hole and empty the dunny cans. We get paid two bob (20 cents).”
“Rotten job, eh?” I mused.
“Too right,” the three of them agreed.
After some thought I suggested “If I doubled the pay and you could do it during school time on Friday afternoons, would that help?”

The deal was sealed. Before long, they requested a bird walk. It was an excellent idea, but my city-bred knowledge would be severely tested. I hedged for time.

“I’ll do some research and plan a walk,” I assured them.
“You don’t need to. Kenny will take us.”

How could I refuse? We set off straight away. His knowledge amazed me. Time and again he would find a bird, name it and instruct us on its habits.

“Look!” he cried, “a frogmouth owl!”
“Yeah! Yeah!” chorused his disciples.

I could see nothing. “Can you see that small stumpy thing on that cross branch?” he asked.
“Watch it,” he advised, picking up a stick and lobbing it near my target.
“It blinked!” I shouted in amazed delight.
“Good on yer, sir,” he praised.
“Good on yer, sir!” chorused his disciples.

Finally I was the first to spot a bird. “Pigeon!” I shouted, triumphantly, as it flew off in fright. “Yes sir,” sighed Ken. I was waiting to get closer. It was a bronze wing and I was going to explain the difference between it and a top-knot. "The top-knot is protected, sir, because it is great eating. You can shoot what you can eat, but no more."

Suitably reprimanded I left things to him. That day was a great success. The younger children and I learnt a lot, Ken felt important, as he was, and everyone had a thoroughly enjoyable day.

I boarded at the gypsum lease manager’s house. One day, soon after school finished, an exhausted Grade 2 son of that family appeared at the door. Gasping for air he blurted out, “She said I did and I didn’t, and Mum said if I didn’t I had to run back to school now and tell you.”

I knew immediately that whatever she said he’d done, he hadn’t done. In a one-teacher school monitors supervise younger grades while the teacher is busy with senior grades. A girl claimed he had made her lift her dress while supervising reading on the school step. As teachers can, I sorted it out next day. The girl admitted lying. However, the mother of the girl had rung everyone, arousing anger against the awful city boy from the gypsum lease. This nonsense had to stop.

I called a meeting at the school. Breathing fire, everyone arrived, except the two families involved, whom I had advised to stay away. With knees knocking I began by rebuking them, explaining exactly what had happened and how easily it had been solved. With all the severity a nineteen year old can muster, I demanded that any future problem be brought directly to me to solve - no more foolish phone calls. Abruptly I closed the meeting. Deflated, and contrite, all attendees sheepishly shook my hand as they left and went straight home without the usual after-meeting chat session. When everyone had left I collapsed exhausted on my chair, staying there for ages.

Little Dawn in Grade 1 came racing in one recess time, climbed onto my knee and pulled my face down the better to listen to her.

“It’s runnin’ and they’re runnin’ and it’s runnin’ and they’re runnin’ and you’ve got to come and see.”

Having thus delivered her urgent news she climbed down, took me by the hand and dragged me outside. A goanna chase was in full swing, with all children but Dawn involved. When the goanna stopped the hunters, knowing how goannas will climb anything vertical, threw themselves face down on the ground. As the goanna took off, up they all jumped and the chase continued. Dawn and I watched fascinated for a while until I took pity on the unfortunate animal and blew the whistle to return inside.

It was time for the annual concert at the local hall, and the arrival of Father Christmas – a tradition in one-teacher schools.
As there was no electricity, I had to borrow several Tilley lamps and make corrugated iron shades for them, to light our gymnastic display on the hall floor and a nativity play and other items on stage. All the children were sent to the toilet before the concert. One small boy claimed he couldn’t, but he really should have. He was the undisputed star of the night as he wrestled with his weeing equipment with one hand while shading his eyes trying to see the screeching laughers out there beyond the lights. After a very successful concert I was conducting games while awaiting the imminent arrival of Santa. He did not arrive. After another half hour of games, still no arrival of Santa. Eventually we heard a merry “Ho ho ho!” somewhere out in the surrounding scrub. I was forgotten as the children all swarmed out to greet him and receive a present, some lollies and a pat on the head. What a wonderful tradition! Later I discovered that Santa had almost arrived on time, but just before delivering his first ho ho ho, he dropped something. As he bent over he split the seam of his trousers and had to return home for Mrs Santa to conduct rapid repairs.

The last day of school was spent scrubbing the school with several brushes to facilitate scrubbing races across the room, a party at which an unbelievable amount of food was consumed, and games until the school bus arrived.

On the first day of the following year I discovered that travellers pausing for a drink had left a tank tap running and the other tank had been holed due to rust. What a disaster in the hot dry Mallee summer! I carted a canvas water bag to school on the running board of my old car every day. After a few weeks I managed to arrange for two farmer fathers to help me take the rusted tank off its stand to solder up the holes. Hat on the back of my head, cigarette dangling from my mouth, and intent on soldering, I was accosted by a stranger.

“Yes mate,” I responded. “What can I do for you?”
"You can open the school for a start,” he grated in a most unfriendly tone. “School should have begun twenty minutes ago.”

What a day for the dreaded school inspector to arrive! He was not amused, nor did he give me any credit for my initiative in fixing the tank. Inspectors, I discovered, had one-track minds and very little sense of humour. This one continued his critical attitude, but at the end of the day was gracious enough to compliment me on my achievements.

Terry and Kay arrived to start their school lives on the first day of the year. Kay cried for an hour. I left them outside for that hour until the older girls managed to pacify her. In direct contrast, Terry strolled around, hands in pockets, whistling, while he ‘cased the joint.’ “Where are I gunna sit?” he demanded of me. I was going to have fun with him.

The following year Terry’s brother, Larry, the lovable larrikin, almost a clone of Terry, arrived. One day I was seated on the thunder-box (toilet), which was situated in scrub well away from the school. The rear flap was suddenly lifted, and a stick poked my bare bum. My first thought was ‘snake!!’ but snakes don’t drop flaps and run. When I emerged in threatening mode, 28 pairs of worried eyes looked up at me. There should have been 29. One glance was sufficient. “Larry Perkins!” I yelled. A small red shirt rose from behind a fallen log and shuffled forward.

How’d you know it was me?” the tiny 5-year-old mumbled. Carefully holding back my desperate desire to laugh, I quietly said most severely, “If that should ever happen again, Larry, I know a small boy whose bottom would be too sore to sit on for weeks.” Ruefully rubbing his bottom at the thought, he emphatically said, “Yes sir!”

It rarely rained - only 11 inches a year. The children loved the rain. One day it poured and I saw sou’wester clad Terry, crouched on the ground sailing sticks down a fast flowing groove in the school-ground. “Terry!” I bellowed. “Come inside out of that rain!” No response. The sailing continued. Disobedience I would not brook. I raced out into the downpour. As I was about to grab the miscreant, he looked up with an angelic smile, “’T’aint Terry. It’s Larry.” This time I could not hold back my laugh as I carried him back inside under my arm. Terry, I discovered, had been gazing up at me with a wide grin as I yelled his name, thoroughly enjoying my mistake.

Out of the blue one day Kenny came in from recess, matter-of-factly saying, “We’ll be going home in a few minutes, sir.”
“For that to happen, Ken, you will have to present to me a very strong case,” I responded.
Taking me outside, he pointed to the horizon, “See that thin black line, sir.”
“I certainly do,” I replied, a little in awe at the phenomenon.
“That’s an approaching dust storm,” he explained. “They come up fast and can be pretty bad out here.”

Soon I was to discover that was an understatement. Two cars soon skidded to a halt at the gate with children jumping in as I spoke with the parents, with the old school bus soon clattering up the track shortly afterwards.

“Do you want a ride home, Don?” queried Old Hughie. “It’s going to be a rough one.”
“No, I’ll see it out here. There could be a lot of cleaning up to do.”

There certainly was. Dense rolling waves of dust soon blocked out the sun, creating a deep brown eerie light. Even inside, with all doors and windows shut, I still had to tie a handkerchief over my nose. One and a half hours later the dust rolled on, replaced by glorious rain, bringing blessed relief. The air smelt fresh and filled with the scent of eucalyptus. Two hours later I had finished cleaning and headed home down the bush track. I felt great.

One day my car broke down. Fortunately, I managed to get a message to the children. Arriving at morning recess time, I was amazed to see them filing out of school as normal, and heard Year 7 Norma’s strident call, “Don’t run until you’re outside!” As I entered she was already preparing for the next session.

“Kenny picked the lock like you do when you forget your key,” she explained. “I took them for morning talk, spelling, writing and maths. Their work is corrected.
“Thank you Miss Drendel. You are a marvel,” I enthused.

She smiled proudly. As she was heading out to recess, I mimicked her strident voice, “And don’t run until you’re outside!” She turned and rewarded me with a chuckle. I missed them when I finally had to leave.

This is an abbreviation of the book “GO NORTHWEST, BUT NOT AROUND THE BEND”, which I published by Screamer Media in February 2009. The book has more school stories, plus stories of my life during my time at the school. As the Screamer Media site appears to be down at present please feel free to email me directly at to order a copy.