I learnt yesterday that my old school principal, Ray Willis, died this week. He was young—in his mid-fifties. The funeral was today, apparently.
I can’t say that I was greatly moved when I heard the news. I only consider my alma mater when it comes up in conversation, and usually what follows is an unbridled litany of disgust. Melbourne High School has deeply ingrained pretensions to grandeur. It has for decades attempted what I regard a dangerous enterprise: instilling in batches of young men a potent and unwarranted sense of elitism—of difference and above all superiority, on the basis of slender evidence and a great massaging of the facts. Arrogance in individuals is natural and, as I think I have written here, is often a net good. But arrogance in groups just causes deafness, and when I recall how we thought about the world looking out from the faux-castellian facade of the “old building”, I think we were all a bit deaf. I still consider myself somewhat hard of hearing today.
It seems a relatively minor criticism to make, doesn’t it? Hardly enough to provoke bitter litanies. I guess that’s true, and I should do more to recall the good that place did me. But I also think I can only convey the ramifications of an “us and them” culture to someone whose experienced it to some degree. Melbourne High School is where I learnt to sneer, and unrelenting distaste was the mainstay of all our discussions as students. I’ve said of a number of my old classmates that they were genuinely nice blokes in a one-on-one conversation, but in a crowd of three or more, they turned from Jekylls to Hydes. One wolf is just an undomesticated dog, but a pack will tear you to bloody shreds. The same could probably be said of me back then, and I don’t doubt there are vestiges today.
Ray Willis perpetuated and amplified the conservative, traditionalist elitism from which sprung this obnoxious behaviour, and its accompanying oppressive atmosphere. He became principal the year I became a student, in 1992. Shortly, weekly assemblies in Memorial Hall were reinstated, the school song (of which I should find a copy for you) was sung regularly, and the uniform code became holy scripture overnight. The staff were terrified of this aloof and rarely visible man, who was monotone grey from the tip of his concrete hair to the line where his neck receded behind his collar. I never really knew exactly what they feared in him, but undoubtedly they did. Some staff were dismissed. Many were, it seems, put on notice.
The older students, in years 10 to 12, were more cognizant than I was of the conservative winds wrought by the new principal. Apparently the previous incumbent had been a cheerful and openly gay old man. Or maybe that’s just what they said—after all, “gay” was the single most dire and frequent denunciation we had in our repertoire. (And since we sneered at everything not ourselves, consequently everything was “gay”.) The older students, able to harken back to the halcyon days of the senile old principal, were quick to demonise his replacement. They began referring to him as “Ray”—and it is a measure of the haughty demeanour of the man that we all took up this diminutive. It sapped him of his power, and we sort of knew it. At the end of 1993, on what has recently adopted the name “muck-up day”, a bunch of year 12 students applied weedkiller to the football oval. In letters 20 feet tall, they wrote the words “RAY = DESPOT”.
You know, I don’t think any equation could better illustrate my ambivalance towards that place. On one hand, the calculation had palpable veracity; Ray was, from our cloistered perspective, clearly a dictator of the most callous and forbidding variety. On the other hand, the graffiti was a symbol of the very sense of elitism he championed: never before and never since has the word “DESPOT” been writ large with weedkiller, and the authors both knew and delighted in it. I had no idea what the word meant, but was soon enlightened with the requisite note of condescension. It is the falseness and the slimy contempt built into that culture that remains with me, and it is summated by that simple equation.
Hellfire rained down from the principal’s office for that prank. The offenders were suspended, and prevented from attending their final exams. I’ve heard that many obituaries have been written of Ray in the last few days, but I guarantee that none of them included the words “a sense of humour”.
I completed my studies at Melbourne High School in 1995—not a moment too soon—and by January 1996 I had relocated to another city. Having spent eighteen years of my life in the one house, in Surrey Hills (an eastern suburb of Melbourne), I needed to move out and I needed to do it dramatically. So I traveled 900 miles along the Hume Highway by the dead of night and landed myself in Sydney, in the inner city suburb of Surry Hills. I made much, too much, of the irony.
One night in mid-January I was sitting on a couch in a sharehouse with a bunch of people I had only met a fortnight before, drinking wine in great quantity and watching Easy Rider on video, when the phone rang. Someone answered it, and pattered back into the lounge room, pointing at me. Lurching to my feet, I picked up the phone.
It was Ray.
Years and consumption have eroded my recollection of that conversation, but not the sense of unreality that accompanied it. Here was the principal of a school of fifteen hundred students, a man I had cast as a villian in my teenage melodrama, calling me up about my final year results. And I was doing my best against all odds to give him the impression that I was sober. We discussed my writerly aspirations—my goal in Sydney, where I was to stay the better part of a year, was to write a taxpayer funded novel—and he suggested that when my novel was published I should return to the school to address the school assembly. I know that at that point I suppressed a giggle. The conversation lasted at least ten minutes, and when finally I hung up, I was exhausted and confused. It is a strange thing when you question your choice of demons.
I made a brief trip back to Melbourne in February that year, and at the last moment I decided to attend a reunion that was scheduled in that window. I sat uncomfortably drinking grog at various tables, listening to young blokes referring to this as gay and that as gay. At some stage, Ray invited a few of us to wander over to the Memorial Hall, to look at the honour boards. That was, and still is, the most ironic moment of my life so far—seeing my name up on the boards in the hall I hated, of the school I resented. We stood there and talked for a while, I don’t remember about what.
Anyway, it’s a shame about Ray. Here was a man who from a distance inspired fear and calumny. But the two conversations I had with him, long after it had any relevance, one half-remembered and one not at all, gave me the thought that here too was just an awkward, gentle man.
Joseph | 8 Jul 2004