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Monday, October 19, 2009

One Australia Memory

When I was a schoolboy in Melbourne, Australia in the 1970s, I attended this wonderful place—first through third grades—where I got to put on a uniform every day. Even before I attended my first day, my mother loved something about being in the store where we selected my uniform. Until then, I never thought any choice went into what people wore. I was only five or six, I would guess, and my clean clothes were simply on my bed after I woke up every morning. Never a choice, but this didn't bother me at all.

In this school uniform store, though, sets of clothes, looking distinctly different from one another, were separated into different sections.

I wandered around, interested. To have me in a store interested in anything was unusual. Stores were always boring, a total chore where I felt lugged along because my mother had to get something and come home. But she was excited here, and because of that I knew there might be something special about this store. I loved seeing the differences, the smells of the fabrics, and maybe for the first time I used abstract thought to imagine myself as wearing a certain set of clothes, then another. I made a mental note not to forget this, because this seemed to have a lot of possibilities.

"You're going to wear these!" my mother said excitedly after being directed to an area. I tried on an outfit which looked—to me, at least—like it was exactly what my father wore to work every day. I pulled on knee-length gray socks with little stripes on top, gray dress shorts, a blue dress shirt, a tailored coat with three buttons in the front, and—most importantly—a red striped tie. I also tried a matching sweater vest to go underneath my coat if it got cold and slipped into my first pair of black dress shoes. Most notably, a black cap was placed atop my head bearing a metal insignia of my new school.

I donned everything so excitedly, standing in what I determined was the best single spot in this now-extraordinary store: a single space surrounded by three full-length mirrors angled in a way to show me views of myself I had never seen before.

I stood there with everything on as my mother talked to the adults. I took special pleasure adjusting the cap, its shiny metal badge flickering just so in the lights of the store. I saw myself in the mirror, taking in three of myself all at once. When I turned, all three of me turned and I could see myself as if with a new set of eyes positioned a few feet behind my back, looking at someone else, but I knew that someone was me. When I leaned my head to an exact point, I saw a curve and caught slivers of many more of me, endlessly repeating myself into infinity. I rotated back to the middle and looked straight forward. What I saw was both me and not me at the same time. I tweaked my cap and stood proudly. Nice to meet you.

My brother and I had our picture taken in the front hall of our Melbourne house a few days later on the first day of school. My mother positioned our pet cockatoo, Kitty, on my shoulder, and just as Kitty climbed between my brother and me my father snapped the photo. When we arrived at school, everyone was wearing the same thing, and this pleased me. We all fit in, wearing little outfits with ties and caps, formal fabrics and black dress shoes like our fathers going to work. I was so excited about this uniform, I remember, that on another morning I assumed I could go to work with my father instead, since it wouldn't make any difference.

"I have the same shoes, though!" I remember explaining to him as he was going out the door. My mother intervened, and I went with her to school instead. I didn't understand the difference, but I wasn't upset either. I was just so pleased I was finally an adult.

Some time during first grade, our teacher announced that an important man was going to stop in to say something. He was not the headmaster, but I knew he had some kind of senior authority around the school. Perhaps he was one of the teachers for the older children. When this man came inside, all the children stood up in unison. I remember being especially proud of things like this, the pageantry of everyday life there in this school in Melbourne—we knew just when to stand, sit, or tip our caps. I simply loved the feeling of being in unison with everyone around me.

"Good morning, children," the man said.

"GOOD MORNING SIR!" we all replied, taking our caps off with one hand, holding them fully in front of us, inverted, and bowing our heads down for a moment before straightening up and returning the caps to our heads.

"You may sit, children," the man said, warmly. He smiled, as if about to share a secret with us. I loved this man immediately.

We sat.

The man was holding a teacup, and he sipped from it as he spoke. He was older with a distinguished air, and though I prized and tried to emulate the adult formalities of my school he had an easy-going, clever way of speaking to us that somehow defied the structures of what I assumed an adult of such authority would need to don in terms of social demeanor.

I don't remember what he spoke about most of the time. I just loved that he had a teacup. I loved that this man could walk into our class with such authority, that he could speak warmly, with a kindness and genuine love coming from within him while taking occasional sips of tea. I wanted to be a man with a cup, just like that someday.

So my attention was suddenly riveted to his words when I heard him say, "For example, I hit my teacup this morning by mistake; look at it!" He held it in front of him as the center of attention. "So now and forever onward this cup has a chip out of it."

I was now very interested in hearing the next part. He lowered the cup again and sat casually on the edge of the teacher's desk.

He continued, "I bought this cup in Australia. It's a good cup. If I took this cup back to someone in Australia and asked them to make me a hundred new ones like this one, I would get a hundred cups that would look perfect and new. All brand new cups with no chips out of them."

I liked that a lot.

He continued, "But if I sent this cup to China and asked them to make me a hundred new cups like this, what do you think I would get?"

I didn't know.

He explained, "I would get back a hundred cups with little chips out of them. They would look exactly like this cup, right down to the chip! Every cup would have the same chip in the same spot!"

I was mortified at the thought.

"But if someone in Australia made me those hundred cups I would get perfect, brand-new cups. Cups with NO CHIPS!"

With a wonderful twirling gesture of his hand, he ended the lesson.

We rose up in unison, said, "GOOD-BYE SIR!" just perfectly together as we bowed down.

With a wink, the man left and my heart skipped. Our teacher looked for a moment like she had the face of a girl, clutching her hands close to her heart as her eyes followed the man out of the room.


  1. The 3' to 4' perspective of view on life is unique. Kids file and store the most important data (to them)and seemingly random events (to the outside world)in the same high emotional memory strata necessary for long term recall. What we remember from the distant past of our life is an amazing mixture of the important and the mundane. Often, the "important" things are lessons that every kid needs to learn such as the don't lie, be careful, etc. The "mundane" however, is what shapes our individuality. By no definition, other than the outside world's, is the "mundane" less significant than the "important" memories.

  2. Your detailed recall of childhood memories is amazing. Your writing is filled with images so vivid that I feel like I am watching a movie rather than reading prose.