I was aghast when I read that a Melbourne school is getting rid of all its bins and asking students to take home their chip packets, juice boxes, and other leftover rubbish from their lunches. I started to wonder if this would be the end of the yard duty I once knew. This would take a few ice colds to think through; would yard duty be replaced by random inspections of students’ lunches to check if they’re zero waste.
I went to a Technical School in a working-class suburb of Melbourne. My five years as a student at Williamstown Technical School was defined by rules. There were rules for the classroom, rules for the school grounds, and rules for when you went on a school excursion or outing. One of the rules was you couldn’t leave the school premises without permission; so to leave school at lunchtime you needed a lunch pass. Boys living close to school usually had a permanent lunch pass so they could go home for lunch. If there were special circumstances and you needed to go home at lunchtime it had to be planned in advance. Your mum would send a note to the headmaster requesting a temporary lunch pass. At random lunchtimes, teachers would perform lunch pass checks at the school gates, and patrol the fence perimeter to catch any miscreant who left, or tried to leave, the school grounds without a lunch pass. For some boys the temptation of sixpence worth of chips and a few potato cakes from the nearby fish and chip shop, or an egg and lettuce roll, a vanilla slice, or a bag of mixed lollies from the close by milk bar was overpowering, and they foolishly left the school grounds without a lunch pass. When the transgressors were caught they were offered yard duty or the cuts. As well as copping yard duty, or the cuts, for leaving the school grounds at lunchtime without a lunch pass you could also receive yard duty or the cuts for dropping any paper or food scraps on the schoolyard, being excessively rowdy or running in the corridors, wagging on sports afternoon, or any behaviour a teacher deemed as reckless. Most boys chose a single-hander instead of a week of yard duty; but a week of yard duty was always chosen over a double hander, backhander, or six of the best. And a day of yard duty was always chosen over any type of the cuts.
The cuts were being hit across the hand with a two-inch wide, two-foot-long, leather strap. Yard duty was picking up greaseproof paper, paper bags and canteen lunch bags, or anything a lunch had been wrapped in, half-eaten sandwiches, sausage rolls, pies, the scattered leftovers of food fights, or any rubbish that had been dropped, or thrown, on the ground instead of into a rubbish bin. Yard duty was done during lunchtime. When the first lunch bell rang to signal eating time had officially ended you were free to wander around with your hands in your pockets as boys do, play a game of footie, cricket, British Bulldog or bat tennis, and head off behind the shelter sheds and the far end of the oval to smoke; it was also when the yard duty boys reported to the head yard duty teacher to be assigned an area of the yard. The size and location of a yard duty area seemed to be decided on by the whim of the yard duty teacher, and they were inspected just before the afternoon locker bell rang. If an area was judged as unclean the boys assigned to that area would receive an extra day of yard duty. The rule-breakers never saw yard duty as an experience to understand the importance of proper waste disposal or the opportunity to appreciate the effects of littering on the environment; it was seen only as a punishment, not as a chance to participate in the upkeep of the schoolyard and to develop a sense of school pride.
My lunch sandwiches were the standard sandwiches of the day; nothing fancy, just school lunch sandwiches that you’d find in every boy’s brown paper lunch bag. Mum made my school lunch sandwiches each morning; she’d butter two slices of white bread and then add the fillings. I always knew what day of the week it was by the sandwich filling; Monday was cold lamb leftover from Sunday’s roast, Tuesday was salad, and then jam, tomato, and cheese to finish off the week. Mum never made beetroot sandwiches because she didn’t like the way beetroot juice soaked into the bread. She’d wrap the cut-in-two sandwich, and a piece of fruit cake, in greaseproof paper and put both packets of goodness into a brown paper bag. The paper bag sat on the kitchen table, waiting to be taken to school. Each day when I finished lunch I folded the greaseproof paper along its creases and put it into the empty paper bag, and then folded the paper bag into a small packet to put into my trouser pocket. We had to bring our lunch paper bag back and wrappings home so mum could reuse them the next day. Mum kept all the brown paper bags from her Friday afternoon shopping at the fruit and grocer’s shop and used them for school lunch bags; every week I had a new brown paper bag to fold and put into my pocket.
I learnt the hard way that mum knew best when it came to school lunch sandwiches. Whenever she made banana sandwiches she’d butter two slices of bread and wrap them in greaseproof paper. I’d take a bread and butter sandwich with an unpeeled banana for lunch; lunch was a mouthful of bread and butter sandwich and a bite of a freshly peeled banana. I must have been picked on, and the target of jokes whenever I took banana sandwiches for lunch; I remember coming home from school one day and telling mum that from now on I must have my banana mashed onto the bread.
The long main school corridor was lined with airtight, three-tier, metal box lockers. When the locker bell rang the corridor became crowded with students; it was perfect chaos. You’d put your lunch in your locker in the morning when you collected your books for your morning classes; there it stayed until the lunchtime locker bell three hours later. No sandwich was safe inside a small, airtight, metal locker; jam, and tomato sandwiches were turned into a limp bathroom flannel as their juices soaked into the bread, and cheese sandwiches were transformed into cardboard as the bread and cheese dehydrated. My banana mashed onto the bread sandwich was soggy, and moist, and filled with pulpy, brown, mushy banana; my locker was filled with a bouquet of very ripe bananas. That was my last school lunch banana sandwich.
The migrant boys had different sandwiches than us. At the end of the second world war, the Australian government started an ambitious immigration plan that first targeted British citizens, but then expanded to accept immigrants from continental Europe. A migrant hostel was established at the old Williamstown Racecourse; it was a couple of miles further down Kororoit Creek road from Williamstown Tech. Yugoslav, Cypriot, and Maltese boys were bused to school each day. We looked at the migrant sandwiches with askance and never thought of swapping lunches with them; their sandwiches were an assortment of crusty wedges of bread, slabs of pungent-smelling cheeses, and strange-looking dried sausages. Today those cured meats, artisan bread and cheeses are the foundation of gourmet sandwiches.
Most of my full time working life in Australia was spent with the Victorian Education Department as a Mathematics and Science teacher. I started teaching in the early seventies and was at three different inner suburban Technical Schools. It was the seventies so I thought of myself more as a conduit than a teacher. I was in the classroom to create an aesthetic sensitivity for scientific discovery and to share the beauty, and logic, of mathematics with preadolescence boys. I soon learnt that being a conduit was more than creating a circle of learning and curiosity; it also meant student supervision. Because students had to be supervised during recess and lunch, teachers were assigned yard duty responsibilities. As a teacher at Williamstown Technical School, I walked the same corridors, wrote on the same blackboards as Mr Baldwin did, and enlightened young boys in the same rooms I sat in as a student. And as a yard duty teacher I walked the same area where I ate a mouthful of bread and butter sandwich with a bite of a freshly peeled banana.
As a teacher, I loathed yard duty with the same intensity I did as a student. I’d wander out of the staff room still with a cup of tea in hand five or more minutes after the first lunch bell so I’d reach the schoolyard after the wrongdoers had been assigned their area to pick up the leftover scraps from food fights, pieces of greaseproof paper, shreds of paper and canteen lunch bags, half-eaten sandwiches, and remnants of sausage rolls and pies. I knew to avoid the back of the shelter sheds because the smokers still smoked there; discipline procedures were still in place for students caught smoking and I would’ve had to assign a week of yard duty or a couple of double handers to the smokers. I loitered in front of the trade rooms and strolled the area where the boys had to sit to eat their lunches. Not many students stayed in the lunch area after the first lunch belt so there was very little chance of a fight, or any other questionable behaviour needing a discipline punishment starting. Sometimes I wandered over and watched the migrant boys play soccer.
And now you’ll need to excuse me. Tomorrow is rubbish day and I need to start sorting the polystyrene green, blue, yellow, red, and grey bins in the basement to prepare my rubbish for collection. And I need to call the Solid Waste Helpline to check if it’s the collection day for the green and blue, the red and blue, the red and yellow, the blue and grey, the red and blue, or the blue and yellow bins.