Books, Fiction, Stage

Book extract: Playground Duty by Ned Manning

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Ned Manning (above) is an actor and teacher in equal parts. His book Playground Duty, first published in 2012, is about his teaching experiences. This extract below tells how he and his Year 11 drama students from Newtown High School of the Performing Arts travelled to China to perform an “an impressionistic history of Australia in 15 minutes”.


I’m standing at Sydney Airport, preparing for a flight to China. The nervous tension that precedes any overseas trip is coursing through my veins. Have I got the tickets? Have I got my passport? Have I filled in my departure card? There is something else though, which adds a certain frisson to the whole experience: I’m not trav- elling alone. I’m travelling with 200 teenagers from the Sydney region. We’re embarking on a cultural exchange starting in Shang- hai and then moving on to Yangzhou, Nanjing, Zhengzhou and Dengfeng. We’ll be performing pieces of music, drama and dance. We’ll be playing in arts centres, theatres and schools. It’s a tour and it’s a biggie. It’s referred to as the ‘Expanding Horizons’ project. ‘Exploding Horizons’ might be more accurate.
One hundred of these teenagers are from the school where I teach drama, Newtown High School of the Performing Arts. Eighty of them are music students and make up choirs, orchestras, string quartets, percussion groups and assorted bands. The other 20 are drama students. My drama students. We’re going to perform a piece we’ve devised which can be best described as an impressionistic history of Australia in 15 minutes. And we’re going to be per- forming it to people who have, at most, barely heard of Australia and almost certainly know nothing about Australian history.
What was I thinking? On my last trip to Shanghai I discovered I was barely able to look after myself. On that occasion I accepted a generous offer from two ‘students’ for a guided tour of the city. Little did I realise that they were after a bit more than an opportunity to practise their English. I escaped intact and fortunately no one here knows about that.
My charges are an interesting mix. The bulk of them are in Year 11. They are 16 or 17, full of energy and on the lookout for a good time. A good time that might not be limited to walking around museums. To say many of them are party animals would not be an exaggeration. The others – the Year 10s and 9s – are variously excited, nervous or already homesick. One of them won’t stop talking from the moment we leave to the moment we return. These guys are under my ‘duty of care’.
‘Duty of care’ is one of those wonderful departmental phrases that are trotted out to remind teachers of their responsibilities. When you forget to do PGD (playground duty) you are abrogating your ‘duty of care’. And if some kid falls over and scratches his knee you can be sued because you have failed in your ‘duty of care’.
Being a bit old-school, I’ve never been into the jargon that has insinuated itself into every aspect of teaching, or ‘pedagogy’ as we now like to call it. We’ve gone from using simple language to describe what we are doing to using phrases that are, at best, bizarre. For instance, ‘value adding’. I sat in a staff meeting where I was told we were ‘value adding’ the kids. Value adding? I thought we were teaching them.
Anyway, I’m standing at the check-in counter with 20 high- octane teenagers ready to rock and roll in China. The ratio was meant to be 1 to 15, that is, one teacher for every 15 kids. Someone in the department had worked that out. It probably took them a year and several hundred meetings/conferences to come up with 1 to 15 as the most appropriate ratio for ‘duty of care’. Fortunately my boss – our school principal – or someone else in charge has agreed that, as I have 20 in my performance group, I may as well be responsible for them all. To be honest, the full implications of this trip haven’t quite dawned on me yet. But they soon will.
I start counting heads. Roll call has never been my strong point. Truants can have a field day in my classes if they want to. It’s not that I don’t understand the need for roll call, it’s just that I tend to get into it – the teaching – before I remember to call the roll. And any teacher worth their salt will soon work out who’s likely to truant and who isn’t. But this is different. I need to know that all my charges are ‘present and accounted for’. Fortunately, I can count to 20 so I gather them around me and count heads. There should be 20, but there are only 19. Bugger. Great start! I try again. Still 19. Who’s missing?
‘Call the roll, sir.’
‘Thanks for that, Kevin.’
Kevin’s the one who never stops asking questions, giving advice or stating the bleeding obvious. I love him, but …I  call the roll. Kate’s not here. Kate? One of the smartest and most reliable kids I’ve ever taught. ‘Where’s Kate?’
Everyone starts panicking. Teenagers love panicking – it’s part of the teen DNA. I try to exude calm but, to be honest, I’m getting a bit toey. Time is ticking away. I’ve lost one of the kids I’m responsible for and we haven’t even gone through the departure gate.
It’s starting to dawn on me that this isn’t going to be like the overseas travelling I’ve grown to love so much. Just as I’m begin- ning to wonder what I’ve got myself in for I see Kate pushing her way through the crowd, parents in tow. She’s looking pretty shame- faced.
‘Slept in.’
Kate’s an interesting mix of teenager and adult. Mature beyond her years but a teenager all the same, she’s got a wicked sense of humour and, I’m soon to discover, is not exactly the shrinking violet she pretends to be.
We’re called to the departure gate. Time for goodbyes. Then it hits me like a ton of bricks: I’m responsible for 20 apples of adoring parents’ eyes. Some of the parents are teary. A few fix me with looks that leave nothing to the imagination.
You’d better look after my precious jewel.
Others look at me quizzically as they shake my hand.
Are you up to this?
Paranoia kicks in. Am I? Then the thought, ‘Maybe they don’t trust me.’ Maybe I don’t trust myself …
One last roll call before we go through the gate. A flash of genius! I think it’s mine, but it might be from one of the kids, probably Kevin. We’ll number off like they do in those American war movies. I allocate numbers. One to 20. We try it out – disaster. Half of them forget their numbers. I smile pathetically as the parents look on. We try again. It almost works, like a barely oiled machine. I’m really filling these parents with confidence. They wave anxious goodbyes as we make our way to the gate.
Once we’re through the gate there is Customs to negotiate. Customs is always a pain but when you’ve got 20 in your family it’s something else again. I watch different kids fumbling for passports, dropping boarding passes, finding themselves in the wrong queue and the penny starts to drop: this is going to be one hell of a trip!
We make it to the departure lounge and I grab a coffee. The kids are like lambs let loose in a paddock for the first time. They’re already kicking up their heels. Their collective demeanour has transformed. Gone is the bored ‘over it’ disposition they put on for mum and dad. Now there is no masking their sheer excitement. This is what they have been waiting for. To get away, to be free, to be themselves.
It’s always bemused me how different kids are when you see them with their parents. Parent–teacher nights are a classic example. The vibrant, enthusiastic student I’ve come to know and love suddenly becomes withdrawn and long-suffering when in the presence of an inquiring parent. They squirm. They roll their eyes. They look like they’re having their teeth pulled. It makes you realise what a privilege it is to see them as they really are. Or at least one aspect of what they really are. One thing is for sure, we teach- ers see the best of kids. Admittedly, sometimes the worst as well, but the best outstrips the worst, by a huge margin. It’s why teaching is such a great job.
Parents are interesting in this context too. Some of them regress to become the students they once were. Or wish they were. Or pray their kids will become. They’re all perfect manners and respectful nods. Like most things about teaching, it’s slightly schizophrenic. Good friends have taken to calling me ‘Mr Manning’ when we meet at parent–teacher night. These are people I’ve partied with till all hours. Schools have a very strange effect on everyone, not just on those who work in them. Then there are parents who inquire:
‘How on earth do you put up with her?’
Sitting in front of me is a kid I’d trust with my life and her mum or dad asks me a question like that. Put up with her? What are they talking about? She’s a champion human being. This is what I mean about us seeing the best of kids. I never get attitude from this girl. Never.
Of course there are other parents, the ones who turn up a little bit stoned, half-pissed or even totally off their face. They sit down, eyes barely open or, depending on their poison, darting in a thousand directions. It’s quite disconcerting. So is the breath of the parent who has downed six schooners on the way.
But these parents are doing their best; it mightn’t be very good, but at least they’re there. And you come to understand why their kid might be struggling or, on the other hand, to marvel at how on earth they’ve been doing so well. Of course if the kid happens to be there too, which is rare, they give you a ‘Can you believe it?’ look or spend the whole interview staring at the floor.
The worst type of parent, though, is the one who believes their child is a genius/prodigy/saint/potential national hero or some other figment of their overly fertile imagination. They are impossible. Of course they think I’m an idiot/bludger/narcissist/imposter if I don’t agree. Maybe they’re right.
Back in the departure lounge we’re finally called to board. We seem to have been waiting for hours. Waiting – something we’re going to get used to on this trip.
The flight is uneventful. In-flight movies, iPods, books, maga- zines, cards, endless chatter and occasional sleep variously occupy the kids. It’s a long flight and there has been a delay, which means we’re running a bit late for our connecting flight from Guangzhou to Shanghai. Our tour guide for this leg is a fairly excitable Chinese national called Wally, who talks incredibly quickly and waves his hands around when things look like veering off course. Wally’s starting to panic about the connecting flight. I’m not too fussed – what can you do about situations you have no control over?
‘Go with the flow,’ I say to the kids. They grin. It’s all part of the ride to them.
To tell the truth, ‘panic’ may be understating Wally’s response to things that don’t go exactly to plan. I’m not sure if a word has been invented to adequately capture his, let’s say, excitability. In any case it appears someone told him that the louder you yell the quicker a problem will be solved. So by the time we arrive in Guangzhou, once know as Canton, Wally is beside himself. He tears around the airport waving his arms furiously, shouting at the top of his lungs and pointing a lot. This tactic is both amusing and surprisingly effective. We’re ushered through gates and literally run to the lug- gage carts specially commandeered to transport us to the connecting flight. For the local Chinese it must be quite a sight. A hundred Western kids and their teachers sprinting after their hyped-up tour guide. The kids are loving it. Not only are we saved a considerable hike to the gate but we get to career around the terminal on carts. It’s like a joyride at a theme park.
Wally’s obviously got influence because the flight is held just for us. This mightn’t endear us to the other passengers but no one complains. I can’t imagine a domestic flight in Australia being held for a group of visiting Chinese kids. We’re being afforded special treatment.
I figure that a friendship with Wally might be worth cultivating. I sit next to him in the vain hope of getting some special privileges. Like cold beer. We chat away and he tells me the government are very supportive of this tour. The Chinese government? Maybe this isn’t just any old school trip.
He also tells me it’s the Festival of the Moon, a celebration dating back 3000 years. He explains its significance. It strikes me how genuinely proud he is of his culture. We are served moon cakes on the flight as a special treat. The kids aren’t all that keen on them, although once we explain their significance, they do their best to pretend to enjoy them. Kate offers me her second one and watches while I diplomatically scoff it down. Wally is delighted. He asks if I’d like more. How can I refuse?
We disembark and make our way to Customs. It’s clear a good percentage of this trip will involve queuing and counting. We do a head count; that is, we number off. We’re getting the hang of it now. And we – they – have added a little beat to the routine. Not just any beat, it’s a funky little beat. And it involves a bit of a dance step as well. We are a performing arts high school after all. Roll call as performance art – that’s my kind of roll call. We attract a bit of attention as we start the clapping; everyone within earshot looks around to see what’s going on. The kids have named us ‘Team Ned’. Any members of Team Ned who might have strayed hear the beat and rush back to join us. In theory anyway. The beat becomes our signature tune. Later on the music kids will try to emulate us – as if! We’re drama! We’re the best! Not that it’s a competition.
The bus trip to the hotel is fantastic. Even though I’ve been to Shanghai before, seeing it through the eyes of a teenager is another thing entirely. We’re all pretty pumped. It’s an amazing city, especially at night. Everyone is straining to see what’s going on. Cameras and iPhones record every moment. The bus is buzzing. It strikes me that the kids are interested. Really interested. Because it’s the Festival of the Moon the place is lit up like a Christmas tree. There are lanterns everywhere. It’s quite a sight.
‘Look at that!’
They rush to one side of the bus to take it all in.
‘Hey guys, look at this, that old guy’s carrying a fridge on the back of his bike!’
They rush to the other side.
We get to the hotel and unload. Not just bags but musical instruments as well. Instruments for 80 musicians. There seems to be every instrument imaginable. It turns out some of them have been damaged. Badly. This could be a disastrous beginning to the trip. Some of the kids are really upset; their instruments aren’t cheap and they value them personally. They’re worried their parents will be angry with them or they won’t be able to play. The music teachers show enormous sensitivity in handling a poten tially explosive situation.
‘It’s okay, we’ll find replacements,’ says Dylan, the Welsh violin wizard.
How? It’s well after midnight and none of us speaks Chinese. Dylan is in earnest discussion with Gavin, Wally’s replacement for this leg. Gavin’s a bit calmer than Wally.
The hotel foyer is abuzz. Some kids are lining up to get their room keys, others are trying to exchange money. The hotel receptionists don’t speak English. One of our kids is Chinese and suddenly becomes very popular. Us teachers are collecting and checking passports. We’re counting heads. We’re answering a thousand questions coming from all directions.
Finally we get the kids to their rooms. Check-in has taken a couple of hours and we’re exhausted. Dylan and I settle down for a well-earned night cap. Bernie, another musical maestro, joins us. Gavin comes over. Somehow at this time of night he has arranged replacement instruments for tomorrow’s concert. The music staff have been politely insistent, but insistent all the same; they know how important this is to their kids. This is the first of many insights I get into the resourcefulness of the music department. They are, quite simply, powerhouses. They never stop. They seem to have no concern for their own comfort. Their entire focus is on getting what is best for their kids, or the best sound out of their kids. To have them performing at the highest level possible.
That’s the thing about 90 per cent of teachers: they want their kids to do the best they possibly can. Some might seem like fascists, some might be mean-spirited, some might not be great at being warm and fuzzy, but the vast majority of them want what’s best for their kids. I have yet to meet a teacher who wants their kids to fail. Teachers employ as many different methods as they have personalities to get the desired result for their kids. This is something that is completely missed in the wider education debate.
How do you define a good teacher? You won’t find the answer on a mark sheet, or in a league table, or on a roll of honour. Or in a newspaper headline. You’ll find it when you see them doing everything in their power to get hold of a tuba at 1.30 in the morning in a foreign city where they don’t speak the language.
And not giving up till they do.
It’s now 3.30 and we’re ready to call it a night. We’ve taken turns to check the corridors and all seems in order. Most lights are out. There’s a bit of chat from some rooms but it’s pretty innocent and to be expected.
Dylan volunteers to do one last run-around to check all is well. As we wearily collect our bags he returns looking concerned. He signals for me to follow him. There’s been some smoking. What should we do? It’s the first night – we could go in hard and threaten to send them home. We could scream and shout and report them to higher authorities. We could have them stripped of their privi- leges and tell them they’re not performing tomorrow.
We could, but we don’t. We decide to handle it ourselves, firmly but reasonably. After all, haven’t we been there ourselves? The culprits own up. They’ve owned their own behaviour. We remind them of their responsibilities and point out that we’re disappointed in them and that they’ve let us and themselves down. Then we send them to bed, in their own rooms.
We wake the next morning to a traditional Chinese breakfast. Not a Weet-Bix in sight. The kids file down, most looking a bit shell-shocked but ready for the day. We are scheduled to go to the World Expo. In fact, I thought we were performing at the World Expo. I thought that was the point of the trip. That’s what it said on the website. Something seems to have got lost in translation.
Oh well. Go with the flow.
Quite organically, the teachers have all taken on different roles; that is, apart from our designated roles as directors, conductors and carers. It’s like clockwork. Everything is covered. It’s great because someone tells me what to do and where to go. It’s a grown-up game of follow-the-leader. No one throws their weight around. No one complains and everyone does whatever is needed.
World Expo is going to be big. We’re carting a hundred kids around World Expo on a public holiday, the day when it breaks all daily attendance records. Nearly a million people will join us. So there are going to be lots of queues and lots waiting. There is also going to be lots of potential for something to go horribly wrong, like someone losing their passport, or being pick-pocketed, or getting lost, or just about anything. And it’s raining. Of course, very few of us have raincoats or umbrellas.
The buses arrive and we climb on board. We’re given designated buses. Team Ned has its own bus, which we generously share with a few music kids and Frances, another of the fabulous music staff. This will be our bus for the whole tour. It even has a number: Number 10 Bus! The kids are handed their lunch boxes. It really is a school trip. I haven’t done this for … well … ever.
‘Team Ned number off!’
‘All present and accounted for, sir!’
Although no one says that. It’s not that kind of trip.
We arrive at World Expo. It’s not just big – it’s huge.
We file out and head towards the Australian Pavilion which looks like a rusty silo. And that’s the best bit. We follow the walkway, which kind of spirals upwards, and on the walls are snapshots of ‘Aussie life’. We all live on a beach or a farm. We’re unfailingly cheerful and fit – man, we’re the fittest nation on earth. And our teeth! That fluoride has really kicked goals. Everyone is flashing Colgate smiles. Indigenous culture is there in a typically tokenistic way. Henry, a Year 11 boy with a keen sense of social justice, sidles up to me. ‘Can you believe this?’ he asks, shaking his head. We are reading The Seven Stages of Grieving in class. It’s like it has never been written.
‘This is a bad Year 7 project,’ says Joanna, one of the nicest and most perceptive Year 10 girls on the planet. And it is. It’s jingoistic and devoid of any of the things that make us vaguely interesting as a culture. Here we are, a bunch of Australians in Shanghai looking at someone else’s idea of us. Only it’s not us. Not even close.
‘Who’s Banjo?’ asks Taraka.
Kids have the most amazing bullshit barometers. They can pick it from miles off. And this is bullshit. They’re polite about it because we’re visitors but they’re way too sophisticated to be impressed with this nonsense. As for the teachers, we just shake our heads. We teach kids to be analytical. We encourage them to be critical. We try to avoid patronising them or bullshitting them.
When we reach the top we are herded into an auditorium for an interactive display of ‘Aussie life’. Looks pretty cool. Our hopes are raised.
‘This is more like it.’
Then an enthusiastic MC comes out and revs the audience up. ‘Aussie Aussie Aussie! Oi oi oi!’
I look at Dylan. He’s covering his head. He can’t look. The Chinese in the crowd join the chant, probably out of politeness. We just squirm. Dylan’s orchestra are going to perform the first movement of Schubert’s unfinished Symphony No. 8 and the best the organisers of the Aussie Pavilion can come up with to represent us is this crap? It’s excruciating. The content is straight from a 1950s tourist brochure offering sunny skies and lots of open spaces. The only things missing are Chips Rafferty and kangaroos.
It’s bitterly disappointing and our kids can’t get out of there quick enough. We rush past the ‘Aussie’ stalls – offering football, meat pies and Holden cars, vegemite and probably Namatjira tea towels – and emerge into the sunlight and the real world. We’re all feeling stunned and a bit embarrassed. We number off.
We’ve got a bit of time on our hands before we make our way to the Chinese Pavilion. I have a bright idea. ‘Guys, how about we do our piece?’ They look at me like I’m mad.
They laugh.
‘Seriously. There’s enough space.’
Plenty of people are already looking at us. It won’t be hard to draw a crowd.
‘A bit of street theatre.’
‘We haven’t got our costumes. Or our bamboo sticks.’ ‘Or my clapping sticks,’ says Kevin.
‘That’s okay. You can just clap.’
They know me. They think I’m mad, which means they know I’m not joking. I’ve told them our challenge is to perform our piece at least once a day while we’re in China. Besides, weren’t we meant to perform at the World Expo? This is our big chance. They look at each other. Some shake their heads.
‘No way.’
Others, the more adventurous ones, are coming around. It’s got nothing to do with age, this capacity to take risks. It mightn’t even have much to do with parenting. Some kids, no matter what age, will have a go at anything, and I’m not talking about alcohol or drugs or what adults think risk-taking means with kids. They put themselves on the line. They have a go. They aren’t afraid of what people think of them. They have it in their bones.
The kids look at each other, they look at me, they grin.
‘Why not?’ asks Chloe.
‘Why not indeed!’
They gather into a huddle. The recalcitrants are dragged in by the weight of popular opinion. Some give me the ‘You’re a dickhead’ look. I smile back.
Our piece begins with everyone linking arms and forming what might be a huge rock, perhaps Uluru. It’s about the beginning of time. They start gently heaving. It’s like the rock is coming to life. I look around. People are watching. Lots of people. They gather on walkways, on steps, wherever they can get a view. They crowd around us, at least ten deep. I’m engulfed. Wherever I look I see inquisitive faces. I can’t get the grin off my face.
The rock opens up, like a giant lily. They twist out, eyes searching as they are released. After they’ve all been set loose a single boy emerges from the centre, the earth. He’s Indigenous. He claps them awake. They pick up the beat. They start clapping. A rhythm starts up. Stamping feet accompany the rhythm.
The crowd is mesmerised. This is one of those unexpected, exhilarating moments that you might experience in teaching. It is raw, honest, real. No lights, no music, no costumes. Just a bunch of kids giving it their all.
As the piece continues it becomes obvious that they have this huge audience in the palm of their hands. Cameras are flashing, people are pushing me out of the way to get a better look. It is so cool. As they explode out of a waltz and into some hip-hop the crowd goes nuts. The reaction is out of this world. Then the final tableau:
‘Nee haoww!!’
‘Hello’ in Mandarin. The crowd erupts.
The kids are instant rock stars. They are on fire. Grins as wide
as Sydney Harbour, they are surrounded by ‘fans’ asking for photos, autographs, handshakes.
I can’t believe it. My eyes are watering. I had not expected this, nor had anyone else. This is what can happen when you embrace the world of the unexpected. The world of teaching.
Ned Manning’s Playground Duty is published by NewSouth
You can by the book here

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