The first Baulkham Hills High School football team

We had been the first year ever to have a Baulkham Hills High School to attend. We attended that first year in portable buildings at Castle Hill High School. It was was notable for the violence of the hazing the Castle Hill second year students handed out to us and then it became notable for the fact that our tiny school challenged their second year (year 8) to stand and fight. Almost to a student they fought us on the football oval and we came to a bloody truce. Their own first year students were relieved to have the attention diverted from them so they had missed out on the character building nature of violent teenage ritual. The two schools became allies and friends and respect flowed even between the BHHS first year and the CHHS higher years. The headmaster was very angry that we had lured the staff away until it was all over.

The next year we were housed in the partially built Baulkham Hills High School on Old Northern Road along with a first year of our own. The teachers were of the variety you might find at a frontier town. In its own way this was a frontier. The government had housed many of the refugees and immigrants from the battered second world war nations in bands around the city and now their children had come of age to need high schooling. This was one of a number of experiments in mixed school populations that went on across the nation. Most of those migrants had dropped into isolated rural enclaves with other migrants and these were being absorbed into the growing suburban sprawl.

The people who administer school life from a distance were concerned that there was no sport being planned that year. Imagine those social realist posters of the glowing communist children! Was that social realism? Close enough. Posters of happy children may have been the kind of vision those worthy burghers saw themselves achieving by making sure our disorganized little school had sporty things to do. Most of it went well. The school competed against other schools in our district and state and did well in athletics and swimming or at least we didn’t shame ourselves that year.

Social realism; Standing Ovation by Alexander Deineka

Football was different. There had been almost no teachers supplied who had sporting credentials and while they stuck to non-contact sports the students simply ran when someone said “run” and pointed to the track. They hopped on a starting block and dived when someone yelled “ready!” and fired a starting pistol near a swimming pool. In their own time some of the students were very dedicated athletes. It was like that until the football. Rugby League! Students played soccer but as most of the teachers were from old Australian-born families their idea of soccer was that it was what bored kids did when they didnt want to do a “real” sport. A teacher from the southern states wanted to try Australian Rules Football while the American teacher wanted to try grid-iron. Rugby League was the local poison though. It won.

To be honest there weren’t a lot of easy choices for an opposing team at this time. Our school should have trained some footballers before sending students to play a team from another school.

They could have chosen Castle Hill to challenge for a social game. That was what the admin saw it as. A friendly social competition to welcome the new school into the family. Some of the teachers were more realistic than that. Castle Hill High School had a well-trained team with knowledgeable and dedicated coaches. They had twin players  who were taller than most men and their team boasted an overall body mass that was even greater than ours. Their general team included a similar number of sons of immigrants who had been helpers on their parent’s farms from the age of five and were wiry with muscle. It would have been a tribal tussle to make sure we were put in our places as the new guys. With a team that had never played or trained together the teachers knew that the day after the game they would be paying out on the side-bets you had to make to support your guys. It would have been a famous game though. The game between Castle Hill High and Baulkham Hills High School would have been a bruising attempt to justify our existence. It was all too much pregnant with possibility to be a social game.

Northmead High School was outside our school region although it was considered as a possible opponent. Being from a long established suburban part of Parramatta City, Northmead was the breeding pit of local city gangs. People associated with the school will tell you that was never so but they sometimes fought in school uniform and their reputation as gang members was one known across the city. They still had some good teams and fine students and teachers but a game of Rugby League between students without much training would have been a turf war. Our geological position on the edges of the growing suburbs meant we were looking like we would displace them. The teachers saw us sniffing the air like war dogs when they mentioned Northmead and quickly abandoned the idea.

The road to hell is lined with good intentions.

So what school did they find for us to play that social game of Rugby League against? I dont remember. Hah.

Whoever they were we were very surprised to hear that they were in our school district. It may have been a convenient lie by administration to get opponents they could stomach. They were an old style school with predominantly Anglo Saxon children I think. They were a school where sport was a lesser pursuit and their rugby league team was not trained to do much more than chase the ball in polite matches within the school. The team seemed small in stature so maybe they came from that impoverished part of the city that had been starved during the great depression. Our administration will have placed any large bets they made to be against us. They held us in very low esteem. If they had looked out the window it might have given them pause. If they had come to the football oval they might have suspected their insurance policy was about to be tested.

We have already covered the first-generation children of immigrants who had become tough and resilient on their parents farms and market gardens. There was also a guy from the Soviet Block who had been trained under the communist sport regime before his family fled. He was the first person I couldn’t outrun over a hundred meters and he was big. Even larger was an albino Maori. He had bright orange hair and pinkish eyes and his frame carried more than 100 kilos of solid Polynesian warrior. He didnt run as much as he clumped slightly faster then when he walked. He was like a big pink and orange rhino. There was a guy who may have been the junior weight lifting champion of the state of New South Wales. Watching him run would have made us think of Robocop if that movie had been made by then. Me? I was fit enough.

The social game of Rugby League played against some unknown school and Baulkham Hills High started embarrassingly enough. Their students were given the ball as a gesture to the visiting team and as soon as the whistle blew they put it down and went to the side lines demanding the officials note the disparity in our sizes. It wasn’t cowardice or childishness. It was good sensible self preservation. A couple of the teachers could see what those students saw and were uncomfortable. Unfortunately all that effort put into the day, not to mention the the personal kudos of the organizers, blinded them to the depth of the trap they were digging.

The coaches and supporters lined up the reluctant students and gave the lecture about being brave when facing adversity and the other one about the pride of the school. After a substantial period of speechifying by teachers who were totally lost in finding some outcome from the effort they put into getting us all there the students gave up the idea of getting any sense and would have said “somebody kill us.” if they thought we would hear them.

The referees gave them the ball again. Some of the boys on that team showed real courage. They pointed their shoulders towards the coming storm and prepared to do their bit for manliness and school glory. A few of the smaller boys showed the same desperate terror you see in the eyes of a rat cornered by a couple of terriers. They stood in the line though. It was the kind of bravery that was totally wasted in a dust bowl sporting match between two unknown schools in the far bad lands of the planet. It was just as wasted when the boys in Gallipoli did it for real

The whistle blew and we had become bored so perhaps we over-reacted. A couple of them started to circle because they wanted to run towards the sidelines but the disproving glowers of teachers turned them back. Our players just shoved those players to the ground. Some of the Baulkham Hills High School team members acted like the front row of an American Football team during a blitz and shoulder charged their opposite number. The largest players on our side tackled the ball carrier and the player who had just passed it to him in a desperate attempt to escape punishment. There was a pounding of feet and the roar of warring lungs.

There was a crack. Everybody heard it. It wasn’t one crack like a gun going off. It was more the crack of a tree breaking the various tendons of wood as it gets shoved over in a cyclone. There was a moment of silence as every guilty expression available to humanity was shared between the students still standing and equally horrified and guilty expressions were shared between the coaches and the administrators and the assisting teachers. It was a frozen tableau. At least until the screaming started. Somebody definitely screamed. None of the students knew what to do. They straightened and then stood looking into each other’s eyes. They were watching emotional damage that would exist for the rest of their lives settling into each others psyches.

The physical education teacher had never been onside with our students being forced to play football without any training and now he used all his physical prowess to leap up the retaining wall by the oval and sprint towards the administration building where one of the few phones might be accessed. None of the BHHS players were hurt and we were herded in silence, and at a run, across the fields and into the gym. Nobody ever spoke of it again and there was just a rumor that football would not be encouraged until there were more students and more grades, if ever. Rumors about the game and the injuries of the opposing players emerged from students who had family members working in hospitals locally. Broken ribs, compound fractures, pierced lung, broken leg, broken arm, fractured orbit, concussion and even coma were all terms that floated down to us. Perhaps because the adults had all joined into a habit of denial to protect themselves and save a really dirty legal situation they never came and reassured us that the monumental crime we thought we had committed might be less than our fears painted it to be.

It dawned on all of us that we were the responsible parties. We were a grade down from being capable and aware adults. We had seen ourselves as blithely innocent almost-children who could leave the responsibility of things to people older than ourselves. Almost all of us were hardened and experienced though. I didnt even discuss it privately with myself. There is an emptiness there. I dont know how badly anybody was hurt. The guilt floats in a sea of confusion that is bereft of facts.

That wasnt the last football game. I have lost track of the order of things here but it probably looked like this.

It was still very early in the first year of the new school grounds. There were a couple of wings of classrooms, a library, an admin building and the auditorium-gym. There might be a basketball court and the huge array of sports ovals spread like a rich green sea into the distance. The area around the ovals was bordered on one side by the Great Northern Road and on the others by estate developments with partially built homes dotted among the middle class heart-land. The buildings fronted onto an oddly shaped parking area that spilled on to the Windsor Road

None of us really knew what was expected of us. Neither the teachers nor the students. It was too new and there were no traditions or rituals to abide by. Everything changed almost day by day. The headmaster had come to this high school from Castle Hill High with a crusty chip on his shoulder. His first act was to ban all the students who had spent the first year at Castle hill from ever using the immense workshops that had been built in the new school.

The American teacher was a part of the confusion. He was a lost soul who was suffering home sickness and feeling the need for things American that he never imagined would not be in every civilized home on earth. It is not as though people weren’t supporting each other. The students and the teachers were proud of their ability to get things done outside of usual structures. That is what is meant by the reference to ‘frontier teachers”. They could work outside the box and be confident that they were making ground on educating us.

The first Baulkham Hills High School football team

The American teacher had decided that everything American was the ultimate of whatever it was. He was at the fateful football game and his eyes glittered with pleasure at the way we had stood emotionless after the play that had injured the other team. He had mistaken our silent shared grimness for blood thirst. He was convinced that a game that didn’t require padding was for weaker folk and his lust to be among his own nation’s people was mixed with a childhood dream to be the guy holding the ball and being cheered. Somehow he worked his way to being the teacher in charge of our year during a time the normal teacher was away. That wasn’t an abnormal thing. He was in line to do it. He had convinced himself that Americans were superior and somehow immune to physical harm from people who weren’t American. His homesickness must have been strong indeed. Maybe he was even a racist and intent on proving his superiority over the melange of nations we represented We would have been happy to have studied out on the oval and maybe tossed a few passes.

We had been told to meet in the “one-day-it-might-be-a-basketball-court” and as everybody turned up he directed us on to the oval. I dont know where the girls were. Perhaps it was somehow a gendered lesson. Perhaps they sat and watched in polite amazement.

When he arrived on the oval he started a totally incomprehensible lecture on the workings and positions in American Football. He chose several boys from the group and started placing them in positions on the oval. I think I may have been the only person apart from him who had been exposed to grid-iron and I had not been there long enough to absorb minutia although I never lost my love of it. By some strange quirk of fate he ended up with almost the same line facing him that was facing the other school team just a little while ago. He had a point to prove and he was going to stick his hand deep in the proverbial lion’s maw to do it. Several of the players he had chosen to oppose his team told him that he needed body armor and a helmet to face this sort of rush but he laughed and set his side up for attack. One by one he placed them and with a stick drew complicated patterns in the dirt to clue them in to their coming triumphant play. They all looked at us and shrugged. One fast conversation was just not enough to instill a new player with a grasp of the beautiful complexity of a grid-iron play. We started to feel grim and surprisingly resentful. We were still hurting from the game that had gone bad and this guy was totally in a self-serving little fantasy. We tried edging out of the idea. We suggested we were out of time. He just hurried to tell the defending team, us, what was expected of us.

We understood! He would teach us the delights of his beloved game and recover some part of the home he missed. Now that he had started he would cling to the thread until it was done. He had found some way to relieve the demons eating at him. He stood in the quarterback position with his little squad arrayed before him and a line of big hairy teenagers facing them. The physical education teacher had appeared from nowhere and stood out of the American teacher’s sight like a jackal shadowing a hyena. I think we all had a similar question about him being the first-aid officer. Was he? He might have been gay and his dislike of the American might have been based on some very serious goings on. Nobody talked about it back then. For all we knew they could have been close once. He was a much beloved teacher was the PE teacher and that American would have been a member of our family as well if he would just let it happen.

The play was supposed to be a screen I guess although nobody could tell if he meant his line to go left or right. His runners didn’t go they just spread out and left him  in the middle of the field alone. They didn’t recognize the signals. Unlike the first game which happened so fast it was just noise this was a slow motion moment. We would have hit his front line and grappled at average acceleration. They weren’t there. The short charge had reached full speed over the extra distance. He stood holding the ball as though to pass and his eyes were full of the realization that people should wear pads when they face down big dumb teenagers or they should just share a few passes. The weightlifting guy got there first. He had charged as hard as he could and because he expected to be hitting an attacking line-player he had not checked his rush. He was almost parallel to the ground so he swept the quarterback’s feet and simply lifted him a hand breadth off the ground. As our teacher floated upwards and sideways the gigantic orange and white shape hit him with a shoulder charge in his middle and he began to flip over that players back. He would have kept going except I came over the Maori’s back, caught the teacher’s momentum, and drove him back the other way at about shoulder height. There was a fountain of drool and snot and then a sound like a wet drum. I looked up expecting to see our teacher’s skull split like a melon but he hadn’t landed hard. He was making strange noises. Having fallen out of a few trees and being winded myself I recognized the grunt breathing done by someone who is winded. Looking concerned but relieved I said to the Maori. “Grunt breathing!” The Maori raised an eyebrow and was joined by the other member of our trio as well as most of the attacking line. “Grunt breathing.” said the Maori to the others, unsure of why I was relieved but encouraged by it anyway.

The physical education teacher threw his eye over us and it shone with a malevolent pleasure. He sprinted off to the admin building to again call ambulances. Only one this time. Our teacher that day had taken us onto the oval without any assistants but we knew the PE teacher would get help so we herded ourselves silently back to the gym and had showers before drifting off home. It was never discussed

The very next time we arrived at school there was a special assembly. There was a big courtyard set aside for that. The students stood on the bottom level. They were surrounded by teachers who stood at well-placed positions to ensure none us escaped or spoke out of turn. The headmaster and his special crew of chosen ones stood on a concrete patio behind a chest high concrete wall and spoke through a massive public address system. I dont remember if we sang God save the Queen or the national anthem. Some teacher’s pet or person of good reputation dealt with the flag raising. The headmaster glared so hard during the song that several of the students went off to the nurses office to escape the coming blast. The headmaster was a little guy. He had a spotless suit, silk tie, silver hair and gold rimmed glasses. He was so angry that his face was purple and he hopped from foot to foot to try and control himself. We had always figured that he couldn’t tell which of us was which from up there unless we attracted his attention. We stood still that day

We stared into space and didnt show any emotion. We might have been statues. The thing that enraged him the most was that “the usual suspects” had been at play and yet there was nothing he could do about it. He wanted revenge. He wanted to get his hands on everyone who had contributed to the downfall of his insurance and his school’s reputation. If there was ever a black hole into which nobody would look it was that part of the assembly that held us. Nobody dared look and it must have cost them their whole being to keep their faces forwards and not look to see how we were taking it. The headmaster knew there was nothing he could do to us individually. He had been left with  something that “just happened” because of inexperience and the rush by the department to make a happy little scene out of a shambolic new enterprise

He started with the big one. The new trade workshops were immense and had everything a serious trade school would carry to deal with wood and metal work. The students had been told that they were not welcome in there but everyone thought things would change when a safety course was set up.. They had imagined that some of their lessons would go to training of that nature and they could expect to be recipients of the wonders of all those machines and tools.

” Forget that.” He said pointing to the long building housing the trade area. “You will never be trusted to use anything like that while I have anything to say about it!” Maybe he expected the students to turn against each other. Most of them hadn’t been on the oval either of those games. Nobody was too sure but we suspected it was a matter of insurance and teaching contracts rather than any punishment that was really ours. Most of us were disgusted that he had used it as a tool to reproach the students

“Football and all contact sports are banned.” he said. Nobody cared much. While there were many lovers of the game the students knew they were in a new school that had yet to develop the resources and people for things like that. It was the department who had thought they could make it work without the appropriate investments and they certainly wouldn’t get the insurance coverage to run football games in any future we would share. The students trusted their teachers. They knew the staff would work to make whatever could happen, happen and we had seen enough of what happened when things weren’t done properly.

The American teacher simply disappeared and no more was said