“So, what do you think of it?” Asked the well dressed, old lady sitting next to me.
Honestly? I did not know what to think. I was a twelve year old boy, sitting in the middle of the third row of seats in the balcony of this amazing old theatre in Melbourne, watching an opera.
I tried to recall, but I do not think that I had ever even been in the centre of Melbourne before. Let alone at a theatre in the heart of the city. Let alone at an opera.
It was May. I had been at this school for a grand total of three days. I hardly knew anyone. The rest of the boys had spent a term and a half getting to know each other, to identify friends and mark out enemies.
I had spent the first half of this, my first year of high school, at Oak Park High, where, for some reason beyond my ken, I had not attended a single maths class, and hardly any science classes. And worse, my parents were furious with the principal. Apparently, when confronted with the lack of actual teaching, the principal told my father “Not to worry, we can give him a compensatory pass at the end of the year.”
This thrilled dad no end. So after much angst and furore, my father, cursing the government and the unions and a list of others of vague appellation, enrolled me into Essendon Grammar Boy’s School.
That I found the process a challenge, is somewhat understating my condition during this transition. I was strongly of the understanding that I was somehow to blame for my parents, my dad, having to spend thousands of dollars a year for my schooling. Overnight I had lost all of the friends I had spent the last four months making or consolidating from amongst my primary school peers who had also gone to Oak Park High.
I was in this strange new school where I had to wear a uniform, and even a maroon cap. There were no girls, only boys here, and out of school hours excursions and trips were compulsory. A fact I learned three days in, all at, as my father enthusiastically informed me, extra expense, above and beyond the already exorbitant tuition fees.
So, here I was, wearing the afore mentioned cap, a brand new maroon blazer, and a stripped, maroon, blue and grey tie, alone at the end of a row of similarly togged out boys, who I barely knew and sitting next to this strange, distinguished looking old lady, who could have stepped off the screen of one of those Fred Astaire movies, watching an opera.
“So, what do you think of it?” She asked me.
And you know, for the very first time since I had entered this school, I realised that I was happy. Actually happy. It was amazingly! So I told her. “This is fantastic. I haven’t seen anything like this ever.”
My memory of the rest of that night is a mishmash of plush decor and garish scenery. Of makeup and costumes. Of lighting and magical sets. Of the orchestra, a live orchestra, and fat lady’s singing and acting the parts of young girls. And of unreserved conversation with this total stranger who had made the mistake of asking a twelve year old boy, way out of his depth and experience, “So, what do you think of it?”
I vaguely remember gushing on about the opera, about this new school I had entered, about my tribulations, and how difficult settling in was. But mostly I talked about how much I loved this live theatre thing. A love affair that I still hold today, a lifetime later. As to the lady, I did not know her name, and never thought to ask, so I think I remember referring to her as ma’am. She was nice enough and she seemed honestly interested in what I thought.
The next morning at school, it was the Thursday I think, I was still pretty excited about the opera, so my attitude towards the school had softened considerably. I still had no friends here, but if I was to be fair about it, likewise I had no enemies, and if last night was anything to go by, these after school activities were some consolation.
I was a little embarrassed to remember just how I chewed the ear off that poor old lady. But then, she kept asking me, so I could not have been acting too rudely, and anyway, she was a total stranger, I would never see her again, so no harm done either way. None of the boys seemed to have noticed it, so as far as I was concerned I was home free.
After lunch my form, 1V for our home teacher Mr Vandrimple, had music. It was to be my first time in that subject, and I was a little nervous about it. I knew nothing about music and the music teacher, Mrs Mary Armour, had a reputation amongst the boys of being quite a dragon. She was also the vice principal, so yielded a lot of power in the school.
I did not even know what she looked like, so I sat at my desk quietly, awaiting her arrival with the rest of the class. About thirty seconds after we had settled, and sixty after the period commencement bell, the classroom room door opened and the silence deepened as Mrs Armour entered the music room.
“Afternoon class.” She said in a dry voice.
“After noon Mrs Armour.” Replied the whole class, less yours truly.
I just stared, silently imitating a beetroot. I do not remember ever having felt as silly as I did at that moment.
Mary Armour, the music teacher, vice principal of the school, the terror of the lower school, was the old lady whose ear I had spent the previous evening bending. Freely gushing my childish amazement at my first experience of the high arts and my tribulations and trepidation at being thrust into a strange and old private school.
To do her justice, she said nothing. She did not even glance at me oddly.
Days and weeks and months and years passed by. I became part with the school as had everyone else. It morphed from strange to mundane in seemingly no time at all. Now I rarely think of school, but I still love the excitement and magic of live theatre. I have even performed on stage myself. I have heard the magic of an orchestra from the other side of that magical window of stage lights, and I occasionally thank in my mind, that dragon lady who shared without mockery, a young boy’s falling in love with The Arts.