The talk around the tea urn, when it’s not concerned with the doctrinal question of just what God was thinking when he created Year 9s, is all Summer Heights High. But if lunchroom pundits talk of Chris Lilley’s brainchild as some sort of exegesis of the teaching life, there are dissenters. The kids, for their part, have given it their stamp of approval which not unnaturally takes the tangible form of “DICK-tation” scrawled on the dunny walls. In such ways does the living language transform itself.
The (single) mother tongue can also transform itself unpredictably. The name of the gentleman who whipped the waves of the English Channel, I am sure, used to be spelt Canute. In a Year 8 class, as an angelic voice articulated the deathless details of the English succession, I glanced down the page and spotted the word Cnut. Like T.S. Eliot’s Tiresias I foresaw all. Mercifully, there was no reaction. I exhaled, making a slight sloshing sound from having sweated my own body weight. It was a sigh too soon. “Excuse me, sir,” a student whose first language was certainly not English (nor his second or third), “I have question about King C-nt.” Jonah T, eat your heart out.
Sometimes language is turned to surprising ends. At Swamp Bottom Tech, every exhortation to the students was met with cries of “Tongue me jocks!” or its regrettable female variant “Tongue me flaps!” Even calling the roll was fraught. This particular day, as each attendance prompted a “present” uttered with as much ennui/contempt as two syllables could possibly bear, there came, after one name, a peculiar silence. Then a voice piped up. “He’s down Footscray Park suckin’ off the old guys for money.” Thirty pairs of rodent-like eyes glittered in anticipation. “Absent,” I said after a microsecond and moved quickly to the next name. At Swamp Bottom, “puck off” was the least of it.
The lunchroom dissenters – and scandalised headmistresses of proper schools – believe that Summer Heights High is a tasteless overstatement. They’re in serious denial. It is the model of discretion.
Get Crikey FREE to your inbox every weekday morning with the Crikey Worm.