Perhaps it’s just the way we choose to remember.
This becomes important when you’re about to lose everything. At the end of this year, Gilles Plains Primary School will stop teaching kids. For the first time in 118 years, no more students. Come that hot, late January day when we’d return, line up, learn which teacher we had for the year. Instead, boarded-up buildings, a few chip packets blowing across the tarmac where we used to play four square, skin our knees, and someone brought one of their dad’s magazines to hand around. No more voices, no more games, no more wheat seeds left in wet cotton wool to show us how life began and (when we forgot to water them) ended. All of this, now, an eerily apt metaphor for the progress of South Australia.
Mine was a childhood of half-pies and chocolate doughnuts, sitting in the lunch shed surveying the crates of school milk. At recess (after I’d fed Mrs Chittleborough’s yabbies) we’d line up in the sun, or rain, in front of the canteen, a small red-brick building fronting Main North East Road. The scent of warming pasties, and fresh rolls, the bags of mixed lollies we were forbidden to buy (but bought anyway). We’d walk in, bowl haircuts and knobbly knees, each holding a mug we’d brought from home. Inside, approaching the counter, telling Kenny’s mum whether we wanted tomato or chicken soup, the big ladle, the steam, five cents across the freezer lid of many Snips, and Sunnyboys. Outside, to the pine trees between the Infant School and the Junior Open Unit, there to discuss Combat and whose dad drove a truck.
Tail-end memories. Before the pebblecrete block, the open units, the loud speaker where Mr Mellanby called (‘turn that lady round’) and we square-danced in the rain, the canteen was the school’s original classroom. Tail-end, because thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds were educated in that small room. Which brings me to my point. When the school’s closed, when it’s sold off, when the graders level it and the surveyors work out how many houses they can squeeze onto it, I’d like to think (after all my complaining, the meetings, the unanswered letters to bureaucrats) that we could preserve, somehow treasure this piece of red-brick history. Since 1901, wide-eyed kids staring out at the same unstoppable rain, the same blue sky that called us from long division (Mr Meus was a genius!), a room full of ghosts demanding some sort of memorial to childhoods lost, or subdivided. Too much to ask? Today the building houses the North Eastern Community Assistance Project’s thrift shop. Let’s hear the SA government promise to keep them there into an uncertain future. Or, if other arrangements are made, to repurpose the building as a small library, arts hub, local museum.
Or should we just bulldoze more of our history? Should we leave the wheat seeds in a dark cupboard, and forget them, and be surprised when we find them, years later, dead?