Chapter 10

After High School Advice


My mother’s advice for life beyond school in the nineteen-nineties was to replicate her nineteen-fifties adolescence and leave school at fifteen years old to pursue work as an office junior.

Mum did not actively encourage leaving school, but she did not see the point in staying.

“If you kids don’t like school, you can leave,” she would say, as if liking school was the only prerequisite for staying. She did not seem to understand the value in going on to further education because the way she saw it, the sooner we left school, the sooner we could start earning and the better that would be.

“A job is a means to an end,” she would say, and I thought of the adult supermarket workers’ blank faces. The supermarket had become their end.

Rather than sounding helpful, Mum’s advice sounded like defeat, like a statement of self-reassurance, or resignation to defeat, or a life of low expectations.

Mum’s was a working-class view where the point of work is to earn income to put bread on the table. She had not noticed her three girls were living in a different generation, subject to a range of expectations and opportunities different from her own. We were living a middle-class life in a time where a hint of work fulfilment was allowed. This wasn’t post-war survival. The messages I got were our job could give us mental fulfilment and we could even make the world a better place. There were ample opportunities.

Mum saw her opinions as true and correct, and for a long time insular family life meant I saw things her way. I was a disciple to the doctrine of the Church of Mum, and learnt the futility in arguing with the high priest.

To present facts or evidence challenging my mother’s precepts would be seen as an affront, a personal insult and received with offence, and categorised by Mum as my immaturity and ignorance. Challenges were outright dismissed. As usual, my father gave advice by saying nothing and I never asked him to elaborate; he knew better than to express contrary opinions because challenging my mother’s doctrines was like challenging the foundations of the church itself: sacrilege.

When deciding what to do after high school, I’d learnt from teachers, friends and television that leaving school at fifteen years old with School Certificate qualifications amounted to a trade, customer services work, or office work with a pay threshold reached after a few years. There would be little chance of progressing financially and intellectually. In my mind, leaving school without a qualification amounted to working forever at a supermarket or in a retail environment like a clothes shop complimenting fat women trying on clothes they should not consider buying; or in a factory packing biscuits into boxes and smoking cigarettes on ten-minute breaks through holes in my teeth because I could not afford dentistry. No qualifications meant pumping gas at a service station in a cold and windy forecourt wearing an oversized jacket; or on a reception answering the phone and transferring calls over and over and over again.

The thought of undertaking these jobs for the rest of my life as a “means to an end” left me feeling dread and sadness. I visualised myself finishing at the gas station then hanging out with friends who, like me in this gas-pumping job life, had a predilection for V8s, black jeans, bourbon, swear words and tasselly handbags. This was someone else’s future. Not mine.

I continued to the end of school because I did not want to be categorised with the kids I saw leaving who smoked too much weed and were shifted to the “transition” class. None of my friends left early. I listened to teachers, none of them said it would be wise to leave. Mum’s only expectation was we pass our subjects – and this meant fifty percent – and we stay until we were legally able to leave: 16 years old.

Discussions around the family dinner table never touched on our ambitions and the paths required to reach these or what interested us intellectually. The closest our family got to intellectual discussions was around the evening dinner table while the 6pm news played on the wood-box National brand TV. Mum and Dad voiced snide remarks about each news item letting their opinions be known to the presenter, the cats, Joey the budgie, us girls and the air. Mum and Dad conferred and agreed with each other.

As long as you voted for the National political party, did not sympathise with the “natives” and bought a Holden not a Ford, you were welcome in our house. Luckily our family had not taken to hiding behind religion to justify their opinions – Mum stayed silent on religion, contradictorily stating you don’t discuss religion, politics or money, while she and Dad were happy to say, “All politicians are crooks,” and Dad was certain, “There would be fewer wars without religion. The world would be a better place.” From a man who says little, I’ve heard him repeat this statement many times, and as he declared this he would look upwards, as if to the heavens telling a god or challenging the cosmos.

From those evening news broadcasts I learnt “all cops are crooked,” I should “never trust a politician,” “business doesn’t care about the ‘little man’,” and you “can’t beat city hall.” It seemed the world was a place at war with itself and in particular, our family. Out in the world I could trust no one. I had to be vigilant for scammers.

No one in my family lives their passion or is a scholar. Before my parents started the apple orchard, my father was an electrician. My mother started her working life as an office junior before working at a post office, then married Dad. While we children were young she worked part-time in the meat department of a supermarket then, after several years and carpal tunnel syndrome, decided supermarket work wasn’t for her and got an office job.

“I’m not proud,” she would say about what she did for work, which ironically implied she was proud of not being proud

“I just want you kids to be happy,” she would say. It seemed like she wanted us to be happy doing her version of happy.

That fact I was creative meant my choice to pursue a creative education must have seemed a completely pointless enterprise and worthy of her maxim, “What a waste of time.” My decision was received with, “And you’ll get a student loan that you’ll be paying off for the rest of your life.”

My parents thought the way to a better future was through hard work and self-reliance. They fiercely valued independence and would have lived like hermits had they not needed to visit the supermarket or buy petrol.

They would have avoided saying hello to our neighbours; saying hello once meant you had opened up a conversation for the rest of your life.

In the nineteen-seventies there was a television programme, The Good Life, about two couples living next door in urban London with contrasting lifestyles. One couple, the Goods, were attempting to live a self-sufficient lifestyle

growing their own fruit, vegetables and meat; basically, living off the land. Their neighbours were the Leadbetters. Mrs Leadbetter didn’t work – as was the unquestioned vocation of a woman at the time or one with a wealthy husband – but Mr Leadbetter worked in central London. He had been Mr Good’s co-worker until Mr Good quit the rat race for the new and subjectively better “Good Life.”

The implication was The Goods’ independence resulted in a freer, therefore happier, life than their capitalistic neighbours.

The programme was based around The Goods and Leadbetters interacting and their contrasting lifestyles examined as drama and comedy for the sake of a question: Is independence, self-reliance and living off the land the Good Life?

My parents used to jokingly refer to themselves as the Goods. They had rejected working for someone else to embark on the apple orchard and be their own bosses and do things their way.

Next door to our family lived the Robinsons. Mr Robinson was also our family lawyer and worked in town. One weekend Dad was filling his sprayer from a tap next to one of the Robinsons’ paddocks where he kept horses. I remember Dad standing in what our family referred to as his “uniform,” a red or blue flannel shirt, jeans, gumboots and a blue hat because blue is for the New Zealand National party. Chatting with Mr Robinson through the thick shelter belts, I now think of The Good Life; my father talking to his capitalist friend after rejecting a system he didn’t like and working for himself.

The Good Life did not work out for my parents. Turned out good honest hard work wasn’t enough against “The Apple and Pear Board ripping us off.” Even with Mum working part time at the supermarket, after fifteen years they were forced to sell and move to town. Dad took to refurbishing houses.

Apparently Dad was “a little upset” about having to sell the property. You could possibly call his response depression, but Mum summarised his feelings in the way she felt he should feel in one of her tidy sentiments to deal with emotion: “You just move on.” What she neglected to consider was Dad derived satisfaction from the orchard, from his work.

As if to rub in defeat, a clause in the property sale and purchase agreement was to remove all apple trees from the property. At fifteen years old and blissfully unaware of my parents’ disappointments, I joined my father and, row by row, we plucked apple trees from the earth. My younger sister and I took turns being outside working with my father, mastering this never-to-be-used-again technique and the satisfaction of destruction.

Dad sat on the tractor with one hand on the steering wheel, his head and torso turned to face me standing behind the tractor. From the back of the tractor I dragged a heavy chain with links larger than my hands. My job was to wrap the chain around each apple tree’s trunk and branches then connect the chain back onto itself with a giant steel hook. My part done, standing back I would nod at dad and he would apply the accelerator then, in the way that tractors and diesel farm machinery motors clunk and sound like large rocks or bricks stacking rhythmically, the tractor pulled the chain to tension.

Sometimes the tractor’s two front wheels lifted then dropped before the tractor surged forward and the apple tree’s roots surrendered. The trunk would shift to horizontal and the tractor would speed forward, the tension released, dragging the tree.

Occasionally an apple tree’s roots refused to let go of the earth and the trunk cracked then snapped, or the chain slipped off the tree, scarring its trunk. We would try again, getting my hands in the dirt, wrapping the chain around partially exposed roots, shifting clumps of dirt and tugging at the tree from the bottom, I would chain the tree for another attempt.

Tree after tree, and row after row we removed. Years of Mum and Dad’s hard work removed over a week. We destroyed hundreds of perfectly good fruiting trees.

Not once did I think how Dad might have felt. My hands and jeans were muddy and I did a good job and still, Dad said little.

Dad pushed the perfectly useful useless trees into a massive bonfire I viewed from my bedroom window. It burnt for days and at night I watched it glowing from my bed. Each day Dad stoked it with the tractor, pushing trees inwards with a giant steel fork until a small pile smouldered. I went out in my gumboots to inspect the coals, dust and the black charred circle in the middle of a healthy grass paddock. Dad said nothing. If you never said much it’s hard to say less and hard for others to know how you feel.

I probably got paid to pull out the trees because work had a monetary value in our house, but I don’t remember, and it didn’t feel like work. It was too satisfying to expect payment for something I enjoyed.

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