Book Review ‘Humility’ by Barry Dickins

by maryellenhall

MEMOIR
By Barry Dickins

AS a writer, Barry Dickins is like Bob Ellis – when he’s good he’s very, very good, but when he’s bad … he’s awful.

In Lessons in Humility, an often bizarre but allegedly ”true” story of his life as an English teacher, Dickins ranges from one to the other, and sometimes in between. The book, with illustrations by the author, is a veritable curate’s egg.

Barry Dickins takes a bizarre wander through a life of learning.

When Dickins, in 1970, completed his diploma of education at the Melbourne State College in Carlton, no one, he explains, had taught him ”how to stand in front of kids and interest them”. Indeed no one ever taught him how to teach. So it comes as no surprise that the one exam he constantly failed in his Dip.Ed was ”classroom management”.
This was largely, Dickins speculates 41 years later, because he didn’t possess any ”authority” as a teacher. And it showed. This especially applied to his early efforts to interest swarms of what seemed to be pathologically rude, urban primary-school children, who could hardly speak, let alone write, count or remember. It seems appropriate that Dickins dramatises much of his time as a teacher, often to pathetic but sometimes to hilarious effect.

As Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, ”Only with laughter do we slay”.

What Dickins is good at as a teacher of drama and creative literature is listening – these days a lost art – knowing full well that almost all young children adore to be carefully heard, even if only to hear themselves.

As soon becomes clear in this rather shambolic memoir, Dickins was much more at home in little bush schools than teaching city kids in spoilt suburbia. In the country, he claims to have taught sweet children how to ”rhyme and compose a sonnet on the topic of looking after your goat or sheep or trying to establish a rapport with the estranged family ferret”.

In one mountain school he felt as though he was a boy from the bush, who thoroughly enjoyed the human company he discovered ”in cramped classrooms in old bluestone edifices that invariably had a sepia portrait of Queen Victoria over the fireplace”. As well, these little country schools, he maintains, often boasted a ”huge sad placard carved out of strange ugly wood that bore the names of the local bush blokes who perished courtesy of King and Country during The War To End All Wars 1914-1918”. True or false? Sometimes with Dickins it’s hard to tell.

The men and women the author taught with in the bush were quite different from city teachers. Dickins puts it this way: ”The [country teachers] know who is broke on the rundown farm and think nothing of running across miles of parched thistles to give them a feed or just hang out with them and listen to their woes.” Above all, they don’t text, but actually communicate face to face.

It is a testimony to the power of Dickins’ skill as a scribe that, in writing about teaching children, he brings to life a world of riotous imagination. So much so that the goings-on in classes as diverse as those at ”Posh College” and at ”The Boil Street Special School” in Sickening Road, however bizarre and far-fetched, in many ways seem somehow true.

For all its structural faults and linguistic excesses, Lessons in Humility presents Dickins as a faithful teacher deeply concerned with the education of the human soul.

■ Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University and author of 35 books, his latest the satire Fools’ Paradise.

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