Confessions of a larrikin
Chrissie Swan Photo: Julian Kingma
I was recently contacted by my old high school and I was delighted. For many people, their school years were fraught with a combo of not fitting in, bullying and bad papier-mâché puppets. I'm pleased to say only the latter applied to me. I went to a small private Catholic girls' school, which is a sentence that usually ends in "and I couldn't wait to escape" or "and they were the worst years of my life", but I loved school.
I was one of those kids who couldn't wait for school holidays to be over, and I got so worked up the day before we went back I usually had instant-onset insomnia. One time I was so excited that I found myself having a shower at three in the morning so I wouldn't miss my 7.20am tram. So the phone call from the school alerting me to the fact I'd been nominated as an "alumni of note" was met with excitement and internal clapping, not horror and avoidance.
Perhaps those nuns and teachers recognised that sometimes kids like me needed to be allowed to be a bit of a larrikin in order to survive in the world.
Part of this honour was that I would be featured in a coffee-table book showcasing the 125 years the school had successfully educated girls in the ways of needlepoint and hymn-singing, human rights and Shakespeare. It was, and still is, a lovely school that turns out smart, independent women year after year. A few that come to mind are the brilliant comedians Jane Turner and Marg Downey, as well as High Court judges and innovative doctors. Apparently you can rub shoulders with these luminaries if you make a living talking about boozies, babies and big bottoms ... but who am I to object?
I was invited to come to "the parlour", a room at the school that was strictly out of bounds to anyone in brown T-bar shoes and ponytails. I was met by two photographers, who told me they wanted me to take them to a spot in the school that held memories for me.
So, first things first, I asked to be taken to the huge Chesterfield sofas that were parked at reception, where the naughty girls had to spend their lunchtimes. But the Chesterfields had gone. No problem ... what about a shot of me at the careers counsellor's office? This is where I was told one afternoon that my test results had come in and I was most suited to a life spent in the circus. Nope. Those offices were now home to whirring servers.
Hmmm ... I know! Why don't we go into the chapel where, in one corner, much to the delight of me and my teenaged friends, we discovered a life-sized plaster version of Jesus's head? Sadly, that was gone, too.
We tried several different locations, but all to no avail. The secret air vent that we would sneak up to whisper demonic messages to the bewildered class below was shut off. The timber box built to house an airconditioner but which doubled as an excellent place for 14 breathless 17-year-olds to cram in and hide, had been removed. The year 12 common room that we had eventually been banned from for too much smoking and a rat infestation had become a tasteful breakout area for what I imagine are much better-behaved girls than we ever were.
Eventually, I settled for a shot in front of the wall on which we used to play handball when we were nine years old. One of the only memories I had of school, apparently, that didn't involve breaking the rules!
"You were pretty naughty," the photographer said as location after location fell flat. I'd always thought I was a good student. I had a ball at school, but I had no idea I was so damned badly behaved. No wonder I didn't get the marks I needed for law! I was clearly too busy plotting mischief and thinking of new ways to crack up my friends. Shame on me.
But maybe this is the sign of a truly remarkable school – I never felt like the bad kid. I was never defined by my naughtiness. Perhaps those nuns and teachers recognised that sometimes kids like me needed to be allowed to be a bit of a larrikin in order to survive in the world.
I hope that my school, and others like it, aren't extinguishing the fires in feisty girls these days. Because being a buttoned-down lawyer or commodities trader is good and well and lucrative, sure, but sometimes girls are better suited to a life behind the mic, or in front of a camera sporting lycra and a tight blonde perm saying, "Look at moyyy." Or indeed, as my careers counsellor suggested, pursuing a life under the Big Top. Follow your bliss, girls, no matter how long you have to spend on that squeaky Chesterfield.
Chrissie Swan is host of Can of Worms on Channel Ten, and co-host of Mix 101.1's breakfast show in Melbourne and 3pm Pick-Up nationally. She's also a mum of two. Twitter: @chrissieswan.
From Sunday Life