In 2016 I returned to full-time study. Come to think of it, it was the first time I’d studied full time since leaving school. I studied my BA Comms part time while working the overnight shift in Channel Ten’s newsroom. It is a luxury I can (almost) justify to take time out from my career and focus on learning.
My first class Theory and Writing is in the 1970s-daggy Tower One at UTS, one of Sydney’s most famous buildings in the brutalist style. The same building I studied for my BA Comms all those decades ago. The lecture room is impossible to find—I need the help of one of the upbeat volunteers wandering the corridors helping hapless new students. When we eventually find the room I’m disappointed. It’s windowless and utterly without soul. Not the venue I’d imagined myself in to study Aristotle’s 2000 year old approach to storytelling.
Our lecturer is the earnest looking and softly spoken type. Well-prepared, articulate and a literary theory expert. So far, so good. We do the rounds of ‘tell me a bit about yourself’, by telling our story to a small group and having one of the group re-tell our story to the rest of the class. My buddy is Lorna – she recalls detail of my story, all good. Then the lecturer asks if I’m working on any writing at the moment.
Yes, I say, I’ve been writing short stories loosely based on the life of my father who grew up in 1940s Sydney. Then I remember. My father – Tom. Not my closest confidant, certainly not my political ally … but the very foundation of who I am. Full of tried and true and trite saying about life. Little snippets that have buried themselves into my psyche like leeches into my leg. Dad died three weeks ago. Mid-sentence I lose it. Day one, first time I open my mouth, grown woman, in tears.
Stephanie, a Chinese poet with a Masters in Adult Education—who I met about ten minutes earlier—places her arm around my shoulders in a show of solidarity and friendship. Lorna gives me an encouraging look. The lecturer tells me it’s ok, deftly changes the subject, asks about my career. All good, back on track. Later, at the end of class, Veronica the casting director finds me and says, I really felt for you tonight, I understand your pain.
The venue for Day Two’s lecture (Narrative) is reassuring. We are in one of the new buildings, Building 11, in a room that looks out over Broadway but I must peer through the honeycomb metal facade with coloured halogen beams to see the street. Across the road is the ivy-draped Central complex, I remember this being an old brick brewery during my undergrad days. Urban design meets bustling inner city. Higher education in 21st century Sydney.
The lecturer for this class is middle aged, a little kooky and delightful. She peppers her language with the occasional profanity, nothing like an unexpected ‘fuck’ from the mouth of a woman in her fifties. I smile at the reaction. The twenty somethings have already found each other around the room and are exchanging raised eyebrows. The older students barely notice.
We form groups and discuss an extract from the disturbing ‘Singing My Sister Down’ from Margo Lanagan’s Black Juice. I struggle to understand what it’s actually about. Post-workshop I am even more disturbed and, in equal measure, in awe of her writing. Next discussion is an extract from Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s. We talk about Joe Bell, and Holly (short for Holiday, who knew?) Golightly. We discuss the framework of the narrative. Randomly we then talk about our dreams. I share my recurring dream of the train that derails on a hilltop and tumbles down spewing people from doors and windows. I mention it could be on the tracks between North Sydney and Milson’s Point which I have walked past on the way to uni today. Ben shares his dream of his search for his real parents, a recurring dream he’s had since boyhood despite growing up in a family with both real mum and real dad present. He explains he is in different countries of the world in this dream, frantically scouring the faces of thousands of strangers, all couples, walking towards him. Every couple looks like his mother and father. How is he to choose the right parents? I make a mental note to use this dream in a future narrative.
I return the next day for my third subject. We are back in Buiding 11 but in what seems to be a conference room with even less ambience than the windowless box of 1970s misery from Monday night. The room has appalling acoustics and fluorescent lighting. One of those rooms you walk into and immediately want to about face and go to the bathroom. Or just leave and never return.
The lecturer is clearly nervous and either rusty or virginal in this environment. I’m not sensing success here. We wait for more students to arrive. We circulate a class roll and check our names off a list. We then write our names with black texta on name tags. A student is double thumb typing on her mobile phone.
‘Are you texting?’ the lecturer barks.
We look up. No response from the alleged texter.
‘There will be no use of mobiles in this class. If you need to use your phone or answer email leave the room. Do not text on my time.’
Um, ok. Collective inward sigh from the room. This is our lecturer for 12 weeks?
We form pairs and start an exercise in observation and writing, although it’s not entirely clear from the loose explanation which it is. Some do straight observation. Some write with a flourish, most try a hybrid. We read them back. Little feedback. No context. The lecture begins. We discuss journalism 101 and I start to worry. Wh0, what, when, where, why, how. I check the Subject Outline. The lecturer writes on the board. First word written is ‘colum’. First lecture nerves, I’ll excuse the spelling. She continues in child-like scrawl. Timliness. Is that like timeliness? Oh my, this is not good. I google the lecturer, check credentials, wonder if another lecturer pulled out at the last minute. Best to give the benefit of the doubt. A curious saying, but well understood.
Time ticks on and things don’t improve. I know by the end of the first class I won’t be back. A kernel of worry forms in my gut.
After a flurry of emails, I find a new class, my fourth subject. It’s now Thursday night. Learning to review and critique – this could work. The lecturer is both journalist and academic, loads of experience, intelligent and with a sense of humour. Immediately likeable but no nonsense. Ok, we are back on track.
Week one is done. I am a student again, mature but not the oldest in any of my classes.