We were sitting on the grass at the side of Knox Grammar School’s main oval in 1987; it must have been in my final few weeks of school. The memory of an awkward moment saying uncomplimentary things about Mr Fotis the religion teacher, while he was sitting behind me popped back into my mind when I saw his name deeply implicated in evidence before the royal commission into sexual abuse.
One of the things people who weren’t at Knox in my era find surprising was that the culture did not value learning or academic curiosity. After all, this was a school that closed its classics department and opened a business centre instead. What was valued was image. I vividly remember the headmaster, Ian Paterson, speaking in assemblies on topics like why Knox boys didn’t swear, because only members of the less privileged classes did that. Everything was appearance.
And sadly, I think that was what seduced my parents about the place. My father never finished school, spending a chunk of his adolescence in a Japanese internment camp instead. For him, Knox offered security, a network of old boys he thought would support his sons in later life, who would recognise the old school tie and help us on our way into our careers in the business world.
I nearly escaped in Year 11. The first couple of years were a bit of a blur of being miserable, sporadically bullied, and feeling constantly lonely. That never changed, although the bullying did. By Year 11, I was big enough and odd enough that people basically left me alone. I mainly lived in the library, to which fact I owe my encyclopaedic knowledge of World War II German military hardware. I did my work, so wasn’t generally bullied by the teachers either, and fortunately was neither a boarder, good looking or sporty. Nevertheless, Year 11 was a low ebb. I truanted, embraced depressing music and wrote awful poetry.
Finally, I broke down at school which must have caused my year master to convince my parents that maybe the school wasn’t the right place for me. At the very end of the year, I spent a wonderfully liberating week at another school, mainly drinking beer with similarly tortured souls in the cooling system under the Macquarie Centre ice rink. By that stage though I knew that I could make it through to the HSC, so decided to stick it out at Knox. My final year involved me wearing Doc Marten boots and greatcoats at every opportunity and indulging in as much minor vandalism as I could get away with. I also had the highlight of stopping a boy in my year who had previously bullied me from bullying a tiny little year 7 boy. In the past week I’ve seen that bully again, giving evidence into the abuse he suffered at Knox, and I think more kindly of him. I had some good friends, though none at the school, and I had music. I had two good teachers, one who showed me how creative and fun teaching can be, and paradoxically inspired me to become a teacher myself. After my final HSC exam, I walked out the gates and never returned or had any deliberate contact with the school or anyone from my year ever again.
Seeing the names and faces of people I knew at Knox appearing in front of the royal commission into abuse at the school has affected me far more than I thought it would. We are forever shaped by our adolescent experiences. My father was shaped by the insecurity of war, and although my experiences don’t compare with his, obviously, I was shaped by my experiences at Knox. It isn’t a surprise that I learned to love Kafka at school. The image of the individual ground down by a mindless machine was what I felt most days. When we studied Lord of the Flies I thought it read like the school yearbook. The culture of the school was toxic. There was one mould for boys to fit, and those who were different were left behind.
The sexual abuse by a group of teachers at the school doesn’t surprise me. Some of the names before the royal commission I could have told you in 1987. I was profoundly detached from the school, and yet I knew. I spent some time this week going through the documents tendered as evidence before the commission, because I’m a historian and that’s what I do. It’s very instructive to see a repeating pattern of evidence being brought to the headmaster’s attention, and perpetrators of abuse being quietly shuffled sideways, or “counselled” or dismissed with glowing references.
For decades, Knox has chosen to protect the good name of the school above all else. The broken men the commission is hearing about, some of whom I knew, are testimony to the utter failure of the management and pastoral culture of the school.
– Alan Dearn