When Helen Garner emerged from anonymity
Below is the full text of Helen Garner's first article in The Digger, in November 1972. The Digger was a monthly newspaper covering Australia's counter-culture published from 1972 until it ran out of money and lawyers in 1975. I was a founder and one of its editors throughout its short life. My previous post (below) is about the article, and its consequences. -PF
EDITOR'S NOTE: As we have rather piously explained on previous occasions, it is not The Digger's policy to run anonymous articles without exceptional reasons. This article is not part of the Diseases We Share series, although it elucidates a social disease and poses a remarkably simple and joyous solution. The reasons for the authoress's anonymity shall become obvious....
One afternoon last week my form one kids and I were about to launch ourselves dutifully on an assignment about Ancient Greece. Using the only class set that wasn't too blatantly patronising or out of date, I'd managed to base on the text a little number on sex roles in ancient times compared with those of today. (I've explained this to account for having actually handed round eighteen copies of a book like Looking at Ancient History).
OK, everyone have a look at page 51. Rustle rustle. A moment of silence as we all stare, transfixed, at the defacements which other classes have perpetrated on a picture of a Greek athlete: in all but a few of the copies, a monstrous cock has been added in heavy biro, with a colossal stream of sperm hitting the bull's eye, the cunt of a woman on the facing page who is modestly demonstrating the folds of the Ionian chiton. Twenty nine pairs of eyes meet mine.
“Miss!" ventures Tania. "Look what's on my book!" She holds it up and a hiss of excitement flashes round the class. I turn my copy round to reveal similar adornments: their eyes are riveted on my face, waiting for the signal. I can't help it, in fact I don't even try. I start laughing and suddenly there's a riot, everyone's leaping out of their seats, Angelo is making violent rabbit-like fucking motions with his hips, Georgia's blushing and smiling at me sideways, Paul has his head on his arms with only his hysterical eyes peeping up to me, Cathy bellows enviously, "No-one's drawn anything on MY book!"
Calm down, everyone, let's see if we can get some work done. We read page 51 and turn over; God help me if there aren't two men fucking (under the pretext of being Greek wrestlers) and stark naked, not a stitch on. More ecstatic laughter, thumping on the floor, rolling of eyes, cries, cries of "Miss! Miss!"
Then and there I'm obliged to face the fact. There's obviously no point in trying to get them to look at anything else on the page but these astounding illustrations. I realise that this is the moment I can't let pass. All the dreary arguments at staff conferences about the idea of sex education courses suddenly seems beside the point. So I say, look, the reason why people do these drawings, and why we laugh at them, is that sex is more interesting than just about anything else, and because most kids at school don't know nearly as much about it as they need to. Do you want to talk about it?
An incredulous silence. Georgia whispers, "Can we ask you questions? Any questions? Will you tell us anything we ask?" Yes, I will. Ask away. Silence. Silence? I've been with these kids every day since the beginning of the year, and the one thing they don't want -- is to be silent. What's the matter? "Miss," says Angelo, blushing puce, "can we write the questions on paper?" Of course you can. In an instant the desk lids fly up, Grace has opened the cupboard, biros and paper are shoved from hand to hand, there are four or five huddles of kids hissing furiously with their skinny bums in the air. Bursts of laughter and more whispering, furious scribbling, cries of "Don't you know THAT?" "Go on -- ask her!" "How do you spell . . ." "Come on, hurry up!" In five minutes there's a mound of paper scraps on my table and everyone is sitting still except Drago, who is writing steadily, his flushed face bent over his pen, his lovely silly smile darting round every few seconds at the impatient kids. "Carn Drago, carn! She's waiting, oh come on!" they groan. Paul dashes out with another question: "Can we kill Drago?" At last he lumbers out to the front and pushes six questions across the table to me. His broad Yugoslavian face is shiny and sweaty with the effort of speedy writing, and red with his determination to ask it ALL in spite of the impatient abuse of the others. They're waiting for me now, and I pick up the first question.
WHY DOES THE WOMEN HAVE ALL THE PAIN?
Oh Georgia, oh Rita! I look at their open, eager faces and think of how their Greek fathers beat them for talking to boys in the street, and how they are not allowed to go to Church when they have their period. I spread out the papers and flick my eyes over their clumsy writing.
HOW ARE SPURM PRODUCED?
WHY DO MEN LOVE TO BIT LADYS TITS?
WHY DO MEN LOOK AT GIRLS AND WANT TO FEEL THEM, WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?
WHY CAN'T A LADY HAVE A BABY WHEN SHE'S OLD?
DOES IT HURT TO HAVE SEXUAL INTERCOURSE?
Sexual intercourse? I'd better start here.
Before we can start, I want to make you understand that the words some people think of as dirty words are the best words, the right words to use when you are talking about sex. So I'm not going to say "sexual intercourse", I'm going to say "fuck", and I'm going to say "cock" and "cunt" too, so we'd better get that straight. Is that OK?
Without a word, Darryl reaches up from his desk by the door and clicks the lock shut. And away we go. No, fucking doesn't hurt, it feels marvellous! and I'm drawing awkward uteruses on the board and showing them on my own body where my uterus is, and explaining what a clitoris is and what it's for, and telling them that, no, you don't always have to ask for a fuck, that often it just happens.
"Just happens, Miss? Didn't your husband ask you?"
"Miss, is it true that there's a hole you shit from, and a hole you piss from, and then another hole where you do it with boys?"
CAN YOU ONLY FUCK WHEN YOU'VE GOT YOUR PERIOD?
WHAT'S A FRANGER?
CAN YOU FUCK EVERY DAY?
Every few minutes someone runs out with another question. Pretty soon they are saying "fuck" quite easily with no blushes or sniggers. The more I answer, the easier it gets to be absolutely truthful. I'm not afraid of them. They are so hungry for facts that they're exhausting me. The bell goes and they all groan aloud -- the end of the lesson. They trudge out reluctantly, thinking it's all over. "See you, Miss. Thanks, Miss."
I sit there at the table. My head is singing with the astonishing fact that this is the only totally honest lesson I have ever given, that not a second of it was wasted, that their attention didn't waver for a second, and that their curiosity made authoritarian behaviour on my part completely unnecessary. They asked, and I gave.
Next morning David and Chris, who'd been wagging the day before, ran up to me in the yard, grief-stricken. "Oh Miss, we missed it! Can't we continue this afternoon?" Yes, if you want to. When I walk in, the customary riot is not in progress. They're sitting like statues, and on my table is a stack of papers six inches high. I tell them that I'll get the sack if it gets round that I've been saying fuck and cunt in the classroom. They nod solemnly. I pick up the papers and we're away again. This time, most of them having absorbed the basic anatomical stuff yesterday, we're into refinements of one sort or another. Fears, too, begin to show.
WHAT'S A PERVA?
WHAT IF A MAN'S DICK IS TOO SMALL AND HE'S DYING TO HAVE ONE?
CAN A MAN'S DICK GET STUCK IN A LADY'S CUNT?
WHAT IF A MAN MISSES AND PUTS HIS COCK INTO A LADY'S DICK? (a bit of what the Teachers' College lecturers used to call recapitulation and review, at this stage).
HOW DO YOU MAKE THE SPERM COME OUT?
It's the hardest work I've ever done. I'm drawing, I'm acting, I'm showing shapes and actions with my hands and body. Angelo wants to know how you actually get the cock in. As I explain, he nods and nods, making a sympathetic motion of taking his cock and gently pushing it forward and up. No-one laughs.
Lou in the front row fixes his beautiful serious eyes on me and says, "Miss, what does a cunt look like?" I tell them, like a flower, and girls should get a mirror and look at themselves. Everyone laughs at this, but it's for pleasure and joy. The boys turn to glance at the girls, and their faces look both curious and tender. We are laughing a lot; we are making jokes that are sexy without being harsh. I try to draw a cunt and they call out to me to put the hairs on. Unfamiliar words roll off their tongues: "pleasurable", I can hear Georgia trying out the word to herself.
It's easy to give facts, though I wished we had a man there for when my knowledge started to show gaps -- for example, when David wanted to know what happened to his balls when he pulled himself. The most difficult questions were the ones that were really asking "What is it like to fuck?" Drago wants to know "How long do you have to leave your cock in the cunt before the sprog comes out? An hour? Two hours?" I suppose he thinks it just lies there. I take a breath and try to tell them, but my description gets clumsier and clumsier, and looking at their patient faces, I simply die away. You'll have to wait till you do it yourself. I don't know how to describe it.
People I've told this story to have all agreed that, no matter how detailed or truthful their own verbal knowledge about sex might have been, it gave them little or no idea of the quality of the actual experience of fucking. Well, there's a bloody great cliché for you, but then that's what life's all about -- progressing from knowing things in your head to knowing them in your bones. Perhaps the only thing you're doing by answering kid's questions as honestly as you can is removing fear. Of course there were a few flashes of recognition when I talked about how your heart beats harder, or your cunt gets wet . . . I'm pretty sure that no-one in that class has ever fucked, and judging from the general trend of questioning, I'd say the boys were heavily into wanking, which is what you'd expect.
The girls were more reticent about their experience, almost certainly because they've been fiercely protected since childhood by their fathers and brothers. Georgia has kissed a boy and she's regarded as an oracle in such matters. In subsequent conversations with the girls, several of them have told me about frightening encounters with men lodgers; and they are extremely sensitive about being stared and whistled at in the street.
What the girls ask me, again and again, is,
CAN A GIRL ASK A MAN FOR A FUCK?
They eagerly search my face as I answer, of course, of course! and when I remark that men might be happy to share the job of initiating fucks, the boys agree enthusiastically.
By the time we get round to talking about sucking, the conversation has been going on for a couple of hours. One of the girls has written CAN A GIRL GET A DISEASE FROM SUCKING A MAN'S COCK? As carefully as I can, I separate the two issues of sucking and venereal disease; I hope I managed to explain VD without scaring them back into their pants for good, while at the same time giving them a healthy respect for its nastiness. Then I talked about the pleasure of sucking anything -- your mother's breast, a bottle, your thumb, your toes, chewy, lollies, pencils, and various parts of your lover's body. They were pretty stunned to find out that sucking was OK, but they wanted to know WHY anyone would suck a cock or lick a cunt. Well, I said, when you love someone, or love fucking with them, there is nothing you can think of doing, short of hurting them against their will, that you wouldn't do. "But Miss!" whispers someone, "what if he comes in your mouth?" Everyone smiles but they're too involved to laugh and break the spell. I tell them that I used to be anxious about that too, but that you learn freedom and courage, and it is another pleasure you can give or take.
There is a little flurry in one corner of the room. "You ask her." "No, I can't -- you." "Oh, go on, you." Drago turns to me, blushing and smiling. "Miss - have you ever had a suck?" For a single second I see the situation from a distance: a kid has just asked me if I suck cocks. Jesus! Never in my wildest dreams has such a possibility reared its head. But that astonishment stays in my mind and without a pause the answer simply rolls off my tongue, as unmomentous as the next tick of the clock. Yes, I have.
Why lie? They want to know the truth. There's a second of amazed silence. I'm sitting there in a calmness that, next day, I found it difficult to believe had been real. To break the silence I remark, well, I guess it is a bit hard for you to imagine me with a cock in my mouth. When the words are out I can't believe it's happened -- we're all roaring with laughter because in room 8 upstairs on a Wednesday afternoon in the high school whose name I can't mention lest I get the sack (would they sack me? Truth makes you strong -- but that's the euphoria of the moment), I'm telling 29 kids that I suck cocks. Can you believe it? Maybe I dreamed the whole thing.
No, it happened all right. I haven't told you half of it, or half of the things they asked me, but the channels are open between us now. The bell went for the end of the day, and everyone trooped out calling goodbye exactly as if it had been an ordinary day. One kid dawdled behind, the one who always chats with me while the others play. He wanders up to the table where I'm sitting. "Hey Miss," he says, pointing at the scattered pile of questions, "want me to help you destroy these?" Our eyes meet and we start laughing again, tearing up the papers and dropping them into the bin.