Mentone Grammar School: An Unauthorized Chapter in its Early Checkered History

Mentone Grammar School is the alma mater of my teen years. I spent the four most formative years of my life here, and secured for myself the underpinning for a future life I could previously only dream of. But this was more by good luck than by good management. The school in those days, in my estimation, bordered on the barking mad.

And since the centenary of its establishment has come around, I cannot resist the temptation to reveal a chapter in its history that would not, I suspect, have set the school’s current establishment crowing.

Alma mater translates as nourishing mother. And the school certainly did nourish me mightily. It set me up for a belief in a rational world, where the power of reason was the answer to all problems. It immunized me for life against superstition, conspiracies, religion, and all other varieties of the con. I became a living breathing bullshit detector. But all this laudable stuff happened by accident rather than design, via unintended consequences.

The school was established in 1923 and, in 1932, came to be owned and operated by C C Thorold, its third principal. When he died in 1939, his son, J J Thorold, an accountant, inherited it. J J was the principal I came to know.

J J was determined to turn a profit with the business opportunity an all boy’s boarding school (with a smattering of ‘day boys’ like me to top up the numbers) had to offer. Though I can’t be certain on this point, Mentone Grammar School at the time could well have been the only privately owned school in Australia.

J J appointed Lionel A Large, a Seventh Day Adventist, as Headmaster, thereby opening the floodgates. Soon a very sizable number of the staff – known to us as Masters – were also Seventh Day Adventists. The school had a loose affiliation with the Anglican Church, so no doubt the Adventist staff had been expected not to proselitize. It was the prerogative of Masters – both Adventists and others – to flounce around in long flowing black gowns.

(There was one member of staff who was definitely not an Adventist. It was Karl Duldig, our Art teacher, a sculptor of some renown who needed a day job. He was a Jewish refugee from war torn Europe who, by a circuitous route, ended up in Australia. I have already written a separate stand-alone blog – in April 2021 – about Karl. Look it up.)

As the boarders would – and did – testify, there was a fair sprinkling of predatory pedophiles among the Masters. It was a problem independent of religious affiliation, and was certainly not an issue exclusive to Mentone Grammar School.

At year 12 level, I was one of a class of nine, that included both a Humanities and a Sciences stream. Nine, for Pete’s sake! Single digits. Where would you find that today? To this very moment, I can still recite all their names.

But let’s look at some of the individual Masters of Adventist faith with which we (‘the nine’) had to deal.

Four of us took Don Stewart’s biology class. Don was an Adventist. We never looked forward to his classes, so he usually had to round us up like a mother hen would her chicks. Then he would launch into a harangue, often with one of his idiosyncratic turns of phrase.

Err, he would say, what game do you lot think you’re playing, perambulating round the establishment. Go set your fundaments down on the accoutrements provided.

His classroom technique, if you can call it that, was worth a mention because it was so crass. For simplicity and ease – I can only assume – he liked to read to us from the textbook for the entire session. Perhaps he liked the sound of his own voice. We didn’t. It sounded like a strangled and prolonged fart.

On one memorable occasion, he was reading from Chapter 12: Cell Replication and Division. On turning the page, he found he had reached the end of the Chapter. He was now confronted with Chapter 13: Evolution. God forbid.

Evolution, he said, Err, don’t believe in it meself.

And he skipped to Chapter 14: Genetics.

Now you might think this incident, and Don Stewart’s general approach to teaching, would have been a serious impediment to our broader education. Think again. The minute this charlatan was out the door, we flipped back to Chapter 13. Our self-education process began. We all became ardent evolutionists and, to boot, experts at educating ourselves. We were well served by Don’s outrageously bad teaching techniques. Thrown back on our own resources, we learnt to sort things out for ourselves.

Now to Physics. This is the discipline I took up with enthusiasm to the extent I eventually chose to scale the dizzy heights of phidiocy in a particular branch of it. Zounds, to this day I am a phidiot, no less. (Spoiler alert! Should you not get this in-joke, think Ph.D.)

Calvin Sibley taught Physics to the same four of us. An Adventist. His voice was as stentorian as a foghorn, and more than a little pedantic. His teaching technique was adequate but dull. It was easy to fall asleep in Calvin’s class. Sometimes we did.

But, I’d like to tell you a little tale about Calvin which, though I got it secondhand from one of my classmates who had the misfortune to be a boarder, I have no reason to disbelieve. I find it a deeply disturbing tale.

One clear night, Calvin took a group of boarders out onto the school oval for a view of the stars. He showed them the planets, and the major stars: Sirius, Antares, Alpha Centaurus. Of course, the Milky Way was there for all to see. And Calvin directed their rapt attention to a dark gap in this milky smear across the night sky and said words to the effect:

‘And when Christ comes to Earth for the second time, it’s through that gap he will arrive with all his angelic hosts.’

B’Jesus. This man taught Physics, the most rigorous and rational of the Sciences. Where the hell was the guy coming from?

One more of our Masters. George Gibson. Also an Adventist. He taught English Expression to all nine of us. And he did a bloody good job of it. Adventist or no, he was the best teacher I ever had in my life. Without George in my life, I’m sure I would have turned out a totally different person. I have already written a blog about him. In June 2019. You may look it up.

Perhaps I should explain. I don’t have any beef with Adventists. No more than I have with any other Christian denomination. I see Seventh Day Adventists as just like Methodists or some-such, but with a few quirky little beliefs of their own to which they stick like leeches through hell and high water. One of them, of course, is the belief that if one wants to adhere to God’s commands as laid down in the Bible, then strictly one must worship Him on a Saturday. No ifs or buts.

Back to George.

He looked at the curriculum and decided to go his own way. He surmised (correctly) that all nine of us knew how to write essays and make a good precis, so he decided to concentrate instead on that area of the curriculum where he surmised (correctly) that we were deficient. Clear thinking. He delivered to us a course in applied logic, so that we could assess for ourselves the validity of public pronouncements made in the mass media and similar. He did so with grace, generosity, and infinite patience. He turned us all into serious bullshit detectors.

Was this, then, the new Athens, built here in this not-so-green but eminently pleasant land? Often, George’s sessions with us seemed to channel the magic of the discourse in the agora between such luminaries as Plato and Socrates.

What George gifted to us is a priceless life skill. Had this skill been widespread and widely practiced, Donald Trump would never have got a look-in. Nor Scott Morrison in our own country. Among their many sins, these two likely lads have persistently committed the crime against logic known as argumentum ad hominem. Playing the man (or woman) instead of the ball. In the light of the skill George bequeathed to me, the likes of QAnon, green-washing, and other gross concoctions of this nature designed to deceive, would be laughed out of court. It is a force very much for the good of the world. I thank the ghost of George, ever hovering in the back of my mind, for this rare gift.

So where was this guy coming from? We tried to pin him down on the logic of his Adventist beliefs, but he wouldn’t budge. In violation of the principles he taught us, he politely deflected our arguments. He only stayed two years at the school, before becoming an Adventist missionary in Papua New Guinea. He probably died there, hopefully not at the hands of headhunters or cannibals.

Human beings are the strangest of cattle. Just when I thought I had a secure handle on their bevavioural traits, someone like George comes along and unscrews the whole damned handle mechanism.

I’m not sure of the exact date this happened, but J J Thorold on-sold the school to the Anglican Church some time in the decade after I left. From this point, it slowly morphed from a decidedly singular private boy’s school with a multitude of warts, into a traditional middle-ranking Anglican co-ed school of the type with which Melbournians are so so familiar. These days, it would not have made me into the unique person I believe I have become, and in whose shoes I am mightily satisfied to stand and face the world. It would have made me into a round peg for a round hole.

And, of course, gone are the days of classes of nine.

To Whom it May Concern By Way of Explanation:

This explanation is to those who might be concerned about my health and, in particular, the status of my PMR (polymyalgia rheumatica).

I’m not yet rid of the disease, but I feel I’m now under effective treatment. I’m on steroids again, and feel great while the steroids slosh around in my system. But, just today, I started on a program prescribed by my Physician, to taper the steroids. Going cold turkey from steroids is not an option because the withdrawal symptoms are gross. Nor is staying on the steroids for any length of time an option, because the side effects of their long-term use are also gross.

The Physician has me on what is called a ‘steroid sparer’. This mimics the effect of the steroids, but doesn’t kick in until after at least four weeks of first use. Hopefully, after a few months of this treatment, the PMR will have disappeared from my body. But, PMR is notorious for its ability to recur and trigger a relapse. I have already had one such relapse.

So, where do I currently stand? I’ve no excuse anymore for not writing blogs. Consequently, I’ll try to pump them out with greater frequency from now on. You know I love travelling, and I’m already resurrecting shelved travel plans. So, it’s all good.

In my entire adult life, the worst health problem I’ve had is seasonal flu. Until now. This PMR really is something else. It’s the worst illness by far, in terms of both duration and severity, that I have had the misfortune to endure.

A word of advice from me to you. Don’t get PMR.