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Like in the Time of Girl Germs

On the left hand side were the boys’ taps and on the right hand side were the girls’. Why one set of taps was designated for males and the other for females was anyone’s guess. It was just custom. No actually, it was more than custom. It was law.
A Girl, A Smock and a Simple Plan

It was an age of cooties, except we didn’t call them cooties – that was an Americanism that only crept into the Australian vernacular with the arrival of Judy Blume books. We called them ‘girl germs’ (or ‘boy germs’) and they were transmitted through palms, toilet seats and drinking taps.

In Grade 3, girl germs were terrifying, but by the top end of primary school, some drinking tap mavericks began to wonder whether the tanbark stuffed into the nozzle of every faucet wasn’t perhaps – in germ terms – the real issue of concern.

Not that I was one of them. My parents decided at the end of Year 4 (the height of The Great Girl Germ Epidemic of ‘82) that a young man can only really concentrate on his twelve times tables in a single sex environment. So while the collective pituitary gland of Deepdene Primary School yawned itself awake in Years 5 and 6 (and a kid called ‘Fish’ capitalised on some meaningful pig tail pulling I’d had going with Kirsty Todd) I shifted to Camberwell Grammar. Yep. Eleven twelves are 132.

For others though, it was a year of nascent, non-contact love. One of these was comedy author Chris Daffey, who attended Templestowe Heights Primary School in 1983. His crush was on Penny Heale – ‘five and a bit feet of dazzling, dark haired perfection,’ and it started in an art class, with a moment of solidarity over the compulsory wearing of art smocks.

Twenty years on, Daffey has written ‘A Girl, A Smock and A Simple Plan’ (in which the name of the Penny character is cleverly disguised as ‘Jenny’) and for those of us who missed out on a serious crush ourselves, it is the hilarious story of what a Grade 6 boy will do to win the affections of a Grade 6 girl. The Plan was elaborate. The Plan was comprehensive. The Plan was written in four colour pen, which in 1983 were looming as very much the future of writing.

In terms of content, The Plan focused heavily on the wooing effect that comes with achievement: a flamboyant second leg of the 4 x 100 relay; a Templestowe centric reworking of Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech for the school election; a desperate attempt to make the school cricket team. Naturally, at no stage is talking to the girl a significant part of The Plan. Daffey’s memoir takes the subject matter of The Wonder Years and laces it with the idiosyncrasies of Australian suburbia. And as we all know, in an Australian version of the Wonder Years, Kevin Arnold and Winnie Cooper would have had spoken to each other about twice per season.

***

There was nothing I wouldn’t have said, done, or tried to be in order to curry Jenny’s favour … She could have said: ‘Chris, I’m a mentally disturbed, borderline psychotic, white supremacist, who believes in crop circles, racial purity and arranged marriages,’ –
and I would have simply said – ‘Great, same here!’ (p282)

The book is launched in the school library, and 160 guests toast the author and Templestowe Heights Primary for relaxing the normally steadfast school rule on bringing slabs of beer into the non fiction section. I wander the room, asking people for their Grade 6 crush anecdotes.

‘Hi, are you Penny Heale?’

I already know that she is. It’s ‘Jenny’ from the book. Her hair has changed from the class photos on the publicity site (www.chrisdaffey.com). For a moment, I’m tempted to start with a J-Lo adaption:

‘Don’t be fooled by the locks that I got, I’m still Jenny from the book,’

But I hold back. Instead I ask the million house point question. Did she like him too?

‘He’s one of the boys I took notice of,’ she smiles. ‘I do remember noticing Chris, but I noticed several other boys as well … But he’s definitely one where I thought later, I wonder what he’s up to?’

‘What was your reaction to the book?” I ask

“As far as the Jenny character goes, I think that some of it is true, and the rest of it is really nice.’ Penny pauses to smile at her boyfriend, Tim. ‘And I think that it’d be nice to have been that girl.’

Penny then goes on to recall an experiment that Daffey conducted in Grade 2 science using a battery and a globe. She tells the story with warmth and affection, although it is maybe worth noting that at no stage in A Girl, A Smock and A Simple Plan was ‘leaving a 20 year impression with my Year 2 lightbulb prac’ ever part of The Plan.

***

Julian Crowler was a large child. Not large enough to be considered fat, but fat enough to be considered large. At five feet and three inches, he towered above your average sixth grader and represented the kind of shambling, slow-witted menace that no primary school could be without….. In a poll conducted at the beginning of grade six, Julian Crowler was voted the second most frightening sight in the playground. Julian Crowler eating a meat pie was voted the first. (p186)

I ask Daffey why he wrote the book, and he answers in five words, ‘Because primary school is funny.’

Indeed, many of the book’s comic highlights come from general observations about primary school life. As much as the central plot revolves around a girl called Jenny, she shares equal billing with lunchtime games, the house points system, pornos, camps, gangs, bullies, the Oil Panic Game ‘n Watch and school excursions to chicory kilns. Daffey can also claim that, as of today, his is the most complete history yet written on both Adventure playgrounds and a flying toy of the early 80s called ‘Tim the Bird’.

These side excursions hang well around the central plot, yet when they break off on a tangent, that seems natural too. After all, the reality of crushes at primary school is that they are not the all consuming apocalypses they can become later on. I put this to Daffey and he agrees. Then, seated at a primary school scaled table I meet an ex-schoolmate of his named Lawson Bayly -.

‘Her name was Rebecca,’ Lawson says. ‘I fell for her in Grade 6. I remember being completely obsessed with her until Year 9. That’s pretty frickin sad isn’t it. I don’t think I ever actually saw her during that period.’

Daffey and I nod carefully. You get the feeling Lawson Bayly’s book on primary school crushes would have contained fewer comedic breakouts.

***

It’s amazing the joy with which launch goers recall their own Grade 6 romances. Juniper McCullagh fell for Ashley McIntosh (the recently retired Eagles champion) when they shared a class in Perth. ‘It began when I accidentally dropped an Easter egg in the bin and he got it out for me because he was so tall,’ she remembers.

Simon Hollingsworth, while stuck in an all boys school in Launceston gazed across the fence at lovely Jacinta, trapped in the all girls school. ‘I thought she was fantastic,’ he confesses, ‘and then I found out she was my second cousin … It was Tassie, so it made sense.’

Lisa Di Marco admits to chasing a kid called Matthew Wong around the toilet block. And current day principal at Templestowe Heights, Meredith Carracher tells the story of her mother Kath, ‘In Moe, back in the 40s, her primary school boyfriend embarrassed her enormously by presenting her with a Violet Crumble bar. She was so shocked and humiliated she threw it back in his face … Recently, they went back for a school reunion and at age 65, he turned up with another Violet Crumble.’

***

The crowd begins to disperse and Chris and Penny move outside for some photographs. On the same patch of concrete that a young Daffey once attempted to offer up some Yardley perfume, they pose for the camera. For most of the shoot, there’s 20 years worth of distance between them. She’s the PhD student who conducts drug and alcohol research. He’s the former lawyer who has just published a wonderful first book. Then the photographer suggests Penny spray Daffey with the taps. She takes aim, and with the practised thumb of someone who has never lost her faucet control, drenches Daffey around the head and neck.

‘Ahhhhhh!’ he gasps.

And in one photographic moment, the years fall away.

A Girl, A Smock And a Simple Plan is published by Penguin Books. For more information and photos visit www.chrisdaffey.com