A Working Life

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In five weeks I shall never be in paid employment again. My migrant parents were workers and instilled a strong work ethic which has served me well. I have long held the theory that the commitment to work, and to work as hard at finding work as doing work goes a long way to keeping the head space tidy. Let’s face it, we spend a lot of time in that room which is our ‘head’ – best to keep the mess at bay.

Although I cannot recall the reference for this quote, the meaning deeply resonated with me.

“You can never be truly happy if you are not in service”

For most of my life, paid work was my service. More recently, volunteer work has been my service. I like to work, I enjoy the culture of work and I have worked very hard to ensure that I could always work.

The desire to work started early for me, took many side roads off the employment highway and allowed me to be independent, meet an array of incredible people and have all the ups and downs that comes with a working life.

My first job (not really a job as such) – just the first time I used a skill to earn money was in high school. I had an eye and the knack for copying handwriting. For a brief period I ‘assisted’ students who needed a note from their parents about being absent from school, especially the girls, as we knew that the head mistress would compare the notes with the previous ones kept on file. It was a pay what you could afford service and was most often free, or bartered for in cigarettes. I sold the faggies for cash.

My first paid employment whilst still in school was helping as a Saturday morning tray girl – and yes, the title of the job was Tray Girl. My Mum worked at a nursing home and recommended me to the Matron. It was the most delightful job which involved loading and preparing the tea cart and then rolling throughout the aged care home and serving tea and biscuits to the residents. I loved it! I loved it so much that I am wondering if I can find a nursing home which will let me pop in to be a volunteer ‘tray girl’ when I get to the end of my five weeks.

I left school and gained my first position at Barry and Nilsson Solicitors which were based then in Qantas House in Queen Street. I adored everything about working and dressing for the city each day. Entering the foyer of Qantas House was a daily treat as this is where the glamorous uniformed Qantas staff made and sold airline bookings. It was a beautiful white building with the Qantas logo beaming from the roof and our offices were on the first floor. I was the mail girl and was taught all aspects of conveyancing. It is impossible to imagine an era where title searches were conducted manually at the Titles Office in Adelaide Street where dozens of law clerks and conveyancers would be ordering the enormous linen bound volumes to be brought out so we could search and determine ownership and possible easements. It was in this job that I served papers on a notorious minister, learned my first PBX switchboard, ran endless messages for the wives of the partners and possibly picked up my lifelong interest in real estate. As a conveyancer, I saw for the first time that there were people who bought and sold houses for profit, to set up family trusts and had all sorts of ways to make their businesses work for them and to minimize tax. My first pay packet was $53 and it was called a pay packet because most often people were paid in a small brown packet with cash and a hand written pay slip. It would be years later that this quaint pay system would modernize to cheques and then direct deposit. Super – well that was just a way to say something was really good!

Despite my love for the city life my young self was drawn to the possibilities of a new shopping centre being built very close to home. It was a Target Centre – a retailer unknown to our region at that time. It was very appealing, as by then I had bought my first car and the idea of being able to drive to work felt very grown up! No more crowded buses from the city! I had no idea what I was doing and did not really think I would leave my job but I attended the open interviews which were held at an offsite warehouse. It all barreled along faster than I thought as I was offered to start as soon as I could and I found myself saying – yes. I was then terrified to resign from my conveyancing job and it did not help matters that moving from the law practice to a retail job felt like a massive step down.

Still, I was more drawn to the idea of local work and even more so, working with other young people. They were great years with significant opportunities. Target retail was far more elegant than present, the training was precise, the expectations were high and this new store with the youngest store manager ever appointed was meant to be a show piece. We had an active social club and a yearly meet with other Target stores in a carnival style day, similar to the now popular ninja competitions. It was hard work, low pay, not really prestigious and it was so much fun! I was selected and trained to be the check out supervisor and got to wear a blue satin sash to announce my title. Eventually I moved into the merchandise office and was the purchaser of a range of hard goods. It was a windowless office in the warehouse at the back of the store and although I actually enjoyed the work I was craving something more lively and happily moved sideways when the receptionist position became available. I loved everything about that job, especially getting to select the music that played in the store. I was sent to a toy fair to prepare for Christmas and do the vocal advertisements over the PA. We were among the first to be introduced to the rubik’s cube – a plastic multicolored puzzle cube of moving squares which would be a global phenomenon and gathers a following to this day!

From reception or the department managers’ office the calls would have a slightly competitive tone across the PA, “Good afternoon customers and welcome to Target. Customers today we have some great bargains for you in our toy department. That’s right customers, you can find all your Christmas gifts right here and we have an extensive range to satisfy every little one in your family. So rush on over to the toy department – you can see our red light across the store. Head over and see the bargains we have in store for you.”

Not to forget the routine PA calls, “Good afternoon customers, as the time is now 5:25pm our store will be closing in 5 minutes. Please make your way to the front check outs and finalize your purchases. On behalf of the management and staff we would like to thank you for shopping at Target and look forward to your continued custom.”

To this day, I love the idea of reception work and tell my kids that when they start a business I will be their receptionist for free!

Things were changing and people were moving on so I hunkered down and lived on a shoe string for six months to save for a flight to London. My next job would be almost 17000 km from home. I arrived in the freezing capital without a coat in the lead up to the announcement of the engagement of Diana Spencer to Prince Charles. It created a great deal of British excitement and employment opportunities. As I was born in Glasgow and was a UK passport holder I had full working rights and quickly secured a position as an invoice typist for the leather goods company which had won the rights to produce a range of commemorative leather goods to mark the royal engagement. If only one had a crystal ball to write that story!

Over the summer I joined Marks and Spencer. It was fabulous! Back in the eighties the store was elegant, quality and the staff benefits were unlike anything I had experienced. We had a beautiful uniform which was as stylish as any flight attendant. We had access to free services including podiatry, reduced hair styling and a canteen which provided hot delicious food for lunch each day which was included as part of the benefits of working for Marks and Sparks, as it was affectionally known in the UK.

I sold so many lovely dresses to ladies who wanted to chat to hear my Australian accent. It was always a moment of confusion when they asked me where I was born – Glasgow, oh? Where did I grow up? Oh, Brisbane…Australia. Do you know Pearl Evans, she went to Australia and she lives in Perth? When I travelled from London to Scotland and back in three days to attend my Aunt Terry and Uncle Billy’s 25th wedding anniversary (sitting at the reproduced bridal table in place of my Mum who was of course miles away in Australia) well, everyone thought that to do such a trip was remarkable! Distance to Australians, is a tad different to distance in the UK.

After burning through my savings on side trips to Europe and in English pubs, I sold my car in Australia to stay afloat financially as UK wages were not generous. I had planned to stay but a family wedding and empty pockets pulled me home to Australia.

The day after I arrived, still foggy from the drawn out economy flight, I interviewed for the receptionist/switchboard operator at Metro Ford Head Office in Spring Hill, Brisbane. I found out later that a part of my success was due to being so motivated as to be out job hunting the same day I arrived home! It was a great job – most of the time. New car sales ‘men’ – as they all were in those days, were a competitive, arrogant bunch.

Our job, as they were two operators with 32 incoming lines and 120 extensions on the PABX board was to ascertain which salesman picked up his phone first, following our page for a – ‘new car inquiry’. It was never a win, win situation and tempers often sizzled enough for one of them to stomp up to our area to deliver a tirade of words which would never be acceptable in the contemporary work space!

I was restless for a bigger challenge and I could sense the winds of change with technology, knowing that plug and cord switchboards with multiple operators would evolve to sleeker keyboards requiring less hands. I wanted the ease of driving to work, against the traffic and with free easy parking. I targeted some large businesses in the local industrial area and sent out my resume and a letter of introduction.

I was genuinely surprised and very happy to be contacted and interviewed for the position of assistant to the accountant at GEC Engineering at Salisbury. I loved the work, the office staff and the chance to work a 9 day fortnight, made possible by working an extra half an hour each day. It was the era of strong unions and our pay, conditions and job security were excellent. We were a social bunch and enjoyed our self organized social club and many Friday boozy lunches together.

I was asked to take up training by the accountant with a view to taking over the role within several years as expansion was certain. At that time I was on my way to being married and likely to move geographically and deep down I had ideas beyond ledgers and numbers, much as I loved the work – a long held dream of teaching was in my heart and in my horizon.

Shane and I married in 1984 and a few days later started the drive from Brisbane to a place called Townsville for his first posting as a military officer – a little over 1300 kilometers. My Mum and Dad put on our sweet, lovely wedding which was simple, fun and family orientated. We purposely divided the tables with guests from ‘his’ side and ‘my’ side which for us ended up working perfectly as Scottish people know how to have a party and so it turned out did the relatives from the Harry (Shane’s Dad) side of the family.

I would spend the next four years dedicated to my teaching studies whilst working Thursday nights and Saturday mornings at Target in Townsville. We were so liquid! We often joked that we were never so rich in dollars as back then. We had no debt, literally no bills and when I collected my pay packet, still in cash – which was usually just over $100 due to overtime each Saturday doing the noon close up – well that was ours to splash out on dinner and a movie.

At first I was in lay-by with another gorgeous young woman, Teri, and soon both of us would be the cash office girls, meaning that we collected the money from the checkout, counted and balanced up – sometimes taking more than one go and a heap of stress for Teri and I! She was faster than me and super competent. Terri had started her teaching course a year before me and it was just so wonderful but sad too when she left three years later to take up her first job as a teacher. That young girl personified grace and loveliness and was just so smart and good at everything! I have never encountered anyone who could be a better primary school teacher than Teri – lucky kids who had her, lucky staff who got to teach with her!

Fortunately we managed to squeeze four years at that first posting so I could complete my course. In those silly days it was very difficult to transfer a course and getting registered in a different state was not guaranteed without further and frankly unnecessary study. We remained in the same state and I was appointed to Wilston State School in Brisbane. I would begin my career with a Year 3 class and I would also complete my final full time teaching placement with year 3 at Radford College, Canberra, twenty-nine years later.

We were young but not reckless and we put our strongest priority always, in being together, so a working life would be shaped by geographical movements. We bought our first house at Alexandra Hills in 1991 and I transferred from beautiful Wilston to the newly opening Hilliard State School. It was a young dynamic staff and again, an absolutely wonderful experience with Bernie – the best Principal and a hard working but fun staff. It was hard to leave. Life was perfect, our neighbors Jenny and Eric were just the best, our house was small but gorgeous and I loved my school. We had two little ones. It really was hard to leave but adventure and new opportunity drew us north again to Townsville.

I transferred to Rasmussen State School and experienced dramatic change. The strong management of the school had changed since my days there years before completing my practicum. Our staff were among the best teachers I have ever worked with – dedicated, talented and determined. It was a challenging environment. It did not take me long to sort out the outrageous behaviors of my year 5 class and they became one of most happy memories in teaching. There is nothing quite like getting a kid to know – that they can learn! I went off on (unpaid maternity leave – Qld of course, the only state to not have paid leave) and recall vividly the call I received from staffing, prior to the end of my leave about returning to school. It seemed that the Year 7 cohort was very demanding that year and a teacher new to the school had refused to return…it was also a fact that a portion of the class had been my year 5s. Well, that was just too good a challenge. I never had a scrap of bother with them – the absolute devils!

It was the craziest of time of my working life though. I had been selected whilst on leave to train as a Guidance Officer. I had a deep interest in counseling and was thrilled for the opportunity which was a new model of part time training with Education Qld and completion of the Master of Education (Guidance and Counseling) at James Cook University. I had two children under 4. I was pregnant with no 3 and I would take her at 6 weeks old to my first lecture. The incredible Wendy whom I met on that first day was an endless source of encouragement and support. Later that year I agreed to teach 2 days per week at my previous school. The department funded the first 12 months of our Master’s degree so I undertook to complete it in that time frame – and made it. We had no family but strong friends and we basically had a year where the minute Shane walked through the door, I entered the study and began writing.

My thesis on the onset of anorexia in primary school girls challenged the assumption at the time that this insidious body distortion and weight obsession more common with girls than boys, commenced in the teenager years. Of course today there is a deeper understanding of body issues with boys and girls, we now have targeted therapies and counseling. Obesity and addiction are so prevalent in our contemporary society and all my work with the incredible Professor Carmen Luke, trying to understand body issues – well, hopefully far cleverer people than I continue to decipher this important work.

It was hard to leave, again. I started working as an Acting Guidance Officer, (we are Hollywood, we joked in the School Support Centre) – it did not mean that I was pretending to be a GO, simply that for a time I was appointed as a GO but not yet permanent. When a position came up at Bowen, we had a frank conversation about settling down, one of those ones that comes up now and then, when we sit and ponder the ‘what ifs’ that life slips our way.

In 1997 we moved to the Queenscliff area in Victoria which is raw, beautiful and bitterly cold in winter. It was the first time in my life that I have enjoyed an entire year without working. With two kids at school and one in kindergarten two mornings a week – and no chance of employment in the little area of Pt Lonsdale, many of the partners of the military officers attending command and staff college, would likewise experience a year of not having paid employment. A year of freedom!

It was tight financially as there were many social functions which we were expected to attend and rather than miss out – we paid for babysitting. It was one of the best years of our life. We made such great friends. It was a year of regular hours for Shane, a year where partners were home and morning coffees, tennis matches, picnics, getting kids together after school, sport and family weekends – the life that most families have all the time, were for once the norm for all of the military families including our international students. I am smiling just thinking about it. By the end of it, we were poor but happy and recharged.

Shane’s working life took us from our year of normality to a posting in the USA. Hawaii. There was nothing difficult about making the decision to take up the post – heck yes! Our kids did very well with their academics, social and sports so the mid year schooling framework was relatively easy to manage. With the USA emphasis on rote learning and testing, they benefitted from accepting a new routine of much out of hours homework – which did them no harm what so ever!

Once the family was settled in, I looked around for job interests other than teaching which was very lowly paid in the USA. I also had to be able to drop and collect the kids so another school was not an option. Due to the military posting, with a fair load of paperwork via the Australian Embassy, partners were eligible to obtain working rights. Chaminade University was close to the children’s school and I mailed my resume hoping that I might pick up a tutor role in the education faculty.

Let’s just fast forward to a panel of three for a ‘chat’ where I was so nervous I had to take a sip of water for my shaky voice and then I was so panic stricken, I spilt the water! How I was contracted as an adjunct professor to teach Foundations of American Education (never ever worked and prepared so hard each week before class in my life) remains surreal to me. I also visited and assessed students on their practicums and provided workshops on campus during practicums where I focussed on behavior management using a lot of my work from being a GO. The students were very receptive as managing behaviors is always one of the biggest challenges for students in the classrooms of other teachers. My work was very practical and the reviews at the end of semester from the students reinforced that I was giving them useful strategies that actually brought about change in their school environments.

I enjoyed the position and remain very thankful to have been able to teach at an American University. The pay was ridiculously low but that was not the point. I had my own car park in the ‘professors’ only section and when my students would leave messages for Professor Caughey which I constantly told them not to call me – it was just different there, if you were the teacher on campus they referred to you as professor. Somewhere I still have my staff card, Adjunct Professor Caughey!

Why not return to Sydney and stroll past an adorable all girls school at the bottom of my street and decide – I am going to work there! Well, I did! I always gave over the first chunk of months to allow everyone to settle, Shane into a new role – but he was always uber competent and did not need any help but the kids deserved one of us to be full bore into easing the hard work of new beginnings. I took that on and sort of called it being on tap 24/7. I hope it helped.

Once all was running smoothly in Hurstville I was called in response to the resume I had dropped off at Danebank Anglican School for Girls. When I met with the Head Mistress (Yes) and the Head of Junior School, I assumed I was having a chat about going on the casual roster. Therefore I was relaxed and confident. A few days later I received a contract in the mail, followed by a call for the position as Year 5 teacher! It was a stretch to take on as the kids were 11, 8 and 6 and it was not without some effort on their part (again no family) but we got there. It was really hard to leave that outstanding school and I was offered permanency with an outstanding salary and much reduced fees and guaranteed placements for Alex and Annie. The call of adventure was too strong for our little family and we would embark on an experience of a lifetime.

We spent three days in Rome at the height of summer and braved most of our sight seeing on foot. No doubt we were ‘cheated’ a few times with prices and fake tickets but we had an absolutely fantastic brief stay on our way to a twelve month posting to Jerusalem. Even now it is breath taking to recall living in this iconic city where the three great religions collide.

Sadly, our arrival coincided with one of the worst suicide bombings at a pizza restaurant with enormous loss of life and devastating injuries. I recall sitting in the back of a UN vehicle with my three children as Shane was updated on the attack. As we made our way from the airport to our hotel, I looked out of the window, hearing the pared back briefing for the sake of the kids and felt numb and completely unsure of our decision to accept this move. I did however, and still do have unfailing faith and confidence in Shane and knew that he would be in the position to know whether we should stay or go.

Eight months on with peace talks beyond stalling he would make that recommendation to the Australian government and our military families would be evacuated from Israel which to this day remains an unaccompanied mission. The time we did have in this gorgeous city was fantastic. Our kids thrived at the Anglican International school of Jerusalem where I did a little on call casual teaching. The governance of this school must have been extraordinarily creative as the payment system was a touch murky and required my attendance at a particular city bank in a dense area often targeted by bombers. Predictably, Shane had a firm opinion on this. Besides, the kids and I were having such a fabulous time with the other international families that I was not too sad about having a sabbatical from the classroom. We followed all the rules to keep as safe as possible but eventually the political situation made staying impossible.

Although he secured the postings of all the other serving members, his own, due to the command level was not yet confirmed. Generously, we were supported to a location of our choice so we made our way to the Sunshine Coast to fulfill a long held desire to live in beautiful Buderim. We were certain that this would be Shane’s time to ‘adios’ military life so after getting the kids sorted into two different schools I had the task of buying a house.

My heart was set on Buderim – a leafy, hilly, family area with good schools and a very short drive to the trendy beaches of Mooloolaba and Maroochydore. We spent almost three months in an apartment enjoying the views and proximity to the waves. It was winter but we were not acclimatized so the ocean was the after school playground.

Working life followed soon after and as fellow teachers know, the pathway in – is through casual on call teaching leading to contracts and possible permanency. I started receiving the 6.30am calls from the kid’s large state school, Mountain Creek. Hard to imagine the Deputy at school on the phone but that is how the absent teachers were replaced. Often, one day would lead to the next, then a couple of short contracts and also calls from a new Catholic school, Siena. With staffing policies it was very difficult to be placed in a coast government school without the accumulation of points acquired in remote localities especially far north indigenous communities. Staffing could only offer me northern Brisbane schools. Private and Catholic schools employ on merit and to meet their needs, so I began to accept work at Siena to secure a teaching position further down the track.

Shane had returned from the Middle East and was commuting to Brisbane. There were long days and busy weekends full of catching up on family life, the kid’s sport and the endless jobs that go with homeownership. There was rarely a day that I was not teaching at Siena and I would interview for and secure a part time position for the following year. I pared back the on call teaching as I wanted my year six class to associate me as their job share teacher, not as a casual teacher. It was a busy time and I was more than happy with the part time job which truth be told meant almost full time work for me – just part time pay and contact time! I really enjoyed the school and the staff. It was a new and growing school and a future full time position was likely but we were not content being separated as a family. It sounds like an old fashioned point of view especially as more and more the norm is for families to live separate for the sake of jobs and dollars. No decision is perfect and this one and the next few would be difficult.

Our move to Canberra and into our own inner south red brick classic home collided with some long term changes for our family. Schooling is always important and peers even more so in the teen years, however with our eldest starting senior schooling, the middle into high school and the youngest in the final year of primary – it was hard, really hard. We did our best, which only sort of worked but we got through it and academically they all did exceptionally well, studied for degrees and postgraduate and are in admirable careers and most importantly have loving, wonderful life partners.

I was in the process of seeking my ACT teacher registration when I received two phone calls, one from the University of Canberra regarding a tutor position in the Maths Department (which frankly scared me – though it was the teaching of primary maths) and the other from Defence Community Organisation. Thanks, but no thanks to Canberra University at that time but I did embark on an 18 month contract working in the Education and Special Needs area to a passionate and dedicated manager, Joan, who worked tirelessly in programs to support families of personnel in the Australian Defence Forces. Whilst I enjoyed much of it, in the end I was drawn to the professionalism of teaching and had gained a position as a learning support teacher by the end of my contract.

Our little triangle of schools – the kids at the end of our street and me across from our street. I only walked once because there was always so much to lug! Canberra, could also be freezing for a fat chunk of the year. St Benedicts was a small school with a brilliant Principal, Anne. The staff were fabulous and the kids were diverse. I was sad to move on but ready for the next chapter as staying permanently in Canberra was never something we wished for. Warm weather and blue seas called our hearts so another move took us one step closer.

We headed north again and this, for the first time, meant leaving our daughter and son who were attending universities in Canberra and sharing happily, and not too happily, a lovely apartment we bought just across the border in Queanbeyan. They tell some good tales, had some stand up barnies and I’m sure there are plenty that we shall never hear a word about!

Right about now, even I am feeling that this tale of my working life will go on forever. How easy, but dull it seems to me, to just stay put in the one school! Many people do and fabulously so, no doubt. I can’t claim much of a working life during this incredible time of living at Jezzine House and being both very busy and quite free to please myself. I crazily did a four month stint raising funds for the Special Christmas Children’s Charity and a small amount of casual teaching at Townsville Grammar.

From Townsville, the military road of a General led expressly back to Canberra. My daughter was working at the University of Canberra and alerted me to an expression of interest in the ITAS program. Tutoring indigenous students to help them to achieve their tertiary education goals was a career highlight. I had quite a diverse group. They were openly skeptical. We bonded and had great success. I had complete autonomy and did not book any appointments prior to 1pm during that particular Canberra winter. My students were beyond happy – not to be hauled in too early in the day. It was also here that I would begin casual teaching at the remarkabel Radford College and ultimately contract on to my full time year 3 class of happy, bright, engaged students. This IB school was spectacular and a fine way to end a long, much enjoyed working and teaching life.

We were logging the miles up again with a second posting to the USA, this time Tampa in Florida. The chance to experience living on a military base in the most wonderful and welcoming neighborhood was simply fabulous. One could be out and busy all day, every day. I started to learn Spanish. We bought and enjoyed stand up paddles boards. I became involved in helping to promote and create a family centre which was the vision of the American spouses who vigorously gave their time to support military families. It was very social. There were families from all areas of the globe coming and going as some postings were short but sweet. Our hoodie on the base was full of great people! We were sad to leave but home is home and the absence from our kids, our families – the loss of parents, well – we were more than ready for some stability and control in our life.

The type of permanency which comes from making fierce decisions and putting family first and a working life to a well deserved pause is exhilarating and not without doubt. After almost seven years of intending to – we finally moved into the home on the Sunshine Coast that we dreamed of renovating to enjoy for our retirement. A location which was selected and agreed upon during separate and private conversations with each of our kids!

I’m still in transition. I am used to moving every few years. If you have stuck with me on this long read, you can see I am used to finding a new job with each move. I have been working as an adult literacy tutor. This is a volunteer role and like so many aspects of life, this role came to a halt during COVID 19. I was also a Smith Family volunteer supporting children at risk before COVID. During lock down I volunteered on roster to staff the check point at a local nursing home and put in heaps of hours copywriting for West Moreton Health.

During this time a resume which I had submitted generated a phone call. The short version is that for the last seven months I have been a part time educator and as school ends on December 9, 2020 – I too have the fullest of intention of putting a sweet full stop (also known as a period) to the long chapter known as, my working life.

Of course some jobs were better than others. Without family support it was often more a job to work than the actual job! The people and the kids – those whom you work for to bring service, made it all so worthwhile. I shall miss it but I really do feel ready for the next season and the new opportunities that the granting of sweet precious time may bring.

This is a long compilation and certainly not of much interest for many people. My blog’s intent is always legacy. I would love for future generations, should there be some interest, to have more than a maiden and married name on a ‘family tree’. My hope is that I have given that one or two interested souls in the far off future years, a bit more substance to the roots that make a family.

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