Reflections on a salaried working life

by Jennifer Bryce


For most of my adult life I have earned a salary. Music and writing – the occupations I love most – don’t provide a particularly stable income. In the early 1970s, I was sitting in the ‘Ballroom’ of an educational research organisation, situated on top of the old Walker’s store by Glenferrie Railway station, grappling with the Humanities section of a multiple choice test. There was a glass ashtray on my desk. No bells ringing every 40 minutes. No kids screaming. Just  clatter from the nearby typing pool. I was fresh from my first teaching post at ‘Heidi’ Tech, with a class of over 50 Year 8 students for ‘double’ Social Studies on Friday afternoon, where it was not unusual to have a reluctant reader threaten you with a knife, ‘I’m not reading that, Miss!’

I had been appointed Research Assistant on an annual salary of less than $4000 a year. It was the beginning of a career in educational research.

Margaret was our tea lady. She made tea in a large aluminium pot for the ‘main’ building first, then came over to my section, where she wheeled a trolley of cups and plates of biscuits. We would sit at our desks listening for the clunk of the trolley. Every morning we gathered around it. Margaret remembered what everyone had – tea or coffee, milk, sugar, butternut snap or ched. Before coming to this job I didn’t have a clear preference for tea or coffee at particular times of day. On my first day I chose white tea. I was so impressed when, on my second day, without hesitation, Margaret poured white tea, no sugar that I had that every morning for the next six and a half years.

We revelled in the freedoms of the seventies. One of my male colleagues was married in a white kaftan, another helped me to make a jar of muesli at my desk. We selected the ingredients at the Glenferrie Market directly beneath us. I used to do my lunch-time oboe practice in a spare room in the ‘Cottage’, a vacant house used for printing and storage. There was a flexible approach to work – an approach which turned out to be highly productive. We’d have extended lunches – sometimes a trip to Melbourne University to hear a speaker such as Ralph Nader or else Friday afternoons in the Rice Bowl enhancing Rice Vermicelli with a rough red. But when there were deadlines, everyone stayed back late to help. We had to fill in time sheets. The accountant would personally hand each staff member their pay cheque. One of my colleagues always costed a portion of his time to ‘thinking’.

We, the workers in the ‘other’ building, saw the Director every Friday when we trooped across to the main building for morning tea. He would stand at the front of the staff room in his rather baggy black suit (a blacker and better tailored suit when there were Council meetings) conversing with a few senior staff, then he would make announcements. If someone were leaving there would be chocolate biscuits. His office was guarded by his secretary, and beyond her domain you could glimpse a dark panelled room with a large desk.

It was probably the secretary who told me that the director would like to come to Monash University with me to help try out a music test I had worked on, a daunting prospect for a young researcher. Even more daunting when I found that we were not going in his car but I was to drive us there in my little VW beetle. What would we talk about? What if we had an accident? He helped me carry the reel to reel tape recorder and parcels of different coloured trial test forms. He was ‘Dr’ and I was ‘Mrs’. I never thought of him as ‘Bill’. He was an avuncular, elderly man– older than my father. We didn’t have an accident and by the end of the trip we were joking about a music test having ‘high phis’ – a psychometric measure.

After I’d worked in the research assistant position for about a year I was encouraged to extend my qualifications. I should do a BEd, which in those days was an equivalent full-time year added to a Dip Ed, which I already had. I should do the subject Measurement and Evaluation. The first part was taken by my boss and was reasonably straightforward – I managed to get some kind of honour. The next term we had Test Theory. This was completely beyond me. I had no idea of what the ‘i-th variable’ was. I tried to find the formulae in our text book, but because the lecturer would clean the board before I had finished copying down the foreign hieroglyphics, I couldn’t even find what we were meant to be learning. At the end of a lecture he would ask: any questions? My lack of understanding was so great that I couldn’t even formulate a question. There was a three hour exam. I would fail for sure. In a panic, I borrowed some neatly written notes from a staff member on the Maths team who had taken the subject the previous year and passed.  Adrenalin rushing, I learnt the notes by rote and regurgitated them in the exam with absolutely no understanding at all. Whereas my colleague had gained a pass, I got second class honours – so much for the exam’s validity!

It was a formative time for many of us researchers. We were in our twenties and keen to explore and challenge conventions with that newly won freedom of young adults. Some kind of chemistry brought us together and significant, lasting friendships were formed. Was it the influence of the director? My boss? The tea trolley? There was an annual cricket match and three-legged races around the corridors at Christmas.

The camaraderie of the ‘Ballroom’ continued. We could all hear Jim brazenly asking for an outside phone line to order his Pewsey Vale wine. The accountant had such a loud sotto voce that we overheard all the gossip she exchanged in her phone calls to Bronwyn– she always went to George’s sale and, for one of her overseas trips, travelled on the Concorde.  On 11th November 1975, we sat together in disbelief to hear the Dismissal on someone’s transistor radio. Whenever I see clips of Whitlam’s ‘Well may we say God Save the Queen because nothing will save the Governor-General’, I remember that time in the ‘Ballroom’.

About a year later, shattering news.  We arrived at work to hear that the director had died—suicide.  So hard to believe, and impossible to understand.  A subdued church service. Within months, many of us had left. But we kept in touch.

Ever since leaving school I had confronted a dilemma of whether or not to make music my profession. I think that even today it takes courage to follow an artistic career. In those days it was even more challenging, particularly for a female.  I was shy, uncertain, and severely lacking in confidence.  A disgruntled school music teacher had advised me that if I were capable of doing something other than music, I should do it. I had started to take a Music degree, then changed to Arts. Although the most stimulating conversation I had at university was with a composer visiting from the Netherlands and composition really interested me, I didn’t take it up. I was far too shy to proffer my schoolgirl attempts; a suite for oboe and piano and a children’s musical. So I ended up taking an Arts degree, majoring in Music History. In the 1970s I had been starting to satisfy my musical needs by becoming involved in music assessment and I had looked into enrolling in a Masters in music assessment at a university in London. But my next job in a newly fledged university faculty had nothing to do with music. I found myself chairing a course development committee for Ergonomics for the Health Sciences. What is Ergonomics, I wondered. The niggling dilemma of whether or not to abandon a reasonably well paying job to satisfy my urge to be a musician was addressed at last in 1978, when I completed a diploma in musical performance (oboe) at the Victorian College of the Arts (while working part-time) and, some years later, I formed a chamber music group, Trio con Brio. I still play in that group.

In 1992, I was back again in educational research, sitting at what I remember as a Chippendale table in the Conference Room of my ‘alma mater’ in Hawthorn. I was being interviewed for a Research Fellow position. Between leaving in 1977 and rejoining the staff in 1992 I had learned a lot about health sciences and medical education, gained a music qualification and undertaken some professional playing and teaching, had wrenchingly sad experiences of motherhood, run an antiques business and taught at Wedderburn High School. There were quite a few familiar faces from the 1970s.

I had returned to a familiar workplace, but the tea trolley and typing pool had gone. Computers displayed green font on their screens. Email was new. Staff members were somewhat more sedate and grown-up.  Yet one could probably say that the gala event of 1992 was the Christmas Party. The new director was resplendent in academic gown as the principal at a ‘school’ prize giving. We managed to scratch together an orchestra – the players wore school uniforms. The 40 year-old leader looked about 12 in her Balwyn High School dress. We performed an extremely abbreviated version of the Messiah – sheep certainly went astray from time to time.

By 1992 I was ‘mid career’. I was completing a Masters degree in careers education and received valuable support from colleagues, particularly the library. I had been slogging away at the literature review. I mentioned this to one of the librarians. The next day there was a pile of books and journals on my desk – all the things I needed. I didn’t even have to walk into the library to fetch them!

I love travel and a large proportion of my overseas adventures came about through work. The very first time I went to Europe was to the International Society for Music Education conference in Montreux. Australian music educators sat by the lake in Montreux, networking, although we didn’t use the term in those days. We formed what was to become the Association for Research in Music Education. Then in the 1990s there were further travel opportunities. The BERA conference in York, where, at a pre-conference workshop, I was able to focus on the topic for my PhD. By this time former colleagues were working at OECD in Paris, and after I’d attended a conference in England I went to France and was taken to see Monet’s house and garden – a memorable day. Once I’d completed my PhD there were workshops on ‘lifelong learning’ and ‘interpersonal skills’ in parts of the Middle East. Higher-order thinking became a buzzword and, particularly in countries where rote learning prevailed, it was important to encourage students to think critically – to reason and evaluate. There were workshops in Jordan (an opportunity to see Petra), Saudi Arabia, Colombia, Botswana, Uganda, Indonesia. And these workshops forged friendships with colleagues as we tried to figure out unfamiliar cultures: ‘Do they really understand, or are they just being polite?’ I remember walking around Amman in the evening trying to tactfully dispose of an extremely rich birthday cake that had been left in my room by hotel management.

Part of our work routine was ‘panel meetings’, where we would chisel away at material for a test, trying to get the wording absolutely spot on. This kind of work is so helpful for developing writing skills.

Fairly soon after completing my PhD I became a ‘senior’ person. Instead of seeking mentors, looking at job advertisements and seeing oneself as forging a career, I was giving advice and helping less experienced staff. I thoroughly enjoyed being a team leader; exploring new possibilities for our work, recognising and developing team members’ diverse and considerable skills.

When it came time to clear out my ‘paper-less office’, a cynical part of me felt that, having worked at the one organisation for 24 years, I was now throwing it all out: a lot went into confidential destruction or the blue paper rubbish boxes. But of course that’s not true. There were reports I’d forgotten about, stacks of literature reviews, loads of test item material. Overall, it’s the people who are memorable. And I’m now ready to devote my ‘working’ life to writing fiction.

About a week before I left my salaried job, I was having a lunch-time walk and I sauntered into a clothing shop, as one sometimes does, working in Camberwell. I was the only person in the shop and the attendant seemed to be asleep. She suddenly woke up and became aware of me flicking through the racks. To compensate for her initial inattention, she couldn’t stop talking. I didn’t want to buy anything and was trying to move on. She pursued me towards the door, chattering away. In the end I said, ‘I really must get going . . .’

‘Oh, do you have an appointment or something?’

‘No. I’m in my lunch hour.’

‘Do you work?’ She stared at me in amazement.

It confirmed for me that it was time to move on to the next phase of my life  . . .