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Hard work over a long distance’ was author Tony Birch’s ticket to success

May 18, 2023

Life: it’s not a sprint. And the lessons this high-school dropout learnt training for a marathon helped set him on the road to becoming an award-winning author.

By Tony Birch

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During a high-school reunion that I attended several years ago, the conversation turned to memories of our teachers: the crazy ones, the cruel and the brilliant. After more than 40 years apart, we gathered around a large table and reminisced, each of us recalling a favourite. Each of us except me. While I had strong memories of, and could easily have recalled, wild stories about my many transgressions then, I could barely remember who’d taught me, let alone comment on their qualities.

I was not surprised. High school was an institution I avoided at every opportunity. When I was in class, my inability to concentrate for even brief periods of time meant that not only did I learn very little, but I also became a disruptive influence.

When I was finally expelled from my second Melbourne high school, Princes Hill, in 1973, both myself and the teaching staff were more than glad. For teachers, the classroom could return to relative order; and I could embark on a career riding a bicycle as a telegram boy with the Postmaster-General.

To understand how I became such a failure in high school, a child who wilfully refused to learn, it’s necessary to return to my years in primary school, which were a success. I was taught in the Catholic system, firstly by nuns at Sacred Heart School in Fitzroy, followed by the Christian Brothers at St Patrick’s Boys School in the same Melbourne suburb. I excelled in those years.

Birch in year 2 at the Sacred Heart School in Melbourne’s Fitzroy: “I excelled in those years.”

The Christian Brothers were known for the regimented approach they adopted in the classroom, supported by a hefty dose of corporal punishment administered with a regulation black strap – more a cosh than a trouser belt. I had no fear of being strapped or receiving “the cuts”, as it was more commonly known. The potential violence of a piece of leather could not compare with the fists of my father at home.

What drove me to excellence at primary school was neither fear nor regulation, but a love of order. At the Christian Brothers I had my own desk, my own exercise books and pens. I had a hook with my own name written above where I could hang my own school blazer. At school, I didn’t have to share what was mine with another student. At home, I had to share my bed with my older brother Brian, whom I adored. I had to share my clothes, my food, our few toys and the occasional second-hand book that somehow found its way into the house. We even shared the same precious bathwater.

At school, I could learn to write with the neatest hand. I could read and learn in relative quiet. And, most importantly, I knew everything had its place, and once I chose the place to secure my books and pens and thoughts, they would remain there, undisrupted until I returned to them. Each afternoon, before closing the lid of my wooden desk, I would admire the neatness I’d created.

By the end of year 6, in 1968, my mother could no longer afford the fees and I was enrolled the following year at Richmond High School. There were dozens of teachers there, with names I couldn’t remember, hundreds of students, and we sat at tables, not desks, and carried our books in our school bags.

I left school at 15, with no qualification, destined for a future as factory fodder, according to my occasionally Marxist teacher.

Our teachers were young and beautiful and had only recently graduated from university. With their shimmering hair and bright outfits, they looked like graduates from Woodstock. Our teachers took us on school excursions to anti-war marches and explained that we were the children of the downtrodden working-class and the dispossessed “Aborigines”.

The following year, our English teacher explained that he would understand if we rebelled against “the system” (whatever that was) and didn’t attend school at all. Most students in class didn’t take him seriously, but a few miscreants, myself included, took the teacher at his word.

Our school was on a bank of the Birrarung (Yarra) River. We retreated to the shadows below a rail bridge above the river and swam and smoked cigarettes. By the time our English teacher withdrew his revolutionary manifesto and ventured down to the river to order us back to the classroom, it was too late for me. I’d clocked out. I left school at 15, with no qualification, destined for a future as factory fodder, according to my occasionally Marxist teacher.

As a teenage Australian rules footballer (right) with his older brother, Brian; any natural athletic talent Birch had then was extinguished by alcohol and smoking.

Any opportunity to return to education would not have been possible without the aid of two regulated habits of mine: reading and long-distance running. Whatever else I failed at during my school years, I was a voracious reader, obtaining my first public library card at the age of five. I read storybooks, followed by novels, and was never without a book beside my bed, in my schoolbag, or in my hands when riding the train to and from school. After leaving school, my reading habit widened to works of non-fiction, mostly political titles, and quality daily newspapers.

My second and equally vital pursuit was long-distance running. When I was a young teenager, I’d been a very good sprinter and won most events I entered on our annual sports day. Dedication was non-existent. I rarely trained, relying on so-called but dubious “natural ability” to get me through. By the age of 16, I was smoking and drinking heavily, and whatever athletic talent I had was quickly extinguished by alcohol and nicotine. I was playing football at the time and shifted from a swift wing player to a lumbering back pocket.

In the year I turned 21, I quit cigarettes and, a few years later, alcohol. Cold turkey. And I took up running again. Initially, the distances were short: three or four kilometres on a good night. But within a year, I was running 60 kilometres a week.

Although I’ve written about my love of running many times, I’ve never been able to fully articulate the depth of this passion. To describe my habit as a metaphysical experience might sound a bit wanky, but it happens to be true.

By the mid-1980s, fed up with the excuses I’d created to justify my failures at high school – blaming teachers, the system, my disrupted home life – I decided that the only way to find my way back to education would be hard work. In 1986, a new TAFE college opened in Broadmeadows, in Melbourne’s northern suburbs. “Broady” was dominated by Victorian Housing Commission estates, and while it was a tough working-class suburb, it was unfairly targeted in the media as a “Little Chicago”. That year I enrolled in the college’s HSC course.

The same year I enrolled at TAFE, I decided I’d run my first marathon. I’d been running for a decade but had never completed more than a half-marathon (21.1 kilometres).

A friend of mine at the time, Bert Wright, a lifelong runner, was an elite, sub–two-hour-30-minute marathoner. In late 1986, I talked to him about my decision to run a marathon the following year. He advised me to establish a weekly program, beginning January 1. I’d be running six days a week, every week, until the marathon in October, gradually building my kilometres. My friend assured me that if I stuck to my schedule, I’d successfully finish the event, running across the finish line rather than crawling on my hands and knees.

I had to adopt the same approach to study as I had with my marathon training. There would be no cutting corners.

For the next nine months I never missed a run, and never fell short of my weekly goal. My Sunday morning run eventually stretched to 35 kilometres. Out of necessity, I occasionally ran in extreme heat, pouring rain, in near total darkness and along busy highways rather than the dirt tracks beside the Birrarung River that I favoured.

My marathon began on a cool Sunday morning, surrounded by thousands of other runners. For the first 20 kilometres or more, we joked with each other and waved to the crowds offering enthusiasm and water at the side of the road. At around the 30-kilometre mark, we fell silent, except for the pounding of running shoes on bitumen and the grunts and gasps of tiring bodies. The final stretch of the run, from St Kilda Junction to the Arts Centre, is undoubtedly the longest four kilometres I’ve ever run. But I finished in one piece, worn down but not out.

My 1987 year of running, and Bert’s wise counsel, taught me so much about how I should approach the HSC classes. If I was to successfully complete the year, I’d have to adopt the same approach to study as I had with my marathon training. There would be no cutting corners. Each week I’d set goals and stick to them. And I’d pace myself, gradually increasing my study load.

Birch on his first day of teaching in the history department at MelbourneUniversity in 1997.

It wasn’t all running and study, of course. There was a teacher involved. On my first night at the TAFE college, it was extremely hot, not unlike the first weeks of school when I was a child. All that was missing were the blisters that accompanied new shoes and the heavily bruised banana dying in my lunch box. I was in an English class taught by Anne Misson (later Anne Mitchell). That first night, she asked each of us to write a one-page piece on any subject of our choosing. Not surprisingly, I wrote about my love of running and handed my sheet of paper to the front of the classroom.

The following week, Anne handed the piece of writing back to me with a simple compliment: “You can really do this stuff.” In the second half of the year, she encouraged me to apply for tertiary entry. I had no idea what she was talking about. “University,” she explained. “You should apply to go to university.”

I would have laughed at Anne were it not for the serious look on her face. No one in my family had ever finished high school, let alone attended a university. No matter how well I thought I was doing that year, the idea that I’d study at a university was an embarrassing prospect. I completed my tertiary application, but told no one in my family.

As a visiting scholar at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto, Japan, in 2019.

I did very well at my exams and was offered a place at Melbourne University for the following year, to study arts. As I walked through the wrought-iron gates that guarded the university from outsiders on the first day of classes in 1988, I momentarily hesitated. I felt that I was a fraud … until I remembered what had got me there: hard work over a long distance, with people by my side, encouraging me, reminding me that I was good enough. People who included a running coach, a teacher and a remarkable family.

A year ago, I applied for a professorial role in Australian literature at Melbourne University. A couple of months later, after learning I was the successful applicant, I laced my running shoes and walked from my home to the river, along the same streets I’d lived on as a kid – streets where we were once told that we’d amount to nothing. Leaving the streets, I headed along a dirt track beside the river, feeling my body as it warmed, slipping easily into a familiar and nurturing rhythm.

Tony Birch is the Boisbouvier Chair in Australian Literature at Melbourne University. This is an edited extract from Teacher, Teacher ($35; Affirm Press), out July 25.

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My marathonTony Birch is the Boisbouvier Chair in Australian Literature at Melbourne University. This is an edited extract from Teacher, Teacher ($35; Affirm Press), out July 25.