Why call this blog Chuck a Yonnie? * #
If anyone asks me where I grew up, my usual response is “Mount Waverley”, or sometimes “Glen Waverley”, but the truth is it was neither. This not due to any pretentiousness; it’s just that the inquirer usually is aware of these more prosperous suburbs in Melbourne’s south east, allowing me to avoid the interrogation that inevitably follows if I reply that I grew up in “Syndal”.
Syndal sits silently between Mount Waverley and Glen Waverley. I don’t know why it doesn’t enjoy the same level of fame as its near neighbours, but I suspect national shame may be at the root of it. You see, Syndal apparently derived its name from a long gone farm that was once owned by Redmond Barry, the judge who sentenced Ned Kelly to death. If this is the reason for its obscurity, then I guess that associates me with the demise of an Australian icon! So, I think I will continue to tell people that I grew up in either Mount Waverley or, sometimes, Glen Waverley!
The Australia of my boyhood was a very different place to that of today. In the late 1950s and early 1960s Syndal was on the outer edge of suburban Melbourne. Today you must drive a further 20 kms to reach the outer fringes of the city. On weekends I would ask Mum and Dad if I could “go bush” and I’d set off to explore among the orchards, creeks and paddocks. Back then there was mere a sprinkling of houses; a seeding that would rapidly spread and ultimately overwhelm the farms and bushland. I recall as a little boy running to the window as Mum and Dad rushed outside. I stood there wide eyed as they ran about the front garden yelling and waving their arms to chase away two cows that had wandered in and were feasting on Mum’s treasured garden plants!
The railway bridge that passed over Blackburn Road was a forbidden, yet favourite, place to play. In those days there was a single line with one bridge. (In the mid 1960s a second bridge was built for a second line.) High above the road, the bridge provided a splendid vantage point. We were not allowed to play there of course, but the temptation was simply too great to resist. Trains were infrequent and hearing one coming in the distance would prompt a frenzy of determined activity; here was an opportunity to make rock powder! Let me say right now that the possibility of a train derailment never crossed our minds. There was no malicious intent. It was just that making rock powder was important, as everyone knows, not that any of us were aware of any practical use for it. However, any boy who could produce a small bag of it was the envy of us all!
With the sound of the approaching train in our ears we would quickly place yonnies in rows along the steel tracks, (we always referred to stones as “yonnies”). Once strategically placed on the track, we hurriedly scuttled under the bridge and crouched down. With the rails barely a metre above our heads we would put our fingers in our ears and squeeze our eyes tightly shut as the train roared overhead. Above us, under the tremendous weight of the speeding train, the yonnies exploded with an ear-splitting bang. Hundreds of fragments would pelt into the ground surrounding us, but being directly under the rails we were shielded, just. It was thrilling; we never considered the dangers. Once the train had passed we would emerge to find very little trace of the yonnies we had placed upon the tracks. Even so, if we carefully examined the foot of the track where we had placed them, usually a pinch or two of powder could be carefully gathered, especially if we had been generous with the number of yonnies we’d placed on the track. Many trains roaring overhead was required to collect a praiseworthy quantity of the precious rock powder.
I do not remember how many times I did this, either with other boys or by myself, but it was many. We reasoned, after some discussion, that our parents likely would not approve of our method of making rock powder, so we made a pact that we would never mention our adrenaline pumping technique to them. In fact, until writing this over 40 years later, I have never spoken of it to anyone!
The Syndal railway bridge over Blackburn Road today. In the early 1960s there was a single bridge and the top left hand side, on the opposite side to the station, is where we would put yonnies on the track. You could see a long way from the top of the bridge. In those days there was no guard rail.
I do not recall ever feeling in danger at the railway bridge, except on one occasion. It was common knowledge amongst us children, (and therefore an indisputable fact), that there was an old man who would travel up and down the rail line looking for children playing on the tracks. Any whom he found he would stuff into a sack that he carried over his shoulder. They would never be seen again, or so the story went. No one knew of any children who had actually disappeared in this way. Even so, the story was often told. One day we were on the bridge, engrossed in gathering up yonnies for more rock powder, when we were startled by the sound of footsteps crunching on the stones between the tracks. We turned towards the sound and were horrified to see an old man walking towards. Less than 15 metres away, he was dressed in a grubby, well-worn jacket and a grubby flannel shirt. His dirty trousers were secured with a piece of old rope around his waist, rather than the usual men’s braces of the day, and one toe was protruding through a hole in the front of one of his shoes. Unshaven with a well brown face from dirt or sun, (I could not tell), but it was weathered more than any men I knew at the time. He did not speak, but what struck horror into our hearts was that over his shoulder hung a large hessian sack. His eyes seemed to fix upon us from under his battered hat. I don’t recall who shrieked, “Run!”, but we all dropped our yonnies and fled. No way was he going to stuff us into that sack! I ran until I thought my heart was going to burst out of my chest. None of us looked back until we were far from the bridge and the old man with his hessian sack. What this poor man must have thought of us fleeing from him like that I do not know, but we did not see him again. As for us, we never again went onto the rail bridge without first posting a look out to watch for the old man with his hessian sack!
When we weren’t making rock powder we would stand on the top of the bridge, high over the road, and “chuck a yonnie” or two. Looking at the picture above, it would seem reckless at best, and malicious at worst, to throw stones from a bridge with a four lane road running beneath it, but this was not so. It is hard to imagine now, but back then, on the way to school, we could walk for 15 minutes along a much narrower Blackburn Road, (and I do mean ON the road), and only have to move off for the passing of perhaps 5 or 6 cars. It never entered our minds to chuck yonnies at cars or anyone (people or animals); we just did it for fun, competing with each other for the best throw. It was exhilarating to be so high up and see how far you could chuck a yonnie.
Since then Australian language, as well as life, has changed significantly. Globalisation and the digital age have introduced new words into our every day speech. School grounds now ring with obnoxious words like ‘wazzup’, weird handshake rituals and air kisses which drip with as much sincerity as Ms Paris Hilton’s finding God while in jail – all of these imports from a cancerous US popular culture that has infiltrated and eaten away at Australian culture. (I have nothing against American culture to be clear. What I lament is the homogenisation of cultures; the loss of diversity.) In the early 1960s, in the playground of Syndal Primary School, the air was thick with Australian colloquialisms, most of which are now all but lost from memory. Even Syndal Primary School itself has become a victim of “progress” and has vanished, (although it was politician Geoff Kennett and not US pop culture who was responsible for that). Today I meet few people who know what it means to “chuck a yonnie”. O.H. & S. laws would prohibit it in any case.
There were many reasons why we would “chuck a yonnie”. Doing so was always associated with challenge. It was connected to curiosity, to exploration, to experimentation. It was an adventure. In this sense I decided to call my first blog “Chuck a Yonnie”. Perhaps readers might would something there that was challenging, or something worth exploring, investigating. As educators we should do this; continually exploring and challenging our pedagogy. Moreover, as 21st century educators it is our obligation to interrogate our epistemology, particularly with private interests increasingly penetrating education policy. As professional educators we must all climb atop a bridge that we believe is important for the successful education of the young people we work with every day. As educators, we are in a key position, a powerful position, to “chuck a yonnie” for those who learn from us and with us. Teaching is so much more than just a job. Every day we look directly into the eyes of those who will one day be running the world. For them even more than for ourselves, let’s chuck our yonnies with generous caring hearts…
* I investigated the origin of the word “yonnie” believing that is was likely of Irish or cockney origin. However, the Australian Oxford Dictionary, while uncertain, suggests that it may be from a Victorian Aboriginal Language. This bears further investigation!
# The meaning of “yonnie”, as used in this blog, is not associated in any way with the Sanskrit word “yoni”, which has a wider meaning in both profane and spiritual contexts. (This alternative interpretation was pointed out to me by a dear Indian friend who was initially shocked by my choice blog of names!)