Playing With Fire



The fire alarm always rang in art class.

Whilst most computers lay broken on trolleys and AV equipment showed little more than static, our high school's fire alarm was always in pitch-perfect condition. It sent out a menacing scream across the entire campus in perfect-unison, sneaking up upon sleeping teen mothers and receptionists nursing mid-week hangovers. Once it rang, students would be hurried out of the classroom, leaving behind paint brushes to bristle in clag muck and tortured clay moulds to explode in the reliably unreliable kiln. The teachers kept up an unconvincing masquerade of being hopelessly unaware of the farce unfolding around us all. “I didn’t think there was fire drill today,” one would say, notably leaving behind her own purse and phone in a nonchalant fashion. “This could be the real deal...now has anyone seen my coffee?”

We’d walk to the oval at the front entrance of the school, supposedly the safest place in the event of a catastrophic fire. It was a foolish charade. In the event of a fire, the actual safest place would be “away from all the other students” who’d be sent into a disaster-triggered spree of mayhem, busily collecting their own items and tearing down everything else in the school not bonded with concrete. Also, the oval sat next to a largely-abandoned field of dry grass and tumbleweeds – a relative bushfire maternity ward.

Maybe this was their intention,” a classmate said, as we casually strolled in a huddled mass. “Maybe the real fire is on the oval and we are being marched to our fiery deaths”. Each of us in the class would run through the “most likely” list of local arsonists. We’d reconstruct the elaborate terrorist plot that led to the fire. Some would see friends from other classes walking by and scream “Fire! Fire! We’re all gonna die!” Oh, how we’d laugh. We’d giggle at a school ablaze, report cards disintegrating and school swimming trophies melting amongst the ashes. We’d rock and chortle and snicker at the very thought of flames consuming our science block, our tuckshop, our Manual Arts teacher. But one day, we fell silent and laughter lines were replaced by crinkled, worried brows.

It was a warm day in senior year, and whispers of an actual wild fire had spread like...well...you know. The teacher’s expressions of concern appeared more valid, more genuine. We’d heard rumours of smoke coming from the chaplains office. He was a skate-boarding chaplain from the mean streets of Brisbane. He once mistook my general dislike of him as clinical depression. Perhaps he’s smoking out demons, I suggested.

As we turned a corner, there it was - just as everyone had heard. A significant plume of smoke rose up from the chaplain’s office, though it was barely visible from all the firemen and women surrounding the open window. Along with the fire truck, an ambulance was parked just metres from the reception and officers made a bee-line for the glass doors, carrying masks and bottled water. We sat on the oval in our so-called ‘Care Groups’ – a group of students from a variety of year levels thrown together, most of whom, ironically, I cared very little for. As we waited to be addressed by the principal, a sceptical 11th grader called out, “It’s all bullshit”. But was it? I wasn’t entirely convinced. The ambulance officers appeared to be treating a boy for smoke inhalation. I squinted and recognised him as fellow school senior. His head hung low as he gasped for air. What was he doing in the Chaplains office anyway? I pondered. Was he, like the rest of office regulars, pretending to go through a sexuality crisis to take advantage of the air conditioning and stereo?

Then – an answer. “What you’ve witnessed today has been a stunt to show you the importance of civil behaviour during our ritual fire drills,” said the Principal, grinning like she’d ‘Punk’d’ us bad. The lesson – treat fire drills seriously, because one day, there might be a real fire. Or there might just be another fucking stunt, I thought. They'd used lighting fixtures and a smoke machine left over from the school's 80's-themed disco to create a realistic fire scene. The staff, the firemen, the ambos...they were all in on it. Sure, as a student I felt betrayed and tricked, but more to the point, as a soon-to-be-failed actor, I was outraged. Why wasn’t I approached for the role of “Smoke Inhalation Victim”? I played Seymour in Little Shop. I had accents. I had range.

I thought about the elaborate trick they’d pulled. This wasn’t a regular “gotcha” moment. We’d been deceived into thinking that our lives were in actual, physical danger. The possibility of something going wrong was beyond comprehension. People do crazy shit when faced with dangerous circumstances. They get handy with rifles. I’m not saying that people in high school were packin’ heat, but they weren’t just pleased to see you.

It didn’t feel right that adults at school could lie to you – even to teach a lesson (the only exception being the fortnightly appearances of our Christian R.E. teachers and lying was part and parcel of their role). It’s only after you’ve finished secondary education that you realise your teachers, some of whom you idolised and trusted with every fibre of your being, lied to you on a daily basis. “Of course we’ll mark you fairly ...” they’d say, or “It’s important to learn algebra, because you’ll use it so much in your life after school” or “The PE teacher didn’t have it off with that student...they’re just good friends”. In Year 11, when people still regularly climbed it, my mother was lead by her geography teacher up Uluru, only to discover there was no ice cream/souvenir emporium on top as her teacher had promised. Only red, red dirt...and a few discarded chip packets, no doubt left as a loving and grateful tribute to the traditional owners.

Teachers lied to protect us from ourselves. Still, it was a slippery slope from well-intentioned deception into the lurid depths of emotionally-scarring treachery. For a while after that brazen fire stunt, we questioned everything they told us. We were The Who and we weren’t getting fooled again. On one of the final days of school, we’d heard that, for the school formal, the principal had arranged a married couple in their seventies to play barn-dancing tunes on the washboard instead of the usual formal-party DJ. Yeah right, we thought. Pull the other one, Miss. The teachers insisted that instead of Top 40 hits, we’d be hearing covers of Buddy Holly’s ‘Peggy Sue’ all night long.

...and, almost as a cruel farewell, just this once, they’d told us the truth.