I want to tell the story of my mangled little finger. Now a mangled little finger might mean nothing to most people, but to me it means a lot. It’s one story I tell my high school kids to try to get them to see how important it is to learn all that they can for as long as they can at school, especially at school. Read. Write. Listen and learn, no matter who stands at the front pumping knowledge. “Pay attention,” I tell them, “to what your teachers say, how they speak, the clothes they wear and what seems so very important to them. Question.”
I tell them to think of the kind of stuff they are learning, how much they know about Australian history, like who the stories are about and what that all means. Like, do they know the real reasons for England sending boatloads of convicts to Terra Australis, Botany Bay and Van Diemen’s Land? Did they know that the reasons for sending people so far away as punishment for stealing a bit of bread was all about needing slaves to chop down trees, clear the land and make houses and cities for the rich because the blackfellas kept running away, because they didn’t want to be slaves? What about the women and kids? Do they know that women were rounded up for the smallest of reasons to service colonial men and kids were sent away to service their homes and work the land?
No, they don’t know so I keep it general, but I could point them to Anne Summers’ Damned Whores and God’s Police (Penguin, 1975). I could point them to Kate Grenville’s novel Joan Makes History (University of Queensland Press, 1988), and sometimes I do. Both show the selective nature of making history and who makes it. I like to keep it simple, like kids to question and think about why the history they learn is all about the rich and famous. Men, mostly, and a smattering of rich women, usually their wives — all white.
It’s no wonder I recently jacked up when an assessment task based on Australia’s new National Curriculum was designed for kids to research and write a biography about famous Australians. I decided to get them to read memoirs instead. That’s research. Their choice of writers and texts from anywhere in the world and later, just to satisfy my own understanding of what might happen if I’d told them, Only famous Australians, I got them to write the name of the first famous Australian that popped into their heads, and I’d collect them, then talk about it. I did. And guess what? 80% male and 20% female, almost all white. See what I mean? Damn that.
Now here’s the story of my little finger. But first, a bit of background.
My mother took me out of school when I was twelve, about the age of kids coming into high school in Western Australia. I loved words, reading and writing, hated numbers, and finishing school so early meant about twenty years of work in pubs, kitchens, old people’s homes, ironing and cleaning for rich people and working in factories. My squashed finger is a factory story and I tell it because I never want any of my kids to go through what I did. I want them to know where they’ll end up if they don’t take advantage of their education, regardless of how buggered and irrelevant to them it can be. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a factory story on the English curriculum.
Here it is:
I was invisibly pregnant with my third child, my husband was a factory worker and money was too thin to cover the costs of feeding and clothing and educating and keeping a roof over our heads so, I, on foot, roamed the nearby industrial area knocking on doors and selling myself to get a job, tacking up experience if you like, and desperate for money. The first job I got was in a clothing factory where they made uniforms for hospitals staff and schools. I was employed on half pay cutting cotton off buttons for two weeks after machinists had secured them to uniforms. The women who worked alongside me happily talked until the Catholic boss walked in and then they froze. No more talk. Terrified of losing their jobs. All New Australians, barely able to speak English. I soon chucked that job in. (It was only later, much later when I got educated that I learnt it was factory policy to employ New Australians, Greeks, Italians and Slavs and women like me because we’d never know our rights and never jack up, pleased to have money coming in).
I then went to the outdoor aluminium chair factory where I sat on an upturned plastic milk crate counting a thousand metal washers and tieing string into them on a regular basis. These were used as counters by women hired on contract, no set wages, who webbed strips of wide plastic to make the seats and backs of chairs for outdoor settings, the likes of which you’d find under patios or around backyard pools in the 1970’s. They’d use those washers and strings to count how many chairs they webbed, drop them in a bucket and count them at the end of the day. I also worked the assembly line, a thick black rubber belt where women, all New Australians slotted bits and pieces in place to make the frames for webbers to then weave.
My baby grew bigger within me and my belly stuck out, the buttons on my husband’s big checkered shirt pulled apart revealing skin, and my protruding navel got spiked with fine aluminium slivers I could not get out. Hurt. I did not complain but one day when the Macedonian man who sat on a high chair operating the belt’s speed, said out loud as he pointed to my belly, “One day, she inside there will take your place inside here,” I picked up the frame in my hand and threw it into the air across the factory to crash into its hot tin wall. I clicked the next bit into place. Silence. The women were too afraid to speak.
Soon after I was placed on the guillotine to work alone, the machine that cut wide strips of coloured plastic for webbers, all women who worked like fury to web as many chairs as they could because that’s how they earned their wages and the one who scored the highest number of webbed chairs got a bonus. I liked being there, called my own shots in a way. I cut cut cut plastic and hung it on racks for webbers to grab, throw over their shoulders and rush back to tables to web. Then the bastard of a thing happened.
A desperate webber-woman tugged the plastic while my right hand was still beneath the guillotine and wham, the blade thumped down and chopped the end off my little finger, blood everywhere. Plastic surgeons did what they could to restore what was left but it remains a numbed squashed mess, a story worth telling.
The supervisor did come to my home when I got out of hospital, she did bring flowers and a big card signed by the women, she did tell me I’d not have to worry about hospital bills because the factory would sort it all out, but she never told me that the safety device had been removed from the guillotine, and neither did she tell me that I could have received compensation for the loss of my beautiful finger. I’d always loved my hands and thought they were the most beautiful thing about me.
I had no idea of my rights, no idea at all that being paid half wages in the clothing factory was illegal. I was exactly the kind of worker they wanted. An uneducated Australian-born woman, so very like the New Australians. “For Gods, sake,” I tell my kids, “don’t end up as I did back then.”