Those of you who have been reading this blog for a while will know that my eldest daughter, Matilda, has a passion for politics. Matilda’s favourite TV show is Behind the News and she would be happy to watch footage of Clive Palmer trying to get out of a sports car all day long. A couple of years ago, when asked to write a story for Religious Education about two friends who had a big fight and then forgave each other, she wrote about Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard.
When I first started to think about homeschooling Matilda, before I’d even started to think about curriculum, I knew I wanted to go on an excursion with her to Parliament House in the city.
At first, we had hoped to go on a ‘Role Play’ tour (where school kids get to dress up as the Speaker, the Serjeant-at-Arms etc), but I would have needed to organise a larger group. I had also toyed with the idea of going to watch our local member give a long and boring speech on some local issue, but that proved a little tricky too (seeing as though I never did anything other than think “that’s a nice idea“). In the end, I decided to keep things simple for our first visit and do an ‘off-the-street’ tour, which run on the half hour.
The day started pleasantly enough. We caught the tram in without any issues. Harry happily counted trams out of his window (he went nuts when we passed the depot), Matilda read her library book, Annie had a nice long nap and I was able to sneak in some crochet time. When we reached the city, we explored Fitzroy Gardens and had an early picnic lunch at Treasury Gardens (I didn’t want them to be hungry and cranky when we got there). We then wandered up to Parliament House to catch the 12pm tour. It was here we hit our first snag: tours did run on the half hour, but took a break from 11:30 – 1pm for lunch. No matter. I set my phone alarm for 12:45, and after running a few errands, we traipsed over to Treasury House next door to have a look.
The little museum at Treasury House was so interesting that Matilda asked if we could stay there a little longer and take the 1:30 tour instead. Accordingly, at 1:25pm, we stumbled up all the Parliament House steps, dragging the stroller behind us.
We walked through the metal detectors, got our bags scanned and were emblazoned with security stickers. As we approached the main door, I noticed the tour guide was glaring at us and gesturing that we hurry. We were late! I checked the time. No. We weren’t.
We had to leave all our bags at the front desk, along with the stroller. My heart sank and I panicked a little at the thought of a free-range Annie. This was going to be harder than I’d planned.
We were soon joined by a small group of tourists and an attractive young woman who looked like she might be studying for her PhD (based on no evidence at all. My brain just decides these things for me). She was fascinated by the Parliament and seemed like a grown-up version of Matilda.
The tour guide peered down at Annie and Harry the same way a nurse might study an infected wound. “Will they be able to cope with this tour?”, she demanded in a tone that left no question of her severe doubts.
I flashed my most charming smile, “I’m sure we’ll manage,” I cooed, in a display of radiant confidence. The voice in my head disagreed loudly.
We walked into the Queen’s Hall. Annie and Harry skipped joyfully around the large space, which we had to ourselves, whilst Matilda listened politely to the rules. The tour guide stopped mid-sentence, “you really mustn’t let these children stray too far from the group.”, she snapped at me (her tone said: “you really are the worst mother I’ve ever seen”). In scarlet confusion, I scooped Annie up and grabbed hold of Harry’s hand. Annie began to grumble. I shushed her.
The tour guide was now telling us some facts about Australia’s levels of government. It would seem she was less confident of her material when she wasn’t talking about the rules. As she floundered through State and Federal jurisdictions, an evil thought entered my head: perhaps she might ask Matilda for help? Tilly knew all this stuff back-to-front. The tour guide abruptly yanked me out of my reverie. “I’m sorry, I can’t do this!” she exclaimed, “that is really disturbing me. I cannot do my job while he is doing that”, I looked to where she was pointing. Harry was quietly twirling on the spot, arms outstretched. She glared at me as I ushered Harry and Annie to a step at the side of the room. “This really isn’t a tour for children. They just don’t have the attention span!”. My scalp prickled with shame.
Annie, sensing my stress, was becoming more and more agitated. She made booming announcements for everybody’s benefit. “Let me GO, Mummy! I want to WALK!”, “Don’t say ‘SHUSH’, Mummy!”, “I don’t LIKE this!”, “LET ME GO!”. I let her sit on the step next to me and she calmed down a little bit. In my bag were toy cars, crayons, dinosaurs and finger puppets. Unfortunately, my bag was locked in a cupboard at the front desk.
I was feeling a little bad for the tour guide. I remember what it was like to be a nervous student teacher. Maybe this was her first day or something. If she wasn’t confident of the material she was presenting, or was not a confident public speaker, distractions could be torture. At the same time, I wasn’t sure what I could do about it. The rules were very strict: once you joined a tour, there was no leaving the group (otherwise, the terrorists win).
But by now I had bigger problems. Annie had worked out that the step we were sitting on was, in fact, a small stage. She stood up. I looked at her. “NO.” I stated firmly. She looked directly back at me. A wicked grin spread over her features. She had already made her decision.
The next minute saw me desperately trying to hush and catch Annie as she sang and danced on the stage, just out of reach. If the tour guide saw her within ten feet of the lectern microphone, she would lose her na na.
I don’t know how I managed to get Annie off the stage without the tour guide seeing, but I do know that the moment I did it, Annie dissolved into ferocious howls. Harry clambered on top of us in an attempt to comfort his sister, and it was in this tangle that the tour guide approached us. “We are moving into the Legislative Assembly now. You can stay in the room next door until you have them under control.”
Thus I found myself in a small room with a few carved benches, a phone and a grandfather clock. Annie soon calmed down (the clock helped) and so we crept into the Lower House of Parliament. As I attempted to climb into the second row of seats, the tour guide stopped me. “You can’t sit there!” she exclaimed in exasperation, “front row only!”. I blushed and fumbled my way to the front row seat. As I sank down onto the chair next to Matilda (I would have preferred to sink through the floor), Annie climbed off my lap into the spare one next to me, muttering something about “my own seat”. Unfortunately, Annie’s legs are not long enough to extend over the edge of chairs designed for members of parliament. “There can be no shoes on the seat”, the tour guide barked. I quickly started working on the buckles of Annie’s Mary Janes. Suddenly my coat was far too warm for me and my eyes felt hot. “No! No! They are MY SHOES” Annie shouted in consternation, and promptly burst into tears. I tried very hard not to do the same.
“This just isn’t working at all. You need to get out.” The tour guide pointed at the door. Dragging Annie and Harry, I was already halfway there.
As soon as I was back in the naughty room, I unzipped my thick coat and removed the five kilos of liquid explosives I had sewn into the lining. I then leisurely constructed a large bomb which I placed in the grandfather clock, set to explode the next parliamentary sitting day. Then, left to my own devices, I went on my own tour of all the restricted areas with my plastic rocket-launcher.
No I didn’t.
But I could have, for all their security pageantry.
Instead, I’m sorry to say, I had a little cry. We had come all this way. We had been planning this excursion for weeks. I had called ahead and the man had recommended this tour. I said I was bringing toddlers and he said it would be okay. It meant so much to Matilda. I dried my eyes and managed to get a grip, but I had broken the seal. For the rest of the day it was going to be hard to stop the tears from bubbling up again.
I didn’t know what was happening in the room after I left, but Matilda filled me in later. Apparently, as soon as I was out of ear-shot, the tour guide exclaimed, “Honestly! I don’t know what that lady was thinking! I would never have brought children on a tour like this!” and continued on a miniature rant to everyone. Matilda was boiling with indignant fury. There was so much she wanted to say. She felt the wretched powerlessness of being the only child in a room full of adults. And then, she tells me, something wonderful happened.
“How dare you?”
The young PhD woman had stood up and was glaring at the tour guide. “You were so rude to that woman. Her children have a right to be here. They did not deserve to be treated like that.” Matilda told me that this woman (my hero!) went on to say all of the things Matilda had so desperately wanted to say herself. From that point on, Matilda spent her time shooting grateful smiles at the PhD woman and practicing her Julie-Bishop-Death-Stare on the tour guide.
When the group emerged from the Lower House, the tour guide approached me.
(get a grip, Kate, get a grip)
“I’ve been told off in there: they seem to think I was rude. I hope I didn’t upset you.”
I nodded briefly at this apology-of-sorts (don’t cry don’t cry don’t cry don’t cry) and we moved on to the Upper House.
For the rest of the tour, the tour guide behaved towards us with a mixture of overdone politeness and stifled resentment. Thankfully, the kids behaved themselves. At one point, when describing carvings on the wall which symbolised the importance of the Next Generation, the tour guide made a simpering gesture to Matilda. Unfortunately, Matilda was still persistently and stonily channelling our Foreign Affairs Minister, so it was all a little awkward.
At the end of the tour, the tour guide approached me again. Poor woman, she must have felt bad.
“I really do hope I didn’t offend you earlier,” she began, (don’t cry don’t cry don’t cry) “That woman stood up in front of everyone after you left the room and told me off. I can’t afford for that to happen in my job. This really isn’t acceptable.” (wait a minute – was she scolding me?).
I drew a deep breath:
“…planning this excursion for a long time…” (don’t cry don’t cry don’t cry don’t cry)
“…when I spoke to the tour office…” (don’tcrydon’tcrydon’tcry)
“…Matilda is fascinated by Parliament and democracy…” (DON’T CRY DON’T CRY)
The tour guide seemed mollified and moved into a frenzy of over-compensation. As a result, we got an awesome showbag from the school tours office and, rather than having to struggle down the steps with the stroller, we were escorted all the way through the remarkably inaccessible and poorly-signed accessibility exit.
We stumbled into Spring Street and blinked in the daylight. That tour took far longer than I’d anticipated. I drew a ragged breath. I wanted to find a child-friendly cafe to collapse in. Then I checked the time.
We were late! We were late! We were never going to make it on time to pick Christopher Robin up from school!
I thought fast. The tram would take forever in school traffic. We’d be better off taking a train for at least part of the journey. We rushed to the nearest entrance to Parliament (underground) Station. Which was stupid. We should have rushed to the entrance with the LIFT. After I almost died carrying the stroller (with Annie in it) down a large flight of stairs and stumbled through the turnstile after swiping all the tickets, we were faced with the challenge of descending a double-length escalator at double-speed. That thing’s scary at the best of times! But we were fuelled by adrenaline and stupidity. Matilda dragged the collapsed stroller and held Harry’s hand (champion) and I carried Annie on my hip. Ugh. But we got to the platform in time to catch a crowded triple-express (and then a BUS) so that we weren’t as horrendously late as we feared. Two school boys immediately gave us their seats as we got on the train (don’t fall sobbing on his shoulder, don’t fall sobbing on his shoulder) and the otherwise surly bus driver was really helpful in getting us to our stop.
Safe at home, we flopped, all five of us, catatonic, on the couch. Matilda spoke up.
“I just worked out what I should have said.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, when we were in the Legislative Assembly and that woman was telling the tour guide off, I should have stood up after her and said ‘I second that motion!'”
That’s my girl.