Private schools. We cannot work for you for free.

HERE I was, the girl who went to Reservoir High, at the opening of the Melbourne Writers Festival, glass of champagne in hand, chatting to a couple of mates (one went to Croydon High, the other to Frankston High) about privilege. One of my mates reminded me of the email exchange that follows. This is a true story, although some of the names have been changed.

To: Catherine Deveny

From: Humphries, Henry

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My name is Henry Humphries and I am the Head of English at Kingsley Methodist Grammar School, Melbourne. I’m looking for a group of professional writers to act as mentors for a class of year 10 students doing a writing course and I would love you to be one. Each student will have their own private mentor. Are you interested?

Regards, Henry

From: Catherine Deveny

Hey, Henry! Good to hear from you. Happy to mentor. What’s the fee? C

From: Humphries, Henry

Hi Catherine, Thanks for your enthusiasm. You’re the first person to ask about a fee. Henry

From: Catherine Deveny

Well, I can’t afford to work for free. Particularly for a business. C

From: Humphries, Henry

I think we can all afford to work for free when the aim is to help people. I’d like the students to see that writing can be inspirational, confrontational and thought-provoking and that it could one day lead to a professional career. Henry

From: Catherine Deveny

I agree! Tonight I am emceeing a free gig to help clothe disadvantaged women attempting to get back into the workforce. Next week I am doing a free debate for a non-profit magazine that raises issues about social justice and the plight of victims of war and discrimination. And I’m paying for a babysitter. Kingsley Grammar is not a charity. It’s a business. C

From: Humphries, Henry

Catherine, You seem to be missing my point. I’m asking you to help one kid get better at writing by offering some advice on one piece of their writing. I don’t see how this will help fill the coffers of Kingsley Methodist Grammar School. It’s one person helping another person. Henry

From: Catherine Deveny

I see exactly how it will help the coffers of Kingsley Grammar. “We have a pool, state of the art entertainment complex, manicured grounds and professional writers to personal mentor. That’s why you should spend your money at Kingsley Grammar.” It may not be on the website or in the pamphlets, but it’ll certainly get bragged about at the dinner parties and sleepover drop-offs. Pretty simple really.

I mentor plenty of secondary students, from both public and private schools. Ones who contact me. Passionate writers. Individuals. Not businesses. I have three little kids and, at the moment, I’m the primary earner for my family. I happily do charity work. For charity. C

From: Humphries, Henry

Wow! You really have thought about this a lot. What would you consider to be a reasonable fee? Henry

From: Catherine Deveny

My fee would be a $200 donation to the Asylum Seekers Resource Centre. C

THAT exchange happened over about 30 minutes. Contrary to what Henry writes, I hadn’t thought about it at all. I was just quickly responding to another request. What struck me was the extraordinary sense of entitlement. You scratch my back and — I’m sorry, what’s in it for me?

I get asked to speak at private and government schools regularly and I enjoy it. Almost every time I speak at a private school the head girl or boy presents me with flowers or a bottle of wine and a handwritten card at the end of my talk. I always say to the class, “What? So I’m not getting paid?” The kids and the teachers laugh. Then I say, “Seriously. Does this mean I’m not getting paid?” It’s very clear they want to give the students the illusion that I’m doing it for free. Because they are just so special. When I mentioned this bizarre practice to one of the private school teachers, she snipped: “It’s just good manners.”

I said: “So you present the gardener, the cleaner and the plumber that comes in to unblock the toilets a bottle of wine and a handwritten card when they’ve finished their work?”

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