Sunday, November 8, 2009

The biggest show in Coolum

I'm not sure what it was that made me suspect the Coolum School Carnival wasn't your typical school 'fete', but it may have been the day Charlotte and Isaiah asked if they would be able to buy armbands for the rides. Thirty dollar armbands.

School carnivals aren't really part of the culture at our kids' school in Bracebridge, but I've certainly been to a few as a reporter. They're all pretty much the same -- face painting, a couple of games, a bake table, another table selling second-hand books and third-hand rubbish, maybe a barbecue. After photographing a few dozen of them, I could almost predict the shots. (It became so predictable, in fact, that as an editor I used to forbid my reporters from shooting face painting, demanding that they at least try to get me something I hadn't seen before.)

But rides? Real carnival rides assembled by pierced and tatooed, dope-smoking, trailer-living carnies? Nope, never seen that at a school carnival. Not even at a school as large as Coolum State School, which has over 1000 students going up to grade seven.

As the carnival got closer, it became even more apparent that this was a rather large event in the school calendar. The teachers are all expected to run an activity or a stall at the Friday night carnival. Sharon, ever the mischief-maker, noted that staying at school until 9:00 at night on a Friday isn't really in the union contract and wondered what would happen if a teacher refused. She may has well have asked what would happen if she sparked up a joint in a staff meeting. "Oh, you really wouldn't want to do that," she was told. "There would be trouble."

We briefly considered making some of that trouble when we got a letter from the Governor of Queensland. There was a reception for teachers at Government House in Brisbane, and visiting Canadian teachers were invited to attend. Only two problems: it was on the same night as the Coolum carnival, and children weren't welcome. It was really the last issue that clinched it for us, since we really couldn't see what we would do with the kids while we drove to Brisbane and back. Besides, by this point Isaiah and Charlotte had been whipped into a frenzy of excitement about the carnival and it would have been too cruel to tell them they couldn't go. On top of that, when we really thought about it, we decided we were actually more interested in seeing what all this carnival excitment was about than seeing the inside of Government House.

The big carnival day was a couple of weeks ago (I've fallen a bit behind in my blogging). And it is indeed an impressive event. I'd say it's on the same scale as a smallish fall fair -- not as big as the one in Bracebridge, but still quite a show for something that's run entirely by teachers, parents and conscripted students. There were games (a dunk tank, a plate-smash-ball-throw booth, mini golfing, etc.). Another half dozen booths were selling food, and there were tons of prizes being raffled. Sharon ran the petting zoo. And yes, there was face painting. The rides were big and impressive -- with equally big and impressive lineups -- and they seemed to have a better class of carnies than most, with nary a facial tattoo in sight.

There were also a few uniquely Aussie attractions, including showbags. These are sample bags filled with various kinds of candy, or "lollies" as they call them here. I've been told they started out as sample bags given out, or sold at low cost, by retailers and manufacturers, but the whole thing has grown to astonishing proportions since then. At the big fairs they have hundreds of different kinds of showbags, containing everything from hair products to clothing, and costing anything from a couple of bucks to twenty or more dollars. At the Royal Melbourne show a couple of years ago there was a $999 showbag that contained goods valued at over $2,000, including vouchers for three nights accommodation and dinner. When the big Brisbane fair, the Ecca, takes place in August, the daily paper publishes a special insert listing all the showbags and their contents. There's an online list from this year's show here. The premise, apparently, is that by buying the bag you are getting greater value for your money than you would if you bought everything separately. I'm not sure that's true of all bags, but the kids certainly seemed happy with their six dollar showbags full of sour candies.

The carnival draws thousands of visitors -- not just students and their families but loads of people from the community. They come for the rides and the games, and at the end of the evening they stick around to watch a very impressive fireworks display. And, in the process, they raise tens of thousands of dollars for the school. Final figures aren't in yet, but since many of the goods are donated, the profit margin is impressive.

People kept asking Sharon if we have anything like it in Canada. Her stock answer was "No, we just pay higher taxes." And the event certainly is partly about making money. But it's also really interesting to see how this event can reiterate the school's position as a community site, drawing back people who haven't been to the place since they graduated.I hear the reception at Government House was lovely, and I would have liked to see the place. But I think we made the right decision by staying in Coolum for the evening.

Photos of the fun are here.

No comments: