Tag Archives: leaving school

Speech Day 1928: The Life Lessons My Grandfather Heard.

As a woman, it’s already difficult to put myself in my grandfather’s shoes and know what it’s like to be a man. Moreover, not having a contraption like the Tardis to travel back in time, it’s also hard to rewind the clock back to 1928 when my grandfather left school as an 18 year old.My grandfather was also Catholic and attending Waverley College in Sydney, which is run by the Christian Brothers. Back at this point in time, there was a great divide between protestants and Catholics which I find hard to imagine these days, although its still rippling away under the surface.

Papa Curtin with Rowena 1969

My grandfather and I. 

Yet, almost 60 years later, I was also sitting at the back of the school assembly hall not paying much attention to what was being said. So, despite all these glaring differences, we were probably not all that different and had very much in common. The transition from the cloister of school into the next chapter has always been a big step.Yet, generation after generation, has gone before us. We were not alone. We have never been the first generation stepping out there trying to find out way, which I now find largely reassuring.  and I guess you just have to hope that most of them eventually found their way and as George Bernard Shaw said:

Life is not meant to be easy, my child; but take courage: it can be delightful.”

Being a by-product of my own generation, these attempts to walk in my grandfather’s shoes, have taken me back to one of the greatest movies of all time: Dead Poet’s Society, (Indeed, it would be my favourite if Casablanca hadn’t got there first!)  For those of you already replaying the movie in your heads, I’m reminded of that scene where English teacher John Keating played by our very much loved friend and mentor, Robin Williams, is looking at the portraits of ex-students on the wall and says:

“They’re not that different from you, are they? Same haircuts. Full of hormones, just like you. Invincible, just like you feel. The world is their oyster. They believe they’re destined for great things, just like many of you. Their eyes are full of hope, just like you. Did they wait until it was too late to make from their lives even one iota of what they were capable? Because you see, gentlemen, these boys are now fertilizing daffodils. But if you listen real close, you can hear them whisper their legacy to you. Go on, lean in. Listen. You hear it?… Carpe… Hear it?… Carpe. Carpe diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.”

-Dead Poet’s Society

As it turns out, I have been able to read the words my grandfather would have heard courtesy of the old newspapers which are now online. Eerily enough, these words actually have a Dead Poet’s Society feel about them, as most of these end of school speeches do. By the way, my grandfather had attended Waverley College, Sydney run by the Christian Brothers and the Address was given by Archbishop Sheehan:

Archbishop Michael Sheehan.

“Your years of youth, my dear boys, are very precious. It is the time in which you build for the future. The opportunities which are now close to your hands will, if neglected, never come within your reach again. Your greatest enemy is the spirit of ill-will and idleness; your best friend is the spirit of obedience and industry.

Your whole life from childhood to death is a warfare, a struggle against temptation. Every victory you gain over yourselves and over the powers of darkness brings with it a strengthening of your will, a strengthening of your character. 

The process of building therefore of which I spoke a moment ago means more than piecing together the divers kinds of knowledge. Let us put it in this way: your task is not only to build for your-selves the house of knowledge, but also and much more to build firm and strong the fortress of the will.

‘How will you take these few words from me? I know boys too well not be be conscious that they listen to old people like myself with a certain amount of patronage, and with a secret feeling that we are out of date and possibly suffering from a touch of dotage, and that therefore any advice of ours is to be taken with a good grain of salt.

Well, it may shake you a bit to hear that the boys of every generation have had exactly the same thoughts, and that when they grew up they found their mistake. One of the chief temptations of your time of life comes from a kind of pride, from a tendency to underrate the advice of the more experienced.’ His Grace concluded by again congratulating the Brothers and the boys on a most successful year, and wished all present the blessings of the Christmas season.” Catholic Press (Sydney, NSW : 1895 – 1942), Thursday 5 January 1928, page 25

Whether you agree with the Catholic ethos or not, I found good wisdom in there. The Archbishop, who’d been born on the 17th December, 1870 at Waterford in Ireland, did a pretty good job of crawling into the boys’ shoes, seeing himself through their eyes and hopefully captured their attention. In his roundabout way, he first encouraged the boys to listen to their elders and hopefully thus avoid some of life’s predictable potholes. He also wanted them to have a heart, a love of God and be living breathing humans. He didn’t want them to be walking encyclopaedias, robots or money-making machines.  He wanted each and every one of those boys to have a rich and complex life. Catholic or not, there’s a lot of good advice to hold onto there and you can adjust it to suit your personal creed.

There’s one thing I’d particularly like add.

That is the importance of family, close friends and having meaningful relationships, which you carry with you throughout your life. Having lived overseas and travelled, I know what it’s like to be that random atom drifting through space where no one knows you, your history, or your family. Moreover, as an Australian living in Germany, there was only the odd person who knew what an Australian was either and I got away with a bit under that heading too.

While there can be real freedom and liberation in flying away from all those ties, I felt quite lost without them too. There’s a lot to be said for having shared memories within a close community where you can bump into an old friend down the street and have those shared experiences, insights and memories. We have been living in our home for something like 18 years. That’s really crept up on us and initially, it took a long time to get established. However, I now have a genuine, informed interest in the people around me. This has nothing to do with career, paying off the mortgage or even putting food on the table. However, there’s food we don’t eat and we also have to cater for our souls.

What would your advice be to a young person leaving school at the end of 2018? Any regrets? Anything you did or observed that worked well and you’d like to pass on? We’d love to read your thoughts in the comments.

Best wishes,

Rowena

PS I thought I’d better point out that these young men left school the year before the 1929 Fall of Wall Street. The Wall Street Crash of 1929, also known as the Stock Market Crash of 1929 or the Great Crash, started on October 24 (“Black Thursday”) and continued until October 29, 1929 (“Black Tuesday”), when share prices on the New York Stock Exchange collapsed. The crash, which followed the London Stock Exchange’s crash of September, signalled the beginning of the 12-year Great Depression that affected all Western industrialized countries. Wikipaedia These same men could well have fought or enlisted in WWII having had their own fathers serve in WWI. They didn’t have it easy.

 

The Acorn

You walked through
the school gate with hesitation:
a blank page with your name scrawled
crookedly in the corner.

An acorn planted in fertile soil,
you germinated.
Bursting through that constricting shell
too small for you to grow,
you poked through the soft earth,
a tender shoot reaching for the sun.

As your shoots headed for the sun,
your roots tunneled deep
towards the very centre of the earth
soaking up the spring rains
and you flourished.
Anchored to the ground,
reaching for the sky,
you were firmly planted.

At least,
that was in my dreams.
Sadly, even a fruitful journey
is full of storms and contradictions
and even blue skies burn.

I watched your leaves
change colour with the seasons;
their illuminated palette glowing
like stained-glass windows
backlit by the glorious sun
and bare sticks persevering
through another winter’s chill.

I shielded your tender stems
against those howling, winter winds
and quenched your insatiable thirst
all summer long.

At first,
I always held on tight,
holding your hand,
paving the way
trying to teach you
everything I knew.

But then…
little by little,
I let go…
just enough
for you to grow.
For I knew one day
you would have to stand alone.

DSC_8646

II
I don’t know who played
cruel tricks with the clock
and even meddled
with the very hands of time
but you’re no longer a sapling.
You’ve become a tree,
even growing acorns of your own
and I don’t know where
all those years have gone
or how to get them back.

Oak Tree, Australian War Memorial, Canberra.

Oak Tree, Australian War Memorial, Canberra.

Anchored to the soil
through your enormous trunk,
your mighty branches now
stretch right across the sky
with strength, persistence and endurance,
through sunshine and rain,
providing homes to the multitudes.
Birds build their nests
singing great morning choruses
as ants march up and down
carrying bulging loads with great intent.
Children build cubby houses
climbing towards the sun
laughing and having fun
while you smile proud,
oozing with life and love.

I am so proud
of all you’ve become!

III

DSC_8650

Now, it is I who needs
your strength
as my leaves change colour
falling to the ground.
Slowly but surely,
the colours wear away
until only the veins remain
and you are helping me
across the road instead.

DSC_8711

I don’t want to go
but we each reach
the end of this road.
and as the cycle goes on,
the oaks need to leave room
for the acorns to grow.

IV

You entered the gate a boy…
a blank page
with your name
scrawled crookedly
in the corner
but now you’ve emerged…

a man.

On 17th December, 2009 I wrote the very first version of this poem. It was the day after our son finished his first year at school and he was still only 5 years old. I had been struck by how far he had come in that year. When he arrived, all he could do was scrawl his name in the corner of a big, blank sheet of paper but by the end of that year, he was writing tentative sentences and was reading quite well, even if sitting still and concentration weren’t his thing.

I have reworked the poem many times since then and have even extensively reworked it today.

Mother & Son played by actors Ruth Cracknell & Garry McDonald.

Mother & Son played by actors Ruth Cracknell & Garry McDonald.

The relationship between mother and son weaves its way throughout the poem, which reminds of of a favourite show: Mother & Son, staring Ruth Cracknell and Garry McDonald. I don’t kno whether you’d describe it as a comedy or a tragedy but Mum in the story has dementia and Garry McDonald plays her middle-aged divorced son who is still living with Mum but probably not by choice.

Mother & Son
: “The Funeral” clip: http://aso.gov.au/titles/tv/mother-and-son-funeral/clip1/

Time has certainly flown past. He is now 11 years old and is in Year 6…his last year at Primary School. Next year, he’ll be passing through a different gate when he goes off to High School. His journey hasn’t progressed as smoothly as the fairly idealistic path depicted in the poem and life hasn’t been smooth sailing but he is finding real maturity now and growing up inside as well as in terms of height. We are very proud of him!!

This poem remains a work in progress and I wonder if it will ever be finished.

However, I wanted to share it with you.

Moreover, today is 1st April and the beginning of the Blogging From A-Z Challenge which takes place in April each year. This is the first time I’ve participated and I’m a little bit daunted about tackling the technical side of it all but sometimes, you just have to hurl yourself straight off a cliff and keep running!!

Love & Best wishes,
Rowena

I am participating in the A-Z Challenge.

I am participating in the A-Z Challenge.