Friday, 12 September 2014

Standing on their shoulders

It happens in schools sometimes. Decisions get made from high up.

Year 7 White, Year 7 Red, Year 7 Blue, Year 7 Gold and Year 7 Green  were all meant to get their year level camp in 1979, my first year of high school. Someone decided that for that year it wasn’t happening. The camp had happened for as long as people in the school could remember and it was reinstated in 1980. All the way up to my final year of school, there was a Year 7 camp. Just not in our year.  

It has filtered down some 33 years afterwards that my homeroom teacher in that year, Mr. Thompson wasn’t happy about the decision. He didn’t show his disappointment to his students. I’ve worked in schools and can tell you that he was utterly professional about the whole thing.

Mr Charles Thompson (we called him Chuck) was a great teacher. If you are of a certain age, you will understand that he could pass as the twin of Gabe Cotter, the star of the hit 1970’s TV series about a teacher in the Bronx, Welcome Back Cotter. He had the afro’, the flares. He was in his second year out of teachers college. Our classroom door was always the first open. There was Chuck at his desk each morning with his cup of coffee, doing corrections. A group of us would just stand around his desk and talk about nothing in particular. He was great to be around. We could joke with him and when the bell went he would teach using quizzes, stories – Chuck made learning fun.

 A few weeks after the camp had been called off, Chuck spoke to the class and said, “If we are going to do this, it’s all in or it’s not on.” And so student by student, a permission note came from home and the camp was on – just for 7 Green at De La Salle College. We also had to keep it quiet from the other classes. I understand now that Chuck had arranged with the principal, permission to have a weekend camp... not in school time and at no cost to the school. Chuck made it happen on his time. Here we are, your blogger is sitting on the floor there on the left (they forgot to name me and the other fella in the school annual - Blue & Gold).

I remember that camp so clearly, cooking damper in hot coals, walking through the Dandenong ranges and stopping for a swim at the Monbulk pool, sleeping in tents Chuck had got a hold of. As time went on and I became an adult, I appreciated the effort and commitment Chuck had shown to us.

‘Effort and Commitment’ was the theme of a presentation I was asked to give at a school I run the Time & Space programs for – Yea High School. They have a special assembly each semester and award the students who have shown, you guessed it, effort and commitment in some aspect of school life. Pennants are given out to the students in the Yea Shire Hall and their parents and grandparents are invited to the celebration.

I told the gathering about Chuck and was delighted to pass on that in the two years I have been working for Yea High School; it has been evident that there are teachers like Chuck in their staff community.

There’s Phil Wischer, the art teacher. I’ve got to know Phil and on the day of the presentation, he brought in a painting he had done. It is inspired by Wilson’s Promontory – a mountain and seascape. The picture has a rope ladder falling from the sky and in near invisible writing, he has written a verse of Coleridge’s The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner. I said to the students – how cool is it that your art teacher is an artist? Phil is coordinating the school musical production as well. I understand his main motivation is that he wants the kids to experience that feeling of being part of something bigger than them – that’s what Phil remembers about the times when he was a student in his school productions.

Then there’s Nicole Gillingham. We run the Time & Space evenings in the building she teaches in at Yea High School. Without fail, every time I go in to set up after school has finished, Nicole is there tutoring a student in maths. One-on-one, carefully explaining the problem and I know as I walk past, that she will explain it again and again, in different ways until the student understands. She is so patient. When I have visited the school during the day, I have seen her at a little makeshift desk outside the staffroom, helping a student during lunchtime.

Sandy Reddan the ‘food-tech’ teacher always arrives before the Time & Space nights with a basket of muffins (always two flavours), scones and jam and Cream and even some Anzac biscuits – all freshly baked. Sandy simply doesn’t have to do this but she does. One morning after I arrived back in Melbourne late the night before from the 90 minute drive from Yea High School, my wife saw a carton of eggs on our kitchen bench.

“Where did you get those”, she asked?

“Oh Sandy told me her chickens were going crazy and she had stacks of eggs left over, so she gave these to me”. We had some for breakfast – those eggs seemed to have so much more flavour than the ones you get from the supermarket.

Yea High School deceptively contains a humble set of buildings. There are champions of ‘effort and commitment’ inside those walls, inspiring the kids.

I asked the students and the mums and dads and grandparents to close their eyes and take thirty seconds to consider the person, the teacher who made a difference in their life.

So here’s an invitation to you to do that now. Look away from this story... close your eyes for 30 seconds and try to picture that teacher whose shoulders you stand on because of their effort and commitment.  

Could you picture them? Great, I’ve got a suggested action for you in just a moment.

With respect to Chuck - I’ve actually written about him before – and when I did, I made the suggestion to reach out to that teacher (if they were still around) and simply say ‘thanks’. I wrote Chuck a letter. As it came to pass, I did a session at my old school for the staff late last year. Chuck was in the audience and I told the story of his effort and commitment for 7 Green in 1979. Chuck was beaming. A colleague of his recently told me he was really chuffed. It took me over 30 years to say thank you.

So you guessed it. If you know your teacher is still around. Drop them a line. You might be the person who makes every ‘effort and commitment’ act your teacher gave, across a career, seem completely worthwhile.

If the teacher is not around anymore, in the next 24 hours – tell someone important to you why your teacher inspired you.


Thursday, 31 July 2014

Doing one thing well...

... in a world that demands flexibility, lauds the multi-tasker and pronounces that today’s 15-year-old will have about 20 different jobs throughout their career... it isn’t difficult to build the argument against the specialist.

You can see how the person who does one thing well could be dismissed as unsuitably equipped to make their way in life. Where the contemporary phrase ‘keeping your options open’ can be matched with another trendy term, ‘the collective wisdom’, doing one thing well, might be the foolhardy approach.

The caveat though is if that one thing, done well, is something the person loves doing.

Did you ever do one of those career aptitude tests?

A company called Career Wise visited my school in the 1980’s. I was in Year 9. We all sat in the school hall and under exam conditions filled in the multiple, multiple choice circles with grey lead pencil. There was an IQ component as well. The company then collected all the answer cards, took them to their office to feed into a big computer. Computers were big then. 

Some weeks later, we all went back into the hall with our mums and dads and listened to a person from Career Wise explain the science behind the results. We sat down with individual consultants and they presented us with our envelope with the personalised print-out of our strengths and weaknesses.

My test said I should become an accountant. I don’t remember any of the other suggestions but I am certain there was nothing remotely suggesting ‘parent-child program facilitator’. Another strong memory is that at least three of my classmates were somewhat bewildered, asking “Do you know what a Ship’s Purser is?”

There is a glut of international sporting competitions right now. Amongst The World Cup, Le Tour and the Commonwealth Games, The Open Championship – one of the four world majors – was held at The Royal Liverpool Golf Club two weeks ago. Over the last few years, I have started to notice one person particularly in this tournament. I’ve had a quiet chuckle to myself wondering at the career aptitude test that a gentleman named Ivor Robson might have taken when he was 15.

Would Ivor’s test have turned up First Tee Announcer?  Probably not.

Ivor Robson is the man who announces the names of the players hitting off at the first tee. And that is part of his magic. He simply announces the names and the country they come from.No curriculum vitae of the player’s achievements (one exception is that he acknowledges the defending champion). No big build up.

I don’t know the name of any of the guys who announce at the other three majors. Why do I know Ivor’s? Because I started started to notice that each year he was always there. I like his minimalist approach, his mastery of difficult names and the distinctive musicality in his voice. He makes me smile. This simple talent prompted me to find out more. His story is delightfully interesting.

Ivor has been the announcer at The Open for 40 years now. He arrives at the tee 90 minutes before the first group and he never takes a break, a snack or a sip of water. In fact he doesn’t take a toilet break. This would explain his routine of refraining from eating or drinking from 7pm the night before. Until the last group tees off, Ivor remains, standing, at his post. He checks the players have the regulation golf balls, ensures they don’t have more than the maximum 14 clubs allowed in their golf bag and gives them their score cards. Sending 156 players off in the first two days, he will be at his station for upwards of ten hours. Ivor is meticulous about keeping time and there is no fear or favour – if a three time major winner is late, he’s disqualified. Sending 52 groups off in the early rounds, you can understand why, when quizzed about his job, Ivor has offered that he needs to maintain strict concentration.

You can see I’ve become something of an Ivor Robson groupie. I've, err, (pardon the intentional pun) learnt that: he has never answered a question about his exact age; Ivor breaks the difficult-to-pronounce names into manageable phonetic bits and his advice to the aspiring announcer, is to say the name once, and convincingly. It is easy to pick up that Ivor simply loves the game. And he is humble. At last year’s tournament at Muirfield, he was asked about his legacy after he retires (one day).

Ivor remarked “Seven days after I’ve gone, they’ll say ‘who was that grey-haired old man who used to announce the players.'”

This year, Ivor received that classic accolade... what do they say? The greatest form of flattery is imitation. Have a look at this.

Ivor Robson does one thing well.

And here are three others who belong in Ivor’s class.

John Donegan was in my year group at my school. He would have taken that same Career Wise test.

Maybe they got him right. Search John on the web and you'll find that he sold his first photo when he was 14. I remember John, as a student, seemed like he almost had his own set of keys for the Media area. He was always developing his latest set of photos in the dark room. I’ve enjoyed following John on Twitter in recent times. A couple of weeks ago, he travelled around Australia's major cities and captured scenes from his angle of vision. It is great art. He has mashed those city shots with photos taken of the same scenes back in 1914. It is late July as I write this. One hundred years ago, most Australians would have been innocently unaware of how close they were to the beginning of The Great War. Check John's work out here. It is a sublime concept, professionally executed.

Julie-Anne Geddes was my work supervisor in a volunteer year I did in Sydney in 1989. She coordinated  a coffee shop, which was a special work of the local Anglican parishes, for the transsexual prostitutes who worked on William Street down from Kings Cross. Julie oversaw this safe place, called PJ’s, ensuring these ladies could come and take a break from their work and she looked after the eclectic group of volunteers in her charge as well. 

She was always a grounded, kind helper. Now living in Wollongong with her family, Julie is a psychologist with well, that Julie spark. No doubt she would be doing untold good for the folk she supports. I've just ordered her recently released, first book Acts of Love: a thousand ways to sustain love. Can't wait to read it.

And finally, how do you fancy  being lost for 92 minutes within a beautiful story?  Then see Still Life. Eddie Marsan's performance is masterful as he occupies the character of the utterly decent, selfless council worker, John May. What’s the one thing that John May does well? He has worked for 22 years carefully, respectfully trying to find the next of kin of those who died alone in his South London borough.Oh yeah, Joanne Froggatt of Downton Abbey fame puts in a wonderful performance too.

Ivor Robson, John Donegan, Julie-Anne Geddes, John May (and Eddie Marsan) all do one thing well, very well. And in their work, you easily spot the generosity that emanates and delights. They love what they do and they are good at it.

It’s underrated but I reckon it is worth encouraging our kids to explore their hearts to find that one spark that fires them more than any other option.

This story is dedicated to my young bloke Jack who turned 18 earlier this month. Jacko - you could be a philosopher - in fact you are a philosopher. You are a bloody good actor as well. I know I may not put my advice at a premium - you probably get too much of it from your less than perfect old man... all the same... Son - work out what is it is that you truly love doing and then do that one thing well – maybe, against the tide of collective wisdom, for a lifetime.

Sunday, 11 May 2014

Gabi - a Mothers Day Champion

It has been a big week for Gabi.

On Tuesday night Gabi was a participant at the Mother and Son session at her son’s school, Saint Ignatius College in Drysdale, a 20 minute drive through Geelong.

Two nights later she fronted up and was a team member at the subsequent Mother and Daughter night. At her Mother-Daughter session in 2012, Gabi had ticked a box on the evaluation form to say she would be interested being a team member at a future event.

Participants can also tick a box to say that they would like to become a member of the Time & Space Community. They receive stories about mums, dads, young people who often are going about, what the subjects consistently consider to be, their ordinary life. And then you and I, encountering their story, might contend that they are quietly being extraordinary. Another way I describe the people of these everyday stories are as ‘champions who have been spotted’. Gabi is one such champion.

If you have been to a Time & Space session you will have seen and heard from that brave group up the front... the people on the community panel. We usually have two parents and two young people sharing their insights about the questions the participants will answer in their small group session that follows. Gabi was a panellist on Thursday night.

In answer to the question... what is a special quality you see in your child? She said this about her daughter...

My daughter’s special quality would without doubt be her inner strength. Her courage and ability to overcome adversity, adapt and navigate her way through an experience of great loss in Year 8 was just remarkable and inspiring.

At the end of the evening, Gabi came up to me with a specific question. I got a chance too, to say thanks for the insights she shared and for how she impacted on the audience of mums, mentors and teenage girls.

Her daughter has completed the two Time and Space programs in sequence – The Father-Daughter in Year 7 and then the Mother-Daughter in Year 8. As a family – they have now done three of the four sessions available in the transition years of high school. As you know, Gabi and her boy did the Mother-Son this week.  

In our conversation, I shared a clear memory from the Father-Daughter night three years ago. Gabi seemed surprised but her husband stood out to me.

He explained how determined he had been not to miss the father-daughter night. He was seated, had a quiet satisfaction that he had made it. He had kind eyes. Gabi remembered and reflected...

“Oh yeah, we made a big effort to make it to that night. He made the journey down here from Melbourne.”

Often dads make big efforts to get to Time & Space events from work far away. It is humbling to witness the priority they put on being with their son or daughter.

This was different again. Gabi’s husband mustered the energy to be transported from the Royal Melbourne Hospital to be at the night with his daughter.  He had a terminal illness and passed away just a few months later.

You see Gabi’s question was opening up how we might tackle the Father-Son night for her boy next year. There is always provision for a mentor to be there if mum or dad is not around (and, as in this case, sometimes it is a sad reason). It is that care and foresight that makes Gabi a pretty obvious and ‘spot-able’ champion mum.

In saying on the panel that her daughter has inner strength – we kind of know how her girl has inherited that. Having affirmed her daughter’s quality Gabi went on to offer a message to the girls there on the night...

It also highlighted to me that our girls are strong. Without knowing the young ladies here this evening, I do know that you all have inner strength, because of the wonderful role models you have sitting beside you. I hope you always remember that.

It was evident to those of us there that we were in the presence of, to use Gabi’s words, a wonderful role-model. The principal of the school remarked to me afterwards that whilst Gabi didn’t specify the detail of her loss, a good number of the mums there would have been in the know.

That’s why I reckon Gabi’s story is a great example to share on Mother’s Day (here in Australia today). Gabi has courage. There’s selflessness in the way she first sees and acknowledges her daughter’s quality that emerged from that loss – a loss that was obviously Gabi’s as well. And then let’s regard the kindness in her forward planning to start thinking about a session for her son that will be happening in September 2015.

Let Gabi and her story represent the way mums give, the way so many mums sacrifice as a default action and the way mums are ‘extraordinary in the ordinary’.

This story is a gift for Gabi and her kids written on Mother’s Day 2014.

If you are reading this now it will be because Gabi (and the kids) said it was okay.                                                                                                                                                                               


Friday, 21 March 2014

Lean on Your Tribe

Consider this... a member of your family is having a stressful time with one of their kids. They approach you and ask for some help.

What would you do?

You’ve got your answer? Good. Hold that thought. See if you can find some of your own stories in what’s to follow.

With my seventeen year-old son’s permission I can share that my wife Lisa and I have not had the easiest time guiding our youngest through his adolescent years. His challenges would all be considered what you would say are some of the things a mum, dad and teenager can encounter in this time of life.  Tough but - when all is said and done – pretty normal challenges. He’s pushed boundaries, I’ve picked the wrong fights. In a few years time we’ll probably look back and laugh at how stubborn we both have been.

There are signs that we are emerging through the other side of an, at times, ugly journey. How ugly? Do you remember how Tim Robbins’ character Andy Dufresne finally escaped from Shawshank prison?

His friend Red (the Morgan Freeman character), in that timeless narration voiceover said...

“Andy crawled to freedom through five hundred yards of shit smelling foulness I can't even imagine, or maybe I just don't want to. Five hundred yards... that's the length of five football fields, just shy of half a mile.”

What do you think? Is that sewer pipe not a brilliant metaphor for parents guiding a teenager through a difficult adolescence?

We might be getting to the end of the pipe, touch wood. A few weekends ago, at 1am on a Sunday morning, I found myself sitting in my car in a suburban street performing the designated driver duties. Lisa was still awake, so she came along for the ride and made the ubiquitous phone call (we don’t knock on the door any more do we?).

A handful of young folk were starting to appear in the street.

We have a phrase for how we like to find the young bloke when he emerges from a party – in good order. This morning he was in good order. He appeared with a mate and his girlfriend. Jack asks if we can give his friends a lift back home. As we drive off, the banter starts. The young lady is very chatty and I can’t remember what I said but she remarked to Jack that he had the coolest parents ever. We had to laugh. This would not be Jack’s usual opinion (well certainly not the way he sees his dad). We’ve laughed again today – enjoying some opportunities to say to Jack that we are really happy with how he’s going at the moment... in Year 12, chipping away at the homework and balancing the social life with his biggest year at school yet.

Half way through last year we certainly felt stuck somewhere in the middle of that metaphoric pipe.

It seemed like every week we were hitting problems. Boundary crossed. Consequence. Another boundary crossed – another tougher consequence. From both sides, it felt like all we were doing was upping the ante. I started to feel bereft and said to Lisa... “Do you feel like we are running out of ideas?” Lisa agreed. There will be parents now reading this who know that feeling.

As that feeling of helplessness began to overwhelm, one idea made a welcome visit.

I remembered that Jack was pushing boundaries in a way that my youngest brother Greg had done when he was growing up. I left home just before his teenage years... travelled around the country and the world. So we came in and out of each others lives. I do remember though that he gave mum and dad a bit of heartache. Being eleven years older than Greg, I have always looked at him as my little brother. He had got married the year before and was about three weeks away from becoming a dad. I shared with Lisa the idea... to ask Greg to possibly help us with Jack – could he come and simply have a chat with him.

I called Greg, it was the weekend, could he spare some time – because of what I remember he was like as a teenager – to come and have a chat with Jack some time soon. Greg lives on the other side of town.

Do you know what happened? Greg was at our door within half an hour. He took Jack out for lunch. Yum Cha in fact (which I remarked to Lisa was a pretty mixed up consequence – but he was Greg’s project now). Greg visited the next weekend and this time was equipped with some goal setting materials he had been given in a course he had done at work. He invited Jack to work through the process with him... each of them working on their own goals but at the same time, together, so that they could encourage each other. I can’t recall how many times Jack has been lectured by yours truly about the need to have goals. Of course that message is going to be better received by Jack’s much cooler, younger uncle than the broken record messages of his old man.

We had a family birthday gathering a few weeks ago, just before Jack started his last year of high school. Greg presented him with a letter. I don’t know what was in it but Jack, as you’ve been informed has made a brilliant start to the year.

It had never occurred to me until then to ask someone for help. In fact, the realisation came that this was the first time I had asked Greg for something that in anyway credited him as being an adult. My ‘little’ brother has been an adult for at least 18 years now. In the middle of a very busy, exciting time in his life (he now has a baby son, Isaac) Greg responded to a request from his brother to help his nephew.

What did you say in answer to that question at the start of this story... if a member of your family or a close friend asked you for help, what would you say? My guess is that most of us would respond like my brother did.

Why is it that I only thought to ask Greg for help when he was what felt like the last idea left?

We live in a world where we often feel we’ve got to solve stuff ourselves. If Greg needs a chop out with Isaac in 15 years or so, I’m there. Or, maybe better still, his big cousin Jack will step in.

What’s the big take away from this story? When you are doing it tough with your teenager... indeed when you encounter any challenge raising your kids... Lean on Your Tribe.

They are waiting to be asked.

You’d help them in similar circumstances wouldn’t you? Yes?

Then ask. 

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Thanks for reading. As always feel free to write a comment in the space below. There are a few ways you can comment - if you choose anonymous, it is always appreciated when you put your name next to what you say.

Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Treasured Moments

This year it finally happened. The threat had loomed for a while but when the time came, it kept coming. He proved the next two times we played, that his victory wasn’t a fluke. 

For about four years now, my 17-year-old son and I have had a regular hit of squash up at our local RSL gymnasium. Up until this year, my title was unchallenged. I’m a bit old school when it comes to the debate about whether you play full tilt or let your kids have a chance against you in competitive games. Especially with our squash games, I have always shown no mercy. And when his turn came, neither did he.

You wouldn’t have seen it on the back page of your newspaper and it wasn’t the lead story in Sport on the evening news but, in June this year, whilst still 16 years old, Jack beat me 3-2 in a fiercely contested game of squash. He lead 2-0 and I clawed back thinking, “I’ve got him” and then, the rest is history - he allowed me only two points as he finished his dad off in the fifth game. I thought, “Right... next time, I’ll get him back”.

Well, next time, he beat me 4-1 and then for good measure, he got the same score the time after that. There was a definite pattern emerging in the way our games were going.

You hear about how the lion packs in the African Savannah working out who is the boss lion... the old lion often sees off some early challenges but eventually the young lion wins a fight and becomes king of the pride. During that first loss, whilst scrambling to try and maintain my title, I could see that he was bringing a new strength and pace to the game that I couldn’t match. Promise you, the fight went to the last point but when he won, a wave of pride washed over. He had done it... gone past his old man.

This was a treasured moment.

Everyday life goes on. Then something happens that marks a moment in time. Our kids have got to a new stage.

These moments don’t have to be contests. It can be a moment you become aware of sometime after a new change has occurred. My oldest Amber provided one of these moments this year, along with my mum. 

Amber actually stopped being a teenager this year (by virtue of turning 20). Life is flowing for her: just finished second year university; she’s recently done some house-sitting for friends; she has got herself a great steady part-time job and now, is driving her own car. She has been forging her own independence.

Somewhere along the way, I heard my mum start a sentence that will probably read as fairly ordinary to you. Mum and dad are still in the same house I grew up in. We are now on the other side of town.

Mum started “When Amber popped in again the other day...” Like I said, this would seem somewhat innocuous to you but as Amber’s dad, me and her mum have always driven her over to see my mum and dad. Now she was popping in, of her own accord, after uni. When she house-sat, she was closer to her grandparent’s house than to ours. Mum explained that Amber had been coming to visit just to say hello. Over the visits, an idea Amber has for a family film project grew. Amber is lucky enough to have a memory of mum’s parents - her great grandparents. My grandpa died in 2002 when Amber was nine. She remembers this kind old man who had lived a tough life. Grandpa grew up in the Depression. He was orphaned and built a life with his own family from this starting point of adversity. Amber is fascinated by her great grandfather’s story. She has developed a passion for documentary making at university. At a recent family gathering she asked everyone to be ready to share their memories of grandpa sometime soon on camera.

Mum told me that she had shared things with Amber that she can’t recall telling me or my brothers or sister. Mum said it was easier to talk about when she was growing up to her grand-daughter.

My daughter who it seems, just a second ago was a little baby I could hold in one arm... now has her own adult connection with my mum. It is their relationship. Amber’s got her own independent, creative ideas. Of course she has. It might read as obvious but when mum said, “When Amber popped over again the other day...” the sense of another wave of pride washed over. A treasured moment had visited again.

Almost invisibly, another stage in your child’s life is progressing to a point where some time soon, you’ll be right in the middle of a treasured moment. You’ll feel it right there and then – perhaps being delightfully confronted by the realisation that they have gone past you, like the young bloke did destroying me on the local squash courts. Maybe you’ll become aware sometime after the event - like I did with Amber – realising, “wow she seriously is a young adult now... she has an impressive generous imagination... she has her own family connections that she can pursue.

Sure, we drive each other crazy. We get things wrong a lot of the time with our kids. But hey, our kids surprise us. They can delight us with a treasured moment that says, they are on the way to being their own person, a young adult.


This story is posted on the last day of 2013. This is a good time to look back and wonder... where were those treasured moments for you as a parent, as a mentor to a young person? Give yourself a bit of Time & Space to wonder at the magic of your kids growing up.

 Bill Jennings

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Thanks for reading this year. As always feel free to write a comment in the space below. There are a few ways you can comment - if you choose anonymous, it is always appreciated when you put your name next to what you say. Have a grouse 2014.

Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Mungo - Busking for The Philippines

Some Time & Space Community people might know that Mem Fox’s picture book (illustrated by Julie Vivas), Wilfred Gordon McDonald Partridge gets a run in some of my presentations. It‘s a personal favourite. It is a story of a small boy who helps his ninety-six year old friend, Miss Nancy Alison Delacourt Cooper, in the nursing home next door to his house. I love the way he takes action to help her because she has lost her memory.

In the last few weeks I have found out about another extraordinary boy who lives locally. This seven year old boy, named Mungo, saw a problem and simply responded...  

Through November I was in the UK delivering some Time & Space programs there. I flew out on Melbourne Cup Tuesday. Our family had been away for the weekend and I knew something bad had happened in the Philippines... a massive storm but I had my head down whilst delivering the programs in England and never really took in what had happened.  
The morning after returning home Lisa sent me up the road to buy some milk where I bump into Gurdeep, a friendly bloke who works at our local IGA store. Gurdeep I think is a Sikh. He wears a turban, a beard that would make any inner city hipster proud and always, a big smile.    

“When is your band playing next?” asked Gurdeep.

He was referring to a band I’m in called SHeD, a bunch of four dads who met up years ago when our kids were at the local primary school. Our by-line is Four Blokes and a Guitar and we practice in my shed. We play occasional Saturday mornings outside the ‘Miller-on-Gilbert’ shops to create a vibe that emphasises the difference between a local precinct and a monolithic retail centre like Northland. The local traders chip in a few bucks and when people go to offer us some busking money, we say “This is a gift from the traders, spend your money in their shops”. It works well but be assured, none of us have given up our day jobs.

I tell Gurdeep, “We’re playing this weekend.” Gurdeep is a big fan of any rock’n’roll - he appears at the front of the shop, clapping along if we are playing Holy Grail or a big Elvis Presley tune.

“We’ve had the little kid play out the front here... have you heard about the kid?” Gurdeep asks.

“No I haven’t mate, I’ve been away,” I respond.

“ He plays his little guitar and he’s been in the paper.” It is clear Gurdeep has been captivated and is excited.

So Saturday comes and Mungo is walking on the other side of Gilbert Road. He lives with his mum Kathleen and Dave, his dad in one of the shops converted into their home. Mungo sees that SheD are playing out the front of Menuki Hairdressing across the road from him. He pops back inside and appears with his ukulele in one hand and a newspaper article in the other.

“Oh”, I think to myself, “that little kid Gurdeep was talking about is Mungo!”

Our band have watched him grow up through the years... he has always stopped and listened to the tunes. He is a serious, reflective little guy. This time he played along with us. He knows two numbers, House of the Rising Sun  and Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da. Our guitarist Stephen, follows Mungo and we sing along with him. 

Here’s the back story. Mungo and his parents, were sitting at the dinner table and chatting about a story that dominated our news services in early November. Just like Wilfred Gordon, Kathleen says, “he is always asking questions” and his dad had been listening to the ABC news on the radio for the developing consequences of Typhoon Haiyan. It captured Mungo’s attention. As he asked more questions and talked with his dad, he started to imagine and understand simple comparisons about things we might overlook. Mungo wondered what it might be like to lose all his toys.

He also wondered if there was something he could do about it. At the dinner table that night, the idea that Mungo came up with was that he might be able to busk, playing his ukulele for the people of the Philippines as he once had made about $8 playing out the front of his shop front home. Dave, his dad explained about Oxfam, so he made a sign to that effect and people chipped in. Next Mungo was allowed to play outside the IGA. Oxfam heard through Mungo’s dad what he was doing and they gave him a temporary blog to track his goal towards raising $500. From there the photographer headed down and took some shots for the Herald-Sun story.

Mungo has just finished in Year 1 and as the Oxfam website states he has, in recent weeks, “shown you are never too young to be a role-model”.

Kathleen says that his Principal called him up recently at the Prep, Year 1 and 2 assembly and he started telling the Preppies that “a typhoon is like a really big whirlwind”. The school are having to review their policies as well as Mungo, as a Year 1 isn’t old enough yet to go on the student social justice committee! 
As the penny dropped and it became evident that Mungo had started a typhoon of goodness, I quickly checked with the boys in the band and all agreed that there was no way we could put the money the traders gave us that day into our own pockets. I went in to collect from Fiona the hairdresser who owns Menuki. She had seen Mungo playing with us and I let her know that the money today is going to his campaign. Instead of handing over the usual $20, Fiona doubles it and says “give him this as well.”

The next shop is Glo Beauty and as I tell Monique behind the counter, Mungo’s story, a lady who has just had a treatment is standing next to me, ready to pay. The lady’s name is Margaret, she hears about Mungo’s efforts and pulls twenty bucks out of her purse, hands me the money and says “give it to that wonderful boy”. Mum, Kathleen who is Mungo’s blog manager credits Margaret’s contribution. Mungo has well and truly surpassed his $500 goal and as I write the growing total is $3042 AUD for Oxfam. You can check out the current total here, even add to it if you wish. Mungo, this is mighty.

At the end of Wilfred Gordon McDonald Partridge, there’s a beautiful line...

                And the two of them smiled and smiled
                because Miss Nancy’s memory had been found again
                by a small boy, who wasn’t very old either.

This post is sent out at Christmas. It doesn’t matter if you are religious or not – Christmas has a huge theme of giving. The story that underpins Christmas has central figures who were homeless on that night – as the nativity narrative goes, the baby was born in a stable at the back of the inn with the ‘no vacancy’ sign... there are people right now, still homeless in the Philippines.

Just like Wilfred Gordon I reckon Mungo has helped us to remember what’s important.  His story has sparked the kindness in other people’s hearts... his action has been so profoundly simple that it has been easy for people to support and join Mungo in his cause.

 It is a powerful little example of how one person’s action can make the world a better place and on this occasion that kindness has come from Mungo... who isn’t very old either.

As always, thanks for reading - feel free to add your comments in the box below. You can click the Anonymous link to write a comment. It is always appreciated if you include your name next at the end of the comment.

Bill Jennings - Creator and Founder of Time & Space

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Friday, 5 July 2013

The Tram Ride Home

From the day this story is posted consider how time has moved since these two events.

It is 42 days since Adam Goodes was called an ‘ape’ at the MCG by a 13-year-old girl.

It is 44 days since Private Lee Rigby was hacked to death in Woolwich in the UK.

If you read this blog in Australia, the Adam Goodes story preoccupied the nation for about a week. With regard to the Woolwich story, it doesn’t matter where in the world you read this blog... you would have heard news about the murder of Lee Rigby.

Do you ever feel naive when the media circus, pulls out the tent pegs, packs up and heads away in search of the next story? I do. The fervent discussion on talkback radio, the collective introspection that goes with big news, evaporates as quickly as the storm brews up.

What do we learn?

What enables us to be different the next time?

I reckon it is the moments of chance learning we get that don’t make world news.

So, 41 days ago the Adam Goodes and Lee Rigby events had happened. They were unrelated, yet both race related. They were curdling in my mind as this 'chance learning' happened on the 112 tram...

My daughter Amber and I have been going to the footy for years. Her younger brother has come along with us most of that time but on this Saturday night, it was just me and her. Just like when she was little. Our team Essendon had won. We had beaten the Tigers in the big Dreamtime match at the MCG.

We walked through Fitzroy Gardens to get to our tram stop. We talked along the path. Both of us agreed that there was something unusual in the atmosphere that night. The crowd of over 80000 people had been noticeably quiet. The Dreamtime game is meant to be a celebration of the contribution of indigenous players to Aussie Rules. But something sad had happened at that ground on the previous night. Something that didn’t fit the script. That was the night Adam Goodes, an aboriginal champion of the game, had been racially vilified during the final stages of the Collingwood-Sydney game. Amber and I both wondered if that rupture, on the same ground, had placed our crowd into that subdued, reflective state.

That week, I had been working flat stick and only caught snippets of the brutal murder of a British soldier, in the broad daylight in a London high street. Having only snippets suited me, in a way, because this attack felt new. It was disturbing and hard to let in. The Lee Rigby story also brought up a familiar sense of anxiety, uncertainty. It is irrational and a bit embarrassing to say but I felt afraid. I remember feeling the same way after September 11.

We got to tram stop near St Vincent’s Hospital. Well, when Amber was six it was a tram stop. These days it’s called a Super Stop. That distinction is made because we had to top up our Myki cards. That meant I had to open my wallet. It was getting late so I scanned the characters waiting at the super stop.

There were two aboriginal women who walked up to the stop and past us. One of the ladies had no shoes. They were pretty tipsy and happy. A sad scene but their jovial, boisterous ways made me smile. There was a familiarity that didn’t feel threatening... I had seen this before.

A man was sitting right near the Myki machine... he had darkish skin too but I was pretty sure he wasn’t aboriginal. He had a vacant expression on his face. He was looking forward and not giving even any fleeting eye contact. I felt uncomfortable as I started to put my credit cards on the Myki machine to top up my card.

I’m placing myself here at your judgement but a friend of mine says that if we write, we have to be prepared to share something that we don’t like in ourselves... something from the shadows, something that might even disgust us about ourselves. This reads pretty heavy I know but put simply, I was frightened of this man. I wondered if he might be muslim. Specifically, an extreme Islamist.

Here are my irrational thought processes, my inner dialogue...

... that soldier died this week because he was a soldier. I’m not a soldier, I’ll be OK. This guy looks like he might be a Muslim. Maybe the next random attack is going to be on a random westerner. Hey that could be me. Bill don’t be an idiot. You know most muslims are not extremists. He’s not going to attack you. But then again, you never know...

So, Amber and I (and my irrational thoughts) got on the tram... with this man. We found two seats in a booth with a couple who had come from the city. The man I was frightened of took his seat a couple of booths away taking one of four seats on his own. The aboriginal ladies lit up the tram with laughter and got off two stops later.

Next our attention turned to some young blokes who also had had a few drinks. They weren’t full hipsters but tertiary students with a lot of young fella confidence and bits of facial hair... they enjoyed the mix between their intellectuality and their ripe language. They were making outlandish, bravado fuelled remarks about the young women they knew... very loudly. Their demeanour was so overconfident and so loud and so oblivious to the rest of the passengers that they were actually quite amusing. The other two people in our booth, a man and a woman were smirking. These lads were very happy for themselves. If on the other hand, my paranoid profiling of the man sitting on his own was indeed correct and he was an extreme Islamist, then these young blokes had done nothing to argue a case in support of the modesty and decorum of the infidels! They were pretty crass. In a couple more stops they were off, congratulating each other as to how funny each of them really were. This was such a typical Friday night tram ride home along Brunswick Street... a classic mix of footy crowd along with others coming back from the restaurants and pubs.

Two stops later, a lady was giving a warm hug at the stop to two friends she had dined with. Well dressed, middle aged, Caucasian and attractive looking... she got on the tram, waved and blew a few extra kisses to her friends. Another tipsy person was with us. The tram took off with one of those jolts that could throw you off balance if you were fully sober. The lady was flung in a pirouette... she did a full 180 degree turn, flung out her hand, grabbed a rail, swung again and fell, into the lap of the man I was afraid of.

“Oh, how are you?” said the well dressed, tipsy lady.

She remained on the man’s lap longer than she should have.

The man spoke in a gentle voice, “I am fine thanks, a little tired actually.”

Somehow he managed to assist the lady off his lap. She slid and slotted into the space next to him. There was room for her to create some space, move and take the seat opposite but she sat snuggled right in, in a flirty fashion. The lady looked around the tram and saw a few footy scarves adorning some of the passengers.

She asked the man, “Have you been to the footy?”

“No I have been working tonight in the city,” he replied, “I did see the score at about half time.” The man’s accent was hard to place... middle eastern maybe? Maybe not. His voice sounded kind. My fears was dissipating and being replaced by a feeling best described as foolishness.

“Oh, who was playing?” the lady asked.

“I know Richmond was one team, I go for Richmond but I think we might have been losing.” Wow. I thought. This extremist guy goes for the Tigers.

“I go for the magpies... that was bad what happened to Adam Goodes last night – are you aboriginal?” the lady asked very forwardly.

“No, I am from Afghanistan,” said the man.

“Oh, are you a muslim?” asked the lady.

The ladies questions raised a few eyebrows again. The people in our four seat booth – the young couple, Amber and I, didn’t say anything with our words but our glances at each other said, “this has been an interesting tram ride!”

The man was very patient. He answered every question the lady asked him.

We were witness to a fascinating conversation. The gentle way the man’s intuition summed up that the lady was tipsy, and meant no harm, gave her permission in turn to take the conversation deeper and deeper.

We heard her talk about a documentary she had seen that week on TV. She connected it with the murder of the soldier in London – the program was about Islamic fundamentalism.

As she spoke, you detected that the lady was qualifying as she heard more of the man’s story, “Of course fundamentalism is the same in all religions... it has tragic effects whether it is Christian fundamentalism or any other religion, not just Islamic extremism.”

“That’s right" said the man. "I am a muslim but those men in London don’t represent me. Their behaviour is against Islam... all of the big religions ask us not to hurt another human. In fact, even as a muslim man, I have been affected first hand by Islamic fundamentalism...”

And so his story was told and the lady listened. Amber and I and the couple and everyone around couldn’t help but eavesdrop. For the second time that night, the place we were in went unusually quiet...

We heard how his particular tribe in Afghanistan had been a happy group of people. He remembered untroubled times when with his tribe, there was singing, dancing and regular celebrating. Then the Taliban came. They took some of his friends, and then his brother-in-law. They learnt that all of them were killed.

When he was a teenager he came to Australia. Because of the danger... because he is now ‘Australia’s responsibility’, as he put it, he can’t go back to Afghanistan. The only way he can see his family is if they come to the border and cross into Pakistan. He had managed to do that a couple of times, we think we heard him share with the lady.

The couple got off the tram and it wound around into Miller Street.

The man kept talking and shared that eventually he wants to bring his mother and family to Australia.

Amber distinctly heard him say, “but that is a dream for the future.”

The tram got to the Gilbert Road turn and the lady said, “This is my stop, I need to get off.” She sounded more quiet now.

“Thank you” she said.

“It was wonderful to talk with you. Nice to meet you.” A simple statement of gratitude by the man.

Two stops later it was Amber and my turn to get off. We walked down the side street to our home in West Preston where we have lived in peace for all of her life.

“You just never know what you’re going to get on that 112 tram, do you dad?” Amber remarked.

“Very true Amber,” I replied.

And quietly I thought back with some embarrassment to the way I had painted the man as a potential threat. I didn’t feel frightened any more. I had heard his story.

I felt grateful to have heard the man’s gentleness. I think it affected everyone within earshot of him on that tram ride home.

All I can say is that I hope his dream comes true.

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