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.