Out of the Mouths of Children………

wisemans-007I started teaching at the age of eighteen. In fact, I was in charge of a school at that age. Fresh out of college I was sent to a one-teacher school back in the hills between Bathurst and Oberon.


The school had thirteen children enrolled distributed across Kindergarten to Year 9. Prior to my arrival the school had been closed for the best part of eight months and so I was a welcome addition to the valley as parents were keen to have a school for their children. My sense of it is that the kids were less keen.


I stayed on a farm. I shared it with the two local “boys’. They were 55 and 65 and between them – had never married – had about a dozen dogs which shared the fireplace hearth with us each evening. They were share farmers and worked really hard. We had no electricity, no running water and I faced some eight kilometres walk or cycle to the school each day. The communication with the outside world was by a radio operated by a car battery and it was only used to listen to the ABC News each evening and then only for the weather report. I got to know James Dibble’s voice well.


School was a relief. The pupils were wonderful. Friendly, energetic, stoic, resigned to a life of farming in a valley made famous for its gold deposits and rush of Chinese fossickers eighty years earlier. What they lacked in urban sophistication was balanced by a strong sense of the simple joys of the farm, their pets and the expectation they would, from a young age and in all seasons, work. Their work ethic was so strong by the time they arrived at school each morning after a few hours pea picking, tomato harvesting, milking and feeding the chooks, they were ready for a sleep.


Most days I would gather all thirteen pupils in a circle out at the front of the room and we would have a chat. Sometimes I would select the topic, at other times one of the children would express an interest in something they had read, heard or hoped. The highlight of their week was to be driven into Bathurst for a ‘town’ day – a Saturday where they could go to the picture theatre, watch some sport or simply help with the weekly task of shopping for the supplies needed for the next week or so.


wisemans-006In my second year at this school I recall one particular discussion session centred on topic,  “What do you want to do when you grow up”. Young Kerrie had selected this topic, as she was to be the discussion leader.  She was only ten and had an awesome sight vocabulary but alas limited comprehension of what she read. Her face, her eyes shone with the responsibility of leading the discussion. For Kerrie that meant going round the circle asking each of her schoolmates, “what would you like to be when you grow up?” Each pupil would answer fully, in complete sentences signalling what their hopes were. One wanted to be a farmer, another a truck driver a third wanted to go to USA and meet Elvis. A small and serious young lady wanted to go work in a big town. Most of the boys saw their future doing what their dads did and for the three fifteen-year-old girls it was to get married and have children.


wisemans-002So, the discussion circle worked with the sublime confidence and the innocence of the young.  They were open, trusting and generous in what they had to say. Kerrie led the discussion really well for a ten year old. Inevitably, the circle of 12 was exhausted. Everything was said that needed to be said.  With the discussion near finished my task was to comment on the quality of what was expressed.  Just as I had done for a number of weeks I moved to bring the discussion to a close by offering some verbal evaluation of the children’s spoken word. Just as I was about to do so, young Kerrie chimed in and said,

“Excuse me, Sir.”

“Yes, Kerrie, what is it?” I asked.

“Sir, she replied. “What do you want to do when you grow up?”


It was hard to keep a straight face. I quickly looked at the group. They were very interested in my response. This was not a child being rude, nor a group testing boundaries. There was no guile. Kerrie was a sweet, delightful child just doing the task I had set for her. For her it was a reasonable question.


I was more than obligated to answer. It was my duty.


“Well, Kerrie. I want to be a good teacher…”

“But you are already that, she said…what else?”


Well, now I was stumped for an answer..…I had never wanted to be anything else but a teacher since I was in fact about her age.


“Well.” I continued. “My Dad has lent me his camera and I would really like to be a good photographer so that I can bring photographs to school and show them to you. But film is very expensive and I can only borrow my Dad’s camera when he does not need it.”


wisemans-005The discussion finished at that point as it was just after school closing time and it was necessary to take the children down to the little post office agency to be collected by parents who drove in from various points in the valley each day morning and afternoon to chat, collect the kids and have a bit of a yarn.


This second year passed by. It was a great experience and the kids seem to enjoy each day except when there was a tiger snake in the toilet or sheep raided the school garden. As a bonded teacher I was obligated to serve anywhere in the state but by the end of my second year fully expected to serve my three years at this one teacher school. This was not to be.


At the end of the school year, on the last day, I received a telegram (delivered by the postman as part of the thrice weekly mail, bread and newspaper run).  It was from “the department” advising me I was to be transferred to a larger and quite problematic school near to Wallerawang. My time with these children was over. The two years had gone quickly.


I called the children together and wished them a great Christmas holiday and a lovely time the next year. They went home and I sat in the school building and quietly blinked back a tear or two before resolving to cycle home calling in on the P and C President to let him know a new teacher was coming next year. We chatted for a while and I said my farewells. The next day I was on a train to Sydney for the summer break. It was a wrenching experience. I should have told the pupils but it did not seem right somehow. On the train to Sydney I wrote a Christmas greeting to each of them. I explained, to each, what was to happen.


In mid-January, I received an invitation to return to the valley on the last weekend of the month. It coincided with Australia Day. There was to be a farewell. In fact I was looking forward to seeing the children for one last time.


It was a great day with games, cakes, drinks, lots of chats and inevitably lots of speeches.


Late in the proceedings Kerrie stood up, dressed in what appeared to be a hand me down floral dress and spoke clearly and firmly about her years at the school and “her” teacher. With the close of her speech there was not a dry eye and then the gift. She handed me this small gift-wrapped box. Silence entered the community hall. None of the hundred or so folk said a word.


retinette_1AI opened the box. It was a camera. A Kodak Retinette IA, complete with some rolls of Kodachrome and a lovely card signed by all of the children. Kerrie smiled at me and said, “ We remembered what you wanted to be.”


This small band of children set me off on a path in photography that has been extraordinarily rewarding.  In fact, my photography is almost as rewarding as that afternoon which I have always cherished.


Over fifty years later some of these students still keep in touch. I have been back a few times. Most became farmers, some became mothers and now grandmothers and all taught their teacher well.