It’s a Different World
Click above for the audio-version of “It’s a Different World”
Three weeks into my appointment as Superintendent of Education for the Kimberley came the first of an often-to-be-repeated experience: how my best-laid plans would go awry or have to alter.
Jamie, newly appointed principal of a just-opened school in the district, rang to invite me to meet the school’s community members early the next week. I’d met Jamie briefly in the District Office when he’d called in, on his way to the community in late January.
“Sorry, I can’t next week, Jamie,” I told him. “I’ve planned to go to Broome and Derby. I’ve got a lot of schools to visit in the first two months.”
“Have you worked with remote Aboriginal schools before, Dave?” When we’d met, Jamie had told me he’d taught in remote Aboriginal schools for six years.
“Jamie, I don’t see my role as working with remote Aboriginal schools. I see it as working with schools, most of which have a high percentage of Aboriginal students, to try to get them all to achieve high educational standards.”
“That’s an interesting theme, Dave.” Jamie spoke calmly and I wondered if he were pulling my leg in some way. “But I’ll make three points for you to consider. This is the first time in my experience in remote schools that a community has asked to meet with the school superintendent. That says they’re interested in engaging with the school and the Community Chair, Billy, has told me they’ll all be around all next week, which is rare. And the last thing is that they’ve invited you to their community to meet with them, which is an honour.
“To talk to you about the name they want for their school.”
“Jamie, they don’t need my help to decide a name for the school. They can do that with you.”
“You’re right, but you’ve overlooked a couple of my points; that they want to engage with school and with you, and they’ve bestowed an honour on you. But, if you can’t make it, I’ll tell them and see you when you can make it.”
His words rang in my head over the next hour. In considerable mental discomfort, I told the story to the office manager, who’d spent a decade in the Kimberley, and I admitted Jamie’s words nagged.
“What do you reckon I should do?” I asked.
“Have you thought about coming up with a different answer?” he suggested drily.
I arrived at ten o’clock that day and met Jamie, Janet, the new teacher, and the children.
The first sight of the school stopped me in my tracks. The classrooms were two transportable building linked by small office and staff room. The staff room was jammed with reading books, reams of paper, a photo-copier and a desk and chair covered in school paraphernalia. In addition, there was an urn on a shelf at head height connected to the only power point.
“We use this as our staff room for morning tea and lunch,” Jamie announced. “As you can see, Dave, we haven’t got space to swing a little camp dog and we’re short of a few extension cords.
The toilets were in dongas and most of them were blocked. And, with no fencing yet built around the school, the grounds were wide open. The school building sat on a rise above a creek flowing rapidly after recent rains. Large, fresh, cow pats lay everywhere, along with piles of empty boxes, cartons and general rubbish like cans, food scraps and newspapers.
I walked gingerly to Jamie’s classroom, in which were fifteen children, varying in age from nine to fourteen, were seated as well as two very watchful dogs standing beside the teacher’s table staring at me. When Jamie let the kids out to play, the dogs followed. The sight of dogs in the classroom motivated me to start planning my lecture to Jamie about animals on school property. But he got in first.
“I’ll explain about the dogs, but first, come and meet Janet.”
He introduced her, a graduate teaching pre- and junior primary students. She was hassled and out of her depth, dealing with students whose ages ranged from three to nine years, and for whom English was a second, third, fourth or non-existent language. I arranged to chat with her in the lunch break to see I could help.
Jamie was making Janet and me a cup of tea when snarling, savage barking, children screaming and loud mooing arose. I visualised bleeding children being savaged by two dogs and a bull and my recent promotion going up in smoke in a welter of newspaper articles.
“Go and look.” Jamie calmly indicated the door.
I did, heart in mouth. The school kids were cheerfully following the dogs, one dog shepherding a recalcitrant bull out of the school property and the other preventing several cows and another bull from entering.
“A fence would be good, Dave. But until we get one, the dogs keep the kids safe from bulls and cows each day and stop wild pigs from sleeping under the school at night!”
Jamie and I discussed immediate requirements, functioning toilets being the first. As Jamie had graphically shown me, no toilet worked properly and two were blocked and overflowing. He asked when a quality toilet block could be built and my brain reeled. My chat with Janet at lunch had the same effect.
About one-thirty, I went with Jamie to meet community members. He took me to several trees shading an area with some benches and disintegrating chairs of the old station house where we sat and waited. About two o’clock, several people wandered over and sat, nodding to Jamie but not me. Ten minutes later, Jamie asked those present if anyone else were coming. Some wandered leisurely away, each returning eventually with a gaggle of people.
The meeting started about two-thirty but I wasn’t involved or introduced. Instead, community members conversed for a long time in their language.
Eventually, I whispered to Jamie, “What’s going on?”
“They’re deciding what to ask, and who’ll do it,” Jamie replied in the same tone
Without meaning to, I must have looked very frustrated, wondering why such things hadn’t been decided before I’d arrived.
“Are you wondering why they’re deciding what to ask and who’ll do it now, instead of doing it before you got here?” Jamie whispered again, this time with crooked grin
I finally managed a smile in return. “As a matter of fact, I was Jamie.”
“It’s a different world, isn’t it Dave?”
Watching proceedings and reflecting on what had happened today, I could only nod.
Jamie looked at the mob too. “Then welcome to it and I hope you come to enjoy it.”