This letter not only carries one of my simple messages but also serves to tell you a little about my background. These are things we often don’t get to talk about Chilliwops, and your parents may not even know all of these things but it is probably long overdue that I share them with you.
Many years ago I was asked by the Principal of my old Primary School to talk to the students about my early life.
“I searched the school records to find a student that has achieved something substantial in his or her life,” the Principal told me, “And your name was the most prominent.”
Now that came as a huge surprise. Even though my Primary School was not large I was still rather shocked with the request and the Principal’s candid remark.
“I think you are flattering me; that cannot possibly be right. Surely your school has produced success stories more renowned and more qualified than I to talk to the children,” I replied.
“Sadly no. Our children come from a low socio-economic group and generally have low self-esteem. I would like you to talk about your life here; give them hope. Help them believe they can make something of their life.”
When the assembly day arrived the entire school gathered in the covered area contiguous to the administration block. A large number of parents were also in attendance – some were my old classmates.
The Principal had asked me to tell my story “warts and all.” So I did, the good and the bad.
I told everyone assembled where I grew up, not far from the school; how it was sometimes unavoidable to get into fights after school; how I watched the number of classrooms grow as the school population grew during the expansion of the district; how I personally wrote my absentee note to my Year Four teacher on behalf of my mother and learnt a very good lesson from that; how the Year Sevens practiced singing in the baking hot and unrelenting summer heat; and I told them about the Government-sponsored milk distribution before morning recess.
At the risk of talking for too long or revealing too much, I talked about individual teachers and some of their quirkiness. At this point the teachers present shuffled their feet nervously and gazed at the ground. I glanced at the school Principal and he carried a grin from ear to ear so I continued.
I talked about wanting to play sport on weekends but my mother was concerned I might get hurt and worse, tear my clothes. I told them although I was unsure of how she arrived at this belief my mother thought I was attending hockey training after school but in fact I was playing a more vigorous contact sport – Aussie Rules footy. I didn’t tell a lie to my mother, I just didn’t correct the misunderstanding.
Not surprisingly my sporting story was about playing footy at school and in the local community. I talked about the school footy team and our successes against some schools but floggings by others (I could see by the children’s faces that struck a familiar chord); and playing footy for a local team on weekends.
I raised many eyebrows when I told how my Dad and I used to go rabbiting on weekends; how my sister and I sold some of the catch in the neighbourhood for a bob a pair (ten cents for two).
I reinforced the message the Principal had asked me to convey. “My childhood was no different from yours,” I told them. “I came from a family that didn’t have much money and certainly couldn’t enjoy long holidays away from this town.”
“Perhaps the major difference was we never had fast foods, no McDonalds; we didn’t have a television and our only entertainment was to play word games such as Scrabble, listen to a series of programmes on the radio or read books. My parents didn’t even own a car until after I started school.”
“I made a conscious decision to work hard and make the best of what I had. I wanted to escape the constraints experienced by my parents and I was determined to make something of my life.” My comment that “I couldn’t see myself providing for the family by catching rabbits,” made them laugh.
“I set my sights on an occupation that would provide opportunities in the long term. It took me a long time to decide what that occupation would be; in fact I wasn’t certain until after I passed my final exams, but I knew if I applied myself and aimed high I could achieve my vision.”
“So can you. Don’t settle for second best. Even though at the moment you might think it will be too hard, set your sights high. Nothing is beyond your reach if you want it. That means working hard at school; do your homework (that brought a smile from some teachers); apply yourself.”
My message to those children dear Chilliwops, is my message to you. Work hard, play hard and never give up. Make the most of what you have been given.