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LOVE CHANGES EVERYTHING - Toogoolawa Schools
Stories from the real Education Revolution
-   Extract 4

plant1This extract is from Chapter 9, ‘Harry - The Frightened Deer’. It demonstrates, through the heart-breaking specifics of young Harry’s life, the inadequacies of current attitudes in regard to what education means and the urgency to have those attitudes turned around.

‘However confused the scene of our life appears, however torn we may be who now do face that scene, it can be faced, and we can go on to be whole.’
Muriel Rukeyser

Try to imagine the worst childhood a young boy could have in a Western society… And you might just be close to glimpsing what Harry had been through, when Suwanti and I first met him at age thirteen.

Even in utero, his bloodstream had been pumped full of near-fatal concoctions of narcotic drugs, including heroin. And we know that, like all babies in the womb, he would have been acutely aware of – and caught up in – the emotional turmoil and mental anguish engulfing his mother and her equally desperate companions. Terrified of the traumas accompanying withdrawal from narcotic euphoria, his umbilical host would have hated herself and anyone around her who stood in the way of immediate injected relief. And this was the only environment Harry’s body had known in the nine months before he was born. What followed must have been even more harrowing for the young babe, and then the boy…

We know from the social workers’ records that, although Harry’s mother repeatedly tried to become drug-free, she was not able to do so. (She remains caught up in addiction still: whereabouts unknown.) There is no record of the father’s identity. A concerned State removed Harry from his mother, after three or four years of her weaving in and out of the heavy drug culture. He entered ‘the system’.

There followed a decade of instability, as Harry’s increasingly violent behavior excluded him from one foster home after another. (There were also reports of serious abuse at some of these placements.) Finally, just before he turned eleven, providence threw Harry a lifeline, as he was invited to go and live with his grandparents. In their seventies – and only just getting by financially – they graciously inherited their ‘lost’ daughter’s son. And found themselves inside a waking nightmare.

Harry’s violence was so severe that a youth worker was assigned to be with him during most of his daylight hours. Even this proved of little help, because she too was frightened of his violent, paranoid outbursts. After Year 4, understandably, no school would enrol Harry, out of concern for the safety of the other children and teachers. Yet, with little formal education, he was almost on a par with his peers academically, with near-perfect handwriting. He was clearly very intelligent.

Suwanti told me that when she met Harry for his first interview at Toogoolawa – along with his grandparents, long-term social worker and rostered youth worker – she saw a face of remarkable purity and innocence, but with wide eyes darting nervously about, as if sizing up the emergency exits. She felt that the boy’s face was frozen in paranoid alarm, like a frightened deer caught in the headlights of an on-coming truck…

At this point in Harry’s story, it may be both appropriate and responsible to ask how a Western democratic state, committed to providing free education for all primary and secondary school children, could simply have slammed its doors against this unfortunate boy, not long after he reached nine years old. And such a query begs two further questions. What is it that a society regards as education? And is state-sponsored education only for those children who fit into a certain mould?

Let’s define education, then. The fact that schooling is both free and compulsory suggests that the survival of society must be at stake. But what are the essential requirements for a nation to survive and thrive? Since societies are, at heart, made up of families, we need perhaps only examine what factors allow a family to survive, prosper and be happy.

Certainly, a family needs its adult members to have sufficient skills to provide shelter and food. But that in itself is not enough. If the parents fight, betray each other, get derailed by addiction, or spoil or neglect the children, the family group will either disintegrate or become a menace to its members – and their local community. For a family to function effectively, in addition to generating income, its members must know how to love selflessly; be of peaceful disposition; practise honesty and self-discipline; do the right thing by each other; and, of critical importance, avoid violence towards each other in thought, word and deed. No doubt you will recognise this as a portrait of the five Human Values – but surely most of us would agree with these requirements, based on our own experiences and observations?

As parents, we need to learn these basic qualities, which distinguish human beings from animals. If our parents were not able to teach us the nobler arts of living – because they, too, were stumbling in the dark – where else could such an education come from? Religion no longer plays the leading role it used to, in shaping moral thought and conduct. So we are left with the State: the governing apparatus elected by society’s members to serve and guide it away from collapse, and towards survival and prosperity. The State defines the aims and content of all pre-tertiary education.

The present situation in all modern societies is that the State’s main goal in education is to train people for the workforce, neglecting the guiding dictum: ‘Education is for life, not for a living’. Commonsense surely tells us that our duty is to train teachers to prepare their students to lead useful and virtuous lives – not just to earn a crust. When children are educated in this way, they go on to become vital adults, wise and loving parents, and responsible, participating citizens. When they are not educated in this way, they go on to become workers. But what kind of workers, after all?

It is perhaps not too great an oversimplification to say that Harry and others like him are in fact being rejected by the State’s compulsory education system because they resist all efforts to train them for the workforce. They can’t or won’t perform to this set of expectations, partly because it is not what they need or want. Clearly, Harry was crying out for a radically different form of education: one which taught him how to live, how to be happy, how to be at peace with himself and others.

Can our compulsory education system soften its heart to nurture, heal and guide our children, as much as it trains them for work? I have to believe that it can; that we all can. Harry attended Toogoolawa School for three years. At one point, during the first 18 months, he was suspended for three weeks for injuring a teacher (by throwing a barrage of large stones at him). Up to that point, however, he had increased his attendance to a full five-day week. And we were hopeful that the stone-throwing incident, and subsequent suspension, would act not as a set-back, but as a wake-up call. Harry would be freshly alert to the need to be ever-vigilant: to allow only flowers into the garden of his mind – and to be ruthless with the weeds.

And so it proved. Harry was deeply remorseful at having injured the teacher, and committed himself even more strongly to living the five Human Values. And his future began to look distinctly more promising…

Towards the end of Harry’s time at Toogoolawa, he had three weeks’ fulltime work experience in the state prosecutor’s office. His mentors at the local courthouse were so impressed with his diligence, intelligence, clarity and respectful manner that they gave him a written reference – supporting his newfound desire to become a solicitor!

By this stage, Harry was again being cared for by the State, in a group home attended to by a variable roster of youth workers. (His elderly grandparents had certainly earned a rest…) He enrolled in Year 9 at a nearby secondary school, and rapidly developed mature strategies for responding to harassment by other students (like having spitballs flicked at him, or having his books moved to another desk when he was out of the room). He refused to be distracted from his studies, or from his new long-term goal.

At the time of writing, Harry is enrolled in Year 12 and intends to improve his academic performance still further, in order to gain entrance into the Faculty of Law at university. We were once told by his long-term social worker that, if Toogoolawa had not soothed and defused much of Harry’s paranoia and retributive anger, he would have killed someone, perhaps himself, before he turned twenty. Who can say? But even if we regard that as a remote and extreme possibility, we can see the value – the absolute necessity – of having an educational process which gives a high and consistent priority to its students’ mental health and happiness.

There are many Harrys in every society. If they remain neglected and rejected by our educational institutions, they become adolescent time-bombs, primed to explode. For the sake of these young people – and for society’s long-term welfare – the State’s education policy needs to change in a radical way. Simple wisdom suggests that the goal in our schools must be to train young people in the art of living, and living well. Only then can we be confident that our children, and our children’s children’s children, will inherit a world which nurtures and empowers all people to live in the dignity of who they were truly meant to be.