As I took my seat in the Keith Michell Theatre in Port Pirie to be part of John Pirie Secondary School’s prize presentation evening it felt like it was only yesterday I was sitting down to the presentation of awards for the 2014 cohort of JPSS students. The year, academic or otherwise has flown. Throughout the night there was a sense of déjà vu.
Just before the evening’s proceedings commenced we were asked to please stand to welcome the official party which included His Excellency The Honourable Hieu Van Le AO, the Governor of South Australia and his wife Lan Le.
His Excellency and the entourage settled comfortably in the row of seats just in front of me and soon stood again for the Australian National Anthem. Again, like last year it was refreshing to hear a single and unique student voice sing Advance Australia Fair and not stop at the first verse.
The Governor was called to the lectern to deliver his address. I have heard this narrative before but this time it was somehow different yet fitted in well in the context of the year 12 students setting off on a voyage beyond their secondary schooling.
Following the end of the Vietnam War, His Excellency, and his wife, Lan, left Vietnam in a boat in 1977. Travelling via Malaysia, they were one of the early groups of Vietnamese refugees to arrive in Darwin Harbour. The words from our Anthem “for those who’ve come across the seas - we’ve boundless plains to share” came to mind.
As his narrative evolved, carefully crafted for this special audience, I wondered how many students, parents, caregivers and teachers were struck with his tale. I use the work ‘struck’ because I believe his words may have had a profound impact on the future direction and decision making of a good number of students.
His Excellency spoke of how he felt privileged to call our beautiful land home. He respectfully acknowledged the traditional owners. He spoke of change and how challenging change can be but he said that we can choose how we face change.
His tone altered and his words were more measured. He spoke of the contemporary music the students had grown up with and quoted names like Taylor Swift and Justin Beiber. He paused and spoke of the ‘music’ he grew up with, it was the orchestra of helicopter gunships overhead, guns ringing out and bombs falling from the sky around his village. You could have heard a pin drop in the theatre; this was not a theatre of war.
Of the 23 million of Australia’s population, almost 45% are migrants and one in two Australians has a parent who is a migrant – a sobering statistic. Get to know each other better he urged. I agree it’s a rewarding thing to do and not that difficult.
Life is fragile, life is precious he said. He continued, value life and humanity, go in peace and with purpose. Have compassion and respect and value community. Wisely, he added that education should not be taken for granted.
His tertiary study in Vietnam was not recognised in Australia, he returned to study at the University of Adelaide, where he earned a degree in Economics and Accounting within a short number of years. He chuckled as he mentioned the text books were the same.
He spoke of the audacity of youth and encouraged his audience to ‘stand-up, lead, prepare, speak-up and challenge’. He believed resilience is a mighty trait. His address of some 15 minutes concluded in robust applause and I believe a lot of what he said is still being processed by some.
The format of the night was adhered to with drill-like precision. The certificates presented for academic, sporting, musical and other forms of dedication to the school year were received with relish.
At the point in the proceedings when Mr Haydn Madigan, President of the Port Pirie RSL Sub Branch, a Vietnam Veteran, stepped onto the stage to bestow an award I contemplated the significance. The significance for me was the poignancy of having Mr Madigan and Hieu Van Le sharing a stage at a moment in time when war continues to rage and peace on earth at its most fragile. These men, in my eyes, are men of impeccable integrity. We can learn much from them.
Towards the end of the evening special recognition was made for an educator who was putting away his chalk/white board marker/Ipad for the reward of retirement. Mr Bruce Mules was leaving the JPSS family and leaving it all the richer.
The quietly spoken man, his teaching career spanning 37 years held roles in the faculty of science and of student counsellor. He read from a hand written note as he accepted the accolade. His passion for social justice and for inspiring and motivating young people to learn was clearly evident.
This quietly spoken man who encouraged me to hold a python for the first time and respectfully demonstrated the dissection of a rodent did, in subtle ways, shape who I am today. His love of reptiles was well known and his classroom was a testament to that.
He may not be aware but as I sat quietly in his classes some 30 plus years ago, sometimes getting it, sometimes not…it was he and other exceptional educators who cared enough to let us learn at our own pace and who cared enough to let us learn from our mistakes, who prepared us for life.
Although Mr Mules, Mr Madigan and His Excellency travelled very different roads, each are extraordinary role models and fine examples of how one can make a positive difference in our world.
So I am not going to ask you what you want to be but rather what kind of difference you are going to make to our world.
Footnote: I pay tribute to legendary Shakespearean actor Keith Michell, born in Adelaide and raised in Warnertown, near Port Pirie who has died in England aged 88.
I am reminded by a friend that Keith Michell, like me, was also a past pupil of Pirie High School. He was one of many students who make up the rich tapestry of young people who weave their way in and out of this fine public institution.