Workshop during ALMA Award week 2011. Photo: Stefan Tell
He was perhaps 13, face shadowed under his hoodie.
‘Got any spare change?’ he asked.
It was some time past ten pm in St Vincent’s emergency waiting room, where my husband was struggling to breathe with a bone caught in his throat. There were no free beds, so the doctors were attending him there, till the surgeon arrived.
I gave him a little. I didn’t have much – I had not expected an ambulance ride at 9.20 pm. I knew where the money would go, too – into his arm when he ducked outside.
It didn’t. He took it to the vending machines, chose a sandwich and a packet of chips. He gulped down the sandwich, then ate each chip more slowly than I have ever seen a child eat before, making each one last.
Two social workers arrived. They said ‘We’re sorry, Sammy. We’ve been looking for two hours to find you a bed. No luck.’
He said, ‘Please, don’t send me out there. I’m scared out there. Please don’t send me out into the night.’
They said, ‘We’re sorry. There’s nothing more that we can do.’
I ran after them. Said, ‘I’ll pay whatever it takes. He can come to our hotel.’
They said, ‘It’s not as easy as that. You can’t just throw money at it. The bed needs to be registered.’
Perhaps they were right.
I went back to my husband just as the registrar arrived to say they had found him a bed. And the boy who had no bed cheered for us and gave us the thumbs up as we went in.
I couldn’t find him again.
I spent ten days crying, on and off, sitting on the floor of my study, till my nephew, who works with the homeless, told me to stop being self indulgent. ‘Do what you can,’ he said. ‘Instead of crying for what you can’t.’
And that is why I accepted the role of Australian Children’s Laureate, 2014-2015. Because I reasoned that, yes, I wanted to give that boy a bed and the security that he would always have a bed and food. But I also desperately wanted to give him books because, when I was 15 and for a short while had no home to go to, my extraordinary, wonderful teacher gave me books, armloads of them, not just her own but ones she had hunted out or me.
Because of those books I never once doubted that life could be good.
It is a lesson I have relearned many times since: as part of a UN mission to the Phillipines, to encourage the children’s book industry, seeing how child sex workers were shown what their lives might be like, with the power of story. I have seen it in the past year, as the laureate. I talked to the men at Castlemaine Prison in Victoria, and, when they heard that I was dyslexic and can’t spell or read forms easily, all but one man admitted that they were unable to read. As one said, ‘What job can you get if you can’t read? That’s how I landed here.’
Kids often have few choices about the life they live, but because of books I knew exactly the life I wanted. Because of those books I had the tools to reach it. And because of books I have lived that life, in a house I built (with a book of instructions and inspiration at hand) and wild animals about me, fruit trees and gardens, books to read and books to write.
Once we believed that only bright kids read books. Now we know, via MRI scans, that reading stimulates the development new neurons and new connections between neurons, in a child’s brain (and in adults too, but the effect is far smaller than when the brain is actively growing).
Empathy is a learned skill, and books and stories are the best way for it to grow. Each time a child reads or hears a story, they are the protagonists. No matter how small your social or physical world is, a book can take you across the universe.
If we want intelligent children, give them books.
If you want children free of prejudice, who can empathise so strongly with others that they will not knowingly or unknowingly do harm, give them books.
If we want a future for this planet based on the best that humanity is capable of, give our children books.
Teach them to read them, too.
Australia is not good at this. One in eleven children has major reading difficulties. One in four does not reach the national literacy benchmarks. Few schools have paid professionals to tutor children who have literacy problems, but rely on volunteers to do so, or on the useful cliché unteachable’.
In Tasmania, nearly fifty percent of adults are unable to read and understand the front page of a newspaper. In my own area, we found that over 40% of adults over forty could not read the chemist’s instructions on their medication.
This is changing, but it has been, is and will be, a hard battle to get educational authorities and teacher training institutions to accept that every child can read and every child must learn to read – or we have failed. There have been many times when I have blessed the sheer existence of Sweden, and all of you who have fought – and won – what we must strive for in so many social areas, not just literacy. If Sweden can do it, so can we all.
When I accepted the Laureateship, I thought I would be doing the same work that I have been doing for a quarter of a century – writing, speaking and using the power of books and storiesies.
But something changed. I realised that the role of Laureate is, perhaps primarily, to thank those who already do so much. You often hear of someone being an untiring worker for children (usually at their funeral) but I have never met one. Everyone who works with kids is often tired. My job has been to say, ‘Thank you. Please don’t stop.’
I had not realised how my own passion for the power of literacy and story would deepen, evidenced not just in what I say but what I write.
In the past year projects have almost seemed to create themselves: the My Story Project, in partnership with the Sydney Writers’ Festival, where young people from racially diverse western Sydney are encouraged to write and share their stories, and the most eloquent will meet to talk about the present, the future and solutions to problems. The tentative beginnings of the Kabulwarnamyo Bush School in remote Arnhem Land where the community, as well as a committee I am privileged to be on, will try to design a school where indigenous kids can learn what they need to proceed to tertiary study if they wish to, without compromising the deep needs of country, pioneering techniques and understandings that may help solve some of the rifts and tragedies of Australian indigenous education.
Next year I and my dear friend and passionate reader, Elaine, as well a her husband Chris, will speak to tens of thousands of Tasmanians; Elaine has no eyes and Chris, like me, is profoundly dyslexic, learning to read as an adult. He’s now a teacher. If we can learn to read, he’ll tell them, anybody can. And, no, you are not stupid if you can’t.
The most profound experience was possibly in a detention centre, where Australia keeps those who have landed on our shores seeking asylum. The parents brought their children to hear a story. So many children lapse into apathy, unable to talk or smile, from the trauma they have experienced or the deep uncertainty of a life where you may be moved tomorrow, or find your living quarters filled with ten newcomers or your friends disappear as they are released. But how do you tell a story to kids with nearly thirty languages, none of them English and no translators?
Never underestimate the power of story. We became animals, each child choosing their own, led by two Singhalese girls who appointed themselves my helpers. We danced through the centre, growling tigers growling at the guards, flying like cranes and butterflies across the table.
All but one small boy, who sat and didn’t move. Mindful of regulations, I could not touch him, but the two small girls did. They hauled him to his feet, demanded to know what he was till he whispered a roar that told us who he had become. A dragon. And as he led us, uttering dragon roars, his father stood expressionless, with tears running down his face, watching his son respond and play.
Never underestimate the power of story.
Australian Children’s Laureate 2014-2015