Tennis balls, FORTRESS AUSTRALIA and Hope

Australian flag behind the wire at Villawood Detention Centre.

A week ago, my husband joined a small group of refugee advocates outside No-man’s Land and the barbed-wire fences at the Pinkenba Immigration Detention Transit Centre in Brisbane. They were trying to throw tennis balls over the fences – unsuccessfully.

Ross, being a resourceful physics man took his tennis racquet from the car and lobbed dozens of yellow balls over those high fences. Refugee children chased them, giving them to their parents who waved from behind the fence.

Written on each ball was the message … WE CARE! DON’T LOSE HOPE!

But last night, in the Australian Senate, the most fascist, inhumane politician we’ve ever had the misfortune to endure, MP Scott Morrison, forced through a law that not only takes away any chance of hope for these lost souls on the high-seas who seek a safe haven, he used refugee children as ransom.

“No other minister, not the prime minister, not the foreign minister, not the attorney-general, has the same unchecked control over the lives of other people,” writes Ben Doherty in The Guardian.
With the passage of the new law, the minister can push any asylum seeker boat back into the sea and leave it there. He can detain people without charge, or deport them to any country he chooses even if it is known they’ll be tortured there. Morrison’s decisions cannot be challenged.”

Morrison, with his LNP government has torn up our commitment and bond to the UN’s Refugees Convention, a treaty Australia helped write and willingly signed up to more than fifty years ago. All references to our UN commitment have been removed from Australian law via this new bill that passed through the Senate.

I do not believe the majority of Australians would support these moves. To do so incites the very worst in us, a frightening apparition of what we could become. A fascist nation with no heart.

I work in a field that writes for our nation’s young, and we care very much about children. We visit schools, we talk to kids, we write about their dreams and hopes. I cannot imagine even one of Australia’s children’s book creators not standing united in horror and dismay at the direction our country takes under this regime.

I urge every single one of you, my friends, to look away from your computers, from your story making, from your pens and paints, and to stand united with one voice.

Speak out before it’s too late. Join the voices of those who abhor this evil attitude engulfing our Parliament and our democratic Australia.

Use your powerful word skills for a powerful purpose.

Do it now … the pen (and the voice) is mightier than the sword!

Scott Morrison’s email.

Or ring your local LNP politician

About a boy … literacy, a right not a privilege

* This article contains the names and images of deceased Indigenous people. I acknowledge that to some communities, it is distressing and offensive to show images of people who have died. I have weighed up my respect for this belief against the desire to highlight injustice and inhumanity. 

In this National Year of Reading, I want to tell you a story. It’s not one that I tell very often because there’s a scar on my heart from a tragedy on April Fool’s Day, almost twenty-two years ago.

It’s a story of despair and hope and tragedy. It’s a story of a young man who fought demons from the moment he was born. It’s the reason I will never turn away from taking out racists who step in my path – with pen and rapier sharp, restrained fury.

Once upon a time, I taught adult literacy in Boggo Road jail, Brisbane’s notorious prison before it closed down. Now it’s a museum, a redeveloped urban village with its own Sunday markets and young urbanites sipping coffee.

Back in the late 1980s, my class was a disparate group of Murri inmates, indigenous men from Brisbane and regional Queensland. I was an ex-early childhood teacher with updated training in teaching reading and writing to adults. I worked for TAFE and ended up in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Educational Unit – hence the job in Boggo Road.

Boggo Road Jail, Brisbane. Photo:the De La Dream girls

I must’ve been brave in those days – or headstrong. Not only did I have no experience in dealing with cultural issues, I’d never worked in male only classes before, nor set foot inside a razor-wired prison.

Boggo Road hunched on a rise in the quiet suburb of Annerley, high-walled and with hidden atrocities. Between 1885 and 1913, forty-two inmates were hung on the jail’s gallows. There are tales of ghosts and unmarked graves beneath the bricks. Even in 1989, it had a fearsome reputation. Many of its more notorious inmates were household names – The Colossus of Boggo Road, armed robber and later Australian Wrestling champion, Nathan Jones; James Finch and Andrew Stuart, the “Whiskey Au-Go-Go” murderers, amongst others. I never came in contact with them. My brief was to lift literacy rates amongst the Murri prisoners.

The first day I walked through those gates, a warder took me to the Education Room – a loose term, as many of the prison guards believed punishment did not include education. But Keith Hamburger, Director-general of Corrective Services, an enlightened reformer had been in charge for a few years. Aboriginal prisoners were encouraged to do cultural studies, art and literacy.

     That morning, twenty-six big, black men filed into the room and one asked, ‘Where’s ‘Melanie’? (my vivacious, popular predecessor). I told them she’d left. They voiced their discontent and I knew I had to take a stand or all was lost. So I smiled and said, ‘I bet you were disappointed when the teacher before Melanie left, but you got used to Mel. I’m here now, and I reckon you’ll be saying the same things to the teacher who’ll come after me!’  They laughed and we were okay.
     Teaching literacy is a delicate business – how do you follow the curriculum and teach what one needs to know to survive in a print-based world, but still bring in teaching the sort of reading and writing that will open up the mind and the heart.
     I held a morning class every week for almost a year. Sometimes, I was kept waiting at the main gates for several hours, but they didn’t know how stubborn I could be. Sometimes, the reasons were legitimate, like riots or shut-downs, or visiting social workers, or a death in the prison. But sometimes, I knew it was out of spite by a group of anti-education officers.
     The classes ranged from two students to twenty. I never knew what to expect. The Murri prisoners were linked by their brotherhood in Boggo – much more than the white prisoners. There was always a warder, sitting at a desk, keeping an eye on things. The large, steely eyed Moira was one of them. Scary woman. But I never felt threatened by those ‘black brothers’ of mine in Boggo Jail.
     I can’t claim to be the world’s best literacy teacher – if I find curriculum boring, I figure a student will feel the same, and I break rules. Hence, a lot of time was spent on poetry writing and song lyrics (their request), and life-story writing (my request). We tackled the filling in forms bit  together – yes, I was a literacy teacher challenged by official forms. And they had lots of those!
     One student, a dark-eyed boy named Russell, took to poetry like  fish to water. His verse spoke of anger, politics, land rights and desperation. He’d been in and out of foster homes since he was three and in and out of jail since he was eighteen. But in prison, he learned to paint and to dance story, to express himself through written words and best of all, he discovered the cultural classes.

When the Government began to decentralise prisons, many Murri inmates of Boggo Road were sent north to the Mareeba prison and to the notorious Etna Creek prison, near Rockhampton. There’s a saying … the further north you go, the more racists you’ll meet. (I don’t hold to it, but I do have extended family up north who fit the bill).

Russell wrote to me from Etna Creek. He was pleased when he’d heard that many of his own Bidjara people were still in their tribal area near Carnarvon Gorge. He was keen to talk to them in language when he finished his sentence in a few months time. He was excited that Ross and I would visit Carnarvon with him and he’d ask the old people if that was okay. He wanted to come back to Brisbane to finish his time, and then go back to school somehow.

Russell’s final  letter began with the words … “To start things off, I’ve been in a bit of trouble up here.”  The trouble involved a fight with prison wardens and Russell ended up in solitary. Rumour was that Russell was defending his cousin. I wrote back, warning him to lay low and don’t bite back at the guards.

In the early hours of April 1, 1990, Russell died in the detention unit at Rocky jail. Police said it appeared he hanged himself. The Aboriginal community believed otherwise.

Hours after Russell died, another young man was found hanging with his wrists slashed. In his report, a Rockhampton newspaper reporter added his newly composed song dedicated to Russell and to black deaths in custody.

It ends with the words, How many more blacks must die before the white man will understand, that all he wanted was to be left along and given a second chance, to be back with family and friends when his time was due, but it makes me feel so sad inside ’cause it could have been me or you. Robert H’s sentence had just been increased by three months because he destroyed a blanket in his earlier suicide attempt at Blackall watchhouse.

The Aboriginal legal services spokesman said Aboriginal prisoners had complained of harassment and unfair disciplinary treatment by jail officers. The Corrective Services Minister at the time, Glen Milliner, rejected his statement, saying, “I’m annoyed that they are using these deaths to go public on this thing”.

My last letter to Russell turned up at my home the day of his memorial service. Unopened, with address unknown on the front. I’d misspelled the jail’s name. You would’ve thought someone in the system in Rockhampton knew there is only one jail in the district. My letter of hope for the future may not have helped Russell, but I bear the regret still.

This is one of Russell’s free verse writing, after he edited it in class for spelling errors.

How many enemies before we can find a friend? How many nights before we can see the day? How many must suffer before we can be free? How many years before we can find a day? How many people must die before there are none? This is how I feel inside me and it comes from my heart for my people. Russell J L October 1989


Twenty years after the ROYAL COMMISSION INTO ABORIGINAL DEATHS IN CUSTODY, asks Why are the fatalities still rising?

© Sheryl Gwyther 2012


The Lil Gwyther Prize continues the dream…

Scratch the proverbial skin of most early-childhood trained teachers and you’ll find someone willing to fight tooth and nail for young children – in particular, their rights to sound, developmentally-appropriate learning experiences in the formative years of their lives.

Lily Gwyther and David

It describes Lil Gwyther perfectly. Lil was well-known in Queensland as a passionate reformer in early childhood classes (kindergarten and pre-school to Year 3). She was also a primary teacher, then an early childhood advisory teacher who turned into a full-time activist.

During the 1980s and 1990s, she campaigned for the rights of young children to have an education firmly-centred on their needs, and appropriate to their development. She was also my mum-in-law, and influenced my decision in the 1980s to train as an early-childhood teacher.

She talked regularly to education journalists, spoke at many schools and colleges, wrote numerous letters to the editor, she was on the local ABC radio every week with a talk-back show where many parents rang in with questions about their child’s development and their concerns for what was happening to those children once they entered primary school.

She stirred up several Education Ministers and other politicians, had morning tea with Senator Flo Bjelke-Petersen to discuss the problems of children starting school too early (which incidently, Lady Flo agreed with because of her personal experience), and badgered various Education Department heads (Lil outlasted several).

Most succumbed to her charm and her passion about the benefits of regarding each child as an individual and not trying to “fit them in the same box of teaching”. But of course, the biggest battles were against those who handed out government money to support education.

One of Lil’s favourite pieces of advice to parents ended with the words, Don’t ask if your child is ready for school – ask if the school is ready for your child. Many a time in Brisbane people have told us about Lil’s contribution to their lives by saying,

It was Lil who convinced us to give little Johnny (or Janey) another year of pre-school. And thank goodness we did!

Lil loved children and she remained passionate about early childhood education until her early 90s when Alzheimer’s disease stole away her fine brain. In true Lil style, she fought it with fury until the end.

From a handmade book celebrating Lil’s full life – crafted by Sheryl Gwyther

We wanted to do something in Lil’s name to continue her work and her commitment to Early Childhood Development Principles. We were also concerned about the current push to ‘formalise’ education in the Queensland Prep classes (and it’s not just in Qld), and the move to downgrade play-based activities for learning. Early childhood educators who believe in developmental principles are dismayed about this move and fear future consequences for children.

So to celebrate her life and to help keep alive the principles she worked so hard for, Ross, David and I bequested a substantial amount of money in Lil’s name to the Early Childhood Studies Unit, at the Faculty of Education (Queensland University of Technology).

Numerous friends and supporters who knew Lil and her work donated and continue to donate money to the LIL GWYTHER AWARD, as did the Faculty of Education (Early Childhood) itself, the Queensland Teachers Union, the Early Childhood Teachers Association, Early Childhood Australia and many others (full list of donors here).

The prize money is part of an Award that will support and encourage graduate early childhood teachers to be ambassadors for developmentally appropriate and child-centred teaching once they go into the workforce.

As well as a cheque for $1000, it includes membership to the Early Childhood Teachers Association, Early Childhood Australia and the Queensland Teachers Union. The amount of money donated will ensure The LIL GWYTHER AWARD will continue to be an annual event for many years to come.

This week, the inaugural prize for 2010 was awarded to Anne-Maree Hansen.

Anne-Maree completed the Bachelor of Education (Preservice Early Childhood) course with a grade point average of 6.4.

Her lecturers and the principal of her prac. school record, Anne-Maree demonstrated an outstanding teaching, engaging learners in an individualised program. She skilfully implemented the Early Years curriculum and other school systemic initiatives. Her behaviour management strategies were appropriate, effective and reflected the Early Years philosophy of the school … a worthy recipient of this award.

The Gwyther family thank the QUT Education Faculty and the staff of the School of Early Childhood, in particular, the Head of the School, Professor Ann Farrell, and Dr Gail Halliwell, another passionate supporter of early childhood education. Our gratitude also goes to the generous donors, both big and small.

We wish Anne-Maree all the very best for her future career as an early childhood teacher. Lil’s spirit and passion is sure to go with her.

If you would like to add your support to the LIL GWYTHER AWARD, donations are most welcome.  CLICK ON THIS LINK.