Aurukun Days

When the daily headlines offer scraps of information about the parlous state of education in Aboriginal communities, about the threats posed by violence and poor health care, and about the persistent problems of housing, there is a greater need for more informed news from inside those communities. Luckily, there is a superb new book that offers insights into the dailiness of life in a contemporary Aboriginal community that has been in the news of late. It is a personal memoir, the story of a young white teacher in a black community school. Better yet, it offers a compelling look at the background of some of these important political issues without having a political agenda itself.

Paula Shaw’s Seven Seasons in Aurukun: my unforgettable time at a remote Aboriginal school (Allen & Unwin, 2009) was a runner-up for the Iremonger Award for Writing on Public Issues. Part of a growing genre of memoirs of idealistic Austrlaians who have chosen to somehow test their mettle among the most disadvantaged of their fellow citizens, this book offers a unique perspective. For Shaw’s story is first and foremost her story: it is a memoir of a young woman’s education and experiences. Although that story is set in Aurukun, and revolves around the joys and hazards of her life as a teacher there: it does not set out to be a commentary on the community.

Seven seven seasons in aurukunSeasons begins with Shaw’s arrival in Aurukun and her overwhelming sense of strangeness and isolation there, a feeling that never quite vanished through the eight terms she taught in the school. The story she tells is frequently set in the classroom, at extra-curricular school functions, or on field trips that she organizes to reward both her students and herself. But it is also set in the homes Paula share with other teachers, at social functions, and on solitary walks out bush.

The book chronicles parts of Shaw’s personal life: searching for friends, falling in love, enduring broken dreams, coping with the strangeness of shuttling back to Brisbane or Cairns during school holidays. She celebrates birthdays with her fellow teachers and suffers pangs of jealousy when her sister Natasha seems to fall effortlessly into a position at the arts centre and picks up the rhythms of the community with far greater ease than Paula can adapt to the school. She falls in love with the country, too, the swamps and rivers and beaches that offer her escape, respite, solitude, but also communion.

She struggles at times with discouragement, if not hopelessness. Feeling alien and alone, she finds it hard to devise lesson plans that will make her nine-year-old students embrace literacy and numeracy. Every day seems a Sisyphean struggle to connect these fundamentals of Western education to the lives of children, where they seem almost utterly meaningless and without daily utility. Her task is not made any easier by the fact that instruction takes place in English. And Shaw’s own attempts to engage in learning Wik Mungkan are equally frustrating. At times it seems almost as if the locals don’t want her to learn their language, that incomprehensibility is one of the last defenses left to them against control by the whitefella regime.

Of course, there are students who respond, and the reward for these students is a bittersweet one for Shaw, for these are the students who are usually selected to attend boarding schools in Cairns or Weipa. Thus her successes are measured in loss. And another measure of sharp edge of these achievements is revealed when Shaw has occasion to visit some of her former charges in their far-away dormitory schools. She discovers them (like herself in Aurukun) to be shrouded in the loneliness in an alien culture, often one of only a pair of students who speak Wik Mungkan at the boarding school. These youngsters demonstrate their ingenuity by hopping fences and hitchiking back to Aurukun, or by getting into trouble bad enough to get themselves expelled and sent home. The price of education is too high for them to pay by themselves.

These stories, like almost every other incident that Shaw recounts, are told dispassionately, almost with a journalistic objectivity, despite the intensely personal voice of her memoir. She seeks neither heroes nor villains, looks for no grand social theories or solutions. She is simply telling her story and allowing us to make of it what we will.

And so she records the triumphs, like the dance routines she helps her students to choreograph, costume, and present for the annual Mackenzie Night performance. The opportunity to participate in these performances brings students back into the classroom in anticipation of a moment to shine on the stage, and that brings the whole community together in celebration. Equally successful are the trips out bush. The thrill of these trips is that, rather turning out to be the expected chance for children to reconnect with country, or to learn the lore of the elders, they come off more as larking adventures, filled with the delight of children loosed from walls for a romp in the wild and a swim in the river.

When she must confront the seamier side of life in Aurukun, Shaw does not flinch. There are problems with petrol sniffers: she recoils from the fumes that accompany a student into her classroom, and offers him a pencil to allow him to participate in the classroom activity. The hoons who have stolen trucks and speed through the town’s eight blocks to do doughnuts outside her window in the middle of the night are no favorites of hers for keeping her awake, but she passes no judgments on them otherwise.

It is only at the very end of the book, when she knows that she is leaving, that she has reached the point of exhaustion where her efforts can produce no more good, that she allows herself a bit of commentary. The stoned young man who boards a school bus, intent on stealing it, wielding a machete, convinces her that the decision to leave now was the right one. And when he explains that his girlfriend made him so mad that he had no alternative to express his rage that to embark on this sword-swinging expedition of theft, Shaw at last owns up to her exasperation that women seemed to be blamed for everything that goes wrong in this community. 

But throughout, she knows that she is in no position to judge; her isolation teaches her that she does not know the lives of these people well enough to understand, to approve, or to condemn. She strains for empathy with her students; she focuses her efforts on being able to reach them somehow and to offer them the meager gifts of letters and numbers that she brings with her. In one of the final, and touching, vignettes in the book, she tells how she contracted head lice.

The head lice really was my own stupid fault. I’d been letting the kids see what they’d look like with long straight hair, by leaning my head right in close and draping my hair over their heads while another kid took their photo. It was good entertainment, but at a a cost. That horrible stinky flea shampoo I used to try to get rid of them made me feel particularly punished (pp. 245-246).

She concludes “I’d be a pretty cantankerous kid if I was itchy all the time,” just as she recognizes that the hunger these children suffer in their poverty makes it hard for them to concentrate on lessons. She knows that if she herself is tired after a night of listening to the hoons making doughnuts under her windows, her students are tired for just the same reason.

Shaw never takes herself too seriously. As she prepares for her first day of class, she calms herself with thoughts of lessons and strategies like “get to know you games. We’ll learn a song, we’ll do some origami, some yoga: it will be fine. One day at a time.” This is followed immediately on the next page by the title of Chapter 2: “Ugly face f*ckin’ *rseh*le slut,” a transition that is comic as well as sad.

But if she doesn’t take herself seriously, Paula Shaw has nonetheless written a very serious, and loving, book. Nothing takes place in these pages that is nearly as dramatic as the riots allegedly involving 300 people that ripped the town apart fifteen months ago and rang in The Australian’s headlines for weeks. Indeed, disagreements in the tavern spill out into the streets and brawls erupt in both the book and the newspaper stories. But Paula Shaw’s Seven Seasons in Aurukun is a full length portrait to a newspaper’s caricature, a portrait worthy of its own version of an Archibald.

Message Stick is featuring the Aurukun community school now in a two-part documentary called Voices from the CapePart 1 can be seen on the Message Stick website now; Part 2 will be repeated on ABC2 Monday at 5 p.m. and again on ABC1 Friday at 6 p.m. and should be available online soon.
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One Response to Aurukun Days

  1. Pingback: Poet and Painter | Aboriginal Art & Culture: an American eye

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