Spotlight On: Being There

31 May 2019

This article first appeared in Queenwood News Weekly 31 May 2019.

‘You had to be there’ – a phrase that highlights the importance of physical presence in order to truly understand. For me, it perfectly sums up the central purpose behind our recent trip to Kempsey, a town roughly 400km north of Sydney, and particularly a moment that a small group of Year 11 Queenwood students shared as they stood under a tree listening to a story.

The tree in question was an ancient and sprawling Moreton Bay fig tree located in the grounds of what used to be the notorious Kinchela Boys’ Home. The story they heard was of the horrendous abuses that occurred between 1924 and 1970, as told by two local Dhanggati men who work at Macleay Vocational College (MVC) and whose family members were inmates of the home in the 1960s. They heard how boys were routinely chained to the tree for days as punishment for supposed misbehaviour and as examples to the rest. One of the men pointed out some scars on the tree from the chains, still there to this day. It was clear that it was not just the tree that was scarred by the abuses at this home, but the whole local community. It is difficult to convey exactly how it was to listen to their story but our students came away with a deeper understanding of the history of the Stolen Generations and the effects felt to this day.

It is interesting to note how this moment framed other parts of our trip. We spent a day bushwalking, far away from the nearest tarmacked road and further still from mobile phone reception. Bushwalks are a staple of Queenwood camps and are always enjoyable, but this one seemed different. There was far less emphasis on completing the walk and more on appreciating the natural beauty around us. When we arrived at a spectacular waterfall, without hesitation we jumped in and swam through it. One student commented on how relaxed and calm she felt and another joked that she really could have done with this a few weeks ago, midway through a busy first term. I agreed. Another time we found ourselves with our feet in the sand of an empty beach, our toes feeling for pipis, small shellfish which are traditional local food source. One of us realised it was a Monday morning and we pictured busy Sydney traffic a world away.

Each year, there are several opportunities for students and staff from our two schools to visit each other. The main focus of this trip was visiting MVC itself, a place which has become familiar to the Queenwood community in recent years. On arrival the girls planned the meal and cooked for everyone, a gesture warmly received, and soon everyone was chatting and playing basketball with each other, finding common ground through food and sport. This common ground was extended during the visit to the College’s childcare centre, a safe and welcoming place where students could bring their babies to be cared for whilst they studied. We met a young mum with a beautiful 9-month-old baby in her arms and she described what a normal day for her looked like. The moment she mentioned that she would be studying for her HSC Mathematics that afternoon was the moment that our Year 11s realised how different their lives actually were. Picturing this young mum studying maths alongside her baby in the childcare centre provided a powerful contrast to our girls’ experiences in well-resourced and tightly-focused Queenwood lessons, especially as many were studying the same HSC course.

A couple of months on, this trip remains at the forefront of everyone’s minds, including my own. Understanding Indigenous culture and history is a welcome challenge, one we are particularly conscious of during National Reconciliation Week, but one of the hardest parts is finding a way to ‘make it real’ for our girls. We all went with an awareness of Indigenous history and contemporary issues, but we came back with the beginnings of an understanding. As I said, you had to be there.