If only I could go back in time and say to my younger self, “read more”. I can just imagine the smart arse 13-year-old me responding, Why, I’m just going to fail school anyway? Reading and writing always seemed like a chore or daunting task, something that I never wanted to do.
I usually associate it with school, having to write on the whiteboard in front of the class or reading out loud being some of the most stressful and scariest memories I have
When I read out loud, I was always a stuttering mess, stumbling through words I couldn’t pronounce, let alone understand. While I could read, I would find that I needed to re-read the same sentence or paragraph – sometimes as much as three times – to really make sense of it, or I would get to the end of page and not have remembered anything on it.
I grew up thinking I was just dumb, and just reassured myself that I was better with my hands, better on the field, better in the streets than I was a ‘words and numbers’ kind of guy.
It all began in Year 2
My first feeling rejected from literacy was in primary school. I remember being in Year 2 doing a spelling test, where we were given a week to learn how to spell words and then use them in a sentence. The homework task was simple, use the word in a sentence, write it out a bunch of times and have your parents and teacher check it. I did all of that, but when it got to the test and my mind went blank. The kid next to me, however, was smashing through his, so I just copied him. I got something 20 out of 20 and felt like a legend.
The following week we had our next test, this time, I hadn’t done the homework or even tried to learn the words because I believed to have found a loop hole in the education system. Unfortunately though, I didn’t get to sit next to the 'smart kids' and failed miserably.
As a kid I didn’t understand - at all - that you need to practice reading and writing to get better at it. All I understood was that failing is embarrassing and thought of ways that I could prevent that from happening.
As a kid I didn’t understand - at all - that you need to practice reading and writing to get better at it. All I understood was that failing is embarrassing and thought of ways that I could prevent that from happening. It’s like I took the easiest option and convinced myself, it’s all too hard. I am dumb. I am not like the other kids. I can’t do it.
This attitude of being less capable then others at reading and writing stuck with me almost right up until I was in my mid 20s. I even went through university stumbling through readings and handing in assignments that were littered with spelling and grammar atrocities.
How did I get here?
Apparently a lot of us Indigenous kids had learning difficulties, which is why we got put in 'Special Education'. Now, contrary to what you might think, being in 'Special Education' doesn't exactly make you feel very 'special'. In fact, it probably does the opposite - such a great name for a place to send kids to reading and writing issues don’t you think? It really boosts their confidence... Not! I’m pretty sure the work we did in the group was beneficial to my learning, however the psychological effects of being considered 'special' (i.e: different) outweighed my learning outcomes.
This learning class was made up of two students with ADD and the rest of us were Indigenous. We were sheepish and lacked initiative and engagement towards the work. I know now that a part of me was screaming, no this isn’t me. I can’t handle this environment. I'm sure the other's in the class were too.
When I look back now, thinking of myself as a kid, of course I wasn’t going to learn in that institutionalised environment. I was a do-er from a young age. I used my imagination, I utilised everything around me to my advantage, I fixed things - even things that were not broken, I would try things before saying I can’t or I don’t like it.
I loved nature and the outdoors because it was real; like, crocs will kill you when you're fishing if you’re not careful or box jelly fish will mess you up bad if you don’t have vinegar. Sitting in a classroom reading and writing just seemed well, pointless, for a kid like me.
The fact I couldn’t read or write with confidence was probably the reason I became the class clown that would yell out the first thing that came to my mind and disrupt the class. It’s like I had to counter balance my self-expression. School was a place where you learnt self-expression through reading and writing, whereas I had to use my vocals to bluff my way through, which lead to me sitting outside the classroom a lot.
Is it just about who can spell the best?
It was a big thing at school to teach kids that we are all different and unique and we should be excepting of everyone no matter the difference. However when it came to tests and getting graded, apparently we all had to be the same. As people we are all totally different, different social environments, different ways of living, family structure, financial stability, family education etc. so how we performed on a test was all going to be reflective of the above and how well we could focus between four walls. Some students got As, Bs and then there were the C and the D and the F - Failure.
It was a big thing at school to teach kids that we are all different and unique and we should be excepting of everyone no matter the difference. However when it came to tests and getting graded, apparently we all had to be the same.
Why didn’t they teach us at school that we are all completely different to each other and that the way you perform on a test today doesn’t determine who you are and what you will do when you’re older?
Still learning, even when teaching
It wasn’t until I was older and started working with young people that I realised I was capable of reading and writing with confidence. I was 24 and working with Indigenous youth teaching them acting. Theatre and performance were my only real strong points at school, so I stuck to them. Once I completed Year 12 by the skin of my teeth, I studied at the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) and then worked as a performer and acting teacher.
I mainly taught Indigenous youth from rural and remote communities. It was a great being able to work with young people that are similar to how you were growing up. You can pass on what’s important. I never really had this from an older person, I just grew up wanting to be good at hunting, fishing and 4x4 driving. So as an adult being able to explain to young people the importance of getting and education and gaining knowledge is a privilege.
I would always tell kids that I sucked at literacy and that even as an adult, I’m still learning every day. I would tell them that acting in front of an audience is just as scary as reading out loud or writing on a whiteboard in front of a class and that the more you do it the better you get - just like riding a bike.
We need to be leading the way as authors, journalists, policy makes, playwrights, scientists and work in the many more forms of writing to keep people informed on all aspects of Australian affairs.
This explaining and the work I did made me come to grips with mammoth amount of work that needs to be done for the preservation of our land languages and culture. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people need to be at the forefront of writing in this country. We need to be the key communicators. We need to be leading the way as authors, journalists, policy makes, playwrights, scientists and work in the many more forms of writing to keep people informed on all aspects of Australian affairs. What I realised, was when I was telling these students that 'anything is possible', I actually really meant it. Because I looked at them and saw myself.
In teaching others the importance of 'having a go' and trying, and picking yourself up, and learning from when you failed, you build confidence to keep going. It has taken me until the age of 31 to feel confident enough to write for others to read (with the help of a pair of prescription glasses and my editor). I’m not great at spelling or grammar, but I’m confident enough now to have a go.
Protect yourself with literacy
When more numbers of our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders communities can master the western communication systems, we can determine our future. I believe we all need to encourage our people to keep trying to learning literacy and even more so in our own languages. The good thing about reading and writing is that you can only get better, and not only can you benefit yourself, but eventually others will benefit from your contribution to literature.
My ancestors protected themselves and this land for thousands of years with shield and spear. Times may have changed, but our roles haven’t when it comes to looking after your community and environment. Reading books is gaining knowledge that you can use as a shield to protect yourself and others. The pencil is a spear ready to write truth and facts to fight back and give voice to yourself and your community. I would say reading and writing is your right to learn and if you use them correctly, they can help protect our peoples and our environment just like the shield and spear once did.
I've now come to realise that it's not about failing school, but it’s about succeeding for you family and community.