‘Call me Ishmael’, three words that have stuck with me from a young age when I was first introduced to Herman Melville’s timeless classic Moby Dick. As a young Tasmanian Aboriginal boy growing up in a Tasmanian town whose population struggled to hit a hundred and fifty people, access to literature was a must to whittle away the time. The journeys and adventures that I could bring home in my library bag were my saving grace.
But it wasn’t always so.
As a child I was ‘difficult’, to put it politely. One particular teacher and I clashed almost every day. I was that kid who teachers dread to have in their class; I was angry and frustrated because I felt like I was being picked on, and when I struggled with my reading and writing exercises I was brought to the front of the class.
Isolated, embarrassed and, in retrospect, afraid, I acted out further. It has only been in recent years that my parents and I have talked about this time in my life and I have heard their side of the story. They asked the teacher (so they tell me) ‘do you know our son?’ The fact I was Aboriginal did not play a part in my literacy barriers; the challenge was that I was not stimulated and the lessons being taught did not hit the mark for me to excel as an individual learner.
What does this have to do with Moby Dick? In the following year I had a new teacher Mr Marty Ogle. He saw my thirst for adventure and introduced me to Ishmael and Captain Ahab. Now, in fairness, this was an abridged version for primary school students but once my journey on the Pequod was over I journeyed 20 000 Leagues under the Sea with Captain Nemo on the Nautilus, I went on a grand adventure with Tolkien and Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit and discovered the mythical feats of Heracles and other Greek heroes. These adventures are a part of me now and have shaped my current life.
I’ve since travelled on tall ships (harpoons not included), seen tropical reefs and a myriad of aquatic life on and under the water. I’ve embarked on grand adventures and had the privilege to share these with my beautiful wife and now our son. I’ve studied the ancient Greek and Roman empires and discovered Homer’s epics along the way. With each step forward in my life, literacy has propelled me to greater achievements, most notably being the first in my family to graduate from university.
This could not have been achieved without the fundamental basics I learnt in primary school. These are experiences and adventures I would not have been able to achieve without my parents and my teachers. Like Ishmael on the Pequod I had to ride the waves, weather the storms and now have a chance to recount (some of) the journey. To get to the heart of the matter though, which unfortunately is not a review of some of the classics that I have read, is to consider what defined this change within me. I’d love to say that it was purely the eloquence of the authors’ abilities to transport me into the world of their characters and the editors who were able to simplify the text for a younger audience. But I have reread these stories as an adult and still get hooked.
The single point in my life that this change within myself comes down to – to accept, to embrace and to learn – I can only comprehend as being that moment when Mr Ogle took the time to know me and was able to make a real connection. He cared for the lessons he was teaching, but more importantly he cared for me and the future I would have with a strong literacy foundation. He nurtured my imagination and encouraged it to grow.
All teachers share this passion but sometimes struggle with making the connection with students. We ask so much of teachers in this day and age and often forget that they are more than their profession. They are people first and foremost and if we want them to connect with our children we need to make a connection with them.
Parental/guardian involvement within a child’s schooling also plays a major part in assisting teachers as much as assisting the child with developing literacy skills – to take the time, that as parents we may not necessarily have, to read to our child/children, to engage and enquire about their learning and interests. Because that is the information that can be shared with teachers to help them get to know our sons and daughters, tailor an individual and focused approach to their learning, and start them on the first steps to new adventures.
Todd Sculthorpe is a descendant of Fanny Cochrane-Smith and an alumnus of the University of Tasmania. He has been committed to education and training for the past twelve years and has a clear focus and determination to close the gap in educational outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students in Tasmania. Here, Todd writes for the Communicating: The Heart of Literacy initiative – find more at chattermatters.com.au.
This article was first published in The Mercury on 1st May 2018.