"Invisible Teachers"

20 Jun 2014 12:00 AM"Invisible Teachers"

This is an article I wrote about a recent group of kids that were pretty much ostracized by society.... because they were different and struggling. I brought them up the Kokoda track and found that they were in fact.......teachers!

It is amazing how much we take for granted……. But every now and then we get a nudge and a wake up push to look at what is around…. And I believe teaching comes in many different formats…. Well I had the great opportunity to be part of one such nudge and to be around a group of young “teachers” when we recently trekked the kokoda trek. Here is my recount…….

At the airport they stood uneasy, unsure of the challenge they were about to face, saying goodbye to their parents who all had tears and reached for a final hug praying that their sons/daughters would make it back without any longtime scars. In the background that great warrior and mate of mine Stan Bisset from the 2/14th Battalion watched … it probably reminded him of the year 40 when he and his brave brother departed with kids of similar age to defend Australia’s great shores. I wondered if the kids fully realized what a great honour it was to have the great warrior at the airport to farewell them. I promised him I would make sure that these kids returned as proud Aussies. The thing that struck me most was how excited these kids were and the fact that 90% of them had never flown in an aircraft before. After making their way through immigration and surviving the metal detection machine it was interesting to sit back and observe these green horns, who were “something” in their woods but would be nil in the jungles of PNG. There they would begin the challenge and sort out their demons that had been hanging around for some years, they would resent, manipulate, struggle, vomit, plead, lie, crawl, plan, laugh, play, adapt, appreciate, respect, survive, As they boarded the aircraft they fought over window seats so that the view would be remembered forever. Over the Great Barrier Reef they were fascinated with the amazing colours and clear water.

After 3.5 hours we landed in Port Moresby and were met with the humidity wall that is part of the kokoda track challenge. After completing the legal formalities we headed to the hotel. Here they were broken up into smaller groups for the rooms and asked to be by the pool for a briefing. It was really clear at this stage how nervous they were and I had a fair inkling where my main challenges would come from…………hmmmm The next morning saw them board a small aircraft and fly to kokoda village just like the 39th militia had done in 1942. It was a bumpy flight but soon we touched down surrounded by the palm oil plantations. At this stage a young lad had suffered a migraine so I isolated him and rested him amongst the palm trees. After speaking closely with him he had recovered and so we set off for the rest of the group enroute with the villagers to the kokoda museum. Here after looking inside I started the history presentations and explained the significance of the area and the leadup to the kokoda campaign and in particular the Japanese systems from 1900 leading up to 1941. I adjusted my delivery to include extra relevancies to their lives today. As a group they were pretty supportive of each other and I put this down to the pre training that they had done as a group. I watched closely to see where the sub groups were forming and who the potential leaders may be. After getting to our village they set up “home” and proceeded to play with the local kids, it never ceases to amaze me how skilful kids are at breaking down barriers, if only we could hang on to this I am sure the world would be a better place… One or two of them found it hard to get the hang of the discipline around camp and the importance of hygiene and waste disposal. I kept reinforcing that we were totally different to every other operator on the track. And that with me they had to lift their standards. At this stage I also set the tone to follow, I was looking for potential leaders to stand up and be counted just like our diggers did in ’42.

The next day we started early and headed off up the track, at last the real challenge was underway, we crossed the river and came out the back of Kovello village, bags were being shuffled and new positions were being found, shoulders got tired, and waist belts tightened. This was the real stuff, this was the test, it was warm, and they drank. I call this period the period of adjustment.. where the body is fighting for its homeostasis and challenging the mind to apply the brakes. All sorts of demonic scenarios are conjured leading to insecurities, anxieties and confusion….. the body screams and the mind listens……….. the hope is that somewhere deep down there is a steel rope ready to pull the body and mind out of the abyss. … and to confront those current doubts and challenges, it is here where I step in and add a hand on the shoulder and say you are going to be ok.. … for some it is entirely new…. That is they have never had that unconditional support before, they struggle to trust it, but I know that eventually they will see enough of it to realise that it is safe and they are safe. What a difference it would have made in 42!!! The fact is no matter how hard you think you do it .. it could be worse…. You could be shot at!! In a short while they marvel at what the young diggers did, how they fought a battle in this incredible terrain. It keeps them going knowing that they are lucky and that they have been given the great opportunity to walk in the footsteps of the young diggers. To do so you must earn that right, it is not a walk in the park and if you think it is you have no right to be there. They get it.

Climbing up the hill to Isurava one of the kids starts to drag the chain a bit and starts to pay homage to the sacred dirt. He vomits. Again and again. Its okay I tell him, it’s not unique, as a matter of fact that spot right there………………… He struggles to his feet and tells me he will make it, I tell him about Corporal John Metson he staggers on, falls over and vomits!! I give him fluids with some electrolyte and importantly .. rest. Up he gets again and says thanks for being there, I say I aint going nowhere, if you go down I’m going with you, we are a team, he tells me he loves his mother that things have been hard but he knows he can fix it. At the top of the hill the rest of the group are there waiting clapping and cheering, with words of encouragement and praise they welcome him back into the fold.

At 8am the following day we are at the battlesite and the kids hang on to everyword I tell them about the battle that took place and perhaps saved Australia from invasion. They cried and huddled closer to hear more. As a group we hoisted the Australian and Papuan New Guinean flags. We stood for a minutes silence, proud, of those that had gone before and in memory of those who made the supreme sacrifice so that we have the freedoms of choice we enjoy today. They should never be forgotten. Later they asked why they were never taught this at school and I said I don’t know……. but that it is a bloody disgrace!!!

At the plaque In Memory of Stan’s brother Butch, I sang Danny Boy as I always do with great respect. Two days later we sing and play with the kids at Effogi we talk about mateship and the importance of the true meaning of what it is to be Australian. We examine integrity and importance of self, we look at the courage of the group and endurance having made it to the half way point. We talk about the sacrifice of so many so that they could be there discovering who they really are. The fact that they now have about 10 words of the local language called Motu tells me that they have mixed well with the Nationals. I insist that these local people are not “porters” or “mules” but teachers, it is their role to ensure the group understand their culture and language. Over the next few days just like the wedge tail eagles that seem to pave our way, the group rises above all challenge and……………. Throw mud at each other!!. The innocence of being young and yet confident is a great conflict to observe, armed with the knowledge and belief that they are going to make it allows them to be who they really are. For me the picture that stands out is one of the girls laughing loudly with her face covered in mud while others slip and slid as they get caught up in the moment. I can just imagine the young diggers starting the track with the same spirit in ’42. Crossing the Goldie river and ascending up the final climb to the archway that signifies the end of this adventure brings many emotions with it, some cry, hug, laugh, cheer, but all in a state of immense satisfaction and pride.

After the photos we move off to the cemetery to pay our last respects, I look on in pride as the group seek out, Bisset, McCallum, Langridge, Nye, Metson, Owen, Kingsbury, Keyes, to mention a few….. I know my job is complete. What a great group of young people .. what a great future.. they have accepted the challenge in many ways and have come through at the other end with all the learning’s along the way, from here they will go on to become great teachers and most importantly thankful Australians who will go on to make the most of the opportunities afforded them because of the diggers that have gone before them.

At a time when it seems it is very easy to criticise young people because of the way their differences stand out compared to our era, I urge you to be patient because just like the seed they just need watering. At a time when their adult influences constantly tell them what they used to do at their age all they are asking for is an opportunity to show that they can also do it! A lot of these kids do not understand connection through emotion and support but do understand pain. And what fascinates me is that for them to evolve and grow and deal with blocked emotions, it is not very effective to communicate with them at this level as they do not understand it. I find that as they experience pain, they do recognize this and seem to load that pain up with the hidden stored emotions so that by the end of the trek they are “healed” or in many ways feel unburdened.

After this, my 87th crossing of the track I felt honoured to be around this great bunch of people, I still feel the prescence of the kokoda spirits that are still walking the track just like the first time I did 17 years ago. Lest we forget