Ive just come home from home. After so many years I couldn’t imagine what my mother had in her attic that I needed to sort. But there it was, sandwiched between the grass mat she has to cover her coffin and my grandfathers postcards from the first world war – a box of old school stuff.
And there, on the bottom of this certificate is the last name I couldn’t remember from 1969. I wrote this story about Alan a few years ago, as a tribute to the power of one special teacher in our lives.
TO TEACH | TO LEARN | TO EAT | TO CARE
I remember his first name, but not his last. And for forty years it didn’t really occur to me the legacy he left me.
His first name was Alan. I saw him every day and some weekends he’d come to our house. He often chatted to my Dad over a beer.
In a small regional school in New Zealand’s early 70’s students had one teacher for pretty much every subject. I reckon I’m still a gun at fractions because Alan taught us with blocks of chocolate which we broke and rejoined in appropriate quantities.
Alan was a naturalist, no, he didn’t take his clothes off and he couldn’t have been sweeter and more proper. Alan just loved nature and it is that he instilled in us.
The reason this is a shock all these years later is because I realise I want in some small way to emulate what he did with us. And what he did, looking back, was quite extraordinary.
We were all told to go home and grow a garden. To ensure we did and were doing it well he held a competition and went personally to every students house to encourage, cajole where necessary and reward where appropriate. I recall my father reporting back ‘Al’ said that wooden stick with a metal bit on the end is called a hoe. Weeding obviously wasn’t my strength.
We would escape class on hot summer afternoons and go to the river, there to discover the world of tadpoles, water boatmen and dragonflies while trawling bare foot through streams and waterways.
There was great anticipation when we bundled into his beat up old kombi and went to Alan’s own small farm for an excursion for which he provided absolutely no preamble. When we arrived he donned a beekeepers suit and inducted us into the magical world of drones, workers, queens, wax and liquid gold.
At home I became interested in the big orchard out the back and was incensed when my mother wouldn’t send the excess plums to Africa.
So wanting to grow food and share this with others isn’t such an unexpected thing for me to do in middle age. But it might have been had I not had one amazing inspiring teacher. What might I have done or not done if as a nine and ten year old my single educational role model ate fast food, lived with lawns and concrete and shopped only in supermarkets?
This is why School and Community Gardens and the resurgence of interest in growing our own food is so crucial. It is why farmers who can’t feed their own families is so sad. It’s why if you’re not a cook and a gardener you’re only half a cook.
Those of us in regional NSW can be taking a lead in this area. School fetes, serving on the school canteen and P&C meetings are important of course, so too is ensuring that our kids learn the skills to grow the food that will keep them healthy, fit and engaged with nature and its cycles.
There aren’t a lot of Alan’s around anymore, it falls back to us to step up and help. School gardens aren’t the domain of the Ag plot; they should be inclusive of every student.
And maybe if this love of being connected to the land is nurtured more widely, the choice of agriculture as a career might not take some people forty years to come around too.