Friday, September 22, 2023

Review – Outback Teacher

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Rebecca Rowlings, ARR.News
Rebecca Rowlings, ARR.News
Rebecca Rowlings has always been a voracious reader. Apart from three years in Sydney at university, she has spent her life living in rural and regional areas. She currently lives on Wiradjuri country, teaches at the local high school, runs a secondhand bookstore and furniture restoration business with her amazing husband, and loves being a wife and mother, although there is a downside in the lack of time to read as much as she once could. With an Arts degree majoring in English literature, a background in newspaper journalism and more than a decade spent as an English teacher, she enjoys sharing her insights into some of the books she is able to find time to read (usually late at night).

According to the back cover blurb, Outback Teacher “is a story about the challenges and delights of teaching in outback schools in the 1950s and 1960s.” I’m a teacher, and that was a big hook for me – I picked up the book with its beautiful cover image of Sally Gare perched on rocks looking over a remote Australian landscape expecting just that – a story about being a teacher.

I was unexpectedly, and in the end pleasantly, surprised to find a story that is as much about 1950s and 1960s Australia as it is about one young woman’s experiences. It is the north-west Western Australia of Aboriginal missions, of cultural clashes, of extremes in temperature and of distance, of hardships tempered by moments of joy, of connections made and still treasured more than half a century later.

In her own words, Sally had “seen people who worked on missions, helping out Indigenous peoples, supplying food, healthcare and teaching; now that I had graduated, I was keen to go out and help.” After receiving scholarship funding to study at teachers’ college, she was required to work for two years at a country posting, which took her to Forrest River Mission, north-west of Kununurra, in 1956.

It is impossible to read about this time and place in Australia’s history without our contemporary knowledge of the Stolen Generations and the broken connections to land and culture for so many Indigenous people. But despite that hovering over me as I read, Sally’s genuine caring shines through. She writes, “I could see that the work we were doing was helping the Oombulgurri – they were receiving healthcare, were sheltered and fed, and the kids were being educated while still able to be involved with their culture.”

Therein lies an important distinction, that of connection to culture and country, which according to Sally was not universal: “Every mission throughout the north was different – some encouraged culture, others didn’t.”

Sally herself certainly embraced the culture of the Indigenous people she worked with. She learnt to hunt and fish, and describes one occasion of a school holiday camping trip from the mission which started out less than happily with heat, flies, sand in her shoes, and her billy and camera banging against her legs. But it became a memorable experience of which, 66 years later, she writes, “I would do it all again now, if I had the chance.”

After completing two years at Forrest River, Sally headed back south, but “the challenge and excitement of the North West was calling me back”. She ended up at Port Hedland, teaching Aboriginal kids whose families wanted them to go to school but who needed a “staging school” to bring their literacy and numeracy up to a level where they could attend the local state school. The chapters on Sally’s work with this school and her students, ranging in age from six,to teenagers who were nearly ready to move into employment, many of whom spoke no English on arriving in her classroom, are both engaging and heartwarming.

Sally’s story is a coming of age narrative set in the harsh conditions of outback Australia, surrounded by the complexities of white and black relations in the 1950s and 1960s. While now we have a clearer historical and critical perspective on the injustices perpetuated upon Indigenous Australians in those years, for Sally it really wasn’t complicated. She gave her students skills they could use to survive and thrive in a world that was so rapidly changing around them. She embraced the opportunities she was offered to share in the culture of her students, and learned from them just as much as they learned from her. Sally reminds me of my paternal grandmother, who was also a teacher, in her steadfastness, her determination to embrace challenges, and her eminently practical approach to teaching and to life. Her story is definitely worth reading.

Author: Sally Gare, with Freda Marnie
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
ISBN: 9781761065347
Buy through Booktopia

This book review is supported by the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund.


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