Dunoon. Friday, 9.40am
‘Follow me,’ the English teacher says to his students.
And they do.
They follow him down a concrete path to the Dunoon Public School assembly area.
His students are second-year university students from Japan. The English teacher is not Japanese. He is a middle-aged, overweight man with grey hair and skin that has seen too much Australian sun. His back hurts if he bows.
At the assembly space, the group is met by young Dunoon students.
‘What do they wear?’ asks Ayaka when she sees them, her high heels struggling with the uneven concrete path and her English struggling with the question.
‘What are they wearing?’ the English teacher corrects her. ‘We say, “What are they wearing?”’
The Japanese students are in Australia for two weeks. They’re visiting this primary school as a break from the English-language classroom in Lismore. After this, they will go to Rocky Creek Dam where they will explore Australian culture with a barbecue.
‘What are they wearing?’ Ayaka asks, correctly.
A little bloke dressed like Superman, with a smile impossibly bigger than his face, flies up to Ayaka. He is followed by two older girls (probably in Year 7) who wear neck-to-ankle zebra stripes.
‘School uniform,’ says the English teacher.
Ayaka frowns. She remembers her school uniform. It was not like this.
‘Just joking,’ says the English teacher.
‘It’s pyjama day,’ says a Dunoon parent (not in pyjamas) who has come to greet them.
The Japanese nod and smile. (Sure sign they’re confused.)
‘Do you know what pyjamas are?’ the English teacher asks them.
No-one speaks. Ayaka shakes her head.
A girl in a tiger suit skips up to the group. Superman flies away.
‘Is pyjamas dangerous?’ asks Ayaka.
The principal welcomes the visitors.
A young boy stands and, reading from notes, pays respect to the traditional owners of the land.
The boy acknowledges that his school stands on Bundjalung land.
The English teacher has talked to his students about the Bundjalung people, about their culture.
‘You are lucky to have Aboriginal people,’ Katsuki said after his class read a Dreamtime story about how the sun was made. (It all started with an angry emu…)
The English teacher thought about this; thought about the insult of terra nullius, the taking of Aboriginal land, the Stolen Generations, the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in life expectancy, and the exploitation of Indigenous communities by mining companies.
‘But they are not lucky to have us,’ thinks the English teacher.
The boy acknowledges the Indigenous elders past and present.
The English teacher remembered when he was this boy’s age. He learned nothing of Aboriginal culture at school, except they were savages who threatened pioneers’ livestock.
The English teacher is embarrassed by his government, by its treatment of the first Australians, by its complicity in the murder of women and children in Viet Nam and Iraq, by its spinelessness in the face of a rogue American government and international corporate interests, by its cowardly inhumanity to those seeking shelter from military storms it helped create.
But he loves this land in which he was born. He resonates to its sweeping plains, ragged mountain ranges and all that. He appreciates the Aboriginal peoples’ connection to country. He likes that this acknowledgment of the traditional owners has become a modern ritual at many Australian gatherings. The Japanese understand ritual and respect traditional wisdom.
‘You are lucky to have Aboriginal people.’
The boy acknowledges the traditional custodians, but his tongue trips – English is tricky – and he says ‘crustodians’.
A Dunoon teacher smiles.
The English teacher smiles too.
The young give him hope.