“Often away and believed uneducable.” I stared at the words. This was Phil’s last school report, hand written on a sheet of paper. There was no other information. He had not completed primary school. He was now 14, six foot tall, and wanting to live at my place, which was then an open house. Of course he could, but as he was under the school leaving age, he would have to go to school.
I had briefly met Phil as a small boy, when he lived next door to me, not long before he returned to Tasmania. I looked again at the school report. What did it mean? Then Phil told me a bit about his life in Tasmania. The last of his school years saw him living with a relative who was often alcoholically affected. The place was chaotic and at times Phil slept in a lounge chair. Phil, of Maori and Spanish heritage, found acceptance in the indigenous community. A fun night out was joining his new friends in the game of ‘stoning’ street lights. Phillip had good hand/eye coordination, and unfortunately ‘blacked out’ a number of streets.
Then the welfare got to hear about his situation – and Phil got to hear about their interest in him. He moved himself to the local tip, “so the welfare wouldn’t get me.” He lived there for some months, eating pumpkin, and whatever else he could scrounge.
What was I doing, sending this young man back into a system that had completely failed him? Was the report an accurate assessment? Maybe he was ‘uneducable.’ Was I setting up another failure in a life that had been marked by abuse? The questions swirled around in my head.
Then Phil described how he got a job in the local foundry when he was thirteen, putting his age up to match his height.
“People look down on us for working in the foundry,” he told me, “But they don’t know that we look down on them because they can’t work hard.”
This was not the observation of an unintelligent boy. But how would he handle the school environment? He couldn’t go back into a primary situation or even the first years of high school. He was too large, and had lived beyond his years.
A friend heard of my dilemma.
“What you need is Speed.”
“I’m not really into drugs, although a glass of wine wouldn’t go astray.”
“No,” he explained. ‘You need Harold Speed. He’s a teacher.”
Teachers hadn’t played a positive part in Phil’s life up to now, in fact few adults had. I was a bit dubious.
“Speed’s different. He lives in Elwood, so he knows life. Where education’s concerned, he’s your man. He’s at the Prahran Tech.”
I had nothing to lose, so I made an appointment. A snowy haired older man met me. I barely had time to present the problem. Harold was off and running.
“He needs to go into Form Three at his age and height. It’s best if the other kids don’t know his history. The same goes for the teachers – except for his class teacher. I’ve got a good one in mind. I’ll word her up.”
I wondered how Phil would fit in, with his extraordinary experiences.
“How’s he off for clothes? Appearances shouldn’t count, but they do.”
“He’s basically got what he’s standing up in.”
“What’s his size? I know some people who can help.”
The ‘people’ Harold knew, were the cast of Jesus Christ Superstar, then playing at the Palais. I discovered that when the gentle Harold spoke, people tended to obey. The members of the group were pleased, or coerced, to donate from their wardrobe. Phil was lining up to be the best dressed kid in the school.
Then Harold sorted me out. “You’d better go on the parent / teacher committee as his parent. That’ll give him a boost.”
How could I say no?
“And what about money?”
“There’s no way he’d go near welfare for assistance.”
“Wise boy. He’s a worker. I think I can arrange a small grant for him. Tell him it’s because going to school, after being away for so long, is really hard work. That’ll give him some dignity.”
How Harold managed it, I don’t know, but he did. Phil received a small fortnightly income and tutoring was arranged through the Fitzroy community centre. A young woman arrived weekly on Thursday after school. Phil was thrilled when he explained fractions to me, using her voice. “What you do to the tops, you do to the bums. Simple.” Phil was on his way.
How did Phil go? He got a pass halfway through the year, although not yet being quite up to the Form standard. It was explained that the pass was because he had achieved so much in a short time. He passed in his own right at the end of the year.
Eventually, Phil went on to do a business course at the Australian Institute of Management, which was then in St. Leonards Avenue. He ended up running his own cleaning business, and as a respected member of the community, is a lasting memorial to Harold.
Harold lived through two world wars and the Depression. He had a vast general knowledge and a fierce intelligence. There were no teachers colleges when he started out. He trained through the apprenticeship system, working with experienced teachers. At times he dealt with up to 70 children in a class, yet to him, each student was important. He saw courage and strength in people where others were blind. Harold brought out the best in people.
Harold was also part of the push to have a library in St. Kilda and was politically active in the Labor movement. He lived in Elwood for some 70 years. He died this year, aged 98. He was a Port Phillip man with extra-ordinary vision.
We should all aspire to ‘live up to Speed.’