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Friday, August 19, 2011

Headmasters, footballs and awakenings

I’ve decided I’m going to be concise this time. Sadly, I’ve already failed at that by telling you so instead of just doing it, but that’s me.

  It was 1959 – the last year of Primary School for me. Mr Curtis had retired. He didn’t want to, as he thought it his duty to go on till they carried him out in a box, but 65 was the limit, so he had no choice. The Queensland State Department of Education had spoken, and its word was law.

  He was an excellent man in many respects – the last of the Pupil Teachers. By this I mean that when he got to Grade 8 and the headmaster had recognised talent in him, he was told:

  ‘Young Master Curtis, next week you will come to school wearing shoes and a freshly ironed shirt, and help with teaching.’

  And thus began his career as a teacher. He learned the trade on the job. That was how it was done in those days.

  By Grade 8, the final year of Primary School as it was then, I had had only two teachers in my entire life; Miss Turner for Grades 1, 2 and 3, and Old Jim for Grades 4 to 7. This must be astounding to many these days, who would have had a score of teachers before leaving primary school.

  The new headmaster was Kevin Reddy. He was quiet and meticulous; probably in his late 20s or early 30s, and it was incredibly novel for us to have a young man in that role.

  For one thing, in the first week he started teaching at Calliope, he walked down to the field where we were kicking a football around.

  ‘Give me the ball.’

  Why? we thought. Were we in trouble?

  He was wearing his nicely creased woollen trousers and polished brown shoes. He casually took a couple of steps and kicked the ball straight up in the air.

Sputnik and our football
  We couldn’t believe two things about this. One was that he could or would join us on the playing field, and the other was that he could kick a ball so high and so straight up that it made the Soviet launching of Sputnik 18 months earlier seem almost unnecessary. To us, that football was about to go into orbit, but miraculously, it eventually came down not three metres away from the smart shoe that had launched it.

  We gasped and cheered, and Mr Reddy was forever our hero.

  Poor Old Jim. All those years of (not always) patient teaching of parsing, sentence analysis, and dividing pounds, shillings and pence into extraordinarily small fractions vanished in the hero stakes with one effortless kick of a football into the stratosphere.

  Eight years later, I, as the new teacher, walked to that identical spot on the same playing field, called for the ball, and repeated Kevin Reddy’s feat. I can’t say for certain that it was as spectacular a kick as his seemed, but it was good enough to evoke a similar response to the Reddy kick forever emblazoned in my consciousness.

  I was a hero, status bought at a heavily discounted rate, but happily accepted all round.

  So, you can imagine my sorrow this morning. I was playing in a football match. I need only to chip the ball over the opposition players’ head and one of our blokes would run the try in.

  I took a few steps, wondering why I was making heavy weather of it, and tried a simple dropkick – one I had done a thousand times at least.

  At that moment, I realised to my horror that my right leg was as it is now: barely usable as something to stand up on, let alone as a pivot to launch a neat left foot kick.

  The kick was a terrible failure. I woke with a lurching start, as if I had been kicked hard in the stomach. I felt physically ill.

  Perhaps the dream had caused that, or maybe feeling vaguely nauseous through the night had caused the dream to become entangled in my thoughts of childhood football.

  All I know is that it reminded me I would never kick a football again. Never split a log with an axe. Never again throw a tennis ball.

  There’s an immeasurable sorrow in such thoughts. You have to be there to understand it. Yet how many times must that be multiplied in the sorrow of the young quadriplegic who will never again do all the things he or she took for granted before that illness or accident.

  I can’t begin to imagine. It makes you start to appreciate what real courage you need to have to cope with that. And, more importantly, the amazing courage of those who have overcome their sadness and achieved greatness in their lives by becoming role models, and thereby giving hope to others.

  They’re the heroes.

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