A look at this picture gives you a pretty good indication of how this is going to pan out. But before that, one vital last dip into the past.
Hard as it may be to believe for those of us who just don't get it, we can even thank the zombies for their role in this journey.
Yes – zombies. Let me not venture into this subculture, but Christian's interest in the phenomenon at high school led to other things. In the zombie manual, it showed how to secure a house against zombies. He prowled round, highly critical of glass doors, weak window-frames and locks. He explored relative strengths and weakness of building materials, which led to strategies for countering such problems as wild weather or another earthquake. (Or a meteor blast, perhaps?)
It wasn't about zombies really. It was about social breakdown in the event of a catastrophe. What would be the best course of action? How would you deal with suddenly never having electricity again? What would be the best foods to store for survival? If order in a city environment began to collapse, how would you survive?
How could you protect yourself against something more dangerous than zombies – that is, out-of-control humans? How does society control itself in normal times, and what is it that really breaks down in a severe crisis where everything that humanity has come to depend on disappears?
If the urban space became unliveable, how could you survive in the wild? Where do you go, and what can you eat? What is essential equipment? What is survival psychology?
These are highly complex questions of societal power, social interaction and personal development, and over a long period of time led to his thinking about relationships on all these levels.
As usual, he went to the oracle – the internet – and built a huge mental database of survival skills in all circumstances. He scoured it for the answers. He read everything about survival, especially military manuals – unquestionably the best source of information on survival in existence. Bear Grylls became a hero, and the zombies got lost somewhere between the tropical jungles and the frozen Arctic wastes where Bear strutted his stuff.
As he garnered and processed this information, there was one thing that stood out for him like prawns' eyes. To survive, you have to be fit. To be fit, you must eat the right foods and train your body for strength and endurance.
Having accepted that, he applied it with ruthless, yea, missionary intent. He spurned with a contempt that was almost palpable any processed foods of the wrong sort. He continued Parkour with his little group of equally dedicated friends, adding new fitness regimes to increase the strength and endurance demanded. Admiring audiences of kids would gather at the creeklands while they went through routines, jumping the creek to loud applause.
Being hero-worshipped, even on a small scale, is a far cry from being a gangling unfit hunched-over figure with an inferiority complex and trying to look invisible.
He has a several great friends, whom I'd love to tell you about except that it would invade their privacy, but one is Robert, a long time member of the SES – the State Emergency Services. Encouraged by Robert, Christian started to train with SES, and met up with a group of people of a wide variety of age, personality and experience, all aimed at one goal – to help people survive emergencies. Experience and training were passed on from older to younger women and men through cooperative effort and teaching new skills.
Nor was it all one way. His flying experience, e.g., had made him skilled in hands-on communications; with air traffic control, communicating clearly with other aircraft of all types, and with ground vehicles. When emergencies such as bushfire happened, he had no difficulty directing air and ground traffic and passing on instructions from SES seniors.
He was appointed Deputy Comms Officer in the SES as a result of these skills and his reliability. That's a big responsibility for a nineteen-year-old, and a great confidence-builder as well.
He learned to read maps and use a serious compass, and went out on camping expeditions with friends, to practise the theoretical survival skills he'd absorbed. One friend of ours in particular was an experienced bushman who showed him much about Australian natural ecosystems and their denizens; knowledge and wisdom that can be passed down only by being right there, on the spot, in the environment.
He looked at the night sky on these camping trips as planets, constellations and galaxies were pointed out to him. Only those who have been in the centre of that great immensity in the darkness of the bush really know that feeling of connectedness with the universe around and above.
He came home from one of these voyages of discovery and sat at the piano, and for the first time in two years, began to play.
He comes from an extraordinarily musical family, and had lost interest in the formal lessons he'd been having while in the later years of school, especially when our lives were so disrupted by my illness. The music that had been locked away inside him simply flowed again. Not Mozart or Bach, but themes he'd picked up through gaming or favourite TV shows. His own variations on the beloved Dr Who theme echoed through the house, along with tunes I didn't recognise, together with melodies of the 1930s and 40s that he'd picked up.
Meanwhile, he maintained his regime of fitness and had been interested for a long time in the principles of personal defence. In the street at night, walking alone and accosted or threatened by an individual or group, what do you do? In a bar when having a quiet drink with a group of friends, what happens when someone wants to pick a fight, or draws a knife, or decides to glass your face?
Let's just say that now, if he encounters violent circumstances, he's unlikely to be trapped. He'll make eye contact and stand there, tall and straight, right up to his full height, apparently totally relaxed but keenly alert, a calming presence and happy to negotiate. And if that doesn't work, woe betide the attacker who thinks he's chosen an easy mark.
So what's in this for the formal educational benefits of Gap Year? You can readily see the benefits for personal development. What about that career?
I was just coming to that.
Last year he did a TAFE Certificate 3 in Fitness. It was his first brush with formal education since school. He'd chosen it for obvious reasons and he had no difficulty doing it, though there was a bit of the old rebellion there occasionally and he had to pull in his horns.
It was a good start, because it taught him something of how tertiary education operated.
That vision of that night sky in the bush stayed in his mind. He'd continued to read about it and had an enduring interest in the universe itself – where it had come from, is now, and where it is heading. He understood with great clarity the essential principles of science and the scientific method. He put his binoculars on my expensive but sadly-unused videocam tripod and studied the heavenly phenomena he was reading about.
Wonder of wonders, he joined the Town Library and chose books on astronomy, relating his reading there to what he was seeing above him in the night sky. As usual, he became passionate about it and entertained us in great detail with the fundamentals of quantum physics, light and time, the Hadron Collider and Higgs Boson. That's when he wasn't lecturing us on the dynamics of the human body and its relationship to health, strength and fitness.
It's all fun and games at our place.
He had developed a keen interest in chemistry. Periodic Tables of the Elements in one form or another dotted the house. But he had not studied chemistry, nor taken in many elementary mathematics operations he should have understood fully when leaving high school. These gaps now stood as a serious barrier to his newly cherished ambitions.
There was no choice other than to catch up. He went back to the Town Library and borrowed the books that would reveal and fill the gaps; Mathematics for Dummies and others. He bought a special notebook, sat down with a pen and got started. Visions of scientists standing clustered round a whiteboard discussing equations appealed, so his mother acquired one for him. Besides, it was ecologically more sound than using paper, wasn't it?
At his request I started bombarding him with tables again so he could get away from painfully slow addition and multiplication. "Seven nines!" I'd hit him with just after he finished a mouthful of his dinner. If the answer – not his dinner – didn't come out on cue, then I'd drill it before he could take another bite. "Nine sevens!" "Nine what's are sixty-three?" "How many sevens in sixty-three?"
He enjoys it. Seriously. He's still rusty on his twelve times tables though. And subtraction. We gotta work on that.
So, he's enrolled in a bridging courses in Maths and Chemistry through the university, to make sure he's up to the level he needs before taking on the science degree. They count towards the degree when he enrols at university full-time. He's enjoying it. Also, he now has full access to the University Libraries.
There's much more to this tale and it's already too long, but I wanted to get it out there that Gap Year can be a vital part of life education. I'm not saying it's the only way that a period after high school can be spent productively. Nevertheless it can clarify for school leavers what they don't want for a career, how new skills can be acquired and related to old ones and motivate them to achieve at their full potential. But it needs solid support and patience of parents or guardians.
Even more importantly, we shouldn't be too ready to condemn what we think is a waste of time. If it weren't for those zombies setting him on the path to home and personal security, I'm not sure where he'd be. One thing's for certain; he now knows the direction he's heading.
"Everything is mathematics," he says joyously, "It's awesome!"
"What about three years ago when you said, "That's what calculators are for."
"I didn't know what I was talking about. I had no idea."
"The Music of the Spheres, my friend. You may remember me telling you about that a while ago."
"Oh yeah…. I guess I just wasn't ready."
At age twenty, he's still got a long way to go. But then, in our own ways, haven't we all?
May I record my sincere thanks to Christian for generously allowing me to share his experience of growing up with you.