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Saturday, February 16, 2013

Gap Year 2

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?

   At school, he'd always been the potential victim. That wasn't going to happen again. Yet like everything from driving a car to riding a horse, understanding what you should do based on a good youtube video is fine in theory – but what really happens when face to face with a thug (or attacked by a group) is a different matter altogether.

   Through a good friend of ours, he met up with a man and his wife who teach a brilliant programme of personal discipline and tactical fitness. I wish I had time and the space here to explain how it works, but it's not one of the usual smorgasbord of martial arts on offer. Far from it. His trainer spends a lot of time teaching techniques for defusing a potentially dangerous confrontation to avoid the brewing violence completely. 

   But... should it be unavoidable, the programme also teaches the harsh techniques of dealing with it decisively. I mean, really dealing with it. The training is tough, it can hurt, the scenarios are as near to real as you'll get, and combines solid fitness with genuine defence.

   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.

   From that, he became aware that if he wanted to make a career in any branch of science he had to do a university science degree. And in studying the rules and regulations to do that, he came to a rather unpalatable realisation. His knowledge of the fundamentals of science that most students take with them into university courses is dangerously patchy. 

    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?

gap year 1 | gap year 2
May I record my sincere thanks to Christian for generously allowing me to share his experience of growing up with you.


  1. Anyone who has more than one child quickly discovers that the school that is perfect for one is not so great for the other ie that individuals need individual routes to reach the education they need. If only it was possible to provide a wider variety of institutions. But what your family has done for Christian demonstrates that, if the school can't reach the boy, there are still possibilities among friends and relations. What a great story. And lovely pictures.

    1. Thank you, Z. You are so right about kids. When Sylvia was born I assumed somehow that having done my share of rearing one daughter to the [then] age of 4, the next would follow in pretty much the same footsteps. What a joke!

      I was soon disabused of that notion. Alice was content to play happily in her cot every morning for as long as it took the adults to get up. Sylvia was rattling the bars on the cage at 6 am every day demanding her rights as defined by the UN Charter.

  2. This is a powerful and poignant illustration of my long-time belief that the most important thing we need to do for our children besides loving them, is to trust them. As hard as it is to stand by and watch our kids embark on seemingly pointless (to us) paths, it is their path. Our job as parents is to not give up on them.
    Yesterday, my gentle, zombie-obsessed, school-shy, dyslexic, maths-shy, school-allergic son, was the newly-solo-ed pilot who, for the first time, proudly flew his proud mum over the Yarra Valley.
    Christian's remarkable story could not have come at a better time.
    This is a happy-ending story if ever there was one.
    Thank you.

    1. What a wonderful confirmation of our experience! Wonderfully put.

      Amazing about those zombies, hey? But the "creator" of the modern zombie clan provided a rationale for his creatures every bit as logical as e.g., one involving Thetans – and that as a "religion" does quite nicely out of its status thank you.... But hey, why should we worry? Read this!

  3. I found myself closing my eyes and pondering the whole notion of Gap Year.

    All the years in a row spent fitting in (to one institution or another) and the terror, elation, fervour (which will it be?) of being a more or less free agent.

    I am reeling at the tale of what Christian squeezed into his life. Are there really that many hours in the day?

    Thank you for leading me to these thoughts.

    1. Dave: you give me the opportunity to say what I wanted to somewhere in the piece – I have never objected to the idea of Gap Year for those who have no definite career goal. Those who have – just get on with it. The greatest horror as far as I'm concerned is being trapped in a job where the only time that I'd feel happy is the weekend.

      Imagine wishing 5/7 of your working life away.

      Apparently there are that many hours in a day IF given the time and opportunity for a small fraction of your adult life to indulge in them. Not everyone can. But he trod the footpath well-dressed and highly presentable with his CV looking for work during this period at least as hard as any other school-leaver.

      That's where the family has, as Ros says, to trust them. Even 'wasted' time may turn out to be very far from that. At the very least it can show a kid how empty their future is going to be without a flexibly defined career goal in a world where possibilities for career change all the time.

  4. I think Christian has come full circle. I remember him as a little kid and the impression I had then was 'science nerd' (NOT 'nerd' in a bad way, Christian:)) Like someone from Tintin:) He was so cute and earnest in his little glasses. And always so polite, too -very nice that was. Well done all of you, to combine to bring out this talented, engaged, pleasant,observant and handsome man -most of all well done you, Christian! xx

    Julie M PS Keep going!!

    1. I'm sure he'd be rather pleased with what you said, Julie, if he gets round to reading these comments. Isn't it funny though that our memories can play tricks with us? Christian never had glasses as a kid. Not until until a couple of years ago – only as an adult.

      I'll bet you would have been prepared to swear to that under oath. So much for the certainty of witness evidence in courts....

      In fact – and it's probably a part of the story that should have been told, we discovered that he had gone through all his life with a serious eyesight defect. Even though his eyes were tested as a child, this was never revealed. But we know it was not a sudden thing because when he got the glasses and looked up at the night sky, he was shocked at how the stars stood out as pinpoints of light and not a blur.

      It couldn't have been great for seeing what a teacher was writing on a whiteboard, nor powerpoint-type presentations. I don't know how we didn't pick it up ourselves, except that once again, smart kids learn to compensate – maybe unconsciously – for such deficiencies, and they simply don't show up.

    2. I know why I thought he had glasses -it was that Harry Potter dress up photo in my memory! Well fancy that:) I agree about the danger of evidence by witnesses, and of eye witness history too -I know just from the different ways Michael and I remember things!


  5. Oh well done Denis, and good for you Christian too. An inspiring story and a wonderful marathon effort in communicating it to us. Thank you.

  6. Wonderful. Perhaps he also read a bit of Rousseau on his journey. Best of luck to him? Anne P

    1. I suspect he's more of a Voltaire man, Anne – though I must say that of the two, I prefer JJ Rousseau.

  7. I loved this story and you have told it so beautifully. We only met Christian briefly but thought he was a delightful boy with (amazing for today's youth)excellent manners. He really will benefit from all this improvement to body AND mind and it's good to see a young person tackling the whole business of survival. Our small cyclone and its effect up here on Tamborine made us aware of how soft we are becoming, not just society as a whole but Bob and I also, who have always prided ourselves on our survival skills both in the bush and in the urban environment. How DO we cope when the power goes out and nature - or those who wish us ill - turns nasty? I doubt many young people today give it any thought - they just assume it will be sorted for them. So, gooooo Christian! I hope he has a brilliant career but more importantly he seems set on becoming a brilliant human being. (I'm rather keen on Higgs boson too, by the way).

    1. If he has what's in his backpack and dropped in the gorge country, Julie, I'd wager his survival against 98% of the rest of us. What's in there is a triumph of efficiency you wouldn't believe.

      As to Higgs, I'm still a rather firm believer in the principle from the old Hindu saying: "it's turtles all the way down!"

    2. I also prefer the turtles:)

      Julie M

  8. What a wonderful story and a remarkable guy. Such passion and dedication. It also must bring great comfort that he can handle himself, in all situations, so well.
    I love the point too about letting kids indulge their interests and how all knowledge is useful - I'm such a huge believer in that.

  9. Yes, thank you Christian. My son Elliott is currently in his final year at high school, and has no idea what he wants to do when he leaves school. This naturally reflects in the amount of effort with which he applies to his studies. A great cause of concern for his father and me. This piece has illustrated how it is all about timing, being alongside our children, providing solid support with patience, and your final comment "haven't we all got a long way to go" is so true. This must be remembered especially when becoming impatient with our "wish they'd find their passion" children. Sigh. I shall step off my soap box and allow him space and time to find all that life will bring and he will find. Thank you Denis. Thank you Christian. Go well both of you.

    1. Thanks Debbie. You give me the chance to say another thing I couldn't fit into the original posting. The 'job' world is changing so fast that by the time Elliott and Christian get their degrees or formal training, there'll be ones we and they never dreamt of – or at least, wouldn't have considered at this point. And as soon as Christian gets into his degree, he may find he wants to specialise in a branch of knowledge he now had no awareness of.

      So closed job ideas in the new world we're just on the edge of are a delusion.

  10. Thank you. Part 2 was definitely worth waiting for :). My (mathematician) husband's story was similar in many ways. We came through the education system (AHS, then ANU) at a good time but even then the job world had become tricky.

  11. That is an exciting thought Denis, don't you think?


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