Several weeks ago I received a most unexpected invitation. I was asked to give an address for Education Week at my old high school. In case you are thinking this is a great and meritorious honour, I should give you some context for this invitation. I grew up in the small town of Grenfell (population around 2,000) in central-west NSW - about 370 km due west of Sydney.
[Grenfell's Main Street]
It's fifty years since I finished high school and in my final year at the school it was formally reclassified by the Department of Education as a High School and took on the name The Henry Lawson High School (the renowned, pessimistic bush poet, short story writer and drunkard Henry Lawson was born about 100 metres from the school's present location). I was school captain during that year and so I guess someone deemed it appropriate to ask me back fifty years later.
I drove up to Grenfell one day and back to Sydney the following day - a real achievement for me as I really don't like driving. But despite the going and coming it was a wonderful visit. The high school has always been small - around 180 kids when I attended and nowadays around 240. My first real job was teaching in a country high school at Narrandera which was a bit bigger than Grenfell, but shared many of the same characteristics. I like the comprehensiveness of such schools. There are girls and boys, intelligent and not so intelligent, rich and poor, those skilled at sports and those (like me) who suffered through games and physical activities. You can't attend such a school and have any illusions about the diversity of people and their skills and opportunities. I also like the way such schools are embedded in their communities and serve as a focal point for many community groups and projects.
At the school assembly the school band played and the choir sang; awards were presented to community members who had assisted the school; the final of the school spelling bee was held with participants so nervous we were all sitting on the edges of our seats with tension; awards were presented to students; and I gave my speech. It was easy to find things to say about an experience that had played such a formative role in my life - and also that of other members of my family. Not only did I complete my schooling at this school in 1961, but my brother was school captain in 1966, my father attended there till he left school aged 15 in 1931, and his mother left the Grenfell Superior School (at age 13) in 1899. Such a rich line of connection.
I stayed overnight with a friend from my school days and her husband who live on a farm in a gracious 1910 traditional Australian homestead.
My friend is the third generation of her family to have lived in this house and it will pass on to her son and possibly other generations. Even though I seem to have broken with these lines of tradition by moving away from Grenfell I like to know that such continuity is possible.
The house has a wonderful big old garden where early spring flowers are just emerging. There are lots of nostalgically scented plants and my friend brings them inside in vases throughout the house. My bedroom was scented by some sprigs of daphne which evokes memories of my mother who always cultivated a daphne bush.
And there were the lambs. Because of all the rain last year and the rich pasture it produced, my friends have been overwhelmed this year by the very high lamb birth rates. Inevitably, a number of lambs have lost their mothers or the mothers have had difficulty feeding and so some of the lambs need to be bottle-fed.
This handsome group are just about ready to graduate from milk to pasture and are looking very plump and healthy. This variety of sheep - called Dorper - are not wool sheep but rather are being bred to eat. Almost seems a shame when they're so cute, but for those of us meat-eaters, it's the cost of having our lamb cutlets and roasts.
Visiting Grenfell always reminds me of my family roots and upbringing. It's all so familiar and yet now so distant in my life. I inevitably made a bit of a pilgrimage to places that are integral to my memories of growing up and the family stories I was told...
[The 1930s bungalow my parents lived in from 1948 onwards and where I lived until I left home for university. My dad's garden would have had fewer shrubs and at this time of the year the first spring annuals]
[The farmhouse outside Grenfell built by my grandfather sometime around 1920. This is where my mother grew up and my grandfather wrote his diaries]
[The cluster of trees near the farmhouse above where my great-grandfather built a slab hut sometime in the 1880s when he settled this land and brought his family to live here.]
And a final country story. I pulled to the side of the road on my way into Grenfell to take the two photographs above. I'd not been there more than three minutes before a farmer came out of a nearby house to check that I was OK. It's what I both love and fear about country towns - that you are generously cared for and helped, but that you have no anonymity whatsoever.