Recently, I travelled to Armidale on the New England Tablelands of New South Wales to visit the Backtrack school for kids who don’t fit the system.
Backtrack is an organisation that does more than its fair share empowering young people who will otherwise end up on the wrong side of the law. I first learnt of this organisation through my friend Helena Pastor’s work with them as she wrote her forthcoming memoir. She had turned up at their shed every Sunday with a tray of home-baked brownies to help young men complete welding projects as part of the Iron Men Welders scheme.
Since these small beginnings, Backtrack has gone on to host a number of other projects including Paws Up, an award-winning dog jumping squad, Imagine This incorporating the Backtrack school, and Aglads, a farming based initiative. Backtrack’s main mover and shaker, the unstoppable Bernie Shakeshaft, is now at the head of a large group of youth workers, artists in residence (including Helena who is writer in residence) and others, providing employment for a number of ex-clients who have learned to shine under his tutelage.
It was an honour to be invited to their classroom and meet the teachers, Simmo and Helena, and their students. Trey, otherwise known as Ducky, jumped up and shook my hand with a warm smile so I felt welcomed straight away. Freddie, Brady, Hayden, Norm, and Marshall, known as Sheriff for obvious reasons, all introduced themselves and Fred even got up and did some yoga with me. Although he wouldn’t attempt the splits – my ultimate party trick.
We gathered in the office where it was warmer and the couches were comfier and I read “Voices” from Thrill Seekers to them. At first, I was nervous. Only the week before these guys had told their teachers they didn’t like being read to like babies, so I was worried I wouldn’t hold their attention. However, a minute into my reading, I looked up and saw that the phones had been put away, the fidgeting had stopped, and all eyes were on me.
I hadn’t read “Voices” aloud for a long time and was caught off guard by the power of the emotional ending, especially as this story is so closely based on my own experiences. My voice broke and I thought I was going to cry in front of these tough guys. But you know what? They were right there with me. They KNEW how I’d felt. After I’d finished, we all had a chat about ganja and booze and other drugs and freaking out – what to do if someone you know is losing it, or you’re losing it yourself. They’d lived a lot, these young men, and had some great ideas on how to turn things around.
I’d brought along books and signed a copy for each of them. Never was I so glad to give books away, they were so warmly received. I was even happier when some of them sat down straight away and started reading. It was hugely gratifying to see my book being read by the boys who had lived similar stories – who really knew what it was about.
But that wasn’t the highlight of my visit. That came later when we were all helping Sally cook up a delicious lunch of minestrone and chicken fried rice. As we sat in the office chopping veggies, Simmo got out his guitar and we all sang along to Lean on Me by Bill Withers. “Lean on me, when you’re not strong. I’ll be your friend; I’ll help you carry on.”And bugger me but I almost cried again, it was so beautiful. My brother Matty would have been right at home with that bunch of talented young men. Just like I was. Thank you boys! Thank you Backtrack for being there for them.