Recently, it has been my privilege to work with a group of Forgotten Australians. This is the preferred term to describe people who experienced life in institutions as children, whether as child migrants after the war, orphans, or those who, through no fault of their own, ended up in places no child should ever be.
My friend, jazz singer, Karen Anderson, and I facilitated a creative writing course at Lotus Place, the Micah project centre that supports Forgotten Australians, people who have often endured lives more traumatic than most of us can even imagine. Yet I have never met a more compassionate and loving group of students. It reinforced what I have often felt – that pain and suffering teaches us most about love and compassion.
Rather than retelling their traumatic histories, I attempted to help them change the way they looked at their histories and to see themselves, not as victims, not even as “survivors’, but as the Superheroes of their lives. Did these superheroes go back in time and wreak revenge? No! They gathered armaments and melted them down, they made enemies face each other and shake hands, they saved children in danger and rescued the world. We wrote love letters to our younger selves and reminded ourselves of how far we’d come and all that we’d achieved. We put ourselves in the shoes of someone who’d wronged us and saw things from their perspective. We even imagined ourselves as animals. One student decided she wanted to be one of the Queen’s corgis, petted and spoilt and listened to.
For that is what is most important, not only to these students, but to us all, to be heard. To have our stories matter. Many Forgotten Australians have limited literacy skills because of a lack of educational opportunities, but more than that – when you’re focused on survival as a child, there isn’t much room for thinking about reading and writing. Luckily with creative writing, spelling and punctuation don’t matter, at least in first drafts. What was important was feeling safe enough to tell our stories.
Yesterday, we had a ceremony presenting certificates to the participants and I was rewarded in the best possible way. One student read her piece aloud and showed everyone how to spell “overcome” – a word she’d learnt to spell all my herself! I read a piece that an elderly gentleman (and I mean that in every sense of the word) had dictated to Karen who’d acted as his scribe over the course. It described his memories of his mother slaving over an old washing boiler with a forked stick, looking worn but loving as she turned with a smile and a comforting touch for her many children. The applause for that was loud. Another student, a woman who had been unable to sit at the same table at our first session, who couldn’t speak for herself and had others speak for her, got up and made a speech in front of the crowd, holding her head high, telling everyone how much she’d learned and how much her confidence had increased from being in the course. Worth a million dollars!
Perspective is everything. How we see ourselves and view our histories shapes our futures. By helping these students reclaim and reframe their stories we went some small way to helping them change their lives. I miss them already and I most certainly won’t ever forget them.