I contemplate progress through Ernest Hemingway’s maxim – “never confuse movement with action.” As a teacher I ought to say that progress is quantifiable through rigorous assessment during 12 years of formal education. However, education often appears to resemble movement under duress.
Much of our modern education is about compliance with set curriculum, testing to establish standards and allocating percentages to students to facilitate their swift processing through the system. It seems we are less interested in the individual’s progress than in their results that will justify the efficacy of the system. Authentic progress is a series of internal shifts for which there is no accurate means of measurement. An individual’s progress is determined by the context of their lives. There is no universal standard for personal progress. Social or institutional criteria of progress are set and administered for the benefit of the organisation to which the individual belongs. An improvement in social standards and education does not equate to progress. History reflects that an educated society can be swayed by the demands of irrational and psychotic dictators. Progress is not a state of being, a process or even an objective. It is an abstract social artefact, a dialect of power. Like truth, justice and equality it is a language that those in power speak to synchronise the social machine they control. It creates the illusion of concern for the individual.
After 32 years of teaching I have past students who have become doctors, CEO’s and leaders in their chosen field. They have advanced spectacularly. However, the student whose progress made the most lasting impression on me was the young man who, after spending 18 months in detention, whispered to me “I can’t read and I want to. Can you teach me?”
Some students acquire knowledge because they can, some to satisfy parental ambitions and some because they know that this is what is expected of them. They move. A minority of students pursue knowledge to sate their curiosity of the world. They understand that knowledge is a personal quest for which reward is irrelevant. They progress. I have told fretful parents that their children are ‘making progress’ to assuage parental neurosis and relieve myself of lengthy philosophical diatribe.
Most students get to where they need to go despite their parents and the education system that has formed them. Young people will navigate their unique path through and beyond school. Their progress will depend on the quality of their humanity, not their qualifications. Progress in schools may reflect the student’s ability to comply more than their personal development. Education is like a waltz. Instead of assessing who has danced and how they danced we should be teaching the dancers to appreciate the music.
I did teach that 18 year old bloke to write his name. Soon afterwards the school for predominantly Indigenous young people was audited by the State. One of the auditors pulled out this young man’s file,
is this all you’ve done? He asked.
Shortly after that the State Education Department shut the school down. That young man had been working towards an apprenticeship. I don’t know what happened to him? There were about 140 other young people at the school, all progressing quite well. I know some of them ended up in prison. When State authorities claim they are acting in everyone’s best interests, that they want progress, you’ll forgive my jaded smile.
We ought to interrogate our allegiance to ideas whose value appears self-evident. Sometimes we may believe we are progressing, but in the wake of our single minded ‘progress’, we have created waves that unsettle and drown others.
We are all born into the species Homo sapiens, not everyone progresses to become human.
This is work of friction, where the tectonic plates of real life rub up against a life imagined as real; my name is Everyman, and I went down to the beach today.
It is winter now. Ours is a temperate climate and though it is cool, there are days that feel as warm as a summer’s day in Europe. It’s not unusual for people to be at the beach at this time of year. I prefer winter to summer. Summer is all sweat and flies. It gets cold, usually in the late afternoon as the sun sets and then the hour before sunrise is the coldest time of the day. I believe that is true for everywhere. But there is something else, it is as intangible as air and yet, one senses it. It is like the bitter aftertaste of chocolate.
We’ve had a lot of rain and today has been the first day of sunshine in over a week, so I thought I would make the most of it. Make hay while the sun shines my father used to say. I thought of him today. He never saw where I live, where I migrated to. Where we are settled, dug in. My mind though has never settled. It tends to follow my body around but remains a trans-continental traveller.
It’s a strange word, migration. It sounds like a combination of migraine and nation. Migraine-nation, national migration, national migraine, the pain of a nation, nationhood migrates to pain? … So anyway, I was down at the beach; not to swim but just to walk, watch the seagulls and the fisher-people casting from the pier. It is incredibly tranquil. I close my eyes and find there a smile which I release into the breeze. I hear the benign rumble of a car’s engine behind me. There are two young girls wearing hijabs, eating ice-cream and laughing while taking their sandals off to walk on the beach. Then a loud, aggressive revving breaks the day. A car full of young boys pulls up into the carpark and they shout at the girls this is Straya, go back to where you came from. They are laughing, slapping one another, having fun. One of them throws an empty coke can in the direction of the girls and then they accelerate away. The young girls put their sandals back on, one of them picks up the can, throws it into the bin and they get into their car and drive away.
Sometimes there are cormorants bobbing on the surface of the water and I time how long they go under water for. It’s usually anywhere between 5 and 8 seconds, depending on how hungry they are, I guess. There is a slight breeze, with a bit of a bite to it. That for me is the best sensation, feeling the heat of the sun on your face but, also the sting of cool air. I feel nostalgic, but I don’t remember what for. Some memory within me that’s been layered with time. On a day, some time in my life, the sun shone warm and there was an iciness in the air and I was happy, and the association has become embedded in my psyche.
Memory is a strange thing. They say (whoever they are? Them that says a lot!) that animals have genetic memory. Mice in America were trained to fear the smell of cherry blossoms and generations of their descendants had the same fear without the experience. Pity humans don’t have that. We forget very quickly.
It has been a good day, for some. But, days end and darkness must follow. The world is old, and this has been its rhythm for aeons. Perhaps all of the inhabitants of earth have this rhythm too. We are made of the stuff that holds us as we go around the sun. We grow out of the ground of this spinning mass. Our mothers ate the roots pulled out of the soil, cooked and ate the animals that had eaten the grass growing in the soil, the earth. We really are just animated earth. We are what we are on. As our bodies carry our souls, so the earth carries us. We are the soul of the earth.
The days are getting shorter. Electricity does not diminish our animal instincts to withdraw in winter. It is done with relative ease and requires little preparation. We don’t withdraw entirely. Nights are cosy. The dogs sleep too close to the gas heater, I smell burning hair and make them move, I eat too many biscuits. Nights used to be quiet until those dogs started. Maybe they have always been there? If they were, we never noticed because they were quiet but, something has breathed the fire of Hades into them. Every night it is the same thing. How is it that they always seem to come to life at midnight? How do they know? They’re as regular as a healthy bowel; those hounds that break the night barking. Those beasts who gnash their teeth and growl at everything: shadows, leaves scraping in the gutters, plastic bottles and empty tin cans rolling loudly on the tarmac in the wind, fighting cats, night shift neighbours, loud, drunk kids getting off midnight buses and hoons burning rubber. But, to shout at the dogs in the dark only agitates them. They grow louder, more determined to fight. The only way to stop them is to go to them. I know, one night I tried.
They gather, God knows how? All is serene and then they are they are suddenly there. I approached where they were gathered. I became very afraid but, I thought, I am a man and they are just dogs. I must not show fear. As I walked up the driveway towards the gate that held them back they became frantic. They were biting at the fence. As I got closer they went into a frenzy of barking, snarling and yelping. They bunched at the gate, they began snapping viciously at one another. Then there was a high pitched howl. One of them was in serious pain. The pack’s attention turned to a smaller dog being attacked by a much larger one. They tore into it. The victim of the attack snarled and yelped uncontrollably and then suddenly went quiet. Beneath the confusing mass of yanking, brutal heads shook away pieces of the poor thing. Blood was spraying everywhere. I felt warm droplets on my face. In a shadow cast by the garage wall a black liquid ran across the paving into the flower bed. I think they were Marigolds, maybe Chrysanthemums? But, that could not be? Those are summer flowers, and this is winter. Perhaps they were sown late? How do seeds know what season it is if they have spent months on a shelf in air tight packets? I must remember to google that. How would I search for that … winter flowers in Western Australia? I must remember to do that. I never did remember to look properly at the flower bed and it would seem strange to go snooping around a house in daylight. By now I was at the gate trying to see around the side of the house. One of them saw me move closer and bolted to the gate, not barking but baring its teeth. While it fixed its gaze on my face I slowly moved my right hand down to its chest that was up against the gate. I tried, cautiously to stroke the animal to calm it down. My fingers only slightly touched it, it leapt back as if electrocuted and began barking savagely, biting the dog next to it which stirred the pack into a new frenzy. I quickly backed away. Their attention turned to the torn carcass behind them. They were sniffing and frantically licking up splattered blood, gnawing bits of sinew and cartilage. Gradually they began to sit and chew, eyes closed with satisfaction. The sickening sounds of tongues slapping, and licking grew louder. Their blood lust sated, they settled down to scavenge the yard for bits of the small dog. Bones cracked and split, cartilage that had once cushioned bone squeaked, and that was the last sound that poor dog would ever make.
By now I was forgotten, or at least ignored by the dogs (can we still call them that? Dogs.) and never taking my eyes off the gate, I backed away down the drive. Clear of them I felt a sudden wave of nausea and vomited into a full bush of lavender. I know it was lavender because the sweet smell of it was overwhelming after the smell and taste of iron that blood leaves in your mouth. I wondered what effect the vomit might have on the growth of the plant.
Regular Saturday evening sounds now filtered through the brutal gauze of night. A few neighbours gathered to investigate the ruckus. They stood close enough to the driveway to indicate concern but kept enough distance to avoid involvement. Their conversation rumbled and masked the echoes down the drive of dog’s tongues smacking. There were, a few doors down, loud jovial voices saying good night, some laughter, one high pitched, a female laughing (I recall that I was irrationally annoyed at her for possessing such an awful laugh and wondered how by now – for she was clearly middle-aged, there was a husky, chesty cackle to the laugh – she had not realised that her laughter was horrible and at least tried not to laugh so heartily, so inconsiderately, so rudely … but how can one expect a person to cease laughing? What an awful predicament for a person to be in, I remember thinking and almost immediately forgave her for possessing such a grotesque gesture to indicate happiness. She ought to have been born sad. Maybe she was? Laughter, is after all as reliable an indication of happiness as a frown is of a death wish). There were the sounds of car doors slamming shut the evening’s visit, which clearly had involved some wine, and across the road the staccato screech of violins from an open family room window reflecting Vincent Price in monochrome (I realised with dismay that I had missed the film I wanted very much to watch, The Last Man on Earth). A police helicopter flew in low over Merriwa, a search light limped through the sky. I always say the world is a good place when, after the weather and doll bludgers, people say the whole world’s gone mad. We don’t live in the whole world mate, we live in bleedin Quinns, I say and last time I looked it’s same as it ever was, it’s a good place cos we’re good people.