Sunday, 28 April 2013

Boston marathon bombing response

"CAPTURED!!!" Boston's finest after securing the city
When I’d hear emergency services personnel responding to questions after doing heroic acts in the line of duty saying things like, “I was just doing my job” or “Any other officer in my position would have done the same”, I’d feel a bit frustrated. Why always the same trite and deferential sound bites? Why can’t they bask in the glory a little?

But it all became clear after I took in the aftermath of the Boston bombings and the now famous tweet from the Boston Police Department: 

“CAPTURED!!! The hunt is over. The search is done. The terror is over. And justice has won."

Shortly afterwards, people stumbled out on the streets, eyes blinking in the blaze of flashing lights piercing the black night. They’d been holed up in their homes, glued to the TV, watching the drama unfold in 2D. Now, they gathered as the makeshift cavalcade of police cars, military vans, unmarked federal vehicles and ambulances rolled past. And in another hemisphere, we looked at the telly and felt the same sense of relief and happiness to see those people absorb what had just happened - kids in pajamas, men and women waving American flags and cheering.   

It was eerie to reflect that just days earlier, people had stood in much the same way – either side of a road, applauding the feats of other humans as they crossed a finish line. But as with the marathon after the bombing, the end point of this quest seems blurred. And the triumphant, tweeted declaration that “it’s over” “it’s done” seems apt for the battle maybe, but not the war.

As the seemingly endless procession of vehicles drove past, the early golf claps of a few gave way to a more hearty wave of jubilation and praise for the blackened windows of strangers passing by – those who had performed untold feats to deliver a victory savoured by all.

As the crowd grew more confident in showing their appreciation, so too did the recipients of their admiration. A car window wound down here and there to reveal a thumbs up, or a wave. A policeman smiling through pursed lips. And then, emboldened by the roaring cheers of the gathered masses, an ominous looking armoured black SWAT vehicle slowed in front of the TV cameras.

A faceless voice spoke through the vehicle’s PA system, “Thank you. Thank you. It was our pleasure,” it said to the escalating cheers. And then, “BPD! BPD! BPD!” for Boston Police Department. The crowd caught on pretty quickly, chanting “USA! USA! USA!” in response.

It was a uniquely American moment, as only non-Americans could understand. A brazen show of patriotism, in the shadow of an attack seemingly aimed at its heart. Some say sex is the antidote to grief, and is never more passionate than straight after a funeral. Using a similar analogy, it’s not surprising that many Americans turn to highly demonstrable nationalism at times when their way of life seems most threatened.

In the preceding hours, there was little freedom to be found as Bostonians were told to abandon work and school and lock themselves inside their homes, to be opened only to heavily armed SWAT teams. The relief that swept the city once the curfew and imminent threat were lifted was palpable and understandable.

Less so, the lack of professional humility in the wake of what had been a highly volatile and unpredictable build up. Even the usually circumspect President Obama blew on this flickering flame, inciting a modern-day incarnation of Manifest Destiny, in his post-arrest address. “One of the things that makes America the greatest nation on Earth...” he began. It was a speech designed to rally Americans feeling vulnerable in the aftermath of a horrible, illogical act, and to rouse a sense of united belief and pride in the nation’s cultural diversity.

But in the arrogant declaration of supremacy, the President – like the ill-considered Tweet and the faceless voice-over from the loudspeaker – gave the impression to the rest of the world that America just doesn’t get it sometimes. The US is our friend, ally, and first cousin. In this most poignant of moments though, America seemed like the popular kid in school, who makes a dumb, unfunny joke about another kid’s dead mother. The friends look on, shake their heads and say, “That wasn’t cool, man”.

In the supercharged atmosphere borne of adrenalin, fatigue and genuine fear that accompanies a crisis, I want my emergency personnel cool-headed. We can fall about ourselves, get drunk on New Year’s Eve and try to take a copper’s hat and kiss him, but in the end, we want that same policeman to give a reluctant smile and keep looking for trouble in the crowd behind us. I don’t want nurses to recoil when they see my injuries. I don’t want army officers to take ‘glory’ pictures of a fallen enemy. And I sure as hell don’t want police officers leading a chant of Aussie! Aussie! Aussie! after they secure our community. I want them to nod graciously at our adulation, celebrate a good day at the office in private with their colleagues and do it all again tomorrow, the same way. 

So next time I hear emergency service personnel brush off suggestions of gratitude or heroism from a thankful public, I’ll marvel at their humility and grace, as much as I stand in awe of their courage, selflessness and professionalism in doing what they do.

Follow @DianaJElliott 

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Private School - a land of ribbons, white socks and imbued confidence

"Carpe diem, seize the day boys, make your lives extraordinary!"

“I’m going to send you and your brother to private school!”

This declaration came from my grandfather, when I was in Grade 5. It is indelibly etched on my brain, largely due to the triumphant way he said it and the fact that going to Private School was one of the most delightful things I could think of back then.

‘Private School’ was a place, rather than a type of educational institution. It was mystical and rarefied, where lots of things were spoken in Latin, which obviously meant the words and those speaking them were, well, important.

On the way home in the car I told Mum about her father’s promise. “Oh what a load of baloney,” she said in an exasperated tone. “Your grandfather hasn’t got a brass razoo,” which made no sense to my still-forming brain. So I clung to the dream that Private School was my destiny. It just seemed right. Girls who went to Private School always had lovely uniforms, long ultra-white socks and hair ribbons that perfectly matched the colour of their pinstriped pinafores.

I was in love with the whole pomp and ceremony of Private School. The hats and the whole bit. And it was going to be me! On my first day of high school! At Grandpa’s behest!

Alas, on the first day of high school I found myself 300 kilometres from my former primary school life and a world away from my inner dream. Standing on a blusteringly hot January morning, opposite the ‘Top Pub’, one of three in a miniature town and from which the school buses bound for civilisation 80 kilometres away set off.

Two buses drove up and the jostling started. Everyone seemed to know which bus they needed to take. Except me. “The High School bus is the first one,” said a girl next to me. She was wearing a Private School uniform. Ok, it was the local Catholic College, but it was still Private School. “The Techies get on the second one.” Ostensibly, this was because the High School and St Joseph’s were located close to each other, while the Technical School was on the other side of town. But it was hard not to notice that the kids bound for the Tech School bus seemed a bit different. “Rough” was how my mother would describe them.

Over those endless, unairconditioned journeys, punctuated only by seven stops along the way to pick up the ‘out-of-towners’ along the dusty highway, I had way too much time to contemplate how things might have been if Grandpa’s grandiose promise had materialised. As I progressed through the most awkward years of adolescence, I knew for certain that if only I had gone to Private School, my life would be immeasurably better.

For starters, as a 15-year-old, I’d be confident, not riddled with self-doubt. My frizzy hair would be smooth and my acne-addled skin, tanned and clear. Going to Private School was the stuff of dreams for me. It was never about the type of education I’d get, it was all the other stuff – the intangibles that made Private School kids glow, which can be boiled down to one thing: innate self-confidence.

And in my middle age, I’d be able to write hilariously pompous pieces like this in The Australian, in which I’d recount my attendance at an ‘old girls’ (“We don’t mind this title”) reunion, and eat cucumber sandwiches and swill glasses of bubbly and compare investment accounts and second husbands. I’d throw my head back; elegantly giggling about whether my daughter’s French teacher would call her my grandmother’s name by mistake, for she was an old girl too! Haw haw haw! Oh Harriet stop!  My pelvic floor isn’t what it used to be when we belted out The Marseillaise during school assembly! Haw haw haw!

Instead, if I did attend any sort of school reunion, it would have to be conducted on the site where the four government schools I went to over my scholastic career have been bulldozed and/or subsumed into ‘super campuses’. My fellow schoolmates and I would probably gather on what was left of the oval, kick some dirt around, nurse a can of warm beer against our solar plexus and pretend that it all kinda meant something. Which it did, of course. I guess. But just not in the way that the thread of connection and connections is spun through private school networks.

So this is all a very roundabout way of getting to the crux of a question that has been troubling me for a couple of weeks. If Portia de Rossi’s alma mater were Grovedale Tech instead of Melbourne Girls’ Grammar, would Swisse Ellen Degeneres still have wanted to pop in to film acouple of segments for her show recently? And if Portia had gone to Grovedale Tech, would she still be Portia, a TV star who married well?

Not if you believe the article in The Telegraph last week titled, “It’s not just school grades that parents buy”. The piece asked, is there a single public figure in Britain who did not go to private school? The British Prime Minister, the Mayor of London, Archbishop of Canterbury, half the Cabinet, more than half of the country’s top medics and 70 per cent of judges were identified as having attended fee-paying schools, compared to just seven per cent of the overall population.

But the article also opined that the advantages afforded to those attending independent schools extended beyond the academic, citing the over-representation of private school educated individuals in the arts and sport. Perhaps more importantly (and, depressingly) it concluded that more than great teachers, it’s the aspirational culture, the connections and the creation and development of self-confidence that sets private schools apart.

In Australia, it’s interesting to note that our three most recent PMs - Gillard, Rudd and Howard –were educated in government schools. 2013’s Australian of the Year, Ita Buttrose attended state school. Regarding the arts, Cate Blanchett was educated at private school, Nicole Kidman – a selective public school, and Hugh Jackman, private school. Chris Lilley? Private. Hamish Blake, Asher Keddie – private school.

Stephanie Rice? Private.  Lauren Jackson? Public. Chris Judd? Private. Adam Cooney, public. Jimmy Bartel – private. Jobe Watson, private. Andrew Demetriou quipped last year, “If you've been an Old Xav or played with Uni Blues - or worked at Nike - then you've qualified for a job at the AFL.” But tellingly, he’s the boss of the AFL and ticks none of those boxes, having been educated at a government school.

So at first blush at least, the high performers within a small snapshot of Australian society do not appear to be entirely held bondage by old school ties. But is that about to change?

Currently, approximately 65 per cent of Australian students attend government schools. However, according to the ABS, over the last 10 years, Catholic school enrolments have increased by 12 per cent and independent schools by a whopping 31 per cent.

Over the same period, enrolments in government schools increased by only 2.6 per cent. The same trend in Britain, particularly during its economic downturn, has baffled some economists. In Australia, with an economy buoyed by a mining boom and low unemployment, it seems we’re all aspiring to give kids the best, and that often means shelling out for a private school education.

Interviewed by Fran Kelly last year, former High Court Justice Michael Kirby exalted the “democratic secular values that I received in my public education…they really are hardwired in me. And the values affect the decisions you make.”

He lamented the lack of public school peers in the judiciary and observed Australia was “…the first continent that from sea to sea had public education, free, secular and compulsory.”  Part of what Kirby discusses is the need to preserve this ‘great experiment’ – to not accept that the halls of justice are walked only by those who receive a ‘privileged’ education. Kirby went to a selective high school, not your run-of-the-mill local one.

In 2012, the top eight schools (ranked by final year student results) were selective public schools. In WA, five public schools finished in the top 20 and in Victoria, four out of the five top ranked schools were selective public. Note that the emphasis is on selective public schools, which means the more academically challenged types are turned away. By their very nature, you would expect selective schools would perform well in academic ranking alone.

But proponents of private schooling argue it’s not just, or even, about university entrance scores. Rather, it’s the ‘connections’ that are made – to alumni, classmates and indeed, to the school itself that create the most significant and enduring payoffs, often throughout a lifetime.

And it’s probably the reason why Swisse Portia decided to show Ellen around the manicured lawns of her old school the other week. Just like Portia’s pedestrian former name– Amanda Rogers – taking your beau to see where you used to smoke behind the shelter shed at Grovedale Tech just doesn’t have the same appeal, does it?