As a young man, I can honestly say that impression of Australians was formed by popular culture, particularly music. As a Cub Scout, I first learned the words "billabong" and "kookaburra" while singing campfire songs like "Kookaburra" and "Waltzing Matilda". When Men at Work released their album Business as Usual, I learned words like "vegemite" and "down under". As I grew older, my impressions moved past the strange words to a rougher vision. I somehow believed that everyone in Australia was the descendant of criminals. I listened to AC/DC and watched the Mad Max series of movies. In the late 1980s, I watched Australian rules football and films like Crocodile Dundee. Through my university years, I gained a much deeper appreciation for Australian culture through the music of Midnight Oil. I watched films like Gallipoli and Priscilla Queen of the Desert. Recently, an Aussie friend let me read Albert Facey's A Fortunate Life and I watched the film Rabbit Proof Fence. Despite all of these influences, it wasn't until my third year of teaching that I met my first "real live" Aussie.
Over the years, I have been very fortunate to get to know many Australians. I have never been "down under", but I now know enough people that a trip to Australia will be very important to me. The vast majority of the people I have met are teachers who have come to Red Deer on exchange. I can say with absolute clarity that the experience has been amazing for our schools, for my family, and for the Aussies who have uprooted their lives to spend a year in the Great White North.
I am writing this blog for many reasons. The most pressing reason is because I want to express to the Simpson family how much they have enriched my life and the life of my family. Jo and John hail from Adelaide and have spent the past year embracing life in Canada. Their children, Rhiannon and Toby, have attended our school and have certainly made our school a better place. It has been an amazing year. The Simpsons are incredible people. They are kind, thoughtful, humble and appreciative. They have certainly made the most of their time in Red Deer. Their family is particularly special to me because my son is the same age as their children and we have enjoyed many great times together. Sledding, camping, skating, skiing, snowshoeing, picnics, water fights, roasting marshmallows and numerous social gatherings have allowed us to get to know one another in a very special way. I feel that we have all formed lifelong friendships and I am truly looking forward to having our paths cross again. The fact that the lives of my children have been enriched by the kindness of the Simpson family fills my heart with gratitude.
The theme of lasting friendships is another reason to write this blog. Of the four Aussie exchange families I met prior to Jon and Joanne, I have remained connected with four of them. In fact, three of the families have made return visits to Canada. The Ball family and the Garland family have actually done two exchanges. The Collins family made a return visit to Red Deer this summer and it was one of the highlights of my holiday. I have a tight group of friends that have been connected since we were teenagers - something I wrote about in a previous post called Stand by Me. Whenever we connect, we pick up where we left off. I feel very much the same about the people I have met through the exchange program. When our lives crossed paths, it made a lasting impact and I truly feel like I have gained many new friends for life.
Another theme is lasting memories. Some examples include
- Skiing at Lake Louise with Milton Williams, the Ball family and a group of fifty grade students from Eastview Middle School.
- Paul Ball asking me how cold it should be before you wear gloves (he had just finished shovelling his driveway and sidewalk in -30 temperatures.)
- Watching brave Aussie teachers Paul Ball, Chis Collins, and Brian Garland learn to ski, skate and play hockey. The moment when Brian Garland finally scored a goal in our Wednesday Teacher Hockey is one of my favorite hockey memories.
- Going ice fishing with Chris Collins on a beautiful December day when there was no snow on the lake. It was like walking on a frozen fishbowl, complete with cracking ice and the eerie hum of ice heaving. The day ended with an extended visit to the lounge of the Caroline Hotel, where smoke and meat draws competed equally with dead things on the wall and a shrine to figure skater Kurt Browning.
- Taking John Mitchell to an Edmonton Eskimos/Saskatchewan Roughriders football game where a Saskatchewan fan literally gave John the jersey off his back.
- Watching Toby Simpson play in our annual Grandview Staff-Student Hockey Game.
- Crossing the finish line with Joanne, Rhiannon and Toby Simpson in the Red Deer Public Schools Ski Loppet
It is true that we don't permanently say goodbye. It has been nice to keep in touch through mail, e-mail, social media and return visits. Even though my heart is heavy that the Joanne, Jon, Rhiannon and Toby are leaving our school community, I know our paths will cross again.