JOURNEYING WITH YOUTH
St Aloysius’ College alumnus and author Michael McGirr delivered this Presentation Day speech at his alma mater.
It is great to be here today, and I am deeply honoured by the invitation to share this celebration with you all. It is truly a celebration because we are giving thanks for all you have achieved this year.
I am full of gratitude whenever I think of St Aloysius although my experience was a very long time ago. I started in Grade 3 in 1970 and finished in 1979, the centenary year. When people speak of the fabled Seventies, for me that was Aloys. I have many colourful memories and I hope deep down that they bear some resemblance to what you experience in 2023.
In 1970, as nine-year-olds, we were taught by Mrs Cath Collins who ruled with a rod of iron. She taught that age group for 27 years in a row, so maybe we should cut her some slack. In 1970, work was under way on a new wing, the one that came to include the lift. St Aloysius took to heart the words of Jesus to build on rock and the whole year we heard nothing but jackhammers eating at the Sydney sandstone beside our classroom. One day, a bulldozer came through the back wall and got stuck. The room was suddenly full of dust and debris. Yet only one boy dared to look around. He was severely reprimanded for so doing. The invasion of a bulldozer was no excuse. Mrs Collins had her standards.
I also recall Fr Whitely who had returned from 30 years in India where he ate nothing but goat curry and made boys promise never to touch such dreadful cuisine. I once asked my father if there would be cricket in haven and he told me to ask Fr Whitely, who replied, “Of course there will be.” His tone implied that if there were no cricket in heaven, it wouldn’t be worth going. Born in the dying moments of the 19th century, Whitely was an old man but a child at heart. He was always on our side against teachers and any cars that dared to park in the Whyalla yard, so much so that an edict came out that permissions given by Fr Whitely were invalid. He built a fabulous garden from bits of discarded wood and metal, including treehouses, rocking horses and Kubla Khan’s cart. It was a wonder no one was killed in there. At one end he built a cage called “the lair” where he would lock up miscreants. The problem with this as a deterrent is that the boys loved getting locked up.
I could go on. I still have a book of matches with the college crest that was given to every student in Year 12 in 1979, the assumption being that we all smoked. I am pleased to say that only one of my matches is missing. In Year 8, we had classes facing the harbour and spent the whole year, between classes, trying to fly a paper plane from the windows into the water. Only one boy, Don McKenzie, ever succeeded. But we never gave up the attempt. In Year 11, my friend Matthew Pitman, wrote these words in the annual about our soccer teams:
The second XI of 1978 truly deserve the title of the best second eleven Aloysius has ever seen. Most of its members played as the 16Bs last year. Their performance there was good: by the end of this year, it had improved one hundred-fold. Despite this great improvement we were never able to force a victory. The team never won a game but in all that time they never once gave up hope…
I think there is something particularly Aloysian about this. Effort and community mattered more than the score. At its heart, St Aloysius is a school with a counter-cultural understanding of winning and success.
Why all these stories? There are countless more lurking in my memory. It is because my recollection of school is that it was alive, hopping with humanity. We had many eccentric teachers, as I hope you do too. Ours didn’t comply with any stereotypes. Education is an encounter with the human family in all its colour and variety, in all its history and in all its hope. I fear deeply that education is being homogenised into a series of measurable outcomes. These are important, of course, but the shaping of a unique person is even more so. Unique persons can only be shaped by other unique persons. I worry about the future of teaching. A dear young friend of mine left the profession recently early in what should have been a long career. She said, “I wanted to be a teacher, not a data collector.”
Nevertheless, I would like to talk about the most important thing that happened to me at school. It’s a long story but I will try to tell it briefly. My father was sick for most of the time I was in high school. He died a few weeks before the final exams in Year 12, but he came close when I was in Year 7 and again in Year 9. He had renal failure but also mental health issues and there were many days he was unable to get out of bed. In Year 9, we went on a cadet camp to the Shoalhaven River. Part of the camp involved a hike in small groups and pitching camp out in the bush. I recall sitting by the fire with my friends and looking at the stars. They were far away and yet so close and wondrous. The sky was ablaze. In that moment I realised I was loved and that I had a place in the universe, a small place that had been created just for me. I am sure this is the moment when I came to believe in God for myself. In some ways, my whole life has been spent unpacking that experience.
One of the consequences was the discovery of a faith that does justice, something I know is close to the heart of your school. I am grateful for the influence of Mr Alan Clausen, a member of the Uniting Church and an extraordinary Christian witness although, in those days, he was not allowed to teach religion as he wasn’t Catholic. His faith came through the way he taught economics. He started the development group at the school, getting us involved in Community Aid Abroad and the Walk Against Want.
He also started the Vinnies group and through that I came to do service work at a retirement home called Graithwaite at North Sydney. Every week, I used to walk Charlie around the tennis court as he held my arm. He had returned from the Western Front in 1918 and, like the other men, had been blinded by chemical weapons. By this stage he had been in hospital for 60 years. I loved talking to him. He taught me, among other things, that wars may start but they never end.
I believe that the most important thing in your life is the search for a relationship with God. It will turn you inside out, but it is a thrilling adventure. I have been a teacher and seen many young people take the leap of faith and discover their joy. Again, I could tell so many stories. I recall the most difficult student I ever had. He was angry and brittle and negative about everything, especially Year 10 religion. Our relationship was bad. Then, a few years after he left school, I encountered him late one night when he was working on the drive-through at McDonald’s. At 11pm I was in search of salad, of course, and I got nervous when I saw him. But he greeted me like a long-lost friend. I love this about young men, the way they can let water go under the bridge and make a fresh start. Anyway, we got talking and I asked him what he thought about late at night when he was there with few customers.
“You are not going to believe this,” he said, “But I spend a lot of time thinking about God.”
On my last day of school, after Mass, one of my friends confronted our Year level co-ordinator, Fr Tony Walsh.
“That’s my last ever Mass,” he said. “I am done with God.”
Fr Walsh knew more than his prayers.
“But God isn’t finished with you,” he replied. “You can guarantee that God will pursue you with love and grace until your dying breath.”
My hope is that we will all surrender to that love and grace and find in our surrender to the compassion to heal this broken world. Enabling young people to find their compassion is the core business of this school, or any school. I have read research that suggests this happens in two main ways. The first is through reading novels. I love novels but I’d stretch this to include anything that challenges young people to live comfortably within complex narratives. This could be history, economics, biology or art. Anything that refuses to reduce itself to simple slogans. The whole world wants people to hide behind bumper stickers, two-dimensional versions of reality. We can see the silly division this causes, my slogan versus your slogan. The Ignatian vision is expansive and relishes the complexity of life.
The second way young people discover their compassion is through personal encounters with the marginal, the different, the vulnerable, the poor. I spoke of community service earlier. I am so delighted that your immersion programs with the Philippines are up and running again. These programs change lives.
Allow me, for example, to share the story of one of my students, Matt. He came with us on an immersion to East Africa and helped young people learn enough English to get into high school. He did some travelling while he was in Tanzania and was on a bus that came across a dreadful accident between a truck and another bus. He witnessed the most appalling physical trauma, and, in that experience, his life found its direction. He decided he was never going to be so helpless again and resolved to become a paramedic. I came across him again just this year, nine years later, when he was on the ambulance that was called to help my son Jacob after he had managed to break his wrist swinging off a basketball hoop at school. In his encounter with suffering, Matt found his heart. I can guarantee it will be like that for you too. The path to joy involves risk.
I work for Caritas Australia, and I’d like to thank you for your support over so many years, especially through Project Compassion. It makes a vast difference. Since I started work there less than three years ago, six of my colleagues in Caritas Internationalis have been killed trying to help those in dire need. They include Issam and Viola, aged 35 and 26 respectively. They were both killed along with their own children and other family members as they were working in healthcare in Gaza in November. Viola was holding her baby when the church in which she sheltered was bombed. Think of St Aloysius risking his comfort to join the Jesuits and then risking his life to help plague victims. This is the Gospel. The Gospel is an unmitigated risk. It will take you to the deepest and most wonderful places, but it will cost, as a poet said, not less than everything.
I have been talking for a long time, so I’d better stop soon. My final story is about a friend, Jacob Rosenberg, whom I met when I was the fiction editor for a literary magazine called Meanjin. He had been working as a tailor for over 35 years in Flinders Lane in Melbourne and writing poetry in Yiddish. He sent two sublime pieces in English to the magazine and so we met.
He told me of growing up in the ghetto of Lodz in Poland and of being transported to the concentration camps where most of his family died. One day in November 1944 in Wolfsberg, at a roll call of those being deported to Auschwitz, he saw his old friend from the synagogue, Simcha. They hadn’t crossed paths for a long time because Jacob had decided that God wasn’t real and Simcha took the other path, becoming a cantor in their synagogue. Before Jacob could call out, a notorious guard called Henk approached Simcha.
“I heard you are a great singer,” said the guard. “Instead of singing it’s a lovely day today, why don’t you sing it’s a lovely day to die.”
Simcha stood up and intoned the Psalm: Avinu Malkinu: Our father Our king. God is great and God is good.
The guard took him aside and shot Simcha in cold blood.
That was the beginning of a long journey in faith for Jacob. He survived the camps, ended up marrying and came to Australia. In the Melbourne GPO in 1948, he came across Henk, the guard who shot his friend. I was stunned.
“What did you do?” I asked.
“What do you mean, nothing?”
Jacob looked right through me.
“Somewhere it has to stop. Somewhere the madness has to stop.”
Boys, there is a lot of crazy and deadly stuff happening on this planet at the moment. There are, for example, thirty-three wars taking place as we sit here. Your education is a resource to stop them. So is your faith. Please don’t put your head in the sand, let alone your heart. Your life is not about you. St Aloysius is not about St Aloysius. The greater things for which we are all born are for others, not ourselves.
Michael McGirr is the Mission Director of Caritas Australia