John Marsden sat down with ABC’s Dave May and Richard Mockler for Throwback, a series revisiting the creatives who shaped Australian childhoods.
Teenagers, probably all through history, have been demonised by the media and by adults … that they are unemployable, they’re illiterate, they’re drug addicted, they’re bullies, they’re thugs, they’re juvenile delinquents, they’re useless.
I wanted to write a book that would show teenagers in a different light.
The Tomorrow series is about a hypothetical war where Australia is invaded, but a group of teenagers, by a fluke, is not included in the roundup.
They’re up in the mountains where they’ve been camping, so they’re able to wage war against the invaders.
The characters have plenty of weaknesses … but I wanted teenagers to realise that doesn’t mean you have no strengths.
It was fun writing the car chases and blowing up an airport and different bridges. But it’s really about people’s inner landscapes and how they’re coping with something that’s gone horribly wrong.
The Tomorrow series, I hope, is giving young people the message that they are capable of great things.
A world without adults
I first came up with the idea when I was 15 and sitting in school, fantasising about a world without adults, because pretty much all the adults I encountered were authoritarian, were not interested in fairness or justice, they lacked compassion, they lacked imagination and they were really a bloody nuisance.
I think the reason I connect with young people is that my own adolescence was so troubled.
I never felt safe and that was as true at home as it was at school.
When I went to secondary school, I got in endless trouble.
I defied every rule and regulation and spent an awful lot of time being caned, lectured or punished. Something in me was determined not to accept authoritarian mindless rules and people who acted in bullying and thoughtless ways.
I was standing by the lockers one afternoon, just loading my bag, and it was like a lightning bolt struck me and electricity sparks went off in my brain. Within 40 seconds, I suddenly thought, “Maybe there isn’t a God and maybe the school isn’t right and maybe my parents aren’t perfect.”
It was exhilarating, but it was also terrifying. It was like the world had turned upside down, been shaken violently, and I didn’t know what was likely to emerge. It changed my life profoundly.
John Marsden calls himself “a bit of a hoarder” and has kept every letter ever sent to him. (ABC News: Dave May)
‘No language for feelings’
I went to university because it was just the expected thing to do. When I got there, I found it alienating and so huge that I couldn’t connect with anything or anyone.
It was a very lonely and disturbing time, and I got more and more emotionally ill, and went to see a counsellor eventually who suggested I discontinue the course and seek professional help, so I did both of those things.
I was in a pretty desperate situation, working as a cleaner while all my friends prospered in their uni courses. I was suicidal and seriously contemplating bringing it all to an end, but I had enough logical thinking left in me to think, “Well, maybe I should try everything before I do that.”
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I knew some people had tried psychiatry, and this was meant to be a wonderful new science that was capable of changing people’s lives. And I didn’t have faith in it, but I thought I should at least give it a go, so I took myself off to a psychiatrist and began a new chapter in my life.
A lot of people can have negative experiences with psychiatry, but it wasn’t like that for me. It was a period of great growth, and I really look back on it with gratitude. It was like a new beginning.
I was really illiterate, emotionally, and that was a product of family and school. I had no language for feelings and I could barely understand what the question meant when they’d say, “How did you feel when that happened?” I would sit there gazing at them blankly and they would say, “Well, it sounded like you felt angry from the way you behaved.” And I’d say, “Yeah, I guess I was angry.”
I left there with a new language and an ability to understand things in a new way, which I’m still working on. It was the change in my life that was more significant than any other.
Psych ward to school principal
There was no instant cure from being in a psych hospital. I didn’t come out of there beaming with happiness and joy and immediately apply myself to becoming a school principal … It was another eight years before I finally decided to try teaching as a career.
By then, I’d dropped out of four different degrees, so I thought, “I’ll just take the easiest course I can find anywhere in Australia.” And I found a primary teaching course in a country town and thought, “Well, it can’t get easier than that.” Off I went, and I loved it from the first day.
Teaching was exhilarating for me.
It was a wonderful opportunity to do things in a more acceptable way than the things I’d been doing at school.
I continued to be subversive, but that was encouraged this time. I realised this was OK, I could go out there and change things.
‘Next year I’m starting my own school’
All through my teenage and adult years, I kept wondering what a good school would look like and how you could make a school good, and I made a few tentative attempts to start a school but they didn’t work out. I finally thought, “The only way I can do this is to make enough money to do it myself.”
And the day did come when I had made enough money from writing to do it. I was in the middle of writing an article for The Age about what schools needed. The article was very long and they were paying me at the rate of a dollar a word, and I was halfway through and running out of things to say and I wrote the line, “Next year I’m starting my own school.”
I sat there looking at it and thinking, “Do I want to put this in the article? Because if I do, I’m committed.” And I thought, “Well, I’m 58 and if I don’t do this soon then it’ll be too late.”
The article was published, and from then on there was no looking back.
The school in the forest
So, I started the school Candlebark near Romsey in Victoria, which is now in its 13th year, and which is a wonderful place to be.
We occupy what we claim is the biggest campus in the world, and most of it is forest. It’s very important that young people get their hands dirty, both literally and metaphorically.
When I tried to start the school, we got objections from four residents who said the shrill voices of primary school children would be a noise hazard.
I’ve always treasured that line because I’ve found the shrill voices of primary school children kind of musical, like bird song.
Candlebark is pretty much the opposite of the school I went to because there is such a good relationship between teachers and students. There’s a lot of laughter. There’s a lot of joking. There are a lot of serious conversations, too.
At lunch I’ll be out there playing basketball or soccer with kids. And we don’t have a staff room, because we encourage the interaction of adults and kids, which would happen in a village naturally enough, but sadly doesn’t happen in nearly all Western schools.
We see the campus as just a springboard: we have a vast and complex world out there, so we get out into that world all the time.
Not a week goes by without students leaving the campus to go on a camp or to galleries or interstate to festivals, because that’s the world, and we want the students to be engaged with it in a meaningful and courageous way.
The second thing I wanted was a school where teachers were chosen because they were creative. Creative people who’d done interesting things in their lives, they hadn’t just gone straight from school to university and back to school.
And the third thing was, I wanted a school where students were treated courteously — where they were listened to and treated just as we’d treat other adults most of the time.
Teens help us to question our world
Running a school is probably the most intense and complicated job I’ve had in my life. The only thing I can compare it to is when I worked in the emergency department at Sydney Hospital when I was about 19.
You don’t know what the next phone call, the next email, the next knock on the door will be. It might be something delightful, like someone bringing in some wonderful work they’ve done that they’re very proud to show you, or it might be someone coming in to tell you that their parents are separating, or they have tremendous emotional difficulties with some situation. You have to be ready for anything and everything.
I’m very much driven by the fact that my own early years were so awful, so I have every sympathy with young people who are in similar predicaments.
I’ve never lost my memory of the intensity and the passions of those years. Adolescence is the time when we’re starting to write the script for our adult lives.
We kind of paint adolescents to be rebellious and to question and challenge and even to defy us, and at the same time we complain bitterly when they do. But that’s their job and we should welcome it, because it should make us reflect and question: “Is this right, what we’re doing? Or should we do this a different way?”
Adolescents are very valuable people.
Watch Throwback on News Channel or iview to meet the creators, authors and entertainers who shaped Australian childhoods.