The Australian School System
May 11th, 2010

It was the worst of times. We had just buried my mother, the magazine I worked for had gone belly up, and a hard February freeze had killed off our last euonymus bush. Meantime at Uintah Elementary, in a far corner of the so-called playground, our ten-year-old son Alex stood alone, despondent because everyone but him could read and write. Diagnosed as dyslexic, he’d been transferred from regular class to something called “resource”—a special program for slow learners. He hated every minute of it.

His mother and I decided to deal with Alex’s problem the same way we have consistently dealt with our own problems; that is we decided to just run away. So it came to pass that the three of us were soon jetting across the broad Pacific to our new home, a downscale suburb of Brisbane known as Slacks Creek. Friends back home imagined Slacks Creek to be a romantic antipodean outpost reminiscent of a Colleen McCullough novel; in fact, it’s more like a subtropical West Valley City.

No worries, mates! The important thing is that it was different—different to us, at any rate. People down under talk different and drive on the wrong side of the road while trying hard not to run into giant flightless birds and strange, prehistoric marsupials. On his first night, Alex joined a hardy band of neighbor kids in a game of “bash the red-back spider.” Red-back spiders, like just about everything else in Australia, are poisonous. Best way to hunt them is at night, with a flashlight, aka “torch.”

Within a week, Alex had mastered a whole new language. And now he and I were ready to explore a whole new continent, or at least as much of it as we could fit in before it was time to pick up his mother from her new job at the Woodridge public library.

My job, meantime, was to tutor Alex. We’d begin by watching the ABC evening news with Peter Jennings, which came on at nine a.m. Then we’d spend maybe an hour working arithmetic problems and then another hour composing a brief essay detailing whatever unusual thing had transpired the day before. Since Alex was illiterate, I served as his stenographer.

By eleven a.m. homework was finished. Time to grab our boogie boards and head for the beach. Or the nearest animal sanctuary. Or the nearest amusement park. Recess, on average, continued for at least six hours.


On weekends the three of us would venture deeper into the bush, where Alex tried his hand at abseiling and became acquainted with colorful lorikeets, giant goanna lizards and pint-sized pandemelons. Or we’d set sail for Heron Island, where we dodged droppings from noddy terns while tracking egg-laying sea turtles. Or we’d drive up north to Noosa Heads for still more surf and sun. During the long drive back, we’d invent new lyrics for a cautionary ditty for marsupials set to a tune borrowed from the Australian Broadcast Corporation’s popular children’s program “Bananas In Pajamas.”

Koalas and Wombats

Don’t Swim Between the Flags;

Koalas and Wombats

Go Home in Body Bags.

Come Monday Morning, we’d write it all down, using our only educational tools—a notebook and number two lead pencil.

One weekend we flew in a tiny prop plane all the way to Cairns, where we shipped out for the Great Barrier Reef aboard a dive boat operated by a crew as indifferent to danger as those hapless koalas and wombats.

“You know what this is called, Mates?” inquired the onboard dive instructor as he held up a scuba diving regulator. “It’s called the breathy thing.”

Next thing I knew, I was tossing my son overboard into a sea teeming with all manner of colorful and exotic sea life, including sharks! Yes, even as his fourth-grade classmates back home were studying tiny fish in an aquarium furnished with a make-believe underwater castle, Alex WAS underwater–paddling among coral castles, one with the fish. No worries, mates! Give it a go!

Come Monday, we dutifully wrote it all down. The more we wrote, the easier it became, and the less need Alex had of a stenographer.

Upon his return to Uintah Elementary in the fall, Alex presented his Australia journal to his resource teacher, who found it so fascinating that she begged to keep him for another year—however, according to the principal that wouldn’t be necessary because by now Alex could read and write quite well and had scored highest in his school on the SAT science exam.

“I’d heard they have some very good schools in Australia,” said she.

“I heard the same thing,” I said. “The kids there all wear uniforms. We used to pass them every day on our way to the beach.”


-Richard Menzies