OUR TIME AT DOOMADGEE
Friday 6 September – Thursday 12 September
It felt like we were settled into a kind of routine now – as much as one could be. There was still the ever-present sense of alertness, because anything could happen. And still the disturbed nights.
I had decided that, next term, I would definitely get my own private food order sent up from Mt Isa – and wear the freight cost. We really did need meat, chicken and the like. The pre-packaged, vaccuum sealed bacon – which was all I was prepared to buy from the “butcher” was not something we could eat all the time. Neither were baked beans. The store did not run to meat alternatives like tofu or even packets of dried beans.
We took ourselves out of town, with the van, for the weekend – to Escott Lodge, just out of Burketown.
We had to go almost to Burketown, before taking the road to the left, the 17kms to Escott, which was a working cattle station, with campground and accommodation as a sideline. It had quite a well set up caravan area, with power.
The Nicholson River flows through the station, not far before emptying into the Gulf.
We left straight after school on Friday, and were there and set up well before dark. We enjoyed a full and peaceful night’s sleep!
On Saturday morning, after breakfast, we drove into Burketown – we had not been there before. John filled Truck – at $1.04 cpl, it was 16 cents a litre cheaper than at Doom.
I had thought I would be able to stock up a bit on food, especially fruit, vegies and meats, but there was very little in the one store. I was greatly disappointed. The lack of decent foodstuffs is becoming a bit of an obsession!
There was not much to see in the township at all. It is inland from the coast, because of the salt and mud flats closer to the coast. The Albert River goes past the township – both Lawn Hill Creek and the Gregory River join into the Albert, further upstream. Its main reason for existence seemed to be as the headquarters of the Burke Shire – which covers much of this part of the state. We did not linger.
Back at Escott, we explored some of their driving tracks and wandered about beside the river. Then we relaxed back at the van and chatted with some “proper” travellers staying in the park.
There was a light plane, with pilot, based at Escott, offering scenic flights. The pilot called around, touting business, and we decided to do a flight on Sunday morning.
After another wonderfully solid night’s sleep, and then breakfast, we wandered down to the airstrip. The flight was great and excellent value, we thought. There was just we two, and the pilot.
We flew over the lower reaches of several of the Gulf rivers, gained a much greater appreciation of the extent of the mud flats that line much of the Gulf coast, flew over Burketown, and got some good views of the station. We saw a crocodile sunning itself on the surface of the Nicholson River. The various station dams we could see, had cattle pads radiating out from them in all directions. I loved the flight.
Then it was pack up and drive back to reality at Doom.
The usual week changed nature mid way.
The woman who had been taking the large class of – nominally – Grade 2 and 3 misfits and challenges, had departed town a couple of weeks back. Her reason was to go temporarily to see a sick sibling, but we all knew she was at breaking point and would not be back. By gathering in all the problem children from other classes, she had created an unmanageable group – and I think was having difficulty acknowledging that she couldn’t cope.
John had been asked, quite often, to take her class. He’d found hundreds upon hundreds of “busy work” photocopied worksheets that the children had worked on, over a long period of time, piled in cupboards and on tables – not corrected or done anything with. It was a measure of how far things had declined.
Even I had been asked to take this class a few times – and teaching at that level was not my forte, at the best of times. I do not have the temperament for a primary teacher!
The kids were mostly hyper-active, to put it mildly. She had obviously been shoving the copied worksheets at them to try to keep them quiet. One afternoon, they got to view a video, while I was supervising them. Shrek. They loved that, and were quiet, and relatively well behaved.
Thursday, as we walked to school, there was a strange, ominous atmosphere about the place. We noticed a number of empty wine casks lying around, which was unusual – in this supposedly dry town, it was tacitly accepted that beer would be obtained from outside, and drunk, but nothing stronger.
The Wednesday night had been very rowdy.
Some of the older students were clustered in little groups in the school grounds, and seemed apprehensive, and then not able to focus in the classroom. There was clearly something unusual and unsettling going on.
We found out later that a supply truck, taking grog supplies to the Burketown pub, had broken down on the road from Gregory Downs. The driver had left the truck and gone into Burketown – ostensibly to arrange repairs, but he may also have – wisely – decided he didn’t want to spend the night alone out there with all that alcohol.
Somehow the word had spread quickly amongst some of the Doom locals, and the truck had been raided. So there had been wine and spirits flowing copiously through the night in town.
On Thursday, John was asked to take the problem class, in the morning. One of the children was a Grade 1 girl, who was quite unmanageable and had been taken on by the misguided woman. She was, we thought to ourselves, probably affected by foetal alcohol syndrome, and was the very spoiled only child of parents belonging to one of the dominant families. They fancied themselves a cut above the rest of the community and swanned about the place. dressed up to the nines – more suited to a city race meeting than poor old Doom! There was something really “off” about them.
Anyway, the girl quietly made herself a very large ball of bluetack – there must have been several packets of this that she had pilfered from somewhere. The aboriginal teacher’s aide lady just sat and watched her do this – they never intervened, even when the children could have done with some “local” authority. She eventually had a ball about the size of a large cricket ball.
The girl then threw the bluetack ball – with some force – at John. he’d had his back to her and turned, at the wrong moment, and the thing landed right over his heart. It kind of winded him – he said later that it felt that his heart actually skipped a beat or two. He went to the girl, knelt on the floor in front of her, took her by the shoulders to get her to pay attention to him, and said – loudly – that she was not to do things like that. The girl started to cry and the teacher’s aide rushed out and came back with the DP.
Everyone got really serious because John had actually laid hands on the child. No concern that he was hurt – later, quite a significant bruise appeared on his chest. Or consideration, that if the heavy ball had hit another student, they could have been injured, like concussed, or worse.
John was quite shaken by the whole event and the way it had been taken, and the DP took the class for the rest of the session. Then the SM took over for the rest of the day. The Principal was away on business elsewhere for the week. The students were actually quite subdued – and they were also intimidated by the SM’s size and authority, so they behaved fairly well for the rest of the day. The DP actually said to John that he should observe and “see how it is done”! So patronizing to a man who had successfully run a primary school of several hundred students, for many years. There was no punishment at all for the child.
We discussed it all at home, that night. We agreed that the child should not have been in the class at all, and John should not have been asked to take them anyway. He was not hired as a straight classroom teacher – would not have accepted such a job, anywhere, after being out of normal classrooms for over twenty years, as a Principal. He had been hired as a literacy specialist, to work on that side of things, in small groups, and assist teachers in working on same.
John was apprehensive about possible repercussions if some of the locals decided it was a major deal – and we knew that any excuse to make an issue where whites were concerned, prevailed amongst many here. The DP and SM said they would try hard to defuse the situation. In a normal school, of course, the family would have been called in, and the child disciplined and probably excluded for a time.
We discussed going away somewhere for the coming weekend and working things out for ourselves then.