To Year 12…

October 14, 2017

A few weeks ago, I was the guest speaker at a Yr 12 Final Assembly. A Drama teacher friend of mine, and this particular cohort’s Year Adviser, had asked me if I would give them a little sending off pep-talk. I was really chuffed to have been asked. So I wrote the following speech thinking of every student about to sit their HSC (or equivalent examination across Australia), regardless of what school they’re at. I wanted to share it with you; hope it resonates.
Paula x

Yr 12 Graduation speech

Hello Year 12. Well, you’re nearly there! Now that’s a phrase that has probably been uttered a few times of late or circling through your mind. Nearly there – there’s a solid, weighty truth to it and you may have a slight tug-of-war going on inside; a mixture of excitement to be out of the educational walls that have been nurturing you for the last 13 years and the fear of heading toward the unclear great beyond. And yes, it is unclear, but only insomuch as it’s not specific and thank goodness for that. How rigid would your choices be if everything were mapped out for you?
So I’m here to ask one main question for you to ponder:

What space are you going to fill in this complex world of ours?

Because we all DO have a space to fill – it’s nature; it’s balance; it’s important. The trick is to get on that path; but therein lies the conundrum, where one starts to question – what am I good at? What is this word ‘passion’ that keeps getting thrown around?

Now here is where we start to say, ‘I’m just a….’ We stick that ‘just’ there to diminish our abilities because we feel they don’t stack up to some idealised, limited vision our culture has thrust upon us. But I’m here to say that you must break free of those shackles because this world needs a spectrum of people with talents and drive to fill all the pockets and crevices of our world.

So who am I? My name is Paula and I, in my 47 years of existence, have added a few ‘justs’ to my collection of living:

* I’m just a high school Drama teacher of 20 years (A fair chunk of English too)

* Just a mother (of two daughters)

* About 5 years ago I discovered I was just a blog writer. I’ve stopped now but funnily enough I still say JUST even though I had 15 of my posts published by the Opera House on their Ideas at House site a few years back.

* I just got 350 out of 500 for my HSC back in 1987 (yes 30 years and I’m currently organising our reunion) and that mark was OK. Nothing fantabulous but not bad. You should know that the road to being a writer – as well as becoming an English teacher – was a challenging one because I was a baby when my parents and I fled the dictatorship in Uruguay and therefore growing up, I only spoke Spanish at home. I’ll tell you one thing, I NEVER imagined I’d do either of those things when I was sitting where you are today; or any of what was to come really.

Now none of these space fillers got handed to me on a sheet when I finished high school, they just unraveled as I participated. That’s the key word – PARTICIPATE – take action. As I plodded along, full of deep insecurities over what lay ahead for me, I found that walking in the general direction of what I wanted to do meant that opportunities arose that I was simply lucky enough to be in the general vicinity of – not somewhere else trying to please another set of people.

But let me make something very clear – not everything we want comes just because we want it to, but when you work hard at something that you’re proud of, someone always notices. Keep that in mind.

So what space are you going to fill?

Over three years ago, I became an activist. I had been doing a lot of writing about things I saw as being unjust on a blog but it wasn’t until a particular business came into our lives that it catapulted me into the label – activist.

The business is called Wicked Campers and they have vans for hire, popular with backpackers, with graffiti type images on the side and a slogan on the back for all to read. On a day in the July school holidays 2014, my daughter (then only 11) saw a Wicked van and its slogan whilst visiting the Blue Mountains with my parents. I was not with them. When I picked her up, the first thing she told me was what she had read and how it affected her. I was livid because the slogan was so bad, I can’t repeat it here today.

But this is when ‘Just Paula’ took a stand – I started a Change.org petition asking Wicked to take down any degrading and sexist slogans or imagery. Now I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the numbers a petition can get but they may get a few thousand in a few weeks, but mine got 127, 000+ votes in four days. I was interviewed on about 15 radio shows, including Triple J Hack (twice now) and appeared on The Project. 133 articles were written globally, including The Huffington Post.

An awesome thing that came out of this was that Greens Senator Larissa Waters brought up a motion in The Senate to condemn Wicked Campers and there was – for the first time in a long, long time – a unanimous vote in The Senate that day. I also got an incredible, incredible amount of support from people far and wide.

A not so awesome thing that happened was that I received some death threats, hate emails and one guy in Queensland thought he’d make a ‘Wanted’ poster of me on FB and said I needed to be taught a lesson.

Wicked Campers agreed to my take down all their worst slogans within the following 6 months – but they lied. The only one they changed was the one my daughter saw. Funnily enough they changed it to ‘If only Noah had swatted those two mosquitoes’ and as Wicked had a history of using their vans to threaten people directly – like when journalist Lucy Clark wrote an unfavourable article about them, they wrote on a van with Dear Lucy, I can already imagine the gaffa tape on your mouth – I took that slogan to mean that my daughter and I were the mosquitoes. That’s OK, I thought, I can live with that because as an African proverb says – If you think you’re too small to make a difference, you’ve never been in bed with a mosquito; so that’s what I became.

It was a hard slog, but this year in March – after three years of continuing to fight – writing and speaking to the Advertising Standards Bureau, Government leaders, Australian Censorship Board; hitting social media and garnering the pivotal help from three incredible women – the QLD government changed legislation (followed by Tasmania) to cover the loophole and hold Wicked Campers accountable for those slogans that are, by the way, prohibited from going up on a billboard or an ad.

Why am I telling you all this? Because I’ve always seen myself as Just Paula. But I’m not – I’m much more. In 20 years of being a teacher, 14 years of being a mother and 5 years of being an activist – I have some expertise up my sleeve and I want to express to you an important point, this next step for you is not JUST about marks – the question is: what are you going to do with what you’ve learned? From both inside the classroom and especially outside of it.

One thing is for sure, you’re going to have to be brave – brave when stepping in the direction that feels right for you but not for others and brave when bucking the system when it is unfair – and there are no marks that cover that. Your character and gumption are going to be your armour.

I’ll leave it there but I want to say that you are our future and when life gets tough – and it will – remember that when you walk steadfast toward the horizon, it never gets closer, it always stays the same distance away. But when you look back, you can see how far you’ve come.

Deep Breath;

So what space are you going to fill?

Thank you.

 

I’ll leave you with the wise words of Yoda (words I have on the cover of my mark book at school):

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