1. The former leader of the Salvation Army, General Eva Burrows, used to be based at the drop-in centre and church I used to volunteer at in Melbourne. She once talked to me about my poetry (bad poetry now and terrible then). The moment was filmed and when she died that moment was played across the world as part of her memorial.
In the video around the split second my exhausted 21-year-old face is shown (during a bad pimple outbreak too), General Eva is quoted saying something from her 80th birthday speech. “The officer must always finish on a challenge. For those who are listening, it’s this; whether you are 18 or 80 ask yourself the question, ‘am I really using my life to any great purpose? I am what the work I’ve done for God has made me by his grace.”
2. Then there was the time I met my math teacher Alan, in Year 9, when I ripped up the detention sheet he gave me. Soon he had to give me the wooden paddle to the arse in front of the principal and he hated doing it. Corporal punishment was so awkward.
When I left home at 15 (technically the family moved across the country and I stayed) I boarded with a few families and these were miserable experiences. Soon Alan and his wife took me in and said I could stay with them until I was married. I didn’t get married and won’t be anytime soon, but because of them I was able to go to university and complete a Bachelor of Journalism. Without their grace and kindness I wouldn’t have been able to afford to attend university. I wouldn’t have been able to better my life. I still am welcome for dinner or a coffee whenever I visit Brisbane, and sometimes I wonder, ‘do I make them proud?’ Sometimes I wouldn’t.
3. There was the time I turned 15 and I was suspended until further notice after shortly starting at a new school. I went to church in high school and learned about forgiveness and apologising, something about seeking forgiveness from a brother you’ve offended before supplicating yourself to God, and as soon as the sermon finished I walked to the principal and apologised for my behaviour.
She gave me another chance to attend school and I changed my life, even when everyone expected I was going to screw it up.
I screwed up once when I skipped out of science class and threw leaves in the window, but my teacher Mr Young said nothing and didn’t even give me detention. Church was great. I hung out with my friends Sam and Jason and cheersed the grape juice in the communion cups and made up our own version to the hymns.
Jason got married two years ago and their wedding was held at the amazing Maleny Manor to the north of Brisbane. I bought him a clock in tribute to his favourite Korn song ‘I Did My Time’ that we used to sing in class. And he made me a groomsman and I had never been a groomsman before. Some friends last. Some transformations can as well.
4. During my first year of university I studied Arts because I couldn’t study anything better (come to think of it, this is an entry in itself, a careers advisor at my mandatory dole appointment urged me to study at university. I wasn’t planning to). My school marks were terrible (I mean, I tried in the last few years of school but living away from home and tumultuous earlier years left their mark in any subject apart from English. In that subject I was a natural).
During that year I went to a religious concert and a Salvation Army officer spoke about the needs of the homeless in Melbourne. He inspired me to defer university and complete a program for a year.
I saw shit that broke me and rebuilt me. I saw the world was a horrible place, of white and black but grey as well, but what you assumed to be black was in fact only the white hurt and ruined and in pain. What you assumed to be white was only indifference able to keep itself clean by distance.
I connected to a close group of friends, a community, that would have done anything for you. We are scattered now, each with our lives, families and convictions. I returned to university no longer addicted to video games. My creative writing was much better and so were my marks.
Among the many people I worked with was an elderly lady. I can describe her in detail because she was a caricature. This woman had white hair always curled from rollers, and she wore an oversized coat that was supposed to look like fur and she clutched a walking stick wherever she went. Her face was saturated in make-up and her perfume was the cliche of the old – a bitter brew that burned your nose full of vanilla, musk and roses. She spoke properly and some said that in her younger days she owned a hotel, or an island, or something exhorbitant. It was implied among the drug addicts and ex-convicts and alcoholics and schizophrenics and lonely and young parents and destitute and chronic hoarders that I was grouped among that this woman was of old money, but like the rest of us was now broken in some way. But the only damage she showed was age and an anxiety for loud noises, and what kind of damage is that really?
At a luncheon that the Thai community hosted for the homeless next to the St Paul’s Cathedral near Swanston Street this woman convinced me that I should become a journalist (and return to my degree).
“There’s just so many bad people in that profession,” the ignorant and rather self-righteous version of me said.
‘That makes it more important for you to be in that profession,” she said indignantly. “That’s when you know you are needed in it.”
That’s the story I’ve always told. But actually, I needed journalism. It has been good for me.
5. There was the time I interviewed a teacher who was cycling around Australia doing stupid dares to fundraise for charity. He was 28. He inspired me.
He made me realise I wanted to do a lot more with my life. I wanted adventures. Nothing should hold me back because there were no excuses. So I went on holidays to the UK for a month but that wasn’t enough.
The realisation came more than two years ago.
I now live in Peru about to teach history and geography.
I am proud of my life and where I came from, but what I suddenly see are the characters who inspired me without me realising it – whether for a moment or throughout the years.