The return to Epenarra

The Return to Epenarra – 20 years on.
By Alison Gotts, November 2006

Digby and I were teachers in a 2 teacher Aboriginal school at Epenarra between 1986 and 1988. Epenarra was considered one of the most remote schools in the Northern Territory. It had no airstrip, no telephone, and no mail service. It was impossible to listen to or watch the ABC. All communication was via the Royal Flying Doctor Service HF Radio and a fortnightly trip to town – Tennant Creek – 300 kilometers away across rough desert tracks.

This was a very memorable experience in our lives. In 2006 I had long service leave from my job with Cairns TAFE and one of the things I wanted to do was to go back to Epenarra and see how the kids had turned out that we had taught 20 years before.

I went back to the photo album but most of the photos had been damaged by the humidity of the tropics, so I scanned the best 20 and touched them up with a computer program. The group photo below shows the whole school and a very young Digby and Alison – so young.

Epenarra School 1987

It took me a week to pluck up the courage to ring Epenarra station to let them know what we were planning. The owner, Heather Clough picked up the phone and spoke to me as if I had left yesterday. I think she must be now in the late 70’s.

She gave me a quick potted version of the events of the last 20 years. A new school with teacher housing is now in the community with nothing left of the old caravans that made up our school and home. Two of the liveliest kids have married each other and moved to Katherine! Nearly everyone else is still there. The shock was that Stella, the young aboriginal woman I was close to had died 3 years before from Cardiomyopathy. She would have been younger than me. My Teacher Aide, Ada, had split with Maxie and now lives in Tennant Creek. All the kids we taught now have 2-3 children of their own.

I had 5 copies of the group photo enlarged and laminated to send to Epenarra, so they can used to the idea of us returning out of the blue.

Here are some of our reflections that I wrote as the visit unfolded.

Here I am, 20 years ago!


This was the only photo of me with some of the class that wasn’t damaged beyond repair. Not a good shot and I am out of focus, but there is a lot there so I included it anyway.

What am I doing? Cutting and pasting of course. See the scissors standing up in the egg box. I was just so organised then. Calvert is waiting for me to do something for him. What do I most remember about Calvert? His ability to put up with excruciating pain without complaint. He did finally admit to a sore tooth, and opened his mouth to show me. A tooth had completely rotted away, leaving just a gap with no tooth visible. That meant a trip to Alice Springs, 600 kilometres away, and he was away from the community for 4 weeks. I also had toothbrushes in another eggbox holder for an after lunch clean, the only time that happened in the kids day.

That’s Ada, my Teacher Aide, on the left. I hope to find that she is now a fully qualified teacher in Tennant Creek. We had arranged for her to go to Batchelor College to start her teacher training. Her daughter, Jolene, who I last saw when she was 6, is now at Epenarra with 3 kids of her own, so I guess I will find out Ada’s news.

What about me? I still wear my hair short like this, though now there’s grey shot through it. Still wear daggy shorts. Still cutting and pasting, only now it’s virtual.

When I went to Epenarra I had never taught primary school children before. I suddenly found myself with 15 children under 8, who spoke Alywarra as their first language and a little bit of Aboriginal English. Cutting and pasting was a major “doing” activity for 6 year olds. We cut and pasted everything we could find to teach all sorts of concepts.

Hank Moore road show came to town.  Alison down the back with Bruce and Heather Clough on the school deck.

What are my fondest memories?
The kids I taught were so affectionate and willing to give things a go. As 6 years olds they had yet not developed the reticence and fear of being embarrassed that characterized the kids in Digby’s class.

I remember teaching them how to blow their noses rather than sniff. They all had really bad snot problems, probably from sleeping in the open in the freezing desert air. I have strong memories of trying to clear blocked nasal passages with the tissues supplied by the Education Department. Showing them how to block one nostril with a finger and then blow into the tissue. Snot would go everywhere! I can remember thinking, “If only my TAFE colleagues could see me now!”

I remember teaching them how to read with “Big Books”, and then re-enacting the scenarios out in the bush, with the kids chanting and shouting and using the English language as if it was their mother tongue.

Alison’s boys enacting Mrs Wishy Washy

The trip to Darwin when we took the whole school was a highlight. Sitting in a F111, going to Pizza Hut, the roller skating rink, a harbour cruise, the beach, a movie and even the croc farm. All for the first time. Even the 3 scheduled meals a day was a new experience for them; actually eating at a set time and knowing that there would be enough food to go around. It took 8 days of the 10 day trip for them to stop wanting to eat everything in sight, and start to say “I’m full!”

What did they achieve?
All the kids went from non-readers to readers above average for their age group. They came to school every day, there was little absenteeism. We had fun. Not sure if I can claim much more.

Digby’s boys reading in the library

What did I learn from the experience.
One of the main things was computer literacy. I had all my class writing their own stories on the computer. A commodore 64. That’s 64 K bytes of ram. The kids were able to print out their stories to stick into their books, as well as play wonderful games to improve their literacy. I learned the potential power of the computer for student learning so that when I hear TAFE teachers say “but my kids couldn’t cope with the computer”. I remember the Epenarra kids. Anyone can benefit from computers in learning, it just depends on how the teacher utilises them.
I learned a fair bit about myself, the ability to cope in remote areas, the ability to adapt to different cultures, to be flexible and survive without other people. I began to recognise my own worth as a good teacher, and how I could make a difference for my students.

Nolene and Jennifer at the computer.

What was the impact on my later life?
This time stands out as a major turning point in my professional career. Prior to this, I had little understanding of Aboriginal Education or the issues being faced by them.

I went on to choose to make my home in a very remote area, to work as an instructional designer specializing in using computers in education, and working at Cairns TAFE as the instructional designer and course developer for the Remote Area Teacher Education Project, training Aboriginal teachers in remote areas and using computers to deliver the course. From there, I moved to flexible delivery and the use of the internet to enable learning on-line.

What do I expect to find when I go back?
I think they will remember me, but they will be too shy to make meaningful contact. To do this properly we would need to stay at least a month. I expect that most of them will still be there, with loads of their own kids. The education we gave them will be all that they will have had, with none of them going on to complete secondary or tertiary education. I hope that their living conditions will be better, but I don’t have high hopes. Sorry to be so depressing.

A great discovery!
I had been quite upset to discover that some of my best photos had been destroyed by the humidity. When I mentioned this to my mum, she said “I think I have some photos that you sent me”, and sure enough another 20 beautifully preserved photos have arrived, with several classics which I include here to give you a taste.

This is me with my class on the school steps taken in March 1987.

Here is another to capture the chaos of the moment, my classroom in action. I am sure that my e-learning students can relate to this. So many activities all happening at once, everyone involved in their own project, and me rushing around like a mad thing.

alison classroom

I was able to assemble a photo album with about 80 images to show everyone we meet and to leave with the community when we go. They include all the old school shots from 1986-88 and some from our new life at Cape Tribulation that they would enjoy, such as Digby wrestling the python.

Twenty Years on we all look a little older

Alison with Jolene, Anne Marie and Jennifer 2006

Alison with Jolene, Anne Marie and Jennifer 1986

How did the trip turn out. How accurate were my predictions?
Within 10 minutes of driving into the community, our old students started to appear and gather around us. Messengers were sent out to let the other know that we had arrived. I found myself surrounded by 10 gorgeous young men in their mid to late 20’s with big smiles, looking healthy, washed, hair combed, clean clothes and well fed. They didn’t have much to say for themselves, but they never were talkers. I found it easy to see the echo of them as 5 year olds in their faces and recognised most straight away. The photo album we brought with us broke the ice very quickly. As the word went out and we walked around the community, other people who we had not taught, and the mothers of them as children came out to see the photos.

Alison with ex-students. 2006

About half of them were still at Epenarra. The missing ones had moved to other communities or Tennant Creek and Katherine. Most of them had children, but only one or two, so we took lots of photos to mail back. The brightest girl we taught was married but childless. The most outgoing boy had moved to Amaroo, 3 hours away, but he had stayed an extra week at Epenarra when he visited and saw our notice on the board.

The photo album gets full attention

Most had gone on to secondary school in Tennant Creek when a hostel was built in the town for them and others like them. Special classes were put on at the high school to help bring them up to the correct level. None had gone on to tertiary education, but the next generation is considerably louder and more confident in the way that they related to us, than their parents had been. I have hopes for them to go much further.

There was a dramatic change in their living conditions. There were 20 brick houses, where there were once 5 shelters, with car bodies for the young men. Many of the houses had power, tv, fridge and plumbed water. We remember one tap for the entire community. The dogs were still everywhere, but they now had hair, reflecting the improved health standards for them and their owners. The wrecked cars were still scattered everywhere, with one house having 5 in the front yard, but their impact faded very quickly as the good things shone through.

Epenarra camp 1986

There was now a staffed health clinic as well as real school buildings with 2 classrooms, 30 computers with internet and loads of resources, The two teachers were young and enthusiastic, as well as keen and dedicated.

The school in 1986

The new school and playground 2006

There are now 350 people in the community whereas we had only 80.
World Vison was there running a feeding program at the school.
There was a Women’s Centre, although inactive for our visit.
Blond dyed peroxided hair was all the rage.
Some of the mothers I knew 20 years ago were still having babies, now up to 8 children in the family.
One of my students, Anthony, had died from pneumonia only 12 months before, after delaying too long to get medical attention.
The caravan where we had lived was gone and in its place a workers barracks for the station, which even had a phone and tv.
They sing now but things are still broken.

When we taught at Epenarra, we could never get the kids to sing. The little ones would sing along until they turned 7 or 8 and then they realised that it wasn’t cool. The older girls, there were only 3 in the class, would lip-synch, but culturally they didn’t want to appear forward by having their voices coming across loud and clear. And the boys, well they just refused to participate.

We made them a crocodile so they could participate in the Barkly Tablelands school sports day without being seen. 1986

On our return, we were greeted by the boys with the news that they now have a gospel band, that they have been to Tamworth to play, and they have a cd of their songs. Could we buy a cd? No, they had run out, but an audio tape appears for us to copy and return. Can the band play for us while we are here so we can video them in action? No, the mixer had broken and Deryck has a new one coming from Townsville.

A visit to the school to meet the current teachers had the senior teacher telling us how the class sing all the time while they work. She plays the tape player and projects the words up on the wall and they all sing enthusiastically. We can’t believe it. Then I ask, how many boys in your class? Sixteen students and only two are boys. Girls think it’s cool to sing.

One of the endearing memories from our time is the bike repair story. There were bikes scattered all around the camp, abandoned where they fell, but the boys knew the owner and location of every one of them. As a boy’s project, Digby loaded the boys onto the school tractor/trailer, and drove around collecting all the remnants and brought them back to the school. With some swapping and the purchase of a few parts, six functioning bikes emerged which became the school bikes. The boys meantime had learned to repair flat tyres, replace wheel bearings and chains and became quite capable of looking after their own bikes. Suddenly we had a mobile gang of boys ranging over the landscape. The school still has a fleet of new bikes locked away, but only available for use at set times to encourage attendance.

Repairing the little tractor with all the boys helping.

On our return, there were still broken things scattered around, but now they were cars, over 300 of them. We can see the need for a car that is as repairable as a bike by swapping parts around. Oh for a volkswagon beetle equivalent. I could see in my mind a functional workshop with a qualified mechanic training the men and boys and keeping at least some of the cars on the road.

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