I was asked to talk at the 21st birthday of my primary school the other night. Here’s what I had to say.

For those of you who don’t know me, I’ve just finished training as a teacher. It’s taken me five years and, in that time, I was placed in no less than six schools, put in front of classes and asked to teach. I’ve been lucky enough to experience life in a wide variety of schools including Steiner, Montessori, International Baccalaureatte, and, yes, even a mainstream public school or two.

There’s nothing like prac teaching to force you to find out what you think about education, and about a particular school’s way of doing things. Every day, you are brought up against things which annoy, inspire, exhilarate, frustrate, and occasionally, infuriate you. Inevitably, when I went into a school, I would compare the school, and the experience the kids were having, with my school and with the experience I had — with Kamaroi.

I should point out that they were all, unsurprisingly, found wanting. This, I think, has something to do with the fact that Kamaroi is my school, and something to do with what everyone in this room knows already. Although it may sound like a cliche to say it, we all know it to be true. Kamaroi is special.

It’s taken me a long time to work out what I think makes Kamaroi such a special place — 13 years in fact — the time since I left. Of course, there are many, many things, but I’ve narrowed it down to just two.

The first thing is the people. I was privileged to re-discover this in 2007 when I came to do a teaching practicum here. I can honestly say that it was one of the best moments of my life when I returned to discover that the people in this school not only lived up to the (somewhat awestruck) image my twelve-year-old self had constructed of them, but that they far surpassed it — in their skill, their patience, their warmth and in their professionalism.

I want to encourage you, as you wander around tonight and chat with people (some of whom you may not have seen for a while), to make sure that, in addition to saying “How are you?” and “What have you been doing?”, you say “Thank you.” Thanking people and making them feel valued is, I hear, something that Kamaroi is becoming known for. Let’s make sure we return the favour. I’m not afraid to say that I think the people who have built this school are giants, and they deserve all the gratitude we can give them.

The second thing which I think makes Kamaroi special needs a little bit of explaining, and to do that, I’d like to read you a poem. It’s by a teacher, and a poet, and a hero of mine, Taylor Mali, and it’s called “Undivided Attention.”

A grand piano wrapped in quilted pads by movers,
tied up with canvas straps — like classical music’s
birthday gift to the insane —
is gently nudged without its legs
out an eighth-floor window on 62nd street.

It dangles in April air from the neck of the movers’ crane,
Chopin-shiny black lacquer squares
and dirty white crisscross patterns hanging like the second-to-last
note of a concerto played on the edge of the seat,
the edge of tears, the edge of eight stories up going over, and
I’m trying to teach math in the building across the street.

Who can teach when there are such lessons to be learned?
All the greatest common factors are delivered by
long-necked cranes and flatbed trucks
or come through everything, even air.
Like snow.

See, snow falls for the first time every year, and every year
my students rush to the window
as if snow were more interesting than math,
which, of course, it is.

So please.

Let me teach like a Steinway,
spinning slowly in April air, so almost-falling, so hinderingly
dangling from the neck of the movers’ crane.
So on the edge of losing everything.

Let me teach like the first snow, falling.

When the time comes for me to have my own class, I think I’ll frame that poem and hang it above my desk to remind me of Kamaroi.

Of course, I’m pretty sure we never had a grand piano on a crane, and I’m certain we never had snow. What we did have, were buildings taking shape around us, autumn leaves, spiral walks, bushwalks, damns built out of logs in the creek, cubbies, rope-swings, rope-bridges, class plays, a model of the Sydney Harbour bridge made entirely out of bricks and pencils, a class competition to see who could do the longest long division, festivals, concerts, craft workshops, trips to Glenaeon for woodwork, rain-dances under Harry’s parachute (which resulted in evacuating our campsite due to a small flood), and, on one memorable day, half of a portable building, dangling from the neck of a mover’s crane, about where your heads are now, on its way to become our new classroom.

I remember these things because they were as much a part of my time here as all the spelling words, maths problems, stories, books, projects, and all the other trappings of classroom life. I remember these things because, unlike so many such things in the lives of so many children, they were never seen as just distractions; they were important.

Kamaroi was and is, a school in which the magic of the classroom and the magic of childhood are one and the same.

Who can teach when there are such lessons to be learned?

Well, at Kamaroi, we did learn those lessons. That, I’ll always be grateful for, and that is what makes Kamaroi special.

If, one day, I can teach like the new snow falling, then it will be, in no small part, because of this school and the people who made it what it is today.

So thank you.