When I was in my early twenties I worked for an organisation that was responsible for regenerating a corridor of bush. I worked on a crew of eleven. I was the only female. My crew was responsible for 27 acres of the corridor, which we loved and cared for. In return the forest gave us blisters, heat stroke and the satisfaction of knowing we’d preserved a little bit of wilderness for paddymelons, dragons and one or two koala’s. My crew was not an obvious bunch for this undertaking; we were from all sorts of backgrounds: one gentleman was 60 years old who needed money because he had lost all his to gambling, another was trying to avoid prison, one had a family of five to support and couldn’t find work anywhere else, others were there because the system demanded them to be. Only a couple of us were there because we wanted to save the world. We were all as different from one another as any group of people could be, and yet we all got along without there ever being an incidence of tension. We were not only civil to one another, but developed a camaraderie that kept each of us safe and happy to come to work, despite the blistering heat and constant threat of being bitten by snakes and spiders.
Being the youngest and the only female I thought would be a task unto itself, but my guys (as I came to know them) treated me with dignity and respect, while challenging me to step up whenever there was a hard task to perform. I never felt discriminated against for my sex, nor harassed by any of the blokes I worked with. (Incidentally, when the project finished, the Lord Mayor of Brisbane was invited out to see our work. Lord Mayor Jim shook hands with all the men in the crew, then, without shaking mine, asked me what I did. He then said “Do you make the coffee and tea while the men work?” My supervisor immediately stepped in and said “Actually, Lord Mayor, Sharon is our best worker. She’s as capable with a chainsaw as any of these blokes.” All my workmates agreed and then promptly turned their backs on Lord Mayor Jim. Later his assistant apologised to me. I suggested that perhaps the Lord Mayor needed some coaching on 20th century etiquette.)
During the project our crew routinely had visits from experts in flora and fauna to teach us about what we were seeing in our little tract of bush. We had many tutors, but one in particular has always stood out in my memory. I’ll call her Jane. Jane was a fern enthusiast who was brought in to teach us to identify rare plants and the importance of a balanced ecosystem. We all listened respectfully, did as we were asked and impressed her with our enthusiasm. One lunch time we were all sitting in a circle discussing a number of issues when I struck up a conversation with Jane about human evolution, a topic we were both passionate about. Our conversation was enthusiastic and quite exhaustive, so much so that everyone stopped their own conversations to listen. Jane asked me what I thought about the function of human hair, specifically why most of our bodies are hairless while we maintain a crop on our heads. At once I felt like I was being set up, but I forged ahead and told her my, admittedly inexperienced, notion of human hair, although I was careful to (correctly) point out that humans aren’t hairless at all, that we have as many hair follicles as a chimpanzee. Before I had finished explaining my notion, Jane interrupted me, outraged at my “ignorance” and told me it was the most ridiculous thing she’d ever heard. She accused me of being a product of my generic reading. She then proceeded to “educate” us all and correct my ignorance with her own notion, the aquatic ape theory. I listened, feeling humiliated while the rest of my crew looked at one another, embarrassed for me and uncomfortable under the weight of Jane’s lecture. When she’d finished her sermon the older gentleman stood up, and just as he was turning to leave the circle addressed Jane and told her that she really shouldn’t shout someone down because her opinion differs from yours. He told her that their job as elders is to nurture ideas not dictate them. And then he left the circle. My supervisor told her later that she could have handled it differently. Still, I was crushed. I had respected her opinion and appreciated her attention on issues I was particularly passionate about. I was never in a hurry to assert my own opinions on anything and was disappointed that I had allowed myself to be bullied like that. It was that moment that later led to me undertaking a degree and graduate diploma in palaeoanthropology. I never wanted to be trapped like that again, or worse, get caught ignorant.
I found myself thinking about this incident today. It has real repercussion for my unborn child and me. I learned a valuable lesson that day that will benefit my child in years to come and hopefully make me a better parent. Through her actions, Jane taught me to listen, to respect and to guide when it is appropriate and desired. Young people need to be nurtured and guided, not dictated to. Knowledge should never be prescriptive. The best we can do for a child or young adult is to provide access to (all) the information and allow them to form their own beliefs and opinions. Only then can we be proud that we have contributed to a whole and unique personality.