HOW I RAN AWAY WITH THE CIR­CUS

Vol­un­teer­ing his ex­per­tise to help iso­lated stu­dents led a de­lighted John Smyth into the lion’s den

Reader's Digest Asia Pacific - - Contents - HAZEL FLYNN

A ded­i­cated teacher learns that the three R’s can in­clude Rr­roar!

AS A KID IN THE BUSH, John Smyth didn’t have much chance to see the cir­cus in per­son, but he had a trea­sured pic­ture book about life un­der the Big Top. More than 60 years later, Smyth got to be­come part of the Star­dust Cir­cus world, not as a tum­bler or lion tamer – but as a teacher.

Back in 1999, the ca­reer high-school teacher de­cided it was time to re­tire and, to­gether with his wife He­len, em­bark on an epic jour­ney around Aus­tralia. They cov­ered 33,000km in six months. When they re­turned, Smyth found he missed the class­room, so came out of re­tire­ment to spend another eight years do­ing ca­sual teach­ing – but, even­tu­ally, his wan­der­lust re­turned and he and He­len headed back on the road.

To­day, the 75-year-old physics and math­e­mat­ics teacher slots in time with his grand­kids around a packed di­ary as a vol­un­teer teacher to school stu­dents who live in re­mote lo­ca­tions, un­der a scheme known as Vol­un­teers for Iso­lated Stu­dents’ Ed­u­ca­tion (VISE).

VISE pairs up en­er­getic peo­ple with ed­u­ca­tional ex­pe­ri­ence – usu­ally re­tired teach­ers, such as John – with chil­dren whose school­ing is largely done re­motely, be­cause they live too far away from towns and cities to at­tend reg­u­lar school. With their classes con­ducted via satel­lite hookups, Skype or what­ever other meth­ods are avail­able, the chil­dren have vir­tual con­tact with a paid teacher for sev­eral hours a day. The rest of the time they are given as­sign­ments to com­plete. VISE vol­un­teers go and stay with these re­mote fam­i­lies for six weeks at a time to pro­vide en­cour­age­ment and prac­ti­cal help to the stu­dents.

John grew up in the coun­try and was im­me­di­ately in­trigued when he heard about the scheme. He­len was just as keen. “We love the bush,” he says. While the teacher’s part­ner isn’t re­quired to con­trib­ute, they of­ten help around the home, in the gar­den or around the prop­erty. Since vol­un­teers typ­i­cally stay for the full six weeks, it’s im­por­tant for cou­ples to agree on the lo­ca­tions they ap­ply for.

“We’d de­cided we wouldn’t take a place­ment where we lived in the house with the fam­ily,” John says. “We opted for ones where we could take our own car­a­van or we’d have a ‘donga’ hut or a cot­tage, so that we had some­where we could get away.” Af­ter eight VISE post­ings, and en­coun­ter­ing some chal­leng­ing fam­i­lies and stu­dents, John is still keen to do more. “Oc­ca­sion­ally I have had to take a stand and say, ‘ If you want my help, here I am, oth­er­wise I’ll pack up and go home – I’m too busy to be sit­ting around here if we’re not go­ing to work.’ But it’s al­ways turned out re­ally well.” He re­mains in fond con­tact with a num­ber of his former stu­dents.

He’s racked up stints in some of Aus­tralia’s most re­mote lo­ca­tions, in­clud­ing a 38,000-ha sheep prop­erty where they had to meet the mail plane to get school

ma­te­ri­als, and an 80,000-ha Na­tional Park that was 500km from the near­est su­per­mar­ket. Then John nabbed one of the most sought-af­ter place­ments in the scheme: a trav­el­ling post with Star­dust Cir­cus. “It was just won­der­ful,” he says of the weeks he and He­len spent on the road last year, work­ing with the chil­dren in a spe­cially equipped mo­bile school­room.

The les­son timetable was built around the kids’ per­for­mance sched­ules. “The eight- year- old I tu­tored was a fab­u­lous gymnast who was part of the teeter­board act,” he ex­plains. “A big bloke would jump on the other side, he would swing up in the air, do a cou­ple of twirls and land on his un­cle’s shoul­ders ... and his un­cle was stand­ing on the boy’s fa­ther’s shoul­ders!”

The cir­cus still in­cludes some an­i­mal acts, in­clud­ing li­ons, mon­keys, horses, goats and pigs. John and He­len found it ex­tra­or­di­nary enough to drift off to sleep to the sound of li­ons roar­ing, but then one day the lion-tamer, Matt, ac­corded them a very spe­cial priv­i­lege, invit­ing them in to meet four 13-month-old cubs in per­son.

While it was un­der­stand­ably a lit­tle scary at first go­ing into their en­clo­sure, John says it was “an ab­so­lutely fan­tas­tic, never to be for­got­ten ex­pe­ri­ence” which just goes to show it re­ally is never too late: “In my 75th year I fi­nally got to re­alise my boy­hood dream of run­ning away with the cir­cus!”

Smyth with some of his tal­ented stu­dents

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