Early lessons spur success
Good Morning, Mr Sarra: My Life Working for a Stronger, Smarter Future for Our Children
By Chris Sarra UQP, 372pp, $34.95
CHRIS Sarra may not be a household name but he is a classroom name. An Aboriginal teacher, Sarra has forged a reputation as one of the most important thinkers and activists in indigenous education. In Good Morning, Mr Sarra, he traces the development of his philosophy, encapsulated in the phrase ‘‘ stronger, smarter’’, from his childhood in Bundaberg to his life as principal of an Aboriginal school at Cherbourg in southeast Queensland to building a national platform with the founding of the Stronger Smarter Institute.
Sarra, 45, is the first to admit it’s early in his life to write a memoir, but he was prompted by the direction of indigenous policy that resulted in the Northern Territory intervention and linked welfare payments to school attendance. ‘‘ Passion Pop policy for Dom Perignon prices’’ is he how describes such approaches.
His aim in this book is to ‘‘ signal that there is a different and more honourable way to approach the challenges we face together’’. And so Good Morning, Mr Sarra is as much an explanation of the Stronger Smarter philosophy as it is a memoir of Sarra’s childhood and career to date.
A disclaimer: I know Sarra, having reported on him for years, and I like him. I have a camp dog rescued from the streets of Cherbourg on a trip I took with Sarra to watch him in action. I am mentioned briefly in this book, when Sarra recounts a news article I wrote based on his criticism of many people working in remote indigenous communities as second-rate ‘‘ white trash’’ .
The article sparked a fierce response, from those in agreement and those insulted.
Sarra has never shied from making blunt and provocative statements: as a young Aboriginal school student confronting the racism and ignorance of teachers and classmates; as an Aboriginal leader who describes indigenous supporters of the intervention as the ‘‘ pet Aborigines’’ of white politicians.
He has built his career on holding a mirror to society’s preconceptions of indigenous people and ‘‘ untricking’’ Aboriginal children to reject the idea they are lazy, stupid and don’t care about education.
By teaching them to be proud of their Aboriginal culture and aspiring to the same high standards expected of other children, Sarra transformed one of the worst schools in Queensland.
While principal at Cherbourg, Sarra refined his Stronger Smarter philosophy, but it is apparent from this memoir that its roots lie much earlier, in his childhood and, particularly, in the example of his mother.
Sarra is the youngest of 10 children of an Aboriginal mother, Norma Broom of the Gooreng Gooreng people in the north of Bundaberg, and an Italian father, Pantaleone Sarra from Miglianico in Abruzzo. While it would have been easier in many ways to call themselves Italian, the Sarras were reared as proud Aboriginal people: ‘‘ Being called black was something positive.’’
‘‘ I continue to value the lessons I learned as the youngest of 10, of a proud Aboriginal mother and a hard-working Italian father,’’ Sarra writes. ‘‘ Work hard. Don’t stop until the job is done. Stick up for yourself and for others