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The gift of literacy & the story of Tony

Tony Heffernan
Tony Heffernan - "My father was terribly upset over the accident and never stopped blaming himself. My sister told me it was the only time she had ever seen Dad cry"

PHILIP FITZPATRICK

TUMBY BAY - Our first grandson was born while we were living in Hervey Bay in Queensland. His other grandparents, who belong to a small Lutheran congregation nearby in Maryborough, organised his christening there.

The Lutheran pastor was an American who had been a missionary in Papua New Guinea. I was still scooting back and forth from Australia to PNG doing social mapping, so we had a common interest.

Out of that event I allowed myself to be talked into teaching adults how to read and write at the Hervey Bay branch of the Maisie Kaufman Learning Centre.

It was only one day a week and it fitted in with my irregular work pattern, so I volunteered.

Many of the students at the learning centre were required to attend training there as a fulfilment of their welfare payment obligations but others attended out of interest or need. Quite a few were Islander or Aboriginal Australians.

While the program at the centre was funded by the federal government, it could only afford to pay a supervisor. For teachers it depended upon volunteers.

I’m no teacher so my approach was based largely on instinct.

The students were a mixed bunch with varying degrees of intellect and comprehension but my assorted methods seemed to work reasonably well; each student required a different approach.

One of the students was a man in his mid-fifties named Tony.

When he was about nine years old Tony had been involved in a bad accident with a lawnmower. His left hand was mangled, he lost a lot of blood and while in hospital contracted pneumonia and then had a stroke. All that left him mentally impaired.

He was a nice bloke and we got on well. He told me he had always wanted to learn to read and write but all his attempts had so far failed. He was one of those people that the system tends to ignore.

He was a very gentle and intelligent individual but there were linkages and processes in his brain that didn’t seem to work very well.

I wondered how he had managed to cope without learning to read and write. He explained some of his methods and as an example took me to the supermarket to show me how he shopped.

Simple things like fresh vegetables and meat and fish were easy but everything else was tricky because Tony relied entirely on the pictures on the packaging.

Sometimes he arrived home with things he didn’t want.

We progressed slowly and I got to know him better. He had led a fascinating life. He once walked all the way from Sydney to Melbourne, for instance. That’s over 700 kilometres.

He didn’t hitchhike or get lifts. He walked. After a couple of weeks in Melbourne he walked back again.

“When I got home I was waiting for someone to ask me where I had been, but no one had even missed me!” he said.

It was stories like that that got me thinking and I suggested he write them as a way of learning.

We would write each story slowly, spending lots of time on each word and sentence and then he would read them back.

When we’d covered his personal stories, we tackled other things that interested him.

Towards the end we had about 50 pages and I put it altogether in booklet form and printed it. He took it to his sister and mother and read the stories to them. You can link to Tony's booklet here.

Download My Stories by Tony Heffernan

Eventually the Abbott government withdrew the funding for the program and Tony and the other students had to leave.

Tony at least had the rudiments of reading and writing under his belt and I like to think it made his life a little bit easier.

He died of cancer a few years later.

At his funeral I met his elderly mother and she thanked me for helping him. I was flattered because I didn’t think it was such a big deal.

I was searching for something on my computer the other day when I came across Tony’s booklet and read it again.

It was only then that I realised what a remarkable man he had been and how poorly life and the system had treated him.

There must be millions of people like Tony in the world who deserve not so much our sympathy but our attention.

It was only a tiny piece out of my life but I’m forever grateful for having experienced it.

I would recommend doing something similar to anyone with a bit of spare time.

Comments

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Arthur Williams

Phil - "only a tiny piece of my life" maybe for you, but having just read Tony's story I believe what it contributed to his life was huge for him.

Thanks for sharing this with us.

William Dunlop

Very moving Phil. Slantie.

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