TUMBY BAY - When I finished high school in 1965 Robert Menzies was Australian prime minister. He had been in office for over 16 years and wouldn’t retire until the following year.
While my matriculation results were good enough to get me into university, I had little hope of going there. In those days tertiary education was almost exclusively reserved for the children of the rich.
Keeping university fees high was one of the ways the wealthy used to keep working class riffraff out of positions of power. The only way people like me could get into university was to score a Commonwealth scholarship.
Of the few that were available the most commonly taken up were bonded scholarships for would-be high school teachers. Many of the people who took them up got their degree, served out their three-year bond and then looked for the sort of work they really wanted to do.
I didn’t want to do that. I would have made a terrible teacher. My other options included a trade apprenticeship, which didn’t appeal to me either, or some sort of white collar job in retail or banking. I wanted to do something interesting with my life and as the career options rolled through my mind, they all seemed dispiriting and depressing.
Then along came the chance to be a kiap in Papua New Guinea.
I was languishing in an excruciatingly boring job in a bank when I saw the recruitment advertisement in a newspaper. This was the kind of job I’d been thinking about since high school and I grabbed the chance with both hands.
Looking back on that time and the subsequent opportunities that arose out of it reminds me of how lucky I was to have scored that job and spent time in PNG.
Being a kiap was a unique experience, not only for me but for hundreds of other young working class men. By and large those men were intelligent and resourceful. Many went on to worthwhile careers after they left PNG. Many also went on to gain the tertiary qualification that was out of reach when they left school.
In short, they achieved the potential that had been denied them by the class-ridden system that existed in Australia at the time.
The kiaps, of course, weren’t the only ones who benefited from the opportunities offered in pre-independent PNG but, as a group, they stand out as very successful.
So, when people ask me about my education and working life, I make sure to mention that I went to the school of Papua New Guinea.