Compassion and Education at Gum Creek Station

Host: Isolated Children’s Parents’ Association
Written by Lisa Macintosh, Gum Creek Station, South Australia.

Its 2018 and we are very aware that no two people are the same, that everyone can have their own opinion and that we must respect and encourage such. We strive to teach forgiveness, awareness and compassion to our children and neighbours, family and friends.

So, why then on so many important issues in our lives do country and rural people become so generalised?

As a group we are often looked upon as tough and hardworking, resilient and opposed to change, stubborn, laid back and stoic. It’s an easy picture for our city cousins to paint. The mum in her oversized country kitchen dusted with flour as she boils the kettle on the woodstove. Dad is on his way down the track that winds its way to the homestead after chatting with his stock and checking on the farm hands that are hard at work. The two well behaved children waiting at the gate for his return so that they can all sit together for morning smoko and discuss the coming rains. Sounds nice doesn’t it? But the harsh reality is that our days are busy and unpredictable and the kids are lucky if they see dad come in before they go to bed, like our city cousins no two country people are the same. And nor should they be.

Like many rural people our story may start the same, but it will never end the same and the middle part, the body of the story, will never match my neighbours, no matter how close or far they are to me.

We are the McIntosh family, our property; Gum Creek Station is situated in the stunning Flinders Ranges in South Australia. My husband Tom is sixth generation on the property and it makes us very proud to be able to tell people that our children are the seventh generation custodians of our little patch of paradise. From the outside looking in you might try to generalise us. We share the property with Tom’s parents like many stations. There are motorbikes and sheds and vehicles like many stations. There are yards that need work and fences that never seem to be done like many stations! But in all the things that make us similar to our rural counterparts there are just as many that make us different.

Our children receive their education through the Port Augusta School of The Air. They have a tiny schoolroom off the main house connected to the laundry, which I was told was very lucky as I could still maintain the mountain of washing that is produced whilst still being on hand to teach the kids! James is in year five and Emily is in year two and ever since James graduated to year two we have secured the services of a governess to supervise them. I remember when we finally decided to take on a governess; family and friends gave encouraging words on how it would make my life so much easier! And they were nearly right. See, taking on a governess was never about making my life easier. Truth be told I never employed the governess for me; she is employed for the children to help make their schooling career as varied and engaging as possible. Her job at this point in our lives is the most important job on the property.

Taking on a govie can be a rewarding experience for the whole family. Not only are they invaluable to the children, seeing our property through their fresh eyes can remind us all how beautiful and exciting it can be. Unfortunately they don’t just work for the love of it! It can be a financial struggle for some properties. Like a lot of things at Gum Creek we are a little different that in we are lucky enough to have income that is not derived directly from the land. I am a chef by trade and I hock my wares all over the state with my catering business to finance having the luxury of a governess.

It would be easy to generalise us here again, if our children are seventh generation landowners they must have farming in their blood, in their souls. They must get up at the crack of dawn feed the animals and do their chores all before setting off to the classroom to studiously learn their ABC’s. They must be hard working, stoic and laid back, probably not much fazes them.  If only! See just like everything else our children most of all cannot be generalised. Many times during our sons education so far there have been signs that pointed to the fact that James wasn’t a huge fan of the classroom. Many a time we brushed it off that it was his age, he was a boy, he was settling in to having Emily in the classroom… but eventually we had to stop making excuses and face what was becoming an overwhelming problem head on. He was angry and disruptive and his thirst for learning that he had always had was very quickly disappearing. Everyday would become a battle of heated words and tantrums, pleading and negotiating from both us and him. As he became more connected online he was becoming less connected and distant with us and he soon came to resent having to live so far away from his online community of friends. The romantic visions of kids in the bush doing school on the bonnet of dads Landcruiser on the HF with dusty scenes of livestock and endless horizons in the background are a long gone. The reality is that our children are tethered to their laptops for a good portion of the day. Gum Creek is in an area where mobile coverage is not available so the farthest the kids can go these days is as far as the Wi-Fi will let them.

So far we have been bloody lucky that the governesses that we have had and have, have been committed to helping James and Emily get the education that they deserve and have tried to instil in them their outside experiences of living in larger towns and communities. They always put the kids’ education and learning first and try to make their school experience as consistent and enjoyable as possible.

In a normal face to face school James’s behaviour would not be tolerated but he would be surrounded by people who are there to help him. After many doctor visits and plenty of advice from professionals telling us that maybe his environment was a major factor in his behaviour, we were at our wits end. How could this idyllic lifestyle we live be making him so angry? There were moments of clarity for him that made us more determined to get to the bottom of his behaviour.

Above anything else James has always been a people person. We often comment that he has been chatting since he was born, non-stop! We have always been proud of the fact that he can hold a conversation with adults and is a whiz at answering the phone!  He dreams of one day making his mark in the online world and seeks out the camera rather than shying away. But when it came to face to face school events with his classmates his behaviour would worsen to the point where we would consider not going. We knew how much he would love it and would always push him to go knowing that nearly every time a small miracle would occur in that by the end of the week after being with his classmates we would be taking home a calm and happy boy.

It was at the beginning of one such face to face gathering, after listening to James spiral out of control for the two and a half hour drive, that I dropped him off with his teachers and friends, and sat in the car and made a tearful yet life changing call to the mental health nurse with the RFDS. Within minutes of being on the phone I finally felt like someone could hear what I was saying and wanted to help. Although the RFDS really only deal with mental health issues for adults from age 16, within 20 mins I had an emergency appointment with CAMHS and we were on our way to helping James. By the end of that month James was diagnosed with OCD and Anxiety. Again let’s not generalise. No two OCD patients will be the same. James’s condition manifests itself in anxiety and obsessive behaviours that don’t include your usual neatness and precision. He is prone to bouts of crippling anxiety and outbursts of anger that for a parent can equally test your limits and tear you apart.

As the school terms fly by we see improvements in James’s behaviours and now know that face to face contact with his friends and teachers is crucial to help him learn to self-regulate his anxiety and learn what it is to be part of a community and where he fits in. He is learning that his actions will have consequences on his peers and this is something he can only discover himself by spending time with his mates.

It turns out being seventh generation doesn’t guarantee that you have farming in your blood and although Emily is country through and through and is making plans to live on the property forever, James is slowly discovering that his online world is not always as exciting as his world of lamb marking and mustering!

When it comes to our children country people do become stubborn, hardworking and resilient, we are in a constant battle to ensure our children are receiving equal opportunities in the classroom and beyond, we want what all parents want for their kids, that they can grow and prosper in whatever field they choose and that their in home education won’t hold them back. Of course our surroundings play a part in who we all are but please don’t think that just because my kids are bush kids they are any tougher, stronger or better equipped to handle what life throws their way.