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Back To School with John Marsden

Posted by Nadia on
June 1st, 2016

Student Edge interviews John Marsden, author of the iconic Tomorrow Series and principal of Candlebark School in Victoria. He candidly shared stories from his difficult days at military school and explained how his love for reading (and some time away in a psychiatric ward) became his salvation.

What were you like as a teenager?
It was a really bad time of my life. I had a really miserable few years, and I think I was very lost and confused. Looking back, I didn’t feel safe, that was one of the dominant feelings. I was trying, somehow, to negotiate a way through a world that I found very confusing and that led me further and further down a pretty depressing path in a quite alienating and depressing place.

Did that have to do with going to a military school? Was that part of that type of education?
No, I think there are lots of teenagers who get through teenage years gratefully and cheerfully, without any significant problems and that’s often overlooked. I don’t think that had anything to do with that time of life uniquely, it was more about the context in which I found myself in, and the school was certainly part of that. It was very authoritarian, very strict, regimental, very obsessed with unimportant details like whether you had a button done up, whether you tie was done properly, that seemed to matter more than anything, which didn’t suit my style, I have to say.

Was it hard for someone with creative aspirations in a military school setting?
Yeah, the idea of creativity wasn’t really recognised. We were expected to turn up on time, behave well, and get the marks past the exams. There were few people who played musical instruments and I wasn’t one of them, but outside that there was an art room which was often abused, vandalised even. All in all, it wasn’t seen as a creative hub of activity.

Some people might not know that you funded your school in Candlebark, are there things that you wanted to challenge about the structure of education?
When I was 15 I was already thinking “This is wrong! These guys don’t understand how a school should operate.” I was completely baffled as to why they could possibly think that they way they were running a school was the best way to do it, because it was so obviously defective. So I was sitting in class thinking “If I run the school, this is what I’d be doing.” And I finally got the opportunity many years later.

Few students get to execute that feeling of “This is how I’d do it!” Going back a little bit, I understand that you studied law at the University of Sydney. Was that your plan, to become a lawyer?
It seemed like a nice thing to do in the high state professions and something that involved a lot of reading and talking, which I enjoyed. I didn’t really understand much about it, but if I wasn’t doing something associated with science or maths then there weren’t many choices left and that seemed to be the most respectable and desiderable of the choices remaining.

How did you come to the decision that it wasn’t for you?
It was one of those moments where I was sitting in the cafeteria of law school and it was about six o’clock at night and the final year students were coming down the stairs for the evening classes. There was an army of them, poured in this cafeteria and I sat there thinking “I cannot join this army.” I’d already been in one army long enough. I thought “I can’t do this, it’s just wrong for me.”

You’re a very accomplished author. Was it difficult to conceive a world where that could be your sole career? You went into teaching, or did you want to do both things – writing and teaching?
No, I didn’t discover teaching until I was about 28. From the first day of the University course that I did I thought “This is great! I can’t believe we’re allowed to do such interesting things.” It was a very subversive course, they told us to go out and subvert the schools of New South Wales, to change the system, which I loved. But being an author, that was just a daydream, just one of those things to occupy yourself while sitting on a train. I never seriously expected what happened, just a nice fluffy picture I could have to get time pass away.

From going to school and becoming a teacher and now funding your own school, do you find that the issues concerning young people have changed all that much?
The concerns are still the same, but I think this is a really good generation of teenagers, much more enlightened than we were, much more compassionate and much more aware of global issues and wanting to do stuff about them. There is idealism about today’s teenagers, which I admire greatly. There’s still a percentage of them who find great difficulty navigating adolescence but then there’s a percentage of 40, 50 and 60 years old who find it difficult to navigate that stage of their lives. I think this demonisation of teenagers is completely unwarranted and doesn’t do them any favours, for sure.

What were the kind of issues that inspired you to write so often and so well about teenagers?
I think I was in such an intense moment of my life in my teenage years and writing about teenage experiences…I think I was trying to find my way of understanding what it was really like for me, but at the same time there was a bit of missionary side about wanting to give teenagers a sense of the potential of life and how you can manage things when they go badly.

What were your coping mechanisms? How did get to the other side of it? Because sometimes when you’re a teenager it’s so hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
I read – compulsively. I obsessively read up to three books a day sometimes. It was like I was living in a fantasy world a lot of the time, and I don’t think that was terribly healthy, but if I hadn’t done that I wouldn’t have survived. I think it’d have been much better if I’d had a strong group of supportive friends, and a different family. But I didn’t have those things, so books were my salvation. When I ended up in a psychiatric ward, and I was there for some time, that became my salvation. I know some people have negative experiences with psychiatry but that was my situation. I’d say that time in the hospital and the years that followed saved my life and gave me a different understanding and a different perspective and an ability to cope much more successfully with adversity.

I guess it hard looking back at those times, wondering “Well, do I have regrets of that period?” or “Did it work out?”
I definitely have regrets, I feel like I have treated some people badly, myself I was treated badly, but I felt like a cork in the ocean, just being washed along, having no control of anything. That’s not a very healthy position to be in, but that’s what it felt like. I think one of the little mantras that had a difference to me was realising, eventually, that moods do change and no matter how depressed, or angry or frustrated or alienated I may be, that wouldn’t last forever. Maybe in five minutes time, or in a hour time or in days time or in weeks time, I’d have different feelings. I kind of clung to that for some years as a way of getting throug those dark periods.

Is that the advice you give your students when they come to you for similar issues? Or some other difficulties? What do you say to them to come through?
I don’t give advices, just listen and respond to what they say. I think one of the things that many teenagers need to know perhaps is that they might find themselves eventually in confrontation years with their fathers and that can be a quite critical moment in their lives. For boys, and sometimes girls, that’s almost a universal experience. And when that moment comes you have to win that battle, or else you’ll live in your father’s shadow for the rest of your life. So, whether it’s over a game of chess, whether it’s racing along the beach, I do think that pretty much all young men and many young women have these pivotal moments where they have to defeat their father in any significant way, and some people crumple to that moment and never come through. Other people find the strength to go ahead and win that battle, that can be a life-changing experience.

Did you have that moment?
Yeah, I did. And I think if you fail at that moment, you risk becoming the complete adult we all should aspire to be. But if you find the strength to defeat your father at that moment, then you are more likely to have a successful adult life.

Watch the full interview here!

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