The Blackburn Open Air School
A WEAKLING’S JOURNEY
This shirt-story is a biographical account of the life-changing experience of HOPE that was gifted to the author, as a child, in 1953. In this 5000-word short story, you will meet the real-life girl who inspired the fictional character Emily in the the novels Escape and Dream and Fire and Land by Ryn Shell
1953 was a year of growing pains that helped me to win the greatest award of my life. Achieving that award gave me hope to last a lifetime and the endurance to survive the remainder of my childhood.
Before I can share my great award with you, I’ll show the lead up to it, starting with Christmas nineteen fifty-one. A woman wearing a black sequinned dress, two sizes too small, leads two sisters with her nicotine-stained hands onto the front veranda of a Victorian style building at 16 High Street, Kew, Victoria, Australia.
“Stay here and wait for Father Christmas.”
“There’s no such thing as Father Christmas,” my nine-year-old sister retorted.
I stared at Mum’s vivid lips as they moved.
“Just tell me when he gets here.”
She’s got red lipstick on her yellow teeth. I didn’t know if I should tell her. Safer not to.
The door banged behind our mum as she went back into the home she’d turned into a boarding house. My sis and I stood waiting, not talking to each other—we rarely talked to each other.
We fidgeted but didn’t dare to go back inside. You did not disobey our mother.
A Black Cabs taxi pulled up. Door opened. Men’s black shoes, then trouser-covered legs emerged. Disbelief—my sister and I stared as a man’s head and chest emerged next from the taxi.
“Daddy,” I shrieked.
He straightened as I flung myself at him. A year of not hearing from him instantly forgiven.
My sister stood back—a frown on her face.
Ignoring her, I grabbed Daddy’s hand and tugged him inside. She could tell Mummy that Daddy was home. I wanted him all to myself. How to entertain and impress him? Five-year-old’s in the fifties didn’t have iPads, but I did show him my possessions, just like a normal kid today would.
I bent and pulled out my potty from under the bed.
“You can pee in it if you want to.”
“Where’s the bathroom?”
I led the way, dancing a jig on the step that allowed me to reach the wash basin. I looked at Daddy; he had his trousers open. All black and hairy there—and scary. I bolted. Didn’t know why I was so frightened.
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Continued in Hope a Short Story by Ryn Shell in online bookstores.
Photograph captioned ‘Food and Fresh Air’. PROV, VPRS 14562/P6 Miscellaneous Photographs, Negatives and Slides and Ephemera [Education History Unit], Unit 5.
Photograph captioned ‘The Rest Hour: Sub regmine eucalypti’. PROV, VPRS 14562/P6 Miscellaneous Photographs, Negatives and Slides and Ephemera [Education History Unit], Unit 5.
Letter from Victorian Railways to the Director, Education Department, 19 May 1923, reporting James Rutherford is caught on an out-of-date open air school’s weekly ticket. PROV, VPRS 640/P1 Central Inward Primary Schools Correspondence, Unit 1666, Item school 3850.
Hope given away is never lost
I’m one of the lucky ones who grabbed the hope offered and multiplied it.
The transformation of my physical and mental health during nineteen fifty-three has influenced my life. Not a moment of my life has been wasted. I’ve trained for and worked in mental health care, ethical business management, motivation and art therapy. My childhood has been fictionalised in several novels to show resilience and love winning out in the face of crime and betrayal. My husband and I, together, have won two environment protection awards for our work.
My studio looks out across bushland I love. I stay attuned with nature, continue to obtain eco-therapy from open air surroundings and am currently growing our fruit and vegetables. My husband and I regularly bush walk, as we’ve done together for the past fifty years.
Passing on hope is important to me. I’ve been a voluntary art mentor with an Art For Empowerment Project, and I assist ethical authors though my Kathryn’s Book Blog’s authors’ mid-month cross promotion service. That voluntary work also rewards readers who subscribe to my newsletters. They get lots of special offers from some great authors.
Through The Public Records Office of Victoria and the Trove Library, I’ve discovered that the Blackburn Open Air School came about mainly through the efforts of Mrs Keast, president of the Forest School Committee and wife of the politician, Mr W. S. Keast, MLA.
Mrs Keast had a vision to create forest schools (open air schools) in Victoria along the lines of those first started in Germany. The concept had spread through Europe in a belief that fresh air would assist in the prevention and treatment of tuberculosis. She succeeded in raising £312 through public subscription to buy two acres of bushland in Gardenia Street, Blackburn, sixteen miles from Melbourne. This land was donated to the Education Department as a site for an open‑air school.
The Blackburn Open Air School ran for almost fifty years, opening in nineteen fifteen and closing in nineteen sixty-three, when it was considered of no further value. As for those questions raised in the government, asking if the Blackburn Open Air School was of any value, or if any child improved in health from attending the school, I hope this short biographical story reaches those officials and any who question the value of offering similar programs, adapted to suit current needs, in the future.
Do I credit much of who I am today to the “Hope For Weaklings” project begun by the forward-thinking Mrs Keast?
In Aussie jargon, which at the Blackburn Open Air School would have earned me a session over the washbasin having my mouth washed out with soap and water by the no-nonsense teacher--you betcha!
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Hey it's me, Ryn.
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