Schools of Fish by Alan Sampson, published by Finch publishing, May 2015. One never knows what to expect with book awards. I have been surprised and disappointed by many, and occasionally have felt the award was a worthy one. This time, I confess, I didn’t have high expectations. But I declare a bias: I entered for the Finch memoir prize for 2015 and was not successful.
Finch Publishing began their memoir prize for an unpublished manuscript in 2010; it is a worthwhile award of $10,000 and publication. I don’t know how many entrants there were for 2015; as far as I’m aware they don’t disclose this. But I’m pleased to say that I think Schools of Fish is a worthy winner. One thing that puzzles me though is that the author’s name on the book and in the press release is Alan Sampson, yet his eldest son Ben is acknowledged: “without him this story could not have been told”; and when I googled for reviews, I found this website in Ben Sampson’s name which foregrounds his role in the writing, and implies that they were equal co-authors. If so, why doesn’t Ben’s name appear on the cover of the book and in Finch’s publicity for the book, which gives all the credit to Alan. Why is Ben not a co-winner?
Moving on. It is not a literary memoir, but it is well written, and it carries you along on the momentum of a man’s journey as a Queensland high school principal and a father. We see a gradual and painful evolution from his model of discipline and success, to a much more tolerant, open-ended, intuitive approach to life and work. The catalyst of his change is his youngest son, Greg, who is diagnosed with dyslexia and becomes something of a rebel and a misfit. Alan, the narrator, is meanwhile bent on reforming a school with a bad reputation, while his marriage falls apart. When Greg finishes primary school he is enrolled at his father’s school, which is the source of some embarrassing situations, where Alan has to discipline his son, and is forced to recognise that his son’s disability is turning him into a misfit and a potential ‘failure’.
Greg has a saving grace, that he is an excellent surfer, and the ocean is his escape and his school of life. The transformation in their relationship begins when Alan decides to find out what is the source of Greg’s inner confidence and ability to face his fears. Alan decides to go surfing. At first, he panics when he finds that the surf is a place where he can’t use all his knowledge and power. He is awed by the power of the surf and his sons’ (Ben’s and Greg’s) power and mastery. Then Greg is overpowered by a barrel wave, thrown metres onto a sandbank, and carried unconscious to Emergency. He is in a body brace at Lismore Hospital for days, waiting for a definitive diagnosis. Alan sits with him, and on the second night, begins to cry. Greg surfaces and begins to murmur. In the most beautiful moments of the story, he recites a poem by Judith Wright, The Surfer:
Last leaf of gold vanishes from the sea-curve. Take the big roller’s shoulder, speed and swerve: Come to the long beach home like a gull diving.
And then more poetry, more poets. Alan is amazed: “He’d hated books ever since the day he realised he couldn’t read them.” Another one he recites is Five Bells by Kenneth Slessor.
As Greg floated back into unconsciousness I followed him quietly, imagining my boys teaching and reciting poems together in the surf all those times, or in their car, or tucked into sand dunes when there were no waves. Teaching with no teachers, learning with no lesson.
What more can you say? This is the climax of the story for me. Ben recovers, after months of rehabilitation, and returns to surfing. Meantime, Alan questions his teaching and leadership model and finds a better one:
The real goal for all students was to be able to think beyond their fears, to think for themselves and to know they didn’t have to be intellectually excellent to live an excellent life.
Greg is the key to his realisation. Alan’s heart and mind have been opened, and he translates his new ethic of teaching and learning into the administration of his school, which, in 2009, wins an Outstanding award for School Culture. Academic excellence follows but is not the goal. Outside the classroom, Alan continues surfing with Greg, and in Bali, surfs the impossible wave.
‘Inspiring’ is an overused word, but this book truly deserves it.