I feel like I’ve been away from this blog for a long time. There has been so much to write about but other things – life – have got in the way.
Last Friday I was privileged to be a member of the audience when Barry Heard addressed our Year 9 students and spoke of his experiences during and after the Vietnam War. We are studying Michael Gerard Bauer’s ‘The Running Man’, a story that recounts the experience of a reclusive figure, Tom Leyton, who experienced time in Vietnam. It was an hour and a half that saw our students transfixed by story. Barry left nothing out and didn’t sanitise the experience. I’ve read works by Tim O’Brien that tell Vietnam like it was; Barry’s recount was on par with ’The Things they Carried‘.
Barry spent twelve months in a psychiatric institution. It was during this time that he wrote, ‘Well Done, Those Men’. He didn’t give it to a publisher until he had gone some way towards recovering from the post traumatic stress disorder he was suffering from. Its publication has led to thousands of emails and speaking engagements where Barry has been able to inform and enlighten many of us who need to hear this story.
This is Barry’s gift to us. I doubt that he would associate the word gift with his experience. But a gift it is. Some gifts come with sharp edges and teach us something about ourselves. I know that what Barry has imparted has been a gift to my students who have learnt much from the experience. Just reading some of the comments they have shared in our Ning has confirmed for me that sharp edged messages, although hard to hear, are important.
Four main things affected me most:
When he was first sent to war and dumped his bag on the bed, not knowing that it was a shrine to the mate of his tent-mates. I would feel really shameful and stupid, just flinging it there, so disrespectful to their mate, even though he had no idea what the significance of the bed was.
The story of the horses in world war 1 – how he’d always wondered why the veteran he knew collected all the broken-down, retired old farm horses etc, and saved them, and then finally found out that it was because of all the horses who died in WW1.
When he returned to Australia and went to university and was abused horrifically for something he’d had no choice in whatsoever. He hadn’t had any idea what he was doing, where he was going, what or where Vietnam was, or anything – he’d never wanted to go kill people, and then when he finally got out and came back he was beaten and shouted at and had …muck… thrown at him. Everyone was just so ignorant.
His mother’s last words: “My Barry never came home.” He’d changed so much… He didn’t mean to, but he did.
This was a truly moving and eye-opening experience, listening to Barry’s description, so flat and matter-of-fact and shattering. I cried all the way home in the car because I just had to share it with my mum. I’m really glad that I listened to this talk, even though it made me cry like a tap (and I don’t think that bench thing in the lecture theatre will ever be the same… )
I think that Barry Heard’s talk, or presentation (I’m not sure exactly what is was), was a little disturbing, to say the least. I’m glad he didn’t treat us like children and leave out some bits that other authors and such would have, but both my friends and I are having trouble wondering whether we “enjoyed” the talk or not. What he has been through was mind blowing, and awful, and the fact that he had been administered in a mental home just a few years ago made it seem surreal. When he told us that 3 of his friends from the war had committed suicide, and about his friend who had half his face blown off, and his animated “BOOMS” that seemed to make everyone in the room jump, well I think that it made it just seem a whole lot more awful then Tom Leyton’s break down. While Tom Leyton had been to the war, and had had awful experiences like Barry, I think it was just a small shadow of the reality of what people went through.
My reply to this comment was this;
You know, there are times in life when I think we need to be exposed to the uncomfortable realities of what some people are exposed to and have to endure. We lead pretty sanitised lives for the most part. If we don’t have opportunities to ‘walk in another’s shoes’ how do we develop empathy for our fellow human beings who travel a road far more rocky than the one we take? Yes Barry’s talk was disturbing, but it could also be described as enlightening. I awoke to some realities of the war experience and the difficulties faced by veterans on their return home to a country that didn’t have a lot of empathy for what they had endured.I think this talk has made us look at ‘The Running Man’ and the character of Tom Leyton with much more empathy. We have had an opportunity to walk, for a brief moment, in someone else’s shoes.
I can’t tell you how pleased I am that we have the Ning environment where we can share an experience like this. We have two threads running in the Ning at the moment related to Barry’s speech and we have had 35 replies. All of them express sincere feelings from our students and let us know how much they valued Barry’s words. Last year our student’s heard Barry’s words but no forum like this existed where they could share their thoughts about the experience.
Barry began his talk by showing us a pen and telling us it was his best friend. He told my students it could be their best friend too. I think some of them are starting to realise this. I know that the last year and half have taught me that writing is cathartic and leads to growth. Barry knows this; let’s hope that others who are carrying heavy loads can learn the same thing……
*My students created a wiki about Australian involvement in Vietnam. I am very proud of their efforts. They created the pages over three lessons.
*Be on the lookout for Tag, Barry’s latest work. My students are clamouring to read it after Barry’s description. Geoffrey Blainey emailed Barry to tell him it was the best account of the trench warfare in Gallipoli that he had ever read.