Dedicated to Abolishing War, Establishing Justice, and Fighting Climate Disaster

Dedicated to Abolishing War, Establishing Justice, and Fighting Climate Disaster

The year was 1972. I had six classes at Oak Flats High School in New South Wales Australia. As a foreign teacher, I wasn’t assigned the sharpest academic kids. The classes were identified by letters, A for advanced kids and then it went to b, c, d, e, f, and h. (pronounced: Awe, buy, sigh, dai, ahh, f, haych—as pronounced down under) I had mostly e, f, and h. The h were mostly the poorest and often emotionally upset kids. I loved them all but they sometimes drove me crazy.

I got them out of the classroom as much as possible and they loved it. I even took them on field trips–excursions they called it.

But I found the best classes I had over a two-year period were the c and d kids … they had not performed well in the Aussie education system but they were smart kids–just turned off to what the kids called “chalk and talk.” They did get away with a lot in my classes. (I heard them say more than once about me, “Sir won’t get you caned” –all teachers were called Sir). Corporal punishment was common. The Subject Master would do the caning in the hallway, so you could hear the whoosh of a bamboo cane around the backside of some boy (girls were not caned). Just reporting a kid was enough for the Subject Master to perform his dirty deed (straps and canes for whipping could be purchased in stores that specialized in teacher supplies)

Coming from the USA with Socratic methods rather than being a “chalky” as some called teachers, was somewhat disruptive of the status quo. Chalkies put their info on the board. Kids were busy copying it all down. Not having kids copy my almighty words into their books meant I had to do my best to engage their minds rather than fill their notebooks with stuff. Socratic teaching was unorthodox for both kids and teachers. Some kids thought it all strange and some teachers resented my style.

Each day, I took in the Daily Australian, the national newspaper, or the Sydney Herald. Sydney, the largest city in Australia, was just two hours by car or bus from our school In Illawarra.

Oak Flats students on an environmental excursion to basalt headlands.

Getting kids interested in events around the nation was a chore. Since they were programmed to just put info in their notebooks (New South Wales Education inspectors came to classes and their only real interest was to see what was in the student’s books) kids who could sketch were especially praised—the inspectors were shocked at the paucity of information in my student’s books.

One day, I held up the front page of the Daily Australian and asked the kids what they thought about the lead story: “Adelaide Radioactivity up 1400%.” It led to a discussion about radioactivity and they got curious about how it was so high in South Australia, the southern state 800 miles to the south. They questioned why radioactivity was in South Australia. So I read the whole newspaper story to them. It explained that the French government was conducting nuclear testing in the South Pacific Ocean. The huge explosions sent radioactivity around the world with much of it falling on the Australian land mass.

I asked them what they were going to do about this.

They were puzzled. “What do you think we can do, Sir?” said one girl. So, of course, Socratically, I had to throw it back to them and ask them what they thought could be done.

Before long, they got angry at the French. And some macho boys were ready to propose violence toward the “bloody frogs.”

There was a chance to try some diplomacy so I had one of the girls, a recent immigrant from England with a nice accent, go to the office phone and ask the secretary if she could call the French Embassy in Canberra, the national capital about 150 miles away. She was to ask the French if students could arrange to have a meeting with the ambassador to talk about pollution in France vs Australia. No mention of radioactivity. She was back in about 10 minutes or so with information that the Ambassador was back in France but they gave her the number of the French Consulate in Sydney.

The following day, the same girl called the French Consulate and spoke with the secretary of the Counsel General. The secretary spoke with the Consul who said sure, he’d be delighted to speak with school children about pollution. A day and time were set.

I went to the Head Master and told him my fourth form class (sophomores) was studying pollution (a hot topic, since Australia was piggybacking on the first Environmental Day in the USA). He was delighted that I was willing to do this and assigned a young woman student teacher to be with us on the bus ride of a little less than two hours each way.

The kids were pumped to go to Sydney–the big city. They stayed after school each day to make signs and posters for the trip to the French Consulate on Market Street in the heart of towering buildings and fancy shops. We did not let others know the political nature of our visit, so our signs were based on the assignment I gave them. to study the nasty things that the French have done over the centuries–the slaughter of so many people by Napoleon Bonaparte, the Dreyfus Affair (and other anti-Semitic episodes), the wickedness of their colonialism, the horrors of the French Foreign Legion and the misery of their penal colony off South America (French Guiana) known as Devil’s Island.

Additionally, they went door to door with a scroll that read: “Australian children and other living things ask the French to stop testing nuclear weapons in the South Pacific.” I don’t recall the number of signatures they got but there were pages and pages, and no one turned them away.

As the day of the excursion to the French Consulate neared, they pleaded with me to allow them to wear jeans and not the school uniforms that all Australian students K through 12 wore. Of course, I gave in but had them wait several blocks away from the school.

The evening before the trip to Sydney, I used a pay telephone (we didn’t have a phone in our house) to call  the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and other media. I told them what would happen at the French Consulate the following morning. “You sound like a Yank. What’s your real intent in doing this, mate?” I was asked. I said that in addition to having many Aussie kids as students, I also had four of my own living in Australia. I told them that they must have been aware that wind shifts might bring New South Wales and other areas into radioactive zones.

I told the students on the way to Sydney that they may be interviewed by the media. They should be prepared to answer questions about why they were coming to the Consulate and their concern about radioactive materials and what the French needed to do etc. The kids were ready.

As the bus made its way down busy Market Street students could see tripods with cameras set in front of the tall building that housed the French Consulate. As soon as the 35 students emerged from the bus, microphones were put in front of them  and TV cameras rolled.

I had already assigned about eight students to walk up and down the sidewalk with their posters, all depicting the French as historic people violators—and of course, the iconic 1960s flower poster tweaked to say: “Radiation is not good for children and other living things.”

We went into the building and took a huge elevator, big enough to hold all 25 or so of us. It stopped at the 17th floor with a clear glass door making visible rows of desks and cubicles and workers moving about.

In minutes, a pleasant-looking man looking like a caricature of a diplomat–pinstripe navy blue suit and sporting a thin mustache–greeted the students with a big smile.

His English was excellent with a heavy French accent. “What can we learn about pollution today?” he asked.

I had only one aboriginal student. He walked to the Consul General and handed him the scroll about French radiation in Australia. “We want the French government to stop polluting our country with deadly radiation,” said the boy. The Consul General stood back a step and looked seriously around the crowd of students, and held up his hands. “What do you ask that we do? We must test somewhere.”

Immediately, a boy called out, “Test in your own country!” The Consul turned down his lips and said in his heavy French accent: “But there are too many people in France.”

The diplomat thought for a few seconds and then unrolling the scroll of names of Australian people who signed on, said: “I will send this to President Georges Pompidou”. He snapped his fingers (remember this is 1972) and a woman came to him. He spoke in French as she wrote down his words and was off to relay his message in a wire to Paris.

“I asked President Pompidou to accept your scroll and to consider your request about testing nuclear weapons in the Pacific. I wish I could do more for you.”

I thanked the Consul General for his gracious treatment of the students and his wire to President Pompidou. We went down the elevator and found the students who immediately told us that a man from the NSW Education department asked us why we were not in school, why we were not wearing our uniforms, and where is your teacher.

“He wrote a lot down,” one student said.

The school official didn’t need to. That night, my wife, Helene, and I went to a friend’s house who had a good TV and watched the evening news. Our caper made the top of the Australian Broadcasting News. Apparently, it was a first for high school kids to do a protest of this kind. Students were interviewed and I, with my Yank accent, was as well.

The shit hit the fan the following morning. I was pulled from class (another teacher took my class) and I faced two men who came down from Sydney to interrogate me. They took notes. Said I could go back to my class. Asked me to wait for a decision that would be made by the NSW Education Department.

That weekend, I searched for possible jobs in Indonesia, Japan, and Thailand. It didn’t look good. A week later I had another session with one fellow from the NSW Education Department and my Subject Master. My Subject Master, an easygoing fellow about 20 years my senior, explained to the Education Department inspector that “Mr. Gilroy is from an educational system that is not exactly the same as ours. He works to involve students and quite likely went over the line that he didn’t really see or understand.”

The inspector seemed to accept the excuse given by my subject master but before he left, he looked me in the eye and said: “Allowing your students to go on an excursion without school uniforms is a special charge in itself. I know that may not be the protocol in New York, but you’re in New South Wales, Mr. Gilroy. Please abide by the rules.”

I promised (almost with a sigh of relief) that I would.

That week, Sydney harbor dock workers refused to unload French ships and Sydney University students went on strike to protest French nuclear testing.

Members of the Union of Australian Women protest outside the French consulate, Sydney, on June 1, 1973.

Two years later, in 1974, Greenpeace sailed their Rainbow Warrior peace ship into the French nuclear testing zone. That same year, the French stopped above-ground nuclear weapons testing in the South Pacific.

Did the Aussie students have anything to do with it?

I like to think they did.

For updates from antiwar veterans and others in the movements for peace, social justice and our planet, subscribe to our newsletter.

You have Successfully Subscribed!