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I was the mad, magical school teacher of Watabung

 source: Story and images by Keith Jackson & Friends: PNG ATTITUDE

Trevor Freestone

DURING MY TERM as a teacher in the Eastern Highlands I gained the reputation of being a little mad. I don’t think I deserved such a title, although maybe I was a little crazy, just because I did unusual things.
I gained a real interest in using the local culture in any way I could. For example I designed a school uniform based on the Scottish kilt but with a local grass skirt as a sporran.
Watabung School Toilet_Freestone
The school buildings whenever possible would incorporate traditional designs.

Our school cultural days were always spectacular with the teachers and children enjoying traditional dress and dances.
I also gained a real interest in magic and, as well as shows at our school, we performed at Goroka Teacher’s College and Goroka High School; raising money for their student councils.
We also did a show in Goroka for the Red Cross to raise money for them. (I write we, for my students were also involved in presenting the shows.)
Then I learnt about pyrotechnics and conducted a display at Watabung for the official opening of our school library. Then I was asked to put on shows for national day celebrations at Goroka and finally for the Independence celebrations in 1975.
1970s Watabung library (1988 photo)
I believed that school had to be an exciting place and that the students, besides working hard, had to be having fun.

I also believed that children needed to be able to assess everything told to them. By being involved in my magic they came to realise that not everything was true even when your eyes told you otherwise.
Thus I come to the point of my story. Magic.
We had lots of fun but it could prove dangerous especially when doing shows for the local people. I was threatened with a bush knife when I turned an old man’s pig into a chicken.
He was very angry until I changed the chicken back into the pig. He ran off and would never come near me again.
Another time, in conjunction with senior teacher Omahe, we designed a special box. One afternoon after lessons we set up the box and Omahe climbed in.
I performed a little traditional dance and, when I opened the box, Omahe had changed into a stone. His wife had been invited to watch and was crying her eyes out.

Teaching in PNG
Too late I told Omahe that he should have explained to her what we were up to. He laughed and said she was about to get a knife to kill me as she thought I really had transformed him. (I explain how this trick was done in my book Teaching In Papua New Guinea.)

Following the success of this trick we designed a better version. It involved four children who climbed into the box. After my magic dance the parents who had come to watch discovered that the children had changed: one into a stone, one into a cabbage, one into a coconut and one into a fly. I grabbed the fly and gave it to the boy’s mother telling her not to let it fly away.
Eventually after all the gasps of amazement, I did everything in reverse and the children reappeared. Being great actors they showed huge sighs of relief at being brought back to normal.
That night every village was talking about the trick. They put the children through the third degree trying to understand what they had seen. The children now enjoying their new claim to fame were not about to disclose how it was done. Instead they played along.
The boy who was a stone said he could not move but could see everyone. The boy who was a fly explained that he was afraid his mum was going to squash him when she held him in her hands.
Watabung Kids_Freestone
This happened in the early 1970’s and, when I was fortunate enough to visit Watabung 35 years, later everyone was still talking about the magic.

Naturally they wanted to see the tricks and word soon got around. So before I left I did shows at Watabung, Mando. Goma and Goroka.
So was I really the mad school teacher? You decide.

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