Speech Delivered by Kate Fagan (’90) at our Annual Awards Day – 11th September, 2007.
Principal and Deputy Principals, distinguished guests, staff, students and ex-students:
I’d like to begin by thanking you all very much for inviting me back to James Ruse as a guest speaker at today’s awards ceremony. I was delighted to receive the invitation, and I am both delighted and a little astonished to discover just how many of my old teachers are still working at the school..! There can be no better indicator of the strength of this educational community. As I see it, that kind of dedication must be nourished by a deep well-spring of belief in the school itself, and especially in you, its current students. It’s an honour to return to a place that gave me so many happy memories, and where I learned dozens of things that still travel with me.
I’d also like to extend my big congratulations to every student receiving an award today. Treasure the moment — this recognition from your teachers and peers is a unique thing, and you can let yourselves stop to enjoy it, and take pride in your successes.
Having said that, I also want to congratulate every one of you in this hall simply for being here, as I know the school attracts and encourages a very talented group of new students each year. Although you may not be celebrating an award today, there is probably little difference between you and the person sitting beside you who is being applauded. While they may be taking home the Oscar this year, and nothing can diminish their achievement, I’d like you all to think of yourselves as nominees for the very same award… which must make this one of the most well-attended red carpet events happening right now in Australia.
This morning I’ll just say a little about the life I have led in my seventeen years since graduating from Ruse in 1990. I must admit the number ‘17’ shocked me slightly, when I realised most of you weren’t actually born in the year I left school! But while times may have changed a great deal since then, I’m sure some of the challenges and decisions you face today are identical to those I faced as a teenager. There are some things that remain constant across generations. Alan Best is still running the music department, for one thing. And five of my ex-science teachers are still here, which must make the James Ruse department of potions and transfigurations second only to that run by Professors Snape and McGonegal at Hogwarts. I see the Jim Hoskins auditorium still has a lovely grand piano, too, which I will play a little later on, and which I last played on the morning of my Year 12 farewell assembly when I joined the Year 12 rock band to perform a cover of a Faith No More song. (I’m not sure that JJJ would have ‘Unearthed’ us for our performance…!)
Last week I returned home to Australia from a 3-month visit to the United Kingdom, where among other things I was fortunate to be touring a new solo album at music festivals across the country. I thought I’d share a few memories of that trip with you, because they give a rough picture of the roads I’ve followed since leaving school. I performed one of my songs live on BBC TV at the Cambridge Festival, and gave a lecture and reading from a new book of my poetry at London’s Royal Holloway college. I was a guest speaker at the Cork International Poetry Festival, and spent a week living on a Gaelic speaking farm overlooking the Blasket Islands on the glorious south-west coast of Ireland. I saw a meteor shower in the last surviving remnant of Birnam wood, visited musician friends in Edinburgh, spoke very bad French in Paris (although you’d be surprised how much you can remember from Year 7 French lessons), and lived for several weeks on a canal boat with my brother James — who is also an ex-student of this school, and who qualified as a medical doctor in 1996 before moving to England to become a professional musician.
I now divide my working life almost equally between time spent as a publishing writer and academic, and time spent as a songwriter and touring musician. After high school I found my way to the University of Sydney where I enrolled in a combined Arts-Law degree. It quickly became apparent that I was more interested in being artful than lawful, and after three years, I abandoned my legal career and suspended my literary studies to take up a position as editor of the student newspaper Honi Soit.
For one roller-coaster year I devoted myself fulltime to the study of sleep deprivation and student activism, working alongside another ex-Ruse student from my year, Ravi DeCosta. Ravi also happened to be the bass player in our Year 12 rock band, and is now working as an Assistant Professor of Political Science in Ontario, Canada, where he has just published a book about Indigenous peoples and globalisation. (In fact, at this point, you’d be forgiven for thinking that if you want to publish books when you leave school, the best way to go about it is to immediately join the school rock band… possibly not a view shared by the teachers in your English department.) At the end of our year editing Honi Soit, we left the newspaper in the very capable hands of the ABC’s Chaser team, who were studying a year behind us, and who last week showed the world just how effective a couple of cars and a Canadian flag can be if placed in exactly the right spot.
After completing honours in literature in 1995, I began a PhD thesis in contemporary American poetry. My roundabout journey through doctoral studies involved several lengthy periods of time living in the cities of San Francisco and New York, a place very much in my mind today. I was equipped with little more than my story and a sense of exploration — and a passionate conviction that poetry, while it wasn’t necessarily going to bring fame and fortune, was definitely going to help me unlock the secrets of the universe and eternal happiness, not to mention defeating Lord Voldemort and restoring order to the wizarding world. I’m pleased to say I still believe it.
By the time I arrived in America in 1998, I had committed to the idea of becoming a writer, although it was never quite clear to me what kind, or exactly how to go about it. I started writing songs in my early twenties when I taught myself to play guitar, and concurrently began publishing short stories and poems in various Australian small magazines and journals. By the time I was 26, I was lucky enough to receive a book offer from Salt Publishing, an international press dedicated to avant-garde writing. My first book was launched at the Sydney Writers’ Festival in 2002 and soon after, I became the editor-in-chief of How2, an American-based electronic journal of contemporary poetry and scholarship. Since completing my PhD I have taught literature and poetics at various Australian universities, and am still employed as a part-time researcher in the Faculty of Architecture at the University of Sydney.
I have also worked since my teens across Australia as a performing and recording musician. I grew up in a well-known family of folk singers, and spent a lot of time hanging out at music festivals when I was the same age as many of you. Back then, I didn’t necessarily understand or appreciate the richness of this musical education — but it brought some of the most unusual experiences of my teenage years, while inspiring in me a love of travel and adventure, and an interest in musical and artistic cultures from around the globe. I now see my poetry and songwriting as inseparable elements of the same drive toward artistic inquiry, and I’ve been fortunate to explore both of them in all sorts of places in the world, with a slight sense of amazement that things have turned out this way. I sometimes feel language is my work but music is my breath.
When I was in my first year of high school I imagined becoming a children’s doctor. In my second year I wanted to study music or become a novelist. By Year 9, I wanted to be a vet or a biological scientist, and in Year 10, a political journalist. When I reached Year 11 I wanted to be a human rights activist, and by the time my HSC rolled around, I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to be, or what I was going to do when I left school. On reflection, this probably means I was on the way to becoming the writer and creative artist I now am. But as a seventeen year old, I was both afraid of the choices that lay ahead once I left the safety of the school community, and exhilarated at what I might find once I climbed aboard the train that was waiting on the day of my last exam.
Many of you may have wondered where the path beyond the school gate will take you. It can be daunting to stare directly into the eyes of change, and it’s completely normal to feel that sense of overwhelming possibility and uncertainty. I think it takes courage to admit you have no clear sense of what the future might hold. It also takes a little flame of self-belief, and compassionate support from people close to you — from your teachers, and especially your family and friends, who will continue to guide your life beyond your high school years.
As a teenager I could never have said for certain that I would end up working as a writer and musician. I can say two things with certainty, however. I know I am lucky to have a family who have always supported my choices with empathy and humour. And I was privileged in gaining at James Ruse a broad and detailed education that taught me, among other things, to trust my instincts, to ask questions of everything that came across my path, to look for the good in situations, and to work hard in communities alongside other people to find inventive ways of seeing the world.
There are times at school where you’ll make decisions that feel incredibly important, as though the world depends upon you saying the right thing, or giving the right answer, or making exactly the right choice. But luckily for us, life is incredibly forgiving. There are a thousand roads up and down the hill, and if you’re on the wrong one for a while, there’s plenty of time to find a different one. If you’re honest with yourselves and trust your own boundaries you’ll eventually find a right way to go. The more you equip yourselves for the adventure, the more rewarding your journey is going to be.
If I was asked to share a little bit of advice today it would be this: keep an open mind, an open heart, and an active imagination. Engage with things around you, even the smallest details, and reach out to catch opportunities that fly your way, even if they involve feelings of uncertainty. If something is making you feel pressured or unhappy, or if you don’t believe you’re doing the right thing — whether it be choosing a career direction or choosing your friends — then there’s probably a good reason to listen up and think about why.
We live in tremendously exciting, challenging, fascinating and troubling times. As you work out what the world can bring to you, in your own selves, you will also be deciding what you can take to the world and the people in it. There are responsibilities involved — to yourself, to your communities, and to this fragile planet — but don’t forget that as human beings, sharing your breath and destiny with 6 billion other people in every second of every day, you also have a basic human right to exist the way you want to, and in the communities that you choose to, free to experience the happy complexities of your lives. I wish you all the very best of luck and a lot of fun along the way.