Connection

The creek by Simpson Kelly, pastel on paper, 18.5 x 24 cm, c.1948. Noel & Lily White Collection, Berndt Museum of Anthropology. [WU7563]

The creek by Simpson Kelly, pastel on paper, 18.5 x 24 cm, c.1948. Noel & Lily White Collection, Berndt Museum of Anthropology, The University of Western Australia. [WU7563]

When teacher Noel White arrives at Carrolup in May 1946, he is unable to communicate with the Aboriginal children. They sit sullenly and silently at their schoolroom desks.

‘The first week at school with our new teacher we were all scared stiff. I think if it wasn’t for the ever present smile of Mr Whites we would have all stormed out of the school and ran for our lives.’ Revel Cooper, 1960

‘Mr Whites’ eventually connects with the children, through an education and personal development programme he develops with the help of school inspector Charles ‘Sammy’ Crabbe. The programme involves drawing, singing, dancing, drama and story-telling, as well as Mr White’s natural empathy and inspiration.

Mr White takes the children on regular bush rambles, encouraging them to ‘truly observe’ what they see and draw it in the classroom the next day. He has never drawn or painted.

The children still live in squalor, since Noel White is told that he must only involve himself in education. The Department of Native Affairs is in charge of the children’s living conditions. However, Noel’s wife Lily obtains some cotton bolts and teaches some of the girls to make new clothes for all the children. She also takes over the kitchen for a while; the quality of the food improves markedly.

The children lose their fear and gain confidence, and their schoolwork improves dramatically. The boys’ drawings, initially done in crayon or chalk, keep improving. Noel and Lily, who has now become a teacher at the school, do not fully appreciate how far the children have developed their skills, until Sammy Crabbe points out that the drawings have become ‘something quite remarkable’.

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