CBC Fremantle | In Touch

I will love you forever

For me, as the son of Sicilian immigrants, growing up in the 1960s was a fairly Spartan experience. No TV, carpets, gramophone, radio, Coke, Fanta or Flakes and Polly Waffles. Never fish and chips, holidays, camping, a bike or swimming lessons. Once a year a visit to Rockingham Beach.

Although we ate well; lamb shanks, lentils, borlotti bean soup (pasta e fasu), T-bone steak, pasta al forno and ravioli, much of my childhood was spent pining for the lifestyle of my Aussie mates. There was no library at our house and given my parents’ poverty which led to a Grade 5 education, they could never engage me in Shakespeare, Homer’s Iliad and the poetry of Yeats, Byron or T.S. Eliot. Most conversations revolved around feeding the chooks, chopping kindling and wood, making sure the Braemar water temperature was never below 60 degrees Celsius and what happened to the other 3% when I brought home my 97% test result. My mother’s illness and death from 1974 to 1976 crushed me and by 1977 I was on the precipice, with enough of a foot in each camp, success or oblivion. What saved me were my teachers: Mr Harris for Economics, Mr Italiano for Chem and Physics, Mr Dullard for Maths II & III and Mr Graeme Emile Pougnault for English. Much of who I am today, and much of what I have achieved in life can be, in large part, attributed to these great, great teachers.

The reason I share this with you is the other week I was engaged in some text messages with a colleague who had just visited Sicily. Whilst over there she met my cousin (in-law), and during the text conversation she revealed she had learned to properly pronounce my surname, and that I was known by my cousin as Mimmo. She asked, “Where did that come from?” and I responded it was the Sicilian diminutive sobriquet of Domenico. In her reply she semi-chastised me for using a word she had to Google and why couldn’t I use words like normal people. For some reason I was awake in bed at 2.00am that evening and I started thinking why didn’t I speak like a normal person (if one exists). The answer I would have given my colleague had I had time to think was that I was not taught by a normal English teacher.

Graeme Emile Pougnault was my Year 12 English teacher. He was the epitome of everything my upbringing was not. Sophisticated, urbane, learned, a beautiful voice, well-read and full of the joys of life. The first time he wrote Flaubert’s name on the blackboard and asked if we knew of his works, my honest response was that the only Bears we were familiar with was Yogi, Paddington and Humphrey B. Not disheartened, Graeme led us on a year-long whirlwind journey of theatre, poetry, novels and novellas. I experienced my first visit to the Playhouse to watch Of Mice and Men, the Hayman Theatre to see A Midsummer Night’s Dream with Edgar Metcalfe, many films and many artistic moments. I played Stanley in our class production of A Streetcar Named Desire and ended up with a love of the arts, language, theatre, opera, poetry and public speaking that have remained with me throughout my life. Graeme Pougnault was my conduit to a world I never knew and may never had known. Graeme Pougnault helped form who I am as much as anyone, and I think of him often and lovingly.

You do some crazy things at 2.00am when you can’t sleep. Thinking about my colleague’s comment about not using normal words, I began to reminisce about my High School days and in that nostalgic mood I decided to try and find Graeme. I had last visited him in 1977 when he lived in Kensington, but that Google search came up blank. Not on Facebook. A few facts on his teaching career timeline on another site, but no information about where he might be now. Then on about page 16 of the search, up came ‘UWA 50th-Reunion-Booklet-for-the-Graduates-of-1966’. Bingo! There he was on page 51; a very brief self-written bio of the last 50 years. I started reading and as I got toward the end of the 147 word statement it broke my heart to read, “My rather uneventful working life was spent teaching with the Education Department”. Twelve words, dismissive, almost apologetic to describe the legacy of a wonderful man and teacher whose inspiration has remained with me for the past 42 years. A man who, with his colleagues mentioned earlier in this article, sustained me, made me feel loved, helped form my adulthood, inspired me to love language, to love and appreciate softness in men and did it without self-indulgence, selfish motivation or reward.  In fact, he didn’t even know he was doing it, as evidenced by his “rather uneventful working life” comment. 

By this time it was closer to 3.00am, and I was resolved to correct that humble perception. I started Googling the Whitepages and immediately got a hot lead. I had to control every urge to call the number right away, but by 8.15am, I thought even people who graduated Uni in 1966 should be up and about. As soon as he answered the phone I knew it was him. That beautiful, soft and melodic voice. “Hi Graeme, its Domenic Burgio here”. Long story short, I relayed less loquaciously what I have discussed in this article and emphasised his legacy was anything but an uneventful working life spent teaching with the Education Department. I let him know that he inspired me, and I guess hundreds of others, and lives on in them and certainly in me. I know that his influence is a large part of who I am, and every accolade I have ever received about my work should be shared by Graeme. Graeme was humble as always, indicating he had heard of colleagues who had received these kinds of phone calls, but had never actually received one himself. He thanked me for making his day, effusively congratulated me for ‘my successful career’ and we agreed it would be great to catch up for lunch or dinner. As I hung up the phone, I wiped away a few tears and thought how can a man so good, so dedicated with such a love and passion for his craft end up in the winter of his years with no-one ever having expressed their gratitude for the value of his work.

Parenting and teaching share two things. Generally the feedback you get is based around when you get it wrong. The default expectation apparently is perfection. So when you do a great job as a parent or teacher it is just de rigueur. Vocation or choice, the reality is that we all need to be nourished extrinsically from time to time. Had my colleague not semi-chastised me for using a word she had to Google, a whole series of events would not have unfolded and Graeme may have gone to his maker believing that despite wonderful achievements in many of his loves and passion, his work life was not that important. That would have been a tragedy for both Graeme and me.

What I would love all the readers of this missive to do is pick up the phone today. Look up someone who inspired you or contact your parents. Tell them while you can how they affected you and how they live on in you. Don’t leave it to others; others might be leaving it to you. Don’t wait for the eulogy. Too little, too late. Make sure that all the important people who have contributed to your formation share your success and never feel their life’s contribution has been one of being ‘rather uneventful’. 

Mr Domenic Burgio

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