My logophilic love affair began with a large black leather book with gold lettering embossed on the front. It belonged to my Pa, my mother’s father, and it sat on his brown laminated drinks cabinet right next to the equally as sizable Teacher’s Whisky bottle. This hard covered 1948 Merriam-Webster dictionary with 2006 pages, complete with carved indentations to mark the beginning of each letter, was the most wonderful book I had ever seen, and it was here that I began my lifelong quest to follow words around. Upon arrival at my grandfather’s house, with a wink he would nod in the direction of the room where this most beloved book lived and there I would stay. My adventure always began by turning to page 541—the letter “E”, the perfect place to start for a little girl named Elizabeth. On the first page of “E” entries, there was an illustration of an eagle, an ear, and a coronet of an earl. The dictionary told me that “E” can sound open or long, and when placed at the end of a word is generally silent, yet after letters such as s or j, changes sound completely. A clever and necessary letter I thought, and another quickly followed—because my name started with the letter E, maybe one day I might become something other than normally quiet, and instead find a crafty and needed place in the world.
A word about the words “awards”
I was and am still in love with this dictionary and in thinking about what I should say to you this afternoon, I decided to give in to my passion for words, follow my etymological instincts, and embark on a search for the heart of the word “award” itself. A noun and a verb, the general meaning of award today is “to confer or bestow as being deserved, merited or needed after careful consideration”. If we go a little further back in time to the origins of this word, we find the noun form begins life in the 13th century in Middle English “to decide”, from Anglo-French “awarder” or “agarder” to look at, examine or resolve, and from Latin “warder” or garder meaning to “look after”—to watch and take care. I then began to wonder what this might mean as applied to all of you—the recipients of an award. All of you have been bestowed this recognition because your passion for examining, resolving, watching, looking at and taking care, led you here—pause for a moment and think about this passion. What is the thing that gets you out of bed each day, the thing that makes the laughter and the tears that come with hard work worthwhile, the thing that fills you with joy for simply having shown up, the thing that makes you want to spread your wings and fly freely, the thing that makes you want to dance, rage and go farther than you ever have before? This passion has been your faithful and most necessary companion on your journey here, and the things you have said and done and felt and carried with this passion have woven a special kind of magic into the world, shimmering, touching and changing the lives of others as well as your own.
Change. Freedom. Passion. Hope. Joy. Love; these are the some of the words I am following around as I speak to you today. In accepting the Award for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters in 2014, one of my favourite feminist-science fiction writers, Ursula K Le Guin, said with urgency, that hard times are coming, and we are going to need writers—and here let’s take artistic license to substitute words relevant to us—we are going to need professional staff, teachers, educators, and researchers who can see alternatives to how we live now and imagine other ways of being, who can remember education as the practice of Change. Freedom. Passion. Hope. Joy. Love. It is your passion for education which led you here and the award you are receiving today recognises that spark. And, I can’t help but think, if we go back to the origins of the word award, that it is also a call to reciprocate the gift, to decide, to watch, to look after and to take care of the kind of world we all want to live in now, and in the future. This is an awesome responsibility and I hope you will hold it tightly with both hands and never let it go, you’ve got this, it’s time to begin, because if not now, when?
A lovable small bear in a blue duffle coat
You might be wondering then, what a bear called Paddington has to do with awards, passion and changing the world. As a little girl, Paddington was my favourite story book character who came to life in 1958 with the help of Michael Bond and Peggy Fortnum, inspired by newsreels of child evacuees with labels around their necks sitting alone on suitcases on cold train platforms leaving London in World War 2 and the story of Paddington goes something like this. A small and lone bear from the deepest darkest Peru was sent to London by his recently widowed Aunt Lucy who had gone to live in the Home for Retired Bears in Lima. She attached a note to his coat lapel that read, “Please look after this Bear, thank you”, hoping that someone would care for him. The Brown family found him, took him home to 32 Windsor Gardens, and decided to call him Paddington after the train station where he was found.
The small English-speaking bear wears an old brown hat, carries a tattered suitcase, sports a blue duffle coat with large pockets and wooden buttons and has a passion for marmalade, particularly orange marmalade. I loved Paddington’s duffle coat and wished for one just like it. My childhood home located in the Central Highlands in Victoria was bone-cold; complete with grey skies, lazy winds and drizzle, the cold was a constant companion for nine months of the year or more. I always thought if I had a thick duffle coat just like Paddington’s I might find some warmth. I didn’t mind if it wasn’t blue, any colour would do, so long as it was a duffle coat with wooden buttons and large pockets. Most important of all were the pockets; they needed to be big enough to fit a marmalade sandwich. Paddington’s strategy for dealing with crises that life brought his way was to always have a marmalade sandwich on hand. At critical moments in hard times, all Paddington needed to do was reach inside his pocket and pull out his marmalade sandwich, and voilá! Said sandwich consumed and crisis averted. Paddington’s pocket, large enough to hold a marmalade sandwich, was a pocket of joy.
It is with much joy that I have shared my passion for following words around as words of congratulations to all award recipients today. My hope is that upon receiving this award, you will take a lead from Paddington, reach into your very own pocket of joy each day and every night, take a bite of your version of a marmalade sandwich and remember the taste of passion that led you here. When you have finished, take two more slices of bread, a slab of butter and a spoonful of marmalade, make another sandwich, and continue to decide, to watch, to look after and to take care of the kind of world we all want to live in now, and in the future by sharing your pocket of joy wherever you go. We honour your achievements and thank you for the sparks of Change. Freedom. Passion. Hope. Joy. Love. you have ignited in the world, and I look forward to indulging in a marmalade sandwich or two with you at the conclusion of today’s presentations.