Jo Dix Memorial Lecture @ Renmark High School

Recently I was invited to deliver the Jo Dix Memorial Lecture at Renmark High School. The Lecture is in honour of Jo Dix (son of Dix Engineering founder & a fantastic innovater & community builder in his own right) and is delivered to the Year 11 and 12 students with the hope of inspiring them to push through obstacles and achieve their dreams. This year the Year 10’s were also invited.

The lecture is hosted by the Renmark Rotary Club who gave me a lovely engraved pen as a thankyou gift. Following the lecture, Renmark Mayor Neil Martinson hosted a civic reception for invited guests from Rotary, Media and the RHS Senior SRC (where we ate some delicious scones!) which I also attended.

When asked to give the lecture, I was told it generally goes for 35-40 mins which is a relatively long time for one person to be speaking to a large group (350+) of teenagers in a school setting…..I was really struggling to find something interesting to say for that entire time!

Below is a transcript of the final lecture I delivered and a link to the handout I gave students and teachers.

Jo Dix Memorial Lecture

17th August 2011, Renmark High School

Hello and Welcome
Although I respectfully acknowledge the presence of our many guests, Rotarians, parents and teachers, I’m not here to speak to them, I’m here to speak to you – the students of Renmark High. You’re about to be let loose on the world ready or not and that’s a slightly scary thought. I don’t mean for you, but for the rest of us wondering what you’re going to get up to, how the world is going to treat you and if you’re ready and what kind of world we’re passing onto you.

I don’t know the answers to any of those questions. I don’t know what you’re going to get up to and if you’re ready and how the world is going to treat you. I don’t know what kind of world we’re creating and what kind of world you’ll create.

There’s a lot of things I don’t know. There are more things I don’t know than those I do in fact.

But there is one thing I do know. Life is scary, it’s hard, it’s confusing and painful but it is also precious. Incredibly precious.
There are going to be times when you make bad choices, times when you feel small and forgotten and lost. Times when it feels like things will never get better.

I’ve had those times too. Times when everything feels too big and hard and heavy. When it feels like there is no end point, no way to make it through into tomorrow and the next day and the next day.
10 years ago I was living a life that is so far removed from the life I have now that sometimes I don’t recognize it as my own. Sometimes I look back on my 16 year old self and feel like I’m watching someone else’s life. Like it was all a dream.

10 years ago I was working full time 50 hours a week working in a factory and living with a dead beat boyfriend who thought love was all about control and owning one another, and every conversation had the potential to end with me having bruises. I saw no value in myself or in my life. I was heading nowhere. I didn’t even know there was anywhere I could head.

I thought I had nothing to offer the world.

I thought that it would never get better.

That it would always feel confusing and scary and hard and painful.
I didn’t love myself enough to demand a better life.

I was 17 when my son Zach was born. He was the catalyst for change. It didn’t happen immediately but from the moment he was born, from the moment I first held his tiny little body in my arms the seed of courage grew until it was big enough to save us.

I loved him enough to demand a better life. I left his father and started a new journey.

Being a single parent was hard. Really hard. My son was tiny, still crawling and I was so small and alone and afraid that I wasn’t big enough to give us a better life. But despite all the doubts and fears I felt this rightness in me finally.

Shortly after leaving Zach’s Dad I was watching a documentary with my Mum called ‘Plympton High Babies’ about a school where they try and support teenage mums to stay at school and I was quite critical of the young mums they showed who seemed more interested in smoking and wagging school than being a good role model for their children or finishing their education and I said as much to my mum and she said ‘Can you do better?’ and I looked at her and said ‘Yes, yes I can’. And so the following week I enrolled in Year 12. I hadn’t completed Year 10 or even started Year 11 but I managed to scrape through Year 12 as a single parent, working 3-6 nights a week at the local pizza bar, volunteering one day a week with the local health service and spending one day a week participating in a youth arts program. Zach turned 2 a week after my last exam and I ended up finishing with a TER of 83.35%.

2004 was a tough year, a year that showed me how strong I am, a year that taught me I have something valuable to give, a year that taught me that indeed, I was worth something.

In that same year I was invited to become involved with a community arts project for teen mums called ‘Random Girls’ which changed the trajectory of my life completely. I was wasn’t interested in drama or the arts, I thought it was a waste of time and money and my only real experience of them had been in school where I’d been mercilessly bullied so I initially said no, but eventually allowed myself to be talked into going to the first session to see what it was like. That decision completely changed my life. That one session was like coming home. It was like finding something I’d been looking for my whole life but hadn’t know existed. A place where all of the disjointed skills and ideas I had about the world suddenly made sense and had a place and purpose. Random Girls was a yearlong commitment one day a week to create a performance work for the Adelaide Come Out Festival the following year. I ended up missing only two sessions, one for my Year 12 English Exam, one because I went to a weeklong intensive Drama workshop in Sydney!

I was given a powerful and perhaps once in a life time opportunity to see my story and myself as something that was inherently valuable and worth sharing. And the moment that perhaps sums that up most clearly for me is this – during the project we’d been working with a musician to record a folksong that was going to form part of the opening to the performance. About half way through the project we have a work in progress showing with invited audience and as we were standing in the shadows back stage awaiting our music cue, listening to the quite shuffle of our very first audience. I heard this voice soaring out of the speakers singing that beautiful folk song. And it was my voice, recorded only a week earlier – they hadn’t told me there were going to use it! My voice singing and soaring out to all the people sitting in the audience experienced in a way I’d never heard it before. It’s an experience I never would have had without the little push I was given to start off with and yet it’s an experience that’s completely shaped everything that’s come since.

Since my experiences with Random Girls I’ve established myself as an artist in my own right, I work as director, writer and playwright with youth theatres, schools and independently. I sit on numerous community boards and committees and support our community as an employee, volunteer and parent, I’m also completing an external double degree towards becoming a secondary Drama/English teacher. And in January this year I was recognised as the 2011 South Australian Young Citizen of the Year – a big journey from having been a disconnected, disengaged, voiceless high school drop and teenage parent.

As some of you know I’ve recently started working at Renmark High as a Senior School Mentor – when I was offered the job here, I jumped at the chance. Why?

Because I was a student here once too. This is the school I left as a 15 year old, this school is the place I was disconnected and disengaged from.

I hated it here. I absolutely hated it. I hated the students, I hated the teachers, I hated the buildings, I hated everything about this place when I came here at the beginning of Year 9. I just wanted to be anywhere but here. In the end that was part of the reason I left school early though it wasn’t the only reason. I should just say here that this is also the school I returned to complete Year 12 (I didn’t want to let it beat me!) and the experience I had in Year 12 was completely different – because I was different.

High school actually sucks for a lot of people for a lot of different reasons. For me there was this feeling of disconnection and isolation even when you’re surrounded by people smiling at you. The feeling of closeness with others but still feeling like no one really actually gets it, gets you.

I left school after the first Term of Year 10. I moved to Adelaide to live with a boy who wasn’t very nice to me but was the first to show any interest. He didn’t want to work so it was up to me to support us and so I left school to work full time but it wasn’t really a hard decision to make for me. Although I had a group of friends and my grades were in the B & A’s generally, I felt disconnected and dumb. I absolutely believed that I wasn’t smart enough to finish school and there was no way I’d ever be able to get into uni. That I’d never make anything of myself and that I wasn’t attractive enough for anyone to ever want to date me. I didn’t dream big dreams. I didn’t know they existed for me.

I was wrong.
Completely, utterly and deeply wrong.

The life I have now is proof of that. I have a beautiful child, a partner, friends and family who love me and who I feel connected to and supported by. More job opportunities than I can handle. I’m managing a Distinction average for my University studies despite juggling study around my other significant commitments. I could never have dreamed this life 10 years ago. Never. I could never have envisaged life being this joyful. This precious. I really didn’t think I’d make it to be 26. But here I am.

I should also probably mention here that I HATE public speaking, I’m standing behind the lecturn so it can hold me up! When I moved out of home at 15 I was so intimidated by speaking to other people that I couldn’t go food shopping by myself because I didn’t feel comfortable talking to the check out chicks. Yet this year I’ve been invited to speak in front of thousands of people, including addressing over 300 people in June at Government House in Adelaide as the guest speaker for the Queen’s Birthday Celebrations. Life can change and it can be different to what it is now. You can be different to what you are now.

Every day I feel incredibly lucky, really, really lucky. Lucky to have a family that loved me and believed in me and to have had people who came into my life and challenged me to dream. Who saw something in me worth nurturing and fighting for in small ways and in large ways.

Everyone had their own opinion of my choices but in the end they were still MY choices. For better or for worse, and every choice I made has built the life I have now.

We’re all presented with choices. Everyday we’re presented with choices.

Small choices like what to wear or eat for breakfast and big choices like our partners and our careers.

We’re also presented every day with the opportunity to be a leader.

Every single day.

What do I mean by Leadership?
I’m not talking about bossing people around or public speaking or any of those things. I’m talking about caring. That’s what Leadership is really about. Leadership is caring about those around you – and doing something about it. It’s that simple. There is no perfect formula, no miraculous combination of personal attributes. Of course when we think about well known leaders we can think of some shared attributes and try to emulate them – things like intelligence, creativity, compassion, perseverance & passion. But there are many different kinds of leaders, not just the ones we write about in history books or give awards to, each of us every day has the opportunity and the ability to be a leader.

So this is the challenge I want to give you for what remains of this year. To care about others and do something about it. To have courage and compassion and to know that what you choose matters and your actions and words can change someone’s life – perhaps in big ways or perhaps by tilting them just enough you can help them find a better road. This is something each and every one of us can do every day – look for people who need nurturing and offer them our time and our compassion. We can remember what it was like to be afraid, unsure, nervous and offer words of encouragement to a new student, help someone pick up the books they’ve dropped or smile at passers-by on the street. We can smile at ourselves when we catch our reflection in a shop window or passing tram. We can be kind.

You can do that and guess what – you should do it. You can build the kind of world you want to live in, right now, you don’t have to wait to be 18 or have a car or a job. You can do it right now. I want to see the imprints of your choices in the world around me because I know every single one of you has something precious and unique to offer – something that only you can give it. So be brave, talk to people you’ve never spoken to before, ask out your crush, volunteer, give your absolute all to whatever you’re doing – whether it’s a paid job, school homework, washing the dishes for your parents, babysitting or hanging out with your friends. Be present for your life. And don’t let the mistakes you make, the fear, the doubts and bad choices cripple you – they’re just the building blocks, they don’t define you. I dropped out of school when I was 15 and had a baby when I was 17- those things could have been the blocks that toppled me but I chose to let them build me instead. They are the fabric of who I am and make up the sum, they are not the whole. There is nothing you can mess up that is so bad it should steal the rest of your life from you.

So here’s 4 things I want you to remember this year and every one that comes after it:

1: be proud of what you contribute – whatever it is big or small it’s valuable and it does make a difference.

2. Bad choices don’t define you, Mistakes don’t define you. You are not the things you get wrong. What does define you is what you do next. How you deal with the consequences, how you overcome those bad choices and mistakes and what you build from them

3. This one can be hard but – get out there, get to know people, ask questions, be curious,

This lastly is perhaps the hardest but most important – surround yourself with people who you love and who love you and if you can’t do that for whatever reason because some of us can’t at certain times in our lives – reach out to people who inspire you and who can help you find a place where you fit, because there is a place for everybody and you probably won’t find it in high school, some of you might not find it for 30 years and some of you might find it in 5 years but there is a place where you fit, where everything that you do and feel and understand belongs, and you will find it, and when you do find it, no matter how long it takes, it will have been worth it. It really will. I promise.

Have compassion and have courage and remember that there is nothing – Nothing- that you can mess up so badly that it should steal the rest of your life from you.

One of my dearest friends once said to me ‘You’re not falling, you’re flying and those bumps you feel along the way they’re just a little turbulence to keep you awake’.


Joe Dix hand out

The hand out has some favourite quotes of mine, suggestions for getting involved in the community and couple of things that inspire me.

3 responses to “Jo Dix Memorial Lecture @ Renmark High School

  1. Lee Knight (nee Chaplin)

    Hi Alysha, As one your your Year 12 teachers (Early Childhood Studies) who has now moved on from the Riverland, this is really great to read. I always knew you had it in you, as I watched you grind your way through year 12, but to read what you are now up to is amazing. So glad that you were awarded the Aust Day Award for Young SA Citizen. Well Deserved.


    • Thanks Lee (feels strange to call you that but weirder to call you Mrs Chaplin now!).

      It’s been a big journey and I’m an ongoing project – but the last 4 years in particular have been very, very special.


  2. WOW! You are an inspiration 😀


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s