The Simpson Prize 2022 Awards Ceremony
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If I wasn’t doing this job, I would love to be a history teacher.
What a job.
Every day you get to jump in a time machine.
A new place. New people. New stories. New knowledge.
My history teacher did that for me.
His name was Peter Valenti.
And he took me all around the world. From his classroom.
He helped me understand not just what had happened in the past, but what could be in the future.
The power of people to do extraordinarily good and evil things.
And the power we all hold to change our lives, and the lives of others, for the better.
That’s why initiatives like this prize are important.
They put you in that time machine.
Back more than 100 years ago to World War One.
The Simpson Prize helps ensure we don’t just remember, but we learn.
And there is so much to learn.
I see it in your essays.
Mai’s essay about the women’s suffrage movement and how the war changed perceptions about the role of women in the workforce.
Katrina’s essay about Australian nurses on the front line.
Will’s essay about the Spanish Flu and Matthew’s essay about the shell shock and suicide of those who survived the war but couldn’t escape its demons.
You can draw a line between then and now.
I know you can see it.
The war lasted for four years, but its impact has ricocheted like a pinball throughout time ever since.
It triggered the rise of communism in Russia, and the rise of Hitler in Germany.
That in turn led to the Second World War and the Holocaust.
And it drew borders for new nations that affect the world we live in till this day.
The strains of the war divided us at home and changed us forever.
At its core though, as you have found, this isn’t a story about nations.
It’s a lesson about people.
Paul Keating I think put it best when he said:
“It was a lesson about ordinary people – and the lesson was that they were not ordinary.
“On all sides they were the heroes of that war; not the generals and the politicians but the soldiers and sailors and nurses – those who taught us to endure hardship, to show courage, to be bold as well as resilient, to believe in ourselves, to stick together.
“…that real nobility and grandeur belongs not to empires and nations but to the people on whom they, in the last resort, always depend.”
I think my favourite story from World War One is the one about Turkish soldiers on the cliffs of Gallipoli throwing cigarettes into the Australian trench, and Australian soldiers throwing back cans of Bully Beef into the Turkish trench, and the Turkish soldiers throwing the Bully Beef back with a note: "Cigarettes yes. Bully Beef no."
In all that horror and bloodshed, a bit of humour and humanity.
My own great grandfather fought at Gallipoli, and a couple of years ago I took a bunch of young people to that battlefield.
Some of them had ancestors who fought there too, on both sides.
We climbed the cliffs they climbed, we walked through the trenches they sheltered in, and through the blood-soaked, sacred fields they died in.
And we paid tribute to them at the headstones that bear their names.
And we did it together.
I hope that one day you will get to walk in their footsteps too.
That you will pass on what you have learned here to others.
That you never lose your passion for the past.
And that you keep in touch with your history teachers even after you leave school.
They have a lot of wisdom to pass on.
Peter Valenti and I still keep in touch and we get together for lunch twice a year.
I hope that you are so blessed.