We asked Year Eleven student Billie Tumarkin to explore what Anzac Day means to her generation. She dabbled in some amateur psychology with friends and reflected on Anzac Days past. What did she find? Mixed messages about the day’s meaning, history lessons that bored rather than enlightened (‘like chewy meat’) – and the idea that if we want young people to engage with the past, we need to bring it to life in more imaginative and resonant ways. ‘You have to give us more than poppies and cookies.’
I ask some friends if I can play a game of word association with them. Everyone is worried – word association is something psychoanalysts use when delving into the unexplored corners of a deranged mind. It takes a lot of persuasion and a tiny bit of deception, but I get there.
Quick Game of Word Association #1
Feeling - ‘Fingers’; Letters - ‘Love’; Netting - ‘Hat’, Anzac Day - ‘Textbook’
Not so many years ago when I was in primary school, learning about what happened at Gallipoli took up our entire history quota. Once I reached high school, every time World War I came up, patriotism got the better of us and the Anzacs were virtually the only thing on the menu. (This led to one of my favourite dumb-blonde moments: a girl behind me, with wide eyes and a you-put-something-on-the-test-that-we-never-studied look, raised her hand ten minutes into the ‘Impacts of WWI’ exam and said, ‘Miss, what’s an impact?’)
In any case, the Anzac stories we commemorate have a tendency to fall out of our heads, along with trigonometry and the phonetic alphabet, the moment they’re no longer assessable.
Quick Game of Word Association #2
Shoes - ‘Feet’; Purple - ‘Barney the Dinosaur’; Eggplant - ‘Bulbasaur’; Anzac Day - ‘Biscuits’
In a slight contradiction to common sense, Anzac Day is the celebration of a battle lost. Maybe that is why the day sits funny with young people. We aren’t really celebrating anything, are we? ‘Our boys’ fell into disillusionment, they died, they never really came home.
What are you going to do on Anzac Day?
- Get drunk.
- Oh, the Dawn Service, I always go.
- Oh, the Footy, I always go.
- Finish all this work I have to do.
- It’s Anzac Day on Thursday? Seriously!?
We are reflecting on not just the Anzacs, but anyone who fought for their country – we know that. But we are busy. We live in a state of constant happening. And I could play therapist and say that the youth culture of ‘getting f-cking pissed’ is merely a subconscious honouring of ‘our boys’ being just like us – the legal age to fight for your country is also the legal age to drink.
But that would be bullshit. Gallipoli was almost a century ago.
Quick Game of Word Association #3
Stick - ‘Stone’; Pole - ‘Dance’; Time - ‘Clock’; Anzac Day - ‘Poppies’
Halfway through last year I found myself in Ypres, Belgium, at a World War I cemetery. I was there with my school’s European Tour Choir, performing at an annual Belgian memorial service commemorating the missing and the dead.
While I walked through endless rows of bones, the lyrics to one of the songs we were to perform haunted me. We are the dead. Short days ago, we lived, felt dawn, saw sunsets glow. Loved and were loved. And now we lie in Flanders fields. And as we all stood silent among the poppies, holding ourselves tight against the cold wind and the cold thoughts, not so far away I could hear two very loud teenagers. Just a young couple – part of some school excursion. They sat, consumed with each other, making out against a hedge that guarded a row of graves, and laughing. So loudly. All I wanted to do was slap them, make them aware, look around themselves – for when speaking with the dead, should we not remove ourselves from our little lives and enter into a place of timelessness?
Back home in Australia, it occurred to me that I was being unfair to this blissfully ignorant (and woefully unattractive) couple. Because the dead didn’t fight for us to stop time and mourn them; they fought so we could live, and live free. And, though it felt obnoxious and crude, this couple, in their saliva-exchanging glory, were doing just that: living.
On Anzac Day, we live – and so what if the majority of young people spend their day in a combination of sleeping, eating and drinking?
Quick Game of Word Association #4
Sky - ‘Up’; Walking - ‘Ground’; Name - ‘Word’; Anzac Day - ‘Help’
I am a bad history student: I can’t dot-point the past. The rigid structure kills me. When I study history, I fall into it. But Anzac Day bores me. A lot of Australian history is like chewy meat – too much time chewing over the same understandings that the rest of the world came to a century, or ten, ago:
Wars are not an adventure.
Wars are not glamorous.
Wars do not get you all the ladies.
My twelfth birthday was celebrated in St Petersburg, where I saw a film about a young girl in the 900-day Siege of Leningrad. Old women, men, tiny children, me – watching the story of a girl who hid herself in a cupboard to survive. And I, cliches and all, have never cried so much in my life. This was real history.
Babi Yar, with its shocking monument to the 30,000 Jews massacred; the Jewish Museum in Berlin, with its haunting architecture – these are memorials you cannot hide from. Anzac Day makes you feel like something important happened 100 years ago. These memorials make you feel like something important happened now.
If you want the past to resound with a generation to whom it is entirely foreign and unimaginable, you have to give us more than poppies and cookies. We are told, on Anzac Day – those of us at private schools get told it all the time – ‘You don’t know how lucky you are.’ Well, then, if we don’t understand, help us.
If you want silence, if you want attention, demand it, or we will just go back to our homework and cheap beer. After all, it’s a lot easier to commemorate the fallen from our bedrooms.
Quick Game of Word Association #5
Lamp - ‘Light’; Giraffe - ‘Africa’; Drink - ‘Yay’; Anzac Day - ‘Ned Kelly’s Hat’
BIllie Tumarkin is a journalist at The Under Age and a Year Eleven student.
Our Intelligence Squared debate will argue on both sides of whether Anzac Day is More Puff Than Substance at Melbourne Town Hall on Tuesday 30 April, 6.30pm.
Billie Tumarkin is a young writer and musician. She is currently studying classical voice at the University of Melbourne. Her work has appeared in Birdee Mag, the Hoopla, the Under Age and at wheelercentre.com. In 2015, she was one of Melbourne Writers Festival’s '30 under 30'.
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