To all our amazing JustZeusBooks fans out there.
I’m going to tell you a story because, at JustZeusBooks, that is what we do best. Why, you ask? For your utter entertainment and admiration of course, but this story is not only heart-warming; it may actually bring a tear to your eye because it’s quite unbelievable, but believe me, it is true.
I shall start with its title. No better way to name it but after whom it is about, Riely. A boy, just like our Billy The Brilliant, wanting nothing more than to grow up strong and bold and incredibly unique. In fact, Riely wanted nothing more than to just grow up. So, here goes…
We’ve all heard of a Christmas miracle, where something simply amazing happens. The heroin reaps the reward of having a dream come true right on the doorstep of Christmas Day. Happy ever after. The End. And, I’m sure we’ve all heard the saying, ‘Christmas in July’, which to an extent resembles the same origin; a miracle of similar Christmas-esque’ scenario, occurring only in the middle of the year. Well, my ‘Christmas miracle’ and ‘Christmas in July’ came at once; last week. To add substance and, of course, suspense; I must first tell you of the boy named Riely and my association to this story.
As I do at the beginning of most school years as a teacher, I prepare for what is going to be another magical year of unforgettable experiences and ultimate life long learning. That’s right, I forgot to tell you I’m the world’s most amazing teacher as well as the coolest new author in town (I would add some sort of emoji to suit my self-amorous confidence if I could). Anyway, another component of my yearly preparation time, every year, is the mourning and awful pining of my previous year’s - never to be replaced angels, most call ‘students’. I promise myself I won’t lose contact with each, monitoring their progress and, this alone will make sure they become the people I know that they are capable of becoming. Something though puts all of this into perspective every now and then. That is the reality each of us are faced with eventually, that frightful thing called death…
It was 2012. The times were slightly different, the Australian nation were battling issues now forgotten and the Tasmanian financial crisis was starting to take full steam. Personally, I was battling a footballing hangover, the previous year was every footballer’s dream- State League Premiers, undefeated champions, winning the Brownlow Medal equivalent, the Tassie Medal individually and then the injuries that follow 12 months of hard work. I didn’t think for minute I was going to meet twenty-six more ‘angels’, let alone a kid that would change my outlook on footy, schools, kids and even life.
Riely was born with many foetal deficiencies and was lucky to be born at all. Amongst having a bowel and heart a quarter the size of a, dare I say it again, ‘normal’ child, Riely’s insides were more or less on the outside. As you could imagine, it would take a miracle for Riely to ever leave hospital. As history will tell you, this little magician wove his wand and pulled a rabbit out of hat to survive the ensuing surgeries; which were a plenty. To think he had just been to hell and back, and that wasn’t enough, within weeks more damage was to be done. Riely would never be able to grow at the rate other new borns, and, with a little nurturing, he could soon have a giant heart to compensate for organs that would fail to comply with regularity.
Unfortunately, when Riely asked for care, he got pain. When he wanted warmth, he was given nothing more than a cold-shoulder. He needed love to fill his eyes with twinkles- Riely received domestic violence and more. It was ‘something’ his life, ‘something’ from one’s darkest realms of your imagination. Riely has a mother and a father and even several siblings. The only problem was, they didn’t want him. They saw this miracle as vermin. It is hard to swallow but sometimes life serves rocks when kisses are ordered. It wasn’t until Riely was three years old when he finally had news of hope. The best part of a gloomy, rainy day is that we get to witness beautiful rainbow (I tell my kids that all the time). In this case, the rainbow was his 5th cousin (that’s right 5th), Gwen and her daughter, Carol. They are truly heaven sent. Never could anyone meet two humans so caring, selfless, warm and kind. This was what Riely needed most and there they were. They welcomed him into their lives and those who knew Riely thought his life, although most likely short, could now be fulfilled with what he needed most, love.
Regular visits, sometimes weekly, to the hospital ensured Riely would make it to Primary school age and that some socialisation could take place. Many often think school is for the education, so that students can ultimately make enough money to support a family and be happy. Riely proved to me that school is about relationships. Without the ability to form authentic relationships, happiness will never be achieved. The relationships we form inspire us, shape the way we feel, think and act and most importantly, strengthen our self-efficacy. They make us who we are. Those without this culture instilled in their school experience have probably unknowingly missed out on perhaps the most essential ingredient to living a happy life, regardless of its length. Riely soon met Dekota. She was not dissimilar to Riely in many ways; neglect overrode her life. Difficulty fitting in would be their connection and the overwhelming joy of being around each other, their force field, protecting them from the harmful reality of school. Most students would come to know the two quite well, bullying would always be an issue, but the mightiest of concern would always be Riely’s health. Teachers found it difficult to allow Riley to enter their classroom under a cloud of truism and the need for differentiation. This exacerbated his already alarming gap in academic development amongst his peers. One thing though, always held strong for Riely, his vivid imagination.
Riely read because he wanted to explore the depths of that utopia that is our imagination. His detailed reviews of literature of all kinds enlightened everyone around him. He was unable, however, to translate this amazing intellect to his work and constant and sudden dips in his health meant persistent stagnation at school, socially and academically. Riely’s peers moved forward with each year and grew taller. Riely did not. The class would develop ways to accept Riely for who he was but eventually Riely’s self awareness kicked in and by Year 5, he knew his health, coupled with this new self esteem issues, would prevent him from ever fitting in.
Enter Timothy Bristow.
Let’s hold for a moment, I’m not declaring myself as the messiah in this story or making wild claims of solving the issues of the entire western world, I am, perhaps by fate, entering the story at an intense time for Riely and his ‘Aunty Gwen’ which reveals a great crevice in the world of teaching. There are nowhere near enough males in this once male ridden industry. But that’s another story. I felt, having spent such a large portion of Riely’s 2014 alongside him, that I was always destined to share my stories and now, share his. My world would be forever changed for having met Riely.
The first day started with the regular, ‘sussing out the teacher’ visit from parents. Many would not return again to this Year 5/6 classroom, unless completely necessary. But for me, I was lucky enough to have frequent and always pleasant conversations with both Aunty Gwen and Carol. They would always inform me on Riely’s progress and if any emergency visits to the hospital were ever needed. To be honest, I wasn’t even sure of the extent of Riely’s illness for most of the first term. I knew he had been through some domestic trauma and that he was born with a few problems. I didn’t realise that Riley making it as far as he had, to get to meet me in Year 5, was in itself a blessing. To reflect, the idea of being a child is the soul inspiration for my journey to becoming an author. Whether it is reliving memories from my own childhood or through the eyes of those I am gifted the presence of on a daily basis. It is perhaps this admiration, the kids I teach pick up on. They know there is that two way respect, the knowledge that their journey is a shared one. A sense of belonging shows us all magic is created in the smallest of fashions. This feeling for Riely, I’m sure, made his school experience more special.
The weeks passed in Term 2 and Riely had missed close to every day. He had been flown to the Royal Children’s Hospital on several occasions and his health would play roller coaster for most of the year. One thing that did remain a constant, however, was his bright smile, chirpy personality and positive approach to every day at school. As time passed, the year was fast finishing and the realisation of my departure, perhaps never to see many of the now familiar faces kicked in. As a class, we reflected on what was great about being a part of our strong bond we called our team. We went around the circle (most activities I do in the classroom is done in circles) and listened to what each individual thought was special about our group. In this environment, everyone felt safe to share what was on their mind and their thoughts about the imminent departure of both the Year 6’s on to high school and their teacher. When Riely had his turn in the limelight, he did not say much but those few seconds will stay with me forever. He looked up at me with his innocent but wise blue eyes; they were watery and had a certain gloss. I looked him straight in the eye, despite the sound of sobbing from his peers around him. “I’m not alone…” he started, his calm voice with which I was familiar. The golf ball from within made its way to my throat and threatened to choke me there and then. He took a long and boisterous sigh, also something I had become accustomed to. “I’m not alone when I’m with you”. He spoke like he had been wanting to say that to me for weeks but knew a perfect moment would come along. Those words were simple yet paved a way into a huge dimension of darkness, stemming a lifetime of hatred, gusto and love all wrapped into one. For what we shared in those 10 months was enough to sooth his bitterness and agony in the previous 10 years. I felt honoured to have shared any amount of time with all of those kids but that small comment hit home what sort of impact adults have on children. Everyone deserves to feel special, to feel safe, to feel the magic in the smallest of ways.
To end the story there would show some sort of narcissistic pride in my job. It is not the point I’m making here. No one is privileged to have my presence, more over, I feel the luckiest person alive to have shared time with some of the most special people in the world. And they still have their entire adult lives to live. Imagine if we harnessed their brilliance. Think of the magic that each of these kids can create!
After the school year finished, I kept in contact with a few families and many of the students that I had taught. Let’s not forget Riely’s health. He went onto high school and got sick. He went back to school and felt lost within the halls that echoed each of his undersized footsteps. He got sick again. He went back and struggled to keep up to date with his work and the pace in which those around him moved from pre-adolescence into full-fledged teen hood, warts and all! Then he got sick again. The visits to the local hospital became visits back to the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne. The doctors urged him to think about the battles he had won in days gone by, when no one thought he’d triumph. And the time he wasn’t going to make it passed three months old or earlier. He, although only very young, could remember the time he thought he wouldn’t find love and the safety of a warm Aunty Gwen hug. This helped him to fight. To grit his tiny bucked teeth and hold strong. The needles and drips, the deep tone of every doctor’s voice, it all became a blur for this thirteen-year-old boy. The surgery count was now in the hundreds and averaged out at twenty per each and every year of his existence. His strength was always low but mentally he could move mountains. His Harry Potter cape and wand showed everyone he was seriously special. He was a magician; after all he had survived the trickiest of escapes, many times over. Who could ever argue his magic skills, for he was born with his insides out!
But Gwen sensed something was taking him, the light from within was starting to dwindle. I would usually correspond via email or txt message, and what started out as every few weeks in 2013, ended up being a quarter annual check in.
In 2015, whilst teaching what would be possibly the most inspiring bunch of students yet, an email came through from Gwen almost like an alarm going off, telling me to remember what and whom had come before the current group of Year 6 students. It was Riely. He had become frail and although steroids were supposed to help him gain strength, his 28kg, 14-year-old frame was starting to fail. Gwen asked me to send a card and give them all an update on what I had been up to. Her thoughts had hoped to give Riely strength to write back, to sit up and eat properly, to recover and more. So, the Superman cape was on again. I proceeded to do just that. Within days of sending, I almost felt reinvigorated in self-pride, I played hero and saved the day again. I forgot the whole reasoning as to why I had written in the first place.
I thought I’d wait until the letter was received and chat to Gwen and Carol then. This never happened…
The weeks grew long in the game of ‘wait’. Eventually, I checked my school pigeon hole and feared the worst. The letter had been sent back from the Royal Children’s Hospital. Riely was not a patient at the time of the letter’s arrival. Once more, that golf ball rose from within and found its way back into my throat. Had I lost my little Harry Potter?
I rushed to my email and wrote to dearest Aunty Gwen once more. I waited several days and soon, without any form of reply, I begun to internally face what could be the truth. The kid that had beat all odds may have lost his battle for good.
Another month passed and once more, I wrote to Gwen, checking in with no luck. I let it be. I had no other contacts from that school anymore; nearly five years had passed since teaching there.
What I could reside in was the memories and the motivation this kid had given me. The kid that teased me for always wearing shorts and showing off my “Mr Hairy-legs”. Those amazing jokes that only he understood. Even his uncontrollable flatulence that created havoc and an immediate, “evacuate, evacuate” message from me, much to the contagious laughing fits of the students. It is clear to me that one’s deficiencies, their imperfections are truly what make each of us perfect, the best version of ourselves! That is our little piece of magic that, as individuals, we share with the world.
So for the first time in many years, I strolled the pavement of the once familiar Launceston City Mall last week. I was preparing to launch Billy and his magical message to the Tasmanian public. As many seem to do when on return to a previous home, one reflects. ‘I wonder what my kids from past years are up to?’ I thought to myself. ‘Are they living up to the potential I saw in them?’ I continued to daydream. That was when my mind crossed to Riely. I started thinking what he would be like if he just stumbled by. Would he remember me? Would he be holding his famous magic wand, wearing his Potter-esque’ black framed glasses?
Like all adults tend to do, we lose track of important things and worry more about how busy we are and which items are yet to be ticked off our ever-growing checklist. I ambled on and lost the train of thought that filled my heart with that little hero.
Thursday night, launch night. The crowd cruised into the intimate location, Petrarch’s Bookshop. Past students and friends flowed in the doors and scrolled through books and mingled. This alone filled me with such an immense pride. Have I actually had an impact on those around me? The support I had offered to others may have now been paid forward a full revolution and returned to its original bearer, me.
The night was a huge success, which lead to an eventual book signing and photo session. The keen readers lined up to say hi and, of course, grab their signed copy of Billy The Brilliant. As the crowd dwindled, a young boy approached the desk. His book was pouched under his left wing, upside down. ‘Clumsy but cute’, I thought. He had medium length hair that was strangled into a minimalistic pony with an elastic band. His kooky bucked teeth looked intensely familiar before that cheesy grin greeted my gob-smacked face. The boy shifted his Potter-esque’ glasses in an uncanny manner, then he spoke. “Hi Mr Bristow. Welcome home”.
Magic is real. Although his wand had been put away and realistically never actually worked, magic had played its part on this day. This was a miracle. A Christmas miracle, in July. My inspiration. My Hero. Riely.
I always say, ‘there’s a little bit of Billy in everyone’. Never give up, fight for what you want. Go out and dream big. Make a real difference in this world. Magic is somewhere waiting for you to find it. If you can’t find it, create it. No one thought Riely would make it through the early days of his life, the ensuing battles and regular visits to hospital, yet here we are, on his fifteenth birthday retelling his truly inspirational story. Happy Birthday Riely!
JustZeusBooks. Magic is yours to create.
Riely with his hero, Hugh Jackman, as part of his 'Wish' thanks to "Starlight, Make A Wish Foundation", in 2015.