Two days ago, an article in The Australian – ‘BackTrack project saving kids from lockup’ – featured the work of Bernie Shakeshaft, founder and manager of BackTrack Youth Works in Armidale. The article, which raised important points about keeping kids out of jail and working on alternative solutions to incarceration, mentioned how Bernie and the team at BackTrack commonly ask young people who join the program about their hopes and dreams in life. ‘It takes them a while to answer,’ noted Bernie, ‘because they’re not used to hearing that [question].’
The story of BackTrack and the emergence of Bernie’s hugely successful programs in Armidale and further afield are documented in my memoir Wild Boys: A Parent’s Story of Tough Love (UQP), and Bernie’s comment about ‘hopes and dreams’ reminded me of a chapter in Wild Boys called ‘The Scent of an Idiot’, some of which I’ll share below:
One day, as Bernie and I sat together on the concrete ledge outside the shed, I’d asked him what the boys were like when he first met them. He shook his head and grimaced: ‘They were the wildest bunch of hoorangs you’re likely to come across!’
I laughed at his pained expression. He found his tobacco and rolled a cigarette, his habitual way of settling in for a chat.
‘There were some damaged kids in that group,’ said Bernie, his voice low. ‘It was almost too late to start with them. Hard-core kids, on the edge of going inside for violent bashings, already identified as hopeless troublemakers, a lot of them living away from home. For sixteen years they’d heard the only thing that matters is getting a school certificate, only to be told: “It’s all bullshit. You guys aren’t going to get there.”’ Bernie gave a scornful huff. ‘The schools hadn’t worked on the strengths and dreams of those kids.’
He paused for a moment to light his smoke. ‘It was like getting a bag full of wild cats and letting them out in one room where they couldn’t escape. The schools kept saying I had to stick with the rules … that the boys weren’t allowed to smoke or swear.’ Bernie whistled through his teeth. ‘For Christ’s sakes, you send me twenty of your wildest boys – all full-on swearers and smokers and blasphemers – and tell me to enforce the school rules? It was wild!’ He grinned, his face alive with the memory. ‘We had knives pulled in the welding shed, and just as soon as you’d be finished with the knife incident, the boss-man from the college would be yelling, “What the hell is that kid doing up on top of that three-storey building!” The boys would show up black and blue, on the piss and smoking bongs. Not all of them ended up here at the shed – some did well, some not so well. One of them died, another’s in jail.’
‘It’s hard to believe the boys were like that.’ I thought of Thommo with his quiet dignity. ‘Was Thommo that wild?’
Bernie rolled his eyes and groaned. ‘He was the craziest! He and his mates were riding bikes into poles and dropping garbage bins on each other’s heads from the highest roof at school. Whatever someone did that was dangerous, Thommo did something double-dangerous. Thommo wouldn’t just jump off the third storey of the building – he’d want to jump through three sheets of glass as well. Taking it to extremes. Crazy self-mutilation stuff.’
We sat quietly for a moment.
‘I did a lot of that as a kid myself,’ said Bernie. ‘Hardly a bone in my body I haven’t broken – from having no fear or need for self-preservation. Dealing with those kids rang a lot of bells for me because, all those years ago, I would’ve been one of those wild cats let out of the bag.’