East State School Anzac service held in 2000. Teacher-librarian Paul McMillen is the driving force behind the Anzac service held at the school each year.
East State School Anzac service held in 2000. Teacher-librarian Paul McMillen is the driving force behind the Anzac service held at the school each year. contributed

The message of the Anzacs

ANZAC Day at Bundaberg East State School in 1993 was an unceremonious affair all but indistinguishable from the weekly whole-school assembly.

To the school's newly appointed teacher-librarian, Paul McMillen - my father; a traditionalist who carried a briefcase to work, and coupled shorts with long socks pulled up to his knees - the spectacle was an embarrassment.

On that April morning, 250 primary school-aged children sat fidgeting on hard concrete, scarcely paying attention to what was being said by the adult addressing the student body.

At one point, as the restless murmurs grew, an admonition was delivered in a raised voice: "You should be showing more respect for what was done for you in the past!"

To which any of the students wearing bright green shirts that morning might have replied: what, exactly, are we supposed to be respecting?

It wasn't clear.

The remembrance 'service' was little more than a dull formality composed solely of adults talking down to children.

The teachers' hearts didn't seem to be in it, either.

In all, a thoroughly forgettable occasion.

Then aged 38, and having recently transferred from a deputy principal role at a nearby primary school, McMillen had neither a particular interest in military history nor a connection to the armed forces.

Yet something hidden stirred in him that day.

Soon, he approached the school principal, Doug Ambrose - himself a recent appointment; a no-nonsense sort of bloke who wore a bushy moustache - and said, "I think we can do better than this."

"Kids today watch war movies that are 'glitz and glamour'; full of massive explosions and CGI," Mr McMillen said to his boss.

"They have very little idea of what war is like. If the kids are going to respect Anzac Day, they need to have ownership. If their peers are running the service, it'll belong to them more than a teacher talking to them, as they're used to in the classroom."

In response, the principal gave his new teacher-librarian the nod to proceed with his plans.

After Mr McMillen's year of preparation outside of his regular duties - tasks which included networking with the local RSL, writing scripts to be read aloud by the Year 7 students, and building anticipation among the classes that visited his library each week - the school's Anzac Day service of 1994 was a "monumental occasion", says Mr Ambrose.

"It was new ground. The response from the kids and the parent community was astounding; it was one of those special moments."

A senior student played the 'Last Post' on trumpet.

No adults spoke to the hushed crowd; instead, a dozen or so students.

The president of the local RSL attended, dressed in his Air Force uniform, as well as an Army Reservist who stood out from the crowd of 50 parents by wearing his greens.

Having sat on hard concrete throughout 12 years of unmemorable remembrance services during my own public education in Bundaberg, it is hard for me to imagine 250 children sitting in rapt silence, hanging on the words of their peers as they told stories of decades-old conflict and death under the watchful eyes of solemn men in uniform.

"I wanted the kids to come away from that first service thinking that they'd taken part in something that was worthwhile; that they weren't just wasting their time," my father - who recently turned 60, and is approaching his retirement - tells me on the phone from Bundaberg.

"I wanted to show them that war is actually serious; that people do lose their lives, and families do suffer from it. As a result, through loss, hopefully some good comes of it."

When we speak, he is in the final stages of planning Bundaberg East State School's 2015 service, The Centenary of Anzac, which will feature an appearance by impressive Army hardware such as two Australian Light Armoured Vehicles (ASLAV).

Last year, the ceremony's centrepiece was a visit from three Kiowa military helicopters similar to those that plucked stranded Bundaberg residents from their rooftops during the devastating floods of January 2013.

Mr McMillen arranges these visits months in advance by writing to the Department of Defence, and students are thrilled by the chance to examine these machines up close.

The theme for Anzac Day at Bundaberg East is refreshed each year.

Recent topics have included the battle for the Kokoda Track, the bombing of Darwin, and a tribute to animals in warfare, which featured a visit from an Army explosive detection dog as well as homing pigeons supplied by a local racing club.

Bagpipes and a trumpet cut through the silence at key moments. Uniformed servicemen and women are frequent attendees.

The sight of four Army Reserve members silently guarding the school's war memorial in a 'catafalque party' formation reinforces the gravity of the occasion.

There is none of the commercialisation of Australia's military history that has attracted criticism in recent years.

No money changes hands; respect is the only currency recognised.

These remembrance days are taken seriously by all involved; by the children, perhaps most of all.

Mr McMillen's idea of handing ownership to Bundaberg East's students - a number which has since grown to almost 600 - has been proven correct time and again.

Given adequate responsibility and encouragement, the children rose to the task.

"It's now become part of the ethos and culture of the school," says Mr Ambrose.

"There's an expectation among the community that the kids will lead it. The kids start preparing for those roles; that expectation moulds them as they grow."

An RSL initiative called 'Community Link' was first implemented in 1997, wherein students whose relatives served in the armed services are presented with credit-card sized badges denoting the veteran's service number, full name, unit, date of death and miniature ribbon representations of their decorations.

Over 550 of these badges have been presented to Bundaberg East students, who wear them with pride.

In October 2006, my father was awarded a Public Service Medal at Queensland Government House for "outstanding public service and contribution to youth in Bundaberg through introducing Anzac Day ceremonies into the school system."

Mr Ambrose is the one who nominated his teacher-librarian.

"I suppose I put myself into these things," Mr McMillen tells me when I ask why he - as someone with no military connection - took it upon himself to transform the school's remembrance days.

"I get involved emotionally, and that drives me. It does take a lot of my time, but I enjoy the satisfaction of the kids enjoying Anzac Day, rather than being bored."

Andrew McMillen is a Brisbane-based freelance journalist, and author of Talking Smack: Honest Conversations About Drugs (UQP, 2014). http://andrewmcmillen.com/

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