Encounter – THE AGE SATURDAY INTERVIEW
The principal of Winchelsea Primary School mothered a whole town as it tried to cope with the drowning of three boys in a local dam.
JUDI Fallon still remembers too vividly the funeral of a small child that she once attended. “He was a two-year-old. His father walked down the aisle of the church, carrying this little white box. I will never forget it, even though it would have to have been 30 years ago.”
So she knew how to respond when it was suggested that the children at Winchelsea Primary School act as a guard of honour for the coffins of the three Farquharson boys. “I said, ‘We can’t do that, because I can’t expose little tackers to being near little white coffins.’ You’ve got to be thinking of those sorts of things. So we put the coffins into the hearses; the children were lined up in front of the hearses and the hearses drove through. There was a distance between the cars and the children, and the children knew what was in the coffins but it was the hearses they saw.”
Children and death are a grievous mix, a mix that Fallon, the principal of Winchelsea Primary School, has learned far too much about it in the past two weeks. Two of her pupils, brothers Jai Farquharson, 9, and Tyler, 7, died along with their two-year-old brother, Bailey, on Father’s Day when the car their father was driving veered off the road and into a dam. Their father, Robert, escaped but all three boys drowned in the car.
Fallon geared up for emergency measures from the moment she got the call from a parent telling her of the tragedy at 11.10 that Sunday night. Winchelsea is a small town of only 1200 people and 190 of those are children at Fallon’s school. In a rural community, she says, “the school is the town and the town is the school”. The children are also closer to each other than city children; those of the same age have often gone to the same kindergarten and been with the same classmates every year at school.
Fallon is a small, determined and practical woman. She talks quickly in this interview, the story pouring out of her. It is hard to know whether the speedy delivery is her normal mode or the result of the enormous tension she has been under for the past fortnight. She is clearly a warm and open woman; during this interview a small child knocks at her closed door to show her a painting he did in art class. Later, in the playground, a little girl runs over to show Fallon the new Band-Aid on her finger. Both are utterly confident of their welcome.
Fallon has been at the school for only 41/2 years but has embedded herself deeply into the local community, her networks extending to all kinds of groups, from the Lions Club to the local police. She knew the shock and grief would be enormous.
She also knew that there were few protocols to guide her; in the next two weeks, she would rely almost entirely on her instincts. She undertook many roles: informal counsellor, funeral planner, media liaison officer. Fallon became the woman who mothered a small town through its loss.
That first night, she telephoned an Education Department manager and told him she would need grief counsellors at her school first-thing in the morning. She did not ring her staff: “They needed a good night’s sleep.” She lay awake all night, thinking of all the people who might be hit by repercussions: teachers, parents, bus drivers, lollipop ladies. Then she got up at 5.30am to face the hardest day of her working life.
At 6.30am she began phoning her 15 teachers to tell each of them personally; over and over she recited the news. When the staff arrived at 8am the grief counsellors were waiting for them. Fallon told the weeping teachers about trauma and handed them pamphlets of symptoms that they or the children might suffer. Shock is not just an emotion; it has a physical effect on the body. Fallon sent her secretary up the road to buy chocolates and jellybeans for staff and students. “When shock hits, you get chemicals in your system and sugar is an excellent way of coping with them. Sweet drinks, sweet food.” She laughs bleakly. “We absolutely bought out their confectionery department, I think.”
Fallon herself was having trouble believing the news: “It’s like, ‘This can’t be happening!’ It took me a long while to accept that there were three little boys lost. I mean, I’m a mother. I can’t imagine imagine losing one of my children, let alone having your whole family wiped out. You ask yourself why. You ask yourself how. But I just go into what I call work mode. You’ve got a job to do. And if you fall apart, who’s going to lead?”
She had students bring the school flag down to half-mast. Then she took the morning assembly in front of 190 children and more than 50 adults. She explained that she had sad news and told them the facts as briefly as possible. She told parents that counsellors were available for them and for the children. “The counsellors were fantastic,” she says. “The children were allowed to come in and out of the library whenever they chose. Everyone was told that they were allowed to do a drawing or a picture or a story. The thing is to get children’s emotions out. Children actually cope better than adults. Adults don’t want to talk about it, but children ask the hard questions.
“We got the community policing squad in first-thing Monday and we sat the grade five and six kids (Jai’s class) down to explain how an investigation might go, hypothetically. Because the kids were asking, ‘Why did the car go down? How long did it take the car to go down? How long would it have taken before the boys died?’ They ask those horrible hard questions, and that’s what you’ve got to give them the answers to.”
Younger children were also imagining the children’s deaths but were satisfied with much simpler responses, often the ones they made up for themselves. Fallon spent a lot of the week on yard duty to keep the media at bay, for fear a distraught child would be further traumatised by being photographed. “I was down in the sandpit with the little ones and one of them said to me, ‘I know, Mrs Fallon, how Tyler died. He didn’t have his seatbelt on.’
“And I said ‘Oh, I think he might have had his seatbelt on. He probably released it to try and get out.’ But ‘Oh no, if you don’t have your seatbelt on you die.’ To him, that was the explanation.
“And another one asked me, ‘Do you think he would have drunk much water?’ And I said, ‘Let’s hope he kept his mouth closed.’ And the child said, ‘Oh yeah, that would have been sensible.’ To her, that was fine. To me, it was . . .” And she makes a strangled sound, as if no word can express the ghastliness. “They think those things. They have visions in their heads. Once we told them it was normal to have visions like that, normal to ask questions, normal to have trouble going to sleep or bad dreams, they got through that and moved on.”
It was suggested that the school should suspend specialist programs such as religious education. Fallon resisted. “I wanted to get the school quickly back to routine. That was just gut instinct too.” She peals with laughter: “It works for me! It also does work for children when they’re upset.”
As well as hovering over her students and staff – Fallon was particularly worried about Tyler’s teacher, a caring woman who had taught him in both prep and grade one, and Jai’s friends, who were old enough to understand the finality of death – Fallon phoned the grieving family every day.
“Mum was still in hospital (sedated for shock) and Dad was an absolute wreck. It took a few days to work out what their wishes were, how they wanted to do things. They were at a loss. And the coroner hadn’t released the bodies, we had to work our way through that. And then a couple of days later Robbie (Farquharson) was taken in for questioning; I had to deal with the homicide squad as well.”
Questions remain about the accident, which left no skidmarks on the road. The car was found with its lights and engine turned off. “My aim was to make sure that everyone was aware that the two parents were supporting each other,” she says firmly. “And the kids need to feel that too . . . This sort of thing can bring a town together. It can also destroy a town. At the moment, here, it’s brought them together.”
There was a torrent of communication in the wake of the tragedy. Fallon received more than 200 emails of support from other principals, and established a sympathetic correspondence with the principal of the Balwyn school that lost two boys to a stabbing just days after the Winchelsea tragedy, and to the Sunshine special school principal who lost a student in a house fire. She phoned her staff every night to see how they were travelling (“Because it’s when you get home that you reflect”).
And she fielded 50 or 60 media calls a day. “There must be a newspaper somewhere or a small radio station up in Upper Quambatook or wherever that hasn’t rung me, but I guarantee everyone else has. And that was something I hadn’t planned for at all.”
Fallon had been asked by two older members of the community to handle the media, a task she took on “to protect Cindy in hospital and Robbie at home . . . So I’ve learned a little bit about the media now. They’re doing their job, that’s all they’re doing. If you give them the little grabs that they need they are happy, and that keeps them off your back and everyone else’s.”
Fallon seems to have a native shrewdness that stood her in good stead in this regard. The grandfatherly man who edits the local paper was given hot tea and warm advice when he came around after the funeral almost too upset to write his report of it.
But when a bigwig from Channel Seven rang, Fallon bartered with him: she would give him an interview if he would put in a request for her to Essendon coach Kevin Sheedy. He agreed, and Essendon footballers – the Farquharson boys’ team – will come to the school next term to help with its memorial garden and to speak to the children on how to handle adversity.
And how does Fallon get through adversity? She schedules. She held her own grief at bay until Thursday morning, the day after the Farquharson boys’ funeral; she cried for the first time when her staff gave her flowers and a card to thank her for her strength and support. But then she rallied again and is holding off until this weekend, the start of the school holidays.
“I’m not quite sure when it will, but it will hit,” she admits. “It’s like you will stub your toe and all of a sudden the world will end and you will think, ‘But this was just a stubbed toe!’
“And it will have nothing to do with the stubbed toe, just with what you have bottled up and not let go. But I have a gorgeous family and two wonderful daughters, and they will look after me.”
MILESTONES JUDI FALLON
· Born in Melbourne
· Degree in marketing, Monash Caulfield, followed by career in advertising/marketing
1975 and 1979
· Birth of daughters
· Returns to university to train as a teacher
· First teaching job, at Traralgon Primary School
· First principal’s job, at Hamilton Primary School
· Principal of Winchelsea Primary School
First published in The Age.