MANY years ago I was acquainted with a young teacher at a primary school that drew many of its pupils from the flats in one of those soulless high-rise public housing towers tossed up in Melbourne's inner fringe in the 1960s. Some of these children were sullen and withdrawn, some were angry tear-aways and many had learning difficulties.
For my friend the teacher, quite a few of her young charges seemed unreachable. She had been brought up in the bush with wide paddocks, agricultural shows and bike rides down country roads, surrounded by an extended family that had burrowed deep into a supportive community for generations. She may as well have been from Venus; her pupils, children from a vertical government-built struggle street, some of their families fractured by poverty and grim circumstance, were from Mercury.
She was, however, determined to find a way to begin understanding those children. She hit on the idea of handing out crayons and large spreads of drawing paper and asking the children to set about sketching their lives. She set aside her chalk and the ABC and arithmetic and told them to take their time. Draw whatever you want, she said. Just make it about yourselves. Your own lives. And she let them be. For days. Paper was screwed up and tossed around, crayons broken and used as missiles. But gradually, the kids became immersed in their activity, emancipated from the daily grind of prescribed learning.
What emerged was so remarkable that the teacher decided to exhibit the pictures in one of Carlton's early "art spaces". Parents and the public were invited and her pupils handed around cheese and crackers. The kids scrubbed themselves up and treated the whole thing with considerable gravity. For once, they were important; their work was the centre of attention. There seemed not a tearaway clown among them.
I recall studying the pictures mounted on the walls and finding myself flummoxed by a theme that ran through many of them. Amid pictures of stick figures standing before windows looking at nothing but sky, children laughing, the occasional confronting portrait of a little face with a tear running down a cheek or a mother yelling in frustration were a series of drawings that were beyond my understanding.
Marching across the drawing paper were oblong shapes. A big oblong here, smaller oblongs in a line. Had the teacher been coaching some of the children in some simplified style of cubism?
"No," she said. "They're pictures of buses and cars."
But there was no shape to them. Where were the wheels, the outline of a bonnet, cabin and boot; the sort of thing that children always drew when depicting a motor vehicle?
"This is how these kids see vehicles in the street," my friend the teacher said. "From above. The view from a window 20 or 30 floors in the sky, where they live. I had to ask at first, too."
It remained a haunting apprehension. Here was the perspective of children living in small flats in the sky, disassociated from the way most other kids see things. Would their unfolding lives remained squeezed into such a peculiar way of looking at the world, setting them apart forever from others whose childhoods include trees and broader vistas and cars with wheels?
The question came flying back this week as I studied a new series of pictures drawn by children in another government-provided place. These also proved abnormal and haunting. They were drawn by children on Manus Island, the Australian detention centre for asylum seekers stuck in the Bismarck Sea north of Papua New Guinea.
The Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young, whose opposition to detention for asylum seekers is well known, took the trouble recently of flying to Manus Island to see for herself the conditions in which families are forced to exist there. She was prevented from taking photographs. Australia's immigration authorities ban photographs of asylum seekers on the basis - pretext might be a better word - of protecting the privacy of detainees.
Like that Melbourne teacher of my long-ago acquaintance, Hanson-Young, in search of understanding, chose to give drawing paper and crayons to the children of asylum seeker families.
One child produced a simple self-portrait: a little boy with down-turned mouth staring through wire, the mere ghost of a woman sitting alongside, tears in her eyes. "My Mum is crying and I am sad," reads the scrawled caption.
Another little girl, signing herself as Saghar, stands apparently disconsolate, a school bag in her hand and the schoolhouse next to her boarded up, the word "close" slashed across it.
Yet another, by "Rockiya - 10-year-old in Manus", drew an open room with stick figures lying on the floor. "This is our block - three people passed out and there is no doctor. G48 is laughing and others are crying." (Each of the children identified themselves not merely by name, but by the alpha-numerical code attached to them by Australian immigration authorities, just like prisoners everywhere.)
Another 10-year-old drew a startlingly detailed picture of a jet airliner soaring towards a shimmering sun, three children holding hands by a palm tree below. The caption is straightforward: "When there is an aeroplane in the sky all kids start to cry and ask for leaving Manus with it."
Here was the opposite of that long-ago skewed image of disembodied buses and cars seen from far above by children stuck in the sky. The children on Manus look up, trapped on the ground beneath a blazing sun, hoping to attain escape to the sky. Each perspective is a ghastly corruption of what we might hope to be the normal view of the world through a child's eyes.
Years ago Melbourne's social planners and citizens came to the conclusion that ghettoising families in high-rise welfare towers was a recipe for disaster, dehumanising inhabitants and breeding generations of children susceptible to an environment rife with drug addiction and hopelessness.
The children detained on Manus Island have been there only a few weeks or months, but they are already incapable of sketching life in a normal child's manner. They are likely to be there for years. In our name. What might become of them? And how, eventually, will they see the rest of us?