OUTBACK EDUCATION IN THE ‘NOT TOO DISTANT’ PASTWarburton Ranges (WA) in 1974-75 (18)

On our return to Warburton, one of the saddest changes confronted was the way in which petrol sniffing had become ingrained among the younger set. Petrol sniffing had become a scourge, one making increasing impacts among boys and young men. At that time, unleaded petrol and the revelation of opal fuel was well into the future with leaded petrol being the most used of fuels for vehicles. Boys had quite ingenious ways of relieving vehicles of petrol, siphoning petrol into cans for sniffing.

One of our support staff members and a very strong supporter of our school, Bernard Newberry, worked unceasingly with young people to help them realise the dangers of sniffing. This included everything from earnest conversation (in which I also participated) to chasing young people who had cans of petrol, in order to tip the evil liquid onto the ground.

The effects of prolonged addiction to petrol sniffing were apparent when we returned to Warburton in 1974. In 1970, I had a young man in my middle primary class who was, in my opinion, quite intellectually enriched. He was experimenting with petrol sniffing during that year. I had hoped he might desist but sadly that had not been the case. Rather, he became hopelessly addicted to the extent of reducing himself in the intervening three years to a person who had become an empty, vacuous shell.

Our Welfare Officer Ron Jarvis was deeply concerned about sniffing and we organised an outdoor lesson on the subject which he was going to conduct.
Using polystyrene, he made a model of the body’s key internal organs, including the liver, lungs, heart, digestive organs and brain. These he connected with wire and hung them into a frame. He explained to children that petrol had a way of destroying people from the inside. He touched the base of a lung with the equivalent of a teaspoonful of petrol. Immediately, the polystyrene lung began to collapse and ‘melt’ dripping onto the ground.

The impact of the petrol spread, melting ‘organs’ with increasing speed, with the brain the last to disappear. This was a graphic lesson with Mr Jarvis offering appropriate comment as internal organs dissipated.

The lesson had some impact, but for the whole of our remaining time at Warburton, we were confronted with the challenge of petrol sniffing. That challenge was one we never gave up trying to surmount. At that stage, we didn’t know that in years to come, volatile substance abuse would continue, with the addition of hard, addictive drugs; substances with the potential to engulf more and more people.

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