Barefoot Literacy

Ebony and Ivory - leaves and feet
Bare feet Literacy – June Perkins

The Cassowary Coast gave my children the chance to learn literacy in the land with their bare feet.

Whilst my children, especially when we first arrived in the Cassowary Coast, usually wore their shoes to school, most children went barefoot. The warm weather, the sand pits and playground under foot, breathing toes in humid classrooms were just many of the reasons this was the case.

In the Far North when children wear shoes to school any sneakers or other form of shoes tend to do. As for uniforms most children wear part of the school uniform, but maybe not the whole uniform every day. As we were leaving the high school was attempting to become stricter, but mainly students wore what they could afford of the school uniform and hand me downs as much as possible (making any transitions in uniform take some time to work.)

There were students who were quite impoverished who wore well-worn, or ripped clothes to school. Some of the smaller schools would just give them clothes from lost property when it was possible.

We would often leave our shoes at each other’s houses as bare feet adults, shaking off our sandals and not remembering to put them on again. Another challenge with shoes was the destruction the rain makes of them, as they become so soggy in the wet season.  They just never seem to dry.  They also seem to die fast.

However, there were warnings to be careful of leptospirosis, otherwise known as Weil’s disease. This is spread by contact with fresh water, vegetation or wet soil contaminated by the urine of infected animals, like rodents, cattle, pigs, horses and dogs. Typically this is caught if you have cuts on your feet and walk through the wet and there are traces of urine from sick animals in the water. For schools situated right next to cane fields, where the rodents often like to hide, this can be a real problem. Also people working or living on farms need to take some care with this. Although you still usually see the children running in bare feet at every opportunity, in wet season they will take a bit more care.

In many schools in our new home, Brisbane, you have to follow a strict dress code and that is something my children find pedantic. ‘How does what you wear affect your learning, they ask? If you are comfortable don’t you learn more easily?’

‘Why do you have to wear a scarf for winter bought from the school to match the uniform? Why not just any scarf?’

Experiencing the world through bare feet a lot of the time (flip flop footwear, and ‘crocs’ special plastic shoes, when the ground is too hot) makes for a certain kind of personality. Clothing adapted to climate makes sense, but clothing only about uniformity itself doesn’t make sense to my children. Images of what early English people wore to Australia and how this has changed over the last couple of hundred years flit through my vision. How much of this has been to do with climate, but also to do with the changing empowerment of women.

Clothing and shoes as a marker of status is outweighed by a need for personal comfort in the humidity and in a place where most people are walking on soft grass, earth, sand and in the farm fields.

I remember my children laughing when teachers new to the Cassowary Coast, who wanting to make an impression wore ties to school. Those who kept ties on seemed to move on quicker than those who started wearing something cool enough to comfortable teach in, although most Far North schools do have air conditioners (often through money raised by Parents and Citizen’s clubs.)


One of the first things they notice when we move to Brisbane is that students wear shoes and a strict uniform to school.

The children’s school in Brisbane doesn’t have an air-conditioner, but it wouldn’t need it most of the year. The library is about to be equipped with one.

My children discover urban literacy requires wearing formal uniforms and understanding trains and buses.   They constantly complain about the discomfort of their uniforms.  My daughter wears a tie and a pleated skirt rather than shorts and collared tee-shirt.  She learns that she cannot have any form of creativity in her uniform attire.  Instead she has to find those outlets after school or in her art.  She takes up art at the high school, which Sally my artist friend, is happy to hear about having taken her for art workshops.

In our early days in Brisbane we learn about go cards and how to zap in and off the buses.  We look up routes on translink and pre-plan our trips.  The trips are expensive though and it works out cheaper to go to many places by car, especially if there are more than two of us.  My daughter travels with friends on the public transport to go to their houses.

We notice the opportunities the children have at school like extensions in course, accelerated academic streams and the early beginning of year eleven subjects.  The children have greater subject choices.

The children have a much bigger choice of who to make friends with at school than they did in Tully.  This does not always make it easier.  So my daughter is overjoyed to hear from friends back in the Cassowary Coast, and they assure her she is greatly missed.


My youngest son, who has experiences of being bullied in some of his schools, had an enjoyable final year of primary school at a small school in the Cassowary Coast, where many children remember him from kindergarten.  It is his year of healing and I am thankful his last year of primary is so wonderful.  At the final gathering of the school he attends for the year, we meet historical families who have had generations of their families attend the school.  He wins a prize for creative writing, which is presented by my friend Pam who has a history with the school as a former teacher and current sponsor of the prize.  She had blind judged them and had no idea it was my son’s essay she read.  Pam acts in as a stand in grandparent when my daughter has a invite your grandparents day at the local high school.  Both her grandparents are a long way away, just as Pam’s grandchildren are.  We have come such a long way from our first years in the Cassowary Coast to have bonds like this.

Despite the challenges of growing up country my children appear to have made some lifelong and loyal friends from that area.  We left a beloved pet guinea pig with my daughter’s best friend and later the children skype the friend and the guinea pig.  We text my son’s best friend from state school who is soon to spend holidays in Brisbane.  The younger two had teachers who saw their need for stimulation and grade skipped them one grade through primary.    Soon my daughters’ best friend will be in the city to do university.  The girls keep connecting, and nourishing each other in a long distance friendship.

The children participated in community art exhibitions, environmental programs and went to many a waterfall, creek, beach walk – and excursions out onto people’s farms.   I hope they will value these experiences in the future.

I hope that no matter what the challenges they remember, that nature has breathed into them a connection they will never forget.

(c) June Perkins

(Draft extract from a longer work in progress)

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