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Mysterious Ways Indeed

Occasionally things happen in this crazy old world that we mere mortals are at a loss to understand. And recently - that is to say, in the 4+ years since the accidental death of my younger son, Ben, on Australia Day 2019 - even moreso for me. If you are interested in finding out more about Ben, and the experience of losing him, I invite you to take a look at Tapping the Beniverse: a website dedicated to his memory

Whether or not that suggestion commends itself to you at this very moment, I do invite you to have a quick look right now at an article, entitled Thank You for Having Me, that was published here in The Mad Hatter's Library exactly one year ago today; ie in early June 2022.

As you will see, in that piece I set out, after a short explanatory introduction, a completely fictitious speech that I considered might be worthy of delivery in the event that a school I did not attend invited a man who is not me to impart some wisdom to the student body at the end of its academic year.

Imagine, given that background, my complete and utter astonishment when, just a couple of months later, an invitation was extended to me by the principal of a highly regarded comprehensive Sydney boys' high school to in effect perform, for real, the very task I had, somewhat facetiously, attempted right here in TMHL earlier that same year - that is to say, an invitation to be the guest speaker at Epping Boys High School's Speech Day in early December 2022; an event to be held at no lesser venue than the magnificent Sydney Town Hall.

No, I did not attend Epping Boys as a student. But yes, it was the School to which my wife and I had entrusted the education of our two sons - Ben, and his older brother, Tim - between 2008 and 2015. A choice we agonised over initially, but which has, in the fullness of time, proved to be one of the very best decisions of our entire shared life together.

What an honour it was to speak to the students of the School, and their parents, as well as to members of the School's staff, and of the broader community within which EBHS has operated so successfully for the past six decades and more. And how heartwarming it was to see the overwhelmingly generous way in which my words, and my family's story, were received.

Which all goes to show that sometimes the things we can't explain are the ones that mean the most.

Hi everyone.

As you’ve heard, my name is Geoff Cordner, and I’m here today with my wife, Linda. Can I start by thanking the School, and in particular Ms Schadel, for inviting me to speak today. It’s an enormous honour that you are bestowing on my family and I, and we are extremely grateful.

Up until the beginning of 2019 Linda and I, and our two sons ‑ Tim and Ben – would have considered ourselves to be a very typical Epping Boys family. But our recent journey has been anything but typical.

The story of our family over the past few years is an emotional one. And so in telling it, it’s entirely possible that those emotions will rise to the surface for me, and perhaps for some of you listening. I won’t feel any self-consciousness if that occurs, and I hope you won’t either. Equally I hope you won’t hesitate to smile or laugh if you feel the urge. There’s been plenty of joy in our lives too, and we wouldn’t want you to think otherwise.

So where to start? Well, just over 15 years ago, as our eldest son, Tim, was reaching the end of his final year at Denistone East Public School, Linda and I had begun the discussion that I suspect many of you parents may have had about whether or not we would be selling our boys short by not sending them to a private school, or to a co-ed school for that matter. But Epping Boys’ reputation being what it was, and the young men in our lives who were already at the school, or who had recently passed through it, were all such outstanding people, we felt we would be foolish not to at least give it a go.

And so we sent Tim off as the advance party to test the water. That’s what eldests are for right? And if I might digress here for a short but important moment: If I could wish one thing for you parents out there, it would be that your sons are, or become in time the sort of young man that our son Tim has proved himself to be throughout his life – talented but humble, respectful but funny, loyal and kind are just a few of the qualities that spring quickly to mind. It’s no exaggeration to say that without Tim alongside us Linda and I would have struggled to navigate our way through the challenges life has presented to us these past few years. We love him dearly, and we can’t thank him enough.

So Tim being who and what he was, and is, it was hardly surprising that he took to Epping Boys like a duck to water. He made friends, he thrived in and out of the classroom, and he embraced all aspects of what the school had to offer him without ever, so far as we can tell anyway, coming to the attention of the powers that be for the wrong reasons.

Then, a couple of years later, Tim was joined here at Epping Boys by his younger brother Ben. I suspect the staff didn’t quite know what had hit them. It’s an amazing thing isn’t it, how two human beings emanating from the very same gene pool can be so incredibly different? And not just physically, which our boys were to some extent, but even moreso in personality and temperament.

Whereas Tim’s reports would almost invariably include phrases like:

“a pleasure to teach”, “model student”, “good independent worker”, “valued member of the class”

Ben’s would more likely feature something along these lines:

“Ben does not remain quiet when other students are having their turn”, “Ben is a disruptive influence in class”, “Ben displays an immature and sometimes unsafe attitude”, “Ben is easily distracted by socialising with his peers, and distracts others around him”.

You get the gist.

If you had told us in those early years as Epping Boys’ parents that Tim would go on to become a prefect of the School, earn inclusion in the Honour Book for his all-round achievements, and record a very sound ATAR of just under 90, the honest truth is we would not have been surprised. That’s who Tim is – and not just in our rose-coloured eyes, but in the eyes of everyone who knows him.

But if you’d told us Ben would match, and arguably even surpass his brother’s achievements, including appointment as the School’s Vice Captain in his final year, and an ATAR of over 97, we would have at the very least raised our eyebrows, and possibly, just possibly even questioned your sanity. Not because those things were beyond Ben’s capabilities. Clearly they were not. But simply because the focus and the self-discipline required to achieve them had been conspicuously absent to that point in his life.

So what happened to allow our youngest son to transform himself so dramatically from a cheeky ratbag into a valued leader in such a short space of time? Well, Epping Boys happened. This School, and the extraordinary staff that make it what it is, did what they have been doing collectively now for over 60 years. They saw the potential in Ben that we had perhaps doubted, and that he may not have even initially seen in himself. They gave him the opportunity to become the best version of himself that he could be – in the classroom, in the Network Café (which he absolutely loved), on the sporting field, in the local community, and as a role model and mentor for those who came after him.

And, to his great credit, Ben took the opportunities that were offered to him in both hands, and he ran with them.

I remember vividly following the final Graduation Assembly in 2015 hugging Ben tightly as he confessed to me through tears that he wasn’t sure he was ready to leave this School behind. But the truth is he never did. Like Tim before him, he carried it in his heart every day. He was incredibly proud to have been an Epping Boy, and the friends he made here, students and staff alike, were amongst the most important and influential of his life.

Though I may not have appreciated it fully at the time, the next few years after Ben’s graduation from high school - from 2016 through to 2018 ‑ were the very happiest of times for our family.

Tim completed his degree in Occupational Therapy, and started work in his chosen field. Ben got underway with his degree in Advanced Science at Macquarie University, and recorded a series of truly outstanding results. Both of them formed wonderful relationships with girlfriends that Linda and I adored, and they each, finally, came to fully appreciate that the other one really was quite excellent company.

We also found time to share some amazing family holidays together, including a memorable cricket tour to the UK when I had the immense pleasure of playing the game I love alongside both my boys, and under Linda’s watchful eye. Indeed by the time we celebrated Ben’s 21st birthday in October 2018, I had formed the considered view that if we four were not the luckiest and happiest people on the planet, then we could definitely see them from where we were.

But on Australia Day 2019 our world changed forever. Without going into too much distressing detail, suffice to say that Ben was skylarking that day with a group of friends at a house party, when a few of them decided to try to jump from the roof of the house into the backyard swimming pool. The first young man landed in the pool successfully. Ben, who was the second to try, did not. The injuries that he sustained as a result of that fall would take his life before the day was through.

As you can imagine, the next few days and weeks passed in a blur. But what lives on with me as clearly as any recollection from that period, is the role this School played in getting us through them. Even though it was more than three years since either of our boys had worn the Epping colours, we were treated as if no time at all had passed. The then Principal, Tim O’Brien, and the Chaplain, Nic McInerney, led the way – providing counselling for current and past students, and for their friends who had been in attendance at that Australia Day party, and then agreeing to offer up the Edmund Barton Centre, and to manage all of the very complex logistical arrangements required in order to host more than a thousand people at the Celebration of Ben’s extraordinary life.

We can never ever thank those involved fully and properly enough for making February 13, 2019 the most fitting of farewells for our beautiful son, Ben. You would not think it could be possible, given the circumstances, to come away from such an event uplifted. But uplifted we were. Of course Tim, Linda and I, along with Ben’s girlfriend, Laura, and two of his longest standing friends – Bill and Michael (both Epping Old Boys themselves) – all played our part in saying goodbye to the young man we will never forget. But it was Mr O’Brien, Mr McInerney, and the students and staff members who spoke so knowingly of Ben’s idiosyncracies, and of his ongoing contribution to the fabric of the School, as well as the venue itself, that made that day such a powerful memorial.

And as well as those staff members who spoke publicly, we were greatly moved by a number of other private messages we received from teachers who shared with us their fond memories of Ben, and helped us to fully understand how large an impression he had left. Those messages all meant so much to a grieving family.

Grateful as we were for those tributes, it was one of the very saddest aspects of losing Ben that some of the most significant elements of what he had done and achieved during his short life had been previously unknown to us. He had been a friend and an inspiration to so many people, and packed so much into his 21 years, that his legacy seemed to far outweigh what might reasonably have been expected of a young man his age – even one with such a unique combination of abilities and qualities.

I’m not going to speak for too much longer, but there are a few things I would like to hope you might take away with you from having listened to me today.

Firstly, to Ms Schadel and your amazing team here at Epping Boys – please don’t ever underestimate the value of the wonderful work you do, and the power you have to influence these boys into becoming young men of which our community can rightly be so proud. This School has been doing it for decades, and our two sons have benefitted as much as any from their time spent amongst you.

Secondly, to the parents out there, without of course knowing your particular circumstances, or your boys individually, I can say that I feel confident you’ve made a very sound choice in sending your sons to Epping Boys. They are in good hands. And could I add to that this additional observation – much as we might occasionally wonder and worry about the bad things our boys might be getting up to when they are out of our sight and influence, so must we also trust and believe that there are just as many good things they are doing, many of which we may never see or know about.

And thirdly, to the students of Epping Boys - there are two things I would like you to think about over the summer ahead, and the years to come. The first is that this School is giving you opportunity; the opportunity to work out what sort of man you want to become, and the support and the guidance you need to become that man. We are so glad that our boys took advantage of those amazing opportunities, and we sincerely hope that you are able to do the same. The second is that, just like the School and its staff, each one of you have the power to influence the lives of the young men around you. I encourage you to use that power wisely and kindly, so that all of you might ultimately benefit from it.

And if from time to time, as you do that, you think of our son Ben, then we will be especially grateful.

Thank you everyone for taking the time to share in our story. As I have said and written a number of times over these past few years: Grief you can share is grief you can bear.

You are all now part of what I call The Beniverse – and if you’d like to know exactly what that means in greater detail, then I’d be more than happy to explain it to you at a time and a place that suits.

Our boys, like all of you out there, will be Epping Boys forever. And Linda and I – we will be Epping Boys’ parents forever, and equally proud of that.

Thank you.

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