It is April 2005 – the first time I became aware of the remarkable Celia Lashlie. I reckon most of the other 959 delegates at the Working with Boys, Building Fine Men conference were encountering her for the first time too. This unassuming lady walked to the middle of the stage, in Jeff’s Shed (Melbourne’s affectionate name for its Convention Centre) and spoke for at least an hour. No notes. Not a single PowerPoint slide. It was just her.
I checked my program a few times just to make sure I was in the right venue. You see, the conference was running at the same time as the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. Celia could have easily fitted onto the card there as well. Principals of famous schools were crying, tears of laughter as Celia reeled off hilarious stories about the boys she had met along the journey of her Good Man Project, a very grounded study that saw her visit at least 120 classrooms in 25 (mostly) boys’ schools around New Zealand.
Her delight at how ‘gorgeous’ she considered these young men was evident. Not long after, I got Celia out to the boys’ school I was working at at the time. She committed to a gruelling program: a staff day with a keynote and workshops, class visits to chat with the boys (she especially requested that I gather at least one rogue’s gallery, the tough kids, together) and a parent night. She also came over and had a bit of time in my shed (where I’m writing this article right now). It was evident to me that Celia could only go at one pace – full throttle, whole hearted. Celia gave my school a 3-day-package of her time and expertise that was generous to a fault.
When I dropped her off at her accommodation, I said “I reckon we’re mates now”.
“I reckon we are,” Celia replied smiling and laughing.
At the time of writing, it is the day of Celia’s funeral in Wellington. Reports are saying the church was packed. Earlier in the week, a press release from Celia’s family captured her final published words…
Late last year I slowly became unwell. The stress of the lifestyle I was living, the demands I made of myself, the demands the people made of me and expected (me) to meet became too great and as 2014 closed I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer that had spread to my liver. No treatment, no cure, only palliative care. I’d waited too long to look after myself and my body broke.
Unexpected news, of course, can come when you are doing something completely ordinary. Sadly Celia died at 11.40pm on the same night of the day her statement went up on her website. I was shopping for some things for dinner when I got a text from my friend Marie Farrugia, saying ‘so sad about Celia’. She had seen the news she was unwell. I googled to discover she had passed away. We later talked and realised the two stories had happened so close together that we each got different news.
Marie had previously asked me, when I last caught up with Celia in September last year to tell her that she still treasures the messages she got from a talk Celia gave at Marcellin College in 2010. Marie still pictures ‘the bridge’… the bridge of adolescence that Celia implores mums to step off.
Marie said, “I’ve got that image clear, I needed to step off the bridge and let my husband, a good man, step up onto it, and have room to take our son across.” I passed that message on to Celia in September and she smiled with satisfaction.
That event at Marcellin was a gift to Marie and in fact, it was completely a gift from Celia. After becoming mates, Celia challenged me as I transitioned from work IN schools to work FOR schools to get across to New Zealand for the 2009 International Boys School Coalition conference. She picked me up at the airport in Wellington, took me out for dinner that night (to Sweet Mother’s Kitchen – a place she took her grandsons for toast!) and then drove me up to the conference at Lindisfarne College in the Hawkes Bay region.
At the end of the conference, Celia sat me down in her matter of a fact way and said, “Well, you are making this jump to full-time work for parents and their kids, I am going to help you by doing three presentations at any school you choose. This is a gift to help you get started Bill.”
So generous. Two of the three schools I brought Celia to have run Time & Space events every year since. Peta, a mum from Marcellin, who, missed Celia’s presentation emailed me for some advice saying,
“I am desperately looking for a resource that might help me on my journey as a Mum of a 15 year old boy. I am feeling completely lost. He is not behaving in a concerning manner but I would really like to access some advice/resources around how boys think and see their world and how I can work within that. Any suggestions you might have would be greatly appreciated.”
I wrote back offering to give more details in a few more days but as a first thought I asked,
“ Peta… have you read Celia Lashlie’s book ‘He’ll be OK’? That is my immediate response in terms of getting into the world of boys.”
The upshot is that she didn’t need any more follow up. Peta came back to me saying,
”I purchased Celia’s book on Friday and devoured it on the weekend. Her insight, observations and expertise have provided many answers to my questions and helped me better understand how my gorgeous boy is currently rationalising and finding his place in this world.”
I’ve just spoken to Peta asking permission to share these emails. You’re seeing that she said YES. She also said that she held that book close for the next two years and has lost count of how many friends to whom she had subsequently recommended He’ll be OK – Growing Gorgeous Boys into Good Men.
What’s Celia’s legacy? Notice how Peta, after having read her book referred to her son as ‘my gorgeous boy’. Celia Lashlie was a champion of the delightful strengths of teenage boys. As the first ever female prison officer in a New Zealand male prison, she was only too aware of the young men arriving at the prison gates… “good boys”, Celia would say, “who made a terrible 30 second decision”… be it behind the wheel of a car or in a testosterone/alcohol fuelled rage, Celia also saw the challenges that young fellas faced.
Celia Lashlie was smart, unafraid to say things straight, incredibly funny, warm and utterly generous. She leaves behind more than one book and I commend them all to you – dig deeper and you will discover another passion, her advocacy for disadvantaged women.
If you ever got Celia’s autograph, I bet you that the message is in purple ink. She always pulled out her purple pen for a book signing,
So in signing off from this tribute to Celia, I say back to her what was one of her favourite phrases… go gently.
Celia’s daughter Beks has set up a ‘Give a Little’ page to continue supporting the ‘work mum wanted to do’. Have a look here if you want to know more. http://givealittle.co.nz/cause/celialashlieprojects
And here’s an in depth interview with Celia
And here is Richard Fidler’s Conversations interview, reprised in recent days.