Remembering (Healthy) Harold and the Life Education van

Healthy Harold
“Harold, Invictus”, by Jonathan Rivett, 2017

I’d always known him as plain old Harold. 

Apparently at the time of his death, he was going by the name Healthy Harold. In any case, I was shocked to hear of his demise at the age of just 39 yesterday. 

I was very pleased to hear of his return from the dead, just a few hours later. 

If you have no idea who I’m talking about, Harold was is a giraffe. He is, as far as I know, a minister in the Uniting Church. In 1979 he moved from Ethiopia to Potts Point in Sydney and shortly after founded a group called Life Education with fellow minister at the Wayside Chapel, Ted Noffs. 

I first came into contact with Harold in a darkened van. 

That sounds dodgy, and quite frankly it was a bit, but not in the way you might think. 

When I was at primary school, two vans visited our school semi-regularly.

One was a caravan of cool, clinical professionalism. Everything inside was white and anodyne. It was utterly terrifying and I still shudder when I catch a whiff of something approximating the smell inside that nightmare zone. There was no worse feeling than having a stranger come into your classroom when this van was on the school premises, mutter something to the teacher and then wind their way slowly through the rows of desks, towards you (but not for you, surely), and come to a stop at your chair, crouch and whisper “It’s your turn in the dental van”. 

The other was a rickety old campervan with black, felt-lined interior walls, a very low ceiling and a smell like an unwashed sock-poppet inside (I never worked out where that smell came from). This was the Life Education van, and as a primary school student, your approach to it depended entirely on what year you were in. 

In Prep, it was like pretty much every single other thing at school: utterly mystifying, a little bit scary, but heaps of fun at the same time. Into the van you and your class were bundled, fitting easily, and out of a partition at the back popped Harold. He jovially asked if you liked fruit, why you liked your friends and whether you brushed your teeth. You yelled things like “You’re a Giraffe!” and “My friend is my undies!” back at him. 

A couple of years later, things were a little bit tighter in the van. The Grade 2s were older and wiser, so Harold brought the conversation up a notch. He asked about scratches on knees and talked about how they healed. He talked about parts of the body and what they did – the ears, the nose, the mouth, the knees, the elbows… You emerged from the van blinking in the light of newfound scientific knowledge. 

In Grade 4, the van was crowded. Harold’s high-pitched voice, sometimes-condescending tone and minuscule size for his species were becoming difficult to take, but his message remained interesting. He was talking about entire biological systems, showing how blood flowed through veins and how poor decisions about health buggered things up in all sorts of small but meaningful ways. You knew you were, as Danny Glover famously said, “getting too old for this shit”, but you had to admit it was invaluable shit to be learning before you decided to tune out. 

And then came Grade 6. 

I remember it like it was yesterday. In fact, it was 23 years ago. Fuck. 

Into the Life Education van we went, moaning, swearing, making dick and fanny jokes – it was like this website, but it was the 1990s and wasn’t a blog and there were more than seven people in attendance. Inside, it was cheek-to-jowl. The van didn’t possess the thin, flat odour of unwashed puppet now; it was thick with the bulbous reek of puberty. It smelled of us.

The presenter sat down in front of the partition and before he’d even spoken, one of my classmates asked “When do you roll a condom over a banana?”

With good reason, the human wanted to make way for the giraffe as soon as was practicably possible, so out came Harold. Where in the past there had been cheers, excited shouts, declarations of love, bellowed greetings, vigorous waving, polite applause or (more recently) a low murmur of unimpressed expectation as Harold emerged, on this day there was nothing. Harold was greeted with the cruellest form of disdain: the total absence of sound or movement. 

He extended the silence, then cleared his throat nervously and stumbled over his first question: “OK. H-hi guys. Who… who can tell me what the… uh… digestive… the digestive system is?”

A boy sitting right at the front, not known for answering questions in class, responded instantly. He rolled onto his back, clutched his legs behind each knee, expelled flatus with thundering ferocity and said “Digest that.”  

Some classmates later swore that the fart was so forceful it had bent Harold’s ossicones (the horn-like things on top of a giraffe’s head) backwards like palm trees in a tropical cyclone. Others said they could see tears well in his eyes. Whether any of that’s true or not, it was shocking enough to bring the lesson to an end. 

Harold, always the forgiving, magnanimous Christian giraffe, tried to soldier on and said “Well… yes… that’s one aspect of the digestive system… when bacteria… uh… gather in the… uh…” but the damage was done, and we were ushered out out of the van. 

I haven’t seen Harold since. 

I’m so glad I may still get a chance to see him again his reanimated corpse when my children go to school. 

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