As Principal Simon Cobiac and Head of Primary Frank Ali prepare to farewell Blackfriars for the last time, they sat down with Communications Officer Shannon Caton to discuss their time at the school and their plans for retirement.
How are you feeling this week, now that the students have left and you know you’re almost at the end?
Mr Ali: I’m not sure if I’m in denial or not, but it hasn’t sort of hit me yet. I don’t think it will hit me until the start of next year, even though I am packing things up etc, I still have it my mind that I will be working next year. I think it will hit me, not in a bad way, but it will hit me about January 20, when I think, ‘oh, I don’t have to worry about anything coming back to school’.
Mr Cobiac: It’s a little bit surreal in the sense, a little bit like Frank, I’m going through the same, normal patterns at the end of the year. It just feels like it’s absolutely normal, except for the rollercoaster running underneath that script that says, ‘oh, wow, I’m finishing’. There’s a lot of excitement associated with that. But, also, there is the sense that, ‘oh, this is going to be really different and how am I going to work through that?’.
How do you think it will feel in January next year, when you’re not gearing up for the start of a new school year for the first time in, really, forever, because you’ve gone from being students, to teachers, to leaders?
Mr Ali: Tracey, my wife, and I decided that we’d do something special in that time and go away, so it does feel totally different to what I would normally be doing. I’ve actually only taken long service leave once in my 40-odd year history … so it will be unusual and different, but I’m looking forward to it.
Mr Cobiac: Amazing how we all think similar! My birthday is the 20th January next year, and we’re going away for a special weekend, which is usually the time when school is coming back. And then probably when school comes back, (wife) Alison and myself will do something just to signal the difference, because it’s probably not going to be until that time, when everyone starts talking about coming back to school, that’s it really going to be, ‘wow, you’re not coming back’.
Thinking back over your time at Blackfriars, do you have some standout memories?
Mr Ali: I have loved having worked here way back in the ’80s and ’90s, and then coming back and teaching the sons of boys I had taught. I’ve seen them become decent citizens and humans and now watching their sons develop as well, that’s been a highlight for me.
Mr Cobiac: My most significant highlight is working with the boys, really. That’s the reason why I went into education in the first place. And it is different as a principal than as a teacher, but you still develop really positive relationships; sometimes very positive relationships by virtue of the fact you’re not actually teaching them, as such. So, I will miss that very much. But, also, just seeing the school develop, physically as well, in terms of the changes that have come through, with the Aquinas Centre and now the work that is being done here. The Aquinas Centre, simply because of the difference that it’s making to the boys, those senior boys who have something to look forward to as they come into that Senior School … and have their particular zone for learning. And this walkway and landscaping work, for two reasons. One, because of the importance of the environment in the education of boys, And, secondly, as an acknowledgement, paying respect to the Dominican Order and their heroes, which will be captured in the walkway.
Are there any funny moments from your time here? Something that’s made you laugh? Or moments that have made you cry?
Mr Ali: I do remember vividly the first child when I came back (to Blackfriars) … he asked, ‘who are you?’ and I thought, ‘I might have a big job on my hands here!’. I spent a lot of time with that particular child, not always in a positive sense, but when he found out I was retiring, he asked me if I could hang around for just one more year until he finished Year 6. I said, ‘are you sure you want me around?’ and he said ‘just as long as you don’t come back and talk at me at the graduation and bore me for 25-30 minutes (LAUGHS), but I just want you to be here because you finally understood me’. That’s a nice thing to say. I’ve loved my journey with him.
Mr Cobiac: Every day and every week there’s something that makes you laugh and makes you cry. Sometimes it’s just the ironies of life and just working with people, staff, but also seeing the students and how they react to things. A couple of the enrolment (interviews) I’ve had with refugee families, or humanitarian-entry families, they have been really, really powerful emotionally for me. And having some of our own boys in Year 12 who have been the translators for those interviews, that’s been really powerful. And just some of the humour of the Primary boys. One little boy in Year 3, I think, keeps asking me how old I am and why I am retiring and it’s just so funny.
What do you think retirement is going to look like for you?
Mr Ali: Hopefully very relaxing (LAUGHS). I think I will probably get bored after a while if I don’t do something, so I think I will either pour a beer (in my son-in-law’s pub), do some volunteer work at my grandchildren’s school … as well as play a bit of tennis, catch up with mates, long lunches, all those sorts of things. And small trips away with Tracey.
Mr Cobiac: I don’t think I’ll be bored. I’ll probably do some form of mentoring, coaching. Plenty of golf.
What’s your golf handicap?
Mr Cobiac: Too many at the moment! It’s just over 20, but it will come down to about 18, which I was on before and am aiming to get back to. Visits to Tasmania to my daughter and grandchild. Yeah, and then just incidental things; going away on trips, family, reading, I love reading, gardening. It’s a matter of having a purpose and maintaining a purpose, and I think family for me is a significant purpose going forward. And to be healthier! The job takes its toll and just not to have the stresses that are associated with work and to be able to focus on health and wellbeing, I am looking forward to that.
Was it a hard decision to retire? Or did you know that the time was right?
Mr Ali: No, it wasn’t a hard decision. I nearly retired before I came here (back to Blackfriars in 2018) … so, I think it was the right time. I didn’t think, ‘should I, shouldn’t I?’, it was just the perfect time.
Mr Cobiac: Putting all the combinations of factors together, it was the right time. I actually made my decision in 2020 … about the timing of everything and I haven’t deviated from that. It’s really around family and how it all fits together. I feel very comfortable with that.
Finally, if there was one message you could give to the boys still here, and coming through, what would that be? Your final parting message to the boys.
Mr Ali: Be true to yourself. Embrace the values that have been taught by your parents and the school and enjoy life; life’s too short. I can remember being at school and it’s just gone like that. So, embrace every day and learn to dance in the storm.
Mr Cobiac: And, really, I couldn’t say it better than Frank. Embrace every opportunity that you have to enjoy life, to learn, to grow, to mature, ultimately, to be happy and successful in your life.