We all had that one teacher growing up. The one who encouraged us, made us laugh, inspired us. The one we remember years later, for all the right reasons.
Newcastle High School’s Jody Robinson is that teacher.
A staunch advocate for the arts, she has consistently pushed boundaries to give her students the best possible start to life. And now she is facing the biggest fight of her life. Cancer.
Robinson was diagnosed with inoperable stage two breast cancer in April. To say it was a shock diagnosis is an understatement. But, true to form, Robinson is turning a negative into a positive. She and her son, Quinn, are organising an art exhibition and the many people whose lives she has touched are rallying in support.
Two Words, One Finger opens at The Edwards on July 15 and will raise funds to help Robinson in the months ahead as she undergoes costly and sometimes painful treatment. Use your imagination to determine what the title stands for – and what finger is referred to. But first, the elephant in the room.
Robinson had been experiencing aches and pains, on and off, but put it down to getting older.
“This is a story, in a sense, about cancer but I certainly don’t own cancer,” Robinson explains.
“I was on my way to get groceries and popped in to my GP to get X-ray results for a potential cracked rib and walked out with a cancer diagnosis. I had no idea, I didn’t see it coming sideways. The symptoms were there but I didn’t know what they were.
“A psychiatrist would probably say I am still experiencing a level of shock from the diagnosis and that’s somewhat true but life goes on and I have to move forward.”
Robinson has hormone receptive secondary stage metastatic breast cancer. It has spread to her bones and in specific areas, primarily the ribs but also her lower back and hip. The primary tumour is located on her left side, where it has cracked her ribs, and is a mass extending to the lymph area under her arm. Treatment has begun to reduce the size of the primary mass.
“As for a prognosis, there is no cure, of course. And my cancer is inoperable,” she says.
“They have not given me a life expectancy but I have been told I need to live with this diagnosis, and my treatment is aimed at halting the progression of the disease.”
This treatment is varied. In addition to hormone blockers and monthly injections, Robinson is taking part in an international clinical trial, “Mona Leesa”, at the Mater Hospital, and has to take more than 20 tablets a day. She has taken up yoga and meditation and is on a strictly organic diet and is hoping to improve her bone density with the help of gentle exercise.
Somehow she finds the time to volunteer an hour a week at Newcastle High to support her HSC students, claiming it is good for her soul.
Robinson has made a deliberate choice to be honest and open about her diagnosis and her prognosis.
“I just thought f- - - it, this thing can own me or I can own it, and the only way to own it was to own who I told and how I told it,” she explains.
“I didn’t want the kids thinking I was away from class with the flu, because not a lot would drag me away from them. I want the honesty, and I want the word cancer used.”
Talking leaves Robinson short of breath. She starts coughing and apologises: “Please excuse me, the tumour is on my left chest wall and it limits my lung function. It compresses my rib cage and it sounds like I’ve been running.”
The idea for an art exhibition came from a desire to do something, anything, to give Quinn a distraction.
“My son is an emerging artist going through an extraordinary time.
“Working towards this exhibition gives him an outlet. Quinn got quite excited and for the first time in a week full of tears, I saw a kid that started to connect with the potential of something that could give him a focus.
“I want my son to use the art world to get through this. Within 24 hours our conversations were no longer just about my treatment and the cancer, they were about art. All of a sudden I had this beautiful, positive way to connect with my son.”
Quinn’s father, Mark Squires, has been working closely with his son and close friend Robinson on the exhibition and has been transporting artworks donated by Sydney artists to his home in Newcastle.
“What I’ve found astounding is the number of artists who don’t know Jody but have been inspired by her story and have donated artworks for the project,” he tells Weekender.
“The level of passion and support is just amazing.”
Robinson began her career as an art teacher at Lake Macquarie High School and was head of creative and performing arts at Lake Munmorah High School. She has lectured at the University of Newcastle and started teaching at Newcastle High in 2014.
Amy Bruce is a former student of Robinson’s who graduated from Lake Munmorah High School in 2014 and has followed her dreams. She had potential and Robinson did all she could to nurture it.
“Jody is passionate about her work as an arts educator and is one of the most innovative, supportive and open-minded high school teachers I’ve ever come across,” Bruce says.
“She gave me the confidence to believe in myself, my work and a career in the arts. I wouldn’t be where I am today without her.”
Bruce received a $30,000 scholarship and is studying a Bachelor of Fine Art at the University of New South Wales. She will be donating works of her own to Two Words One Finger and has launched a “Go Fund Me’ page on Robinson’s behalf.
“I have pledged to shave my head, a conventional way of raising funds for cancer, but added an artistic little twist to it. Mine will be a performance piece (me shaving my head) and a series of textile and domestic arts work made from the hair I have shaved from my head.”
Another student who credits Robinson with changing his life is Rory Davis. They first met in 2010 when Davis was studying teaching and fine arts at the University of Newcastle.
“Jody made an immediate impression on me. She has a wicked sense of humour, coupled with a fierce conviction for justice in all aspects of education,” Davis says.
“I gained a deep understanding of what it means to be a significant teacher in a student’s life. Working with Jody taught me that our job can take a lot from us but it gives in return so much joy.
”She is a true friend and mentor. Her diagnosis feels like a profound injustice each time I think about it but I know that it will never stop her from helping others.”
Robinson says she tries not to get “political” in the face of funding being withdrawn for the arts but cannot stress enough how important the arts are for so many people.
“Without being dramatic, the arts actually saves lives,” she says.
“For kids who are really withdrawn and going through quite tormented and torturous experiences the arts is an outlet, or the way they communicate. Each student has a story and they’re all very different and very interesting. And if a kid is happy to be in class they are so much more open to learning.”
Although she admires people who raise awareness and money for cancer research, Robinson says she can’t relate to the typically sports-focused dialogue.
“I’m not even remotely sporty,” she explains.
“There’s a perception that the only way to do anything is through sport but the arts can be a powerful tool to bring about change. It’s more than some token thing to bring out on a certain occasion.”
From Quinn’s perspective, Two Words One Finger is partly motivated by a desire to help his mother financially. Robinson’s sick leave is fast disappearing and it is unlikely that she will return to work full-time in the immediate future.
“I eat, live and breathe the arts and have done for many years, and Quinn and I have a lovely little home but we do have a mortgage. And with cancer you have to take an extraordinary amount of time off work, and there’s medical costs. Lots of them,” Robinson says.
“I’m hesitant to think about my own mortality, but I’d love to set up something where Quinn could be on the board of directors and maybe run an arts charity in my name.
“I hope I’m going to be around long enough to be a part of that.
“I'm keeping my focus on the moment, being present and embracing as much positivity as possible.”