It's Never Too Late: How I Ran Away With the Circus

Volunteering his expertise to help isolated students led a delighted John Smyth into the lion’s den.


As a kid in the bush, John Smyth didn’t have much chance to see the circus in person, but he had a treasured picture book about life under the Big Top. More than 60 years later, Smyth got to become part of the Stardust Circus world, not as a tumbler or lion tamer – but as a teacher.

Back in 1999, the career high-school teacher decided it was time to retire and, together with his wife Helen, embark on an epic journey around Australia. They covered 33,000km in six months. When they returned, Smyth found he missed the classroom, so came out of retirement to spend ­another eight years doing casual teaching – but, eventually, his wanderlust returned and he and Helen headed back on the road.

Today, the 75-year-old physics and mathematics teacher slots in time with his grandkids around a packed diary as a volunteer teacher to school students who live in remote locations, under a scheme known as Volunteers for Isolated Students’ Education (VISE).

VISE pairs up energetic people with educational experience – usually retired teachers, such as John – with children whose schooling is largely done remotely, because they live too far away from towns and cities to attend regular school. With their classes conducted via satellite hook-ups, Skype or whatever other methods are available, the children have virtual contact with a paid teacher for several hours a day. The rest of the time they are given assignments to complete. VISE volunteers go and stay with these remote families for six weeks at a time to provide encouragement and practical help to the students.

John grew up in the country and was immediately intrigued when he heard about the scheme. Helen was just as keen. “We love the bush,” he says. While the teacher’s partner isn’t required to contribute, they often help around the home, in the garden or around the property. Since volunteers typically stay for the full six weeks, it’s important for couples to agree on the locations they apply for.

“We’d decided we wouldn’t take a placement where we lived in the house with the family,” John says. “We opted for ones where we could take our own caravan or we’d have a ‘donga’ hut or a cottage, so that we had somewhere we could get away.”

After eight VISE postings, and encountering some challenging families and students, John is still keen to do more. “Occasionally I have had to take a stand and say, ‘If you want my help, here I am, otherwise I’ll pack up and go home – I’m too busy to be sitting around here if we’re not going to work.’ But it’s always turned out really well.” He remains in fond contact with a number of his former students.

He’s racked up stints in some of Australia’s most remote locations, including a 38,000-ha sheep property where they had to meet the mail plane to get school materials, and an 80,000-ha National Park that was 500km from the nearest supermarket. Then John nabbed one of the most sought-after placements in the scheme: a travelling post with Stardust Circus. “It was just wonderful,” he says of the weeks he and Helen spent on the road last year, working with the children in a specially equipped mobile schoolroom.

The lesson timetable was built around the kids’ performance schedules. “The eight-year-old I tutored was a fabulous gymnast who was part of the teeterboard act,” he explains. “A big bloke would jump on the other side, he would swing up in the air, do a couple of twirls and land on his uncle’s shoulders ... and his uncle was standing on the boy’s father’s shoulders!”

The circus still includes some animal acts, including lions, monkeys, horses, goats and pigs. John and Helen found it extraordinary enough to drift off to sleep to the sound of lions roaring, but then one day the lion-tamer, Matt, accorded them a very special privilege, inviting them in to meet four 13-month-old cubs in person.

While it was understandably a little scary at first going into their enclosure, John says it was “an absolutely fantastic, never to be forgotten experience” which just goes to show it really is never too late: “In my 75th year I finally got to realise my boyhood dream of running away with the circus!”


National Seniors Australia chief executive Michael O’Neill says John’s approach is increasingly common. “We’re seeing more and more people moving from full-time work into other areas of activity that are not traditionally associated with retirement or the later years of life.”


In fact, he says, ‘retirement’ is “almost a dirty word now. People want to enter into new experiences, using previous life knowledge, rather than sitting back and ‘retiring’ as we came to know it in previous generations.”

As in John’s case, many are keen to continue giving back to society, but O’Neill says the way we do this has also changed.

“Many will now say, ‘I’m happy to volunteer and give my time for this particular cause, but let me be clear: I want to contribute my knowledge and skills to your organisation. Don’t think I’m going to be down the back making cups of tea.’?”

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