"I am a teacher"

I am a teacher” said Toby Moulton, and in so doing, turned his back on the fame and fortune offered through the vehicle of television land’s Australian Idol.

Toby made the shock announcement live during Sunday night’s show, and left the program – just a couple of weeks before it’s grand finale.

To many, turning one’s back on fame and fortune seems inconceivable.  Those twin goals which seem in some way to fuel much of the life and strivings of Gen Y seemed somehow absolute.  Moulton’s declaration that he didn’t want either, didn’t want to be a famed recording artist but preferred to just ‘sing for his kids’ breaks the mould.

Australian Idol is an interesting program.  Putting aside the obvious truth that it’s a marketing exercise aimed primarily at attracting views and thereby selling television advertising time, much of the editing and marketing of the show (right down to the very name of the program) seems to be about creating idols who ought be worshiped and adored.  These fledgling young artists are shaped and presented as role models.

A few years ago, a good friend of mine was a contestant on the program.  Because I knew him well, I knew the characteristics that actually did make him a good role model – and one who I gladly put into relationship with groups of young people on a regular basis through the youth-work organisation that we worked for.  The image portrayed on Australian Idol was scarcely a scratch on the real thing.

When thinking about this issue back then, I wrote the following piece for our organisation’s community e-zine.  Much of it rings true today, even if the name in the piece were changed from “Mutto” to “Toby”:

This year we have been watching Australian Idol quite closely as our good friend and staff-member Mutto has been doing his thing.

There are many who love Australian Idol – who follow it religiously and are convinced the show will reveal the next great Australian superstar.  And to be fair, there are also many who write it off as nothing more than pop culture trash – as a scripted, unrealistic and manipulative pretence.

One of the things the show definitely does do, however, is provoke some questions for those who care to think about such things.  Who are appropriate role models for our young people? What characteristics should they have? Is it fair to expect someone who is good at singing to be a role model anyway?

As Dean and Damien, Jessica and Lisa and co take the stage each week the studio (and probably lounge rooms around Australia) take almost the appearance of a religious celebration.  I don’t think it’s exaggerating to say that these young Australians are truly worshipped and idolised.  Some teenagers want to be them. Some want to marry them. Others want the celebrity, fame and fortune that is perceived to be present in the life of an “Idol”.  These young contestants are placed on a pedestal and examined, dreamt about, followed and all but deified.  Worst of all, it is not even the true idol contestant that is in this place of admiration, but rather it’s often a caricature, or a two-dimensional picture edited by the show’s producers that go to air.

It occurs to me that as a society we don’t give our young people too many good options for role models.  This is the era of the pre-packaged, manufactured and commercialised celebrity.  Television, movies, internet, magazines are completely filled with managed, created and marketed personas who by and large are singers, actors, sportspeople or sometimes just celebrities for celebrity sake.  If you want to know anything about Paris Hilton – no problem, it’s there for the asking. Ditto Russell Crowe or Eminem.  It’s role-modelling by sound bite.

But if you want to get to know some truly interesting contemporary figure like Tim Costello or Natasha Stott Despoja, it’s not quite so easy.  And the stories of incredible people from years gone by (say someone like Anne Frank or Dietrich Bonheoffer) are almost never presented to our young people.

That, I think, leaves us poorer as a society.

Knowing Mutto well, we know that he truly is an excellent role model for young Australians.  Not because he is a superstar, or a bad-boy rocker (or even the resident “rock-God” of Australian Idol) but because of his thoughtfulness, his passion, his integrity and his humility.

This is why we do what we do.  We are convinced of the need to put real, positive and passionate people, like Mutto, in front of young people.  We are convinced that a few days in the bush or on camp with a quality facilitator and role model (again, like Mutto) is worth much more than all the stage-managed Australian Idol Backstage webcasts a teenager will ever watch.

Ditto for Toby.  I hope that he does not discover that his world has changed too much while he has been an Idol for us all.  Blessings to him, and best wishes now and in the future as he re-enters the classroom in that most critical (and often overlooked) of role-models – the teacher.

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