The Grafton Festival of Philosophy, Science, and Theology was an annual event that ran in the 2000s, inviting speakers and audiences to come together in Northern New South Wales town of Grafton.

I’d recently started a new school when I first heard of the festival. As a new student, I was put through a gamut of tests. One of these was the WIAT, or Weschler Individual Attainment Test, in which I answered simple questions of English comprehension. My score was in the 95th percentile, bringing me to the attention of Miss Paf, the Gifted and Talented student coordinator. Within her remit, I was invited, along with the other ‘gifted’ students to the Festival.

At the time, my leading concerns in life were “Is there a G_d and what is His nature?” and “Given Decartes assertion that senses must be believed due to G_d is a complete handwave and does not solve the problem, how do we establish what is True, and how do we establish what is Right?”. I was immediately very interested in attending the festival. No, I didn’t have a girlfriend, why do you ask?

I arrive at the school very early in the morning, the dawn sunlight still casting rays across the hills. Miss Paf is there, as are the motley crew joining us on the trip. Sam, Class-clown Tim, Sam’s mate and science enthusiast Scott, and Paul, the DJ. No, we didn’t have a DJ for the trip, it’s mostly incidental that Paul was a DJ. He was from another school and I’d not met him before.

Miss Paf gets us loaded into a beat-up white van, takes the driver’s seat, and off we go. It’s about a two hour trip, and it passes uneventfully, all of us having the morning grogginess of teenagers. I talk to Sam and Scott and Tim about the science major project due tomorrow. It’s a big project that takes weeks, we have to perform experiments, get results and write a report for presentation in front of the class. Sam hasn’t even chosen a hypothesis yet.

Finally, we arrive at the venue for the festival – the Grafton Cathedral. It’s a beautiful old building, stonework and stained glass, that goes entirely unappreciated by us youth. The lawn is perfectly manicured with clean concrete footpaths; out the front is a fountain with a cast-iron sculpture of some sort of swans or ducks or herons.

It’s a little while before the event starts, so Scott pulls out a blue rubber ball and we play handball. The narrow concrete blocks on the pathways here make the game fast-paced and challenging. After a while we get bored, and Tim pull out a soft yellow and white ball. He tells us its name is “Mr. Squishy” and we spend a while throwing it at each other’s heads.

Soon, the festival is due to begin; we look at the programme and decide which lectures to attend, and head to the first. Inside, a lot of old people sit on uncomfortable pews. Many take the kneeling cushions from the pew in front, and use it as a backrest to prevent the sharp corners of the timber cutting in. Our speaker – a priest- appears and talks for an hour about quantum physics. It is clear he does not understand quantum physics.

The lecture ends and we head to the room for the next. This speaker is a young philosophy PhD, and he discusses Plato’s allegory of the cave, Descarte’s doubting and discusses the reliability of the senses. The old people in the room nod on approvingly, as if this is the first they’ve ever heard of these ideas. I thumb through a hymn book to avoid falling asleep, but it contains neither “In a Gadda Davida” nor any good songs about Smiting, Fire, or Brimstone.

It’s lunchtime, and we head over to the refreshments room for sandwiches, then play some more handball. When it isn’t my turn, I see Paul, and walk over towards him. He strides purposefully towards me. We place our palms upon each other’s foreheads, and wobble each other’s heads around like a washing machine while making groaning noises. We walk away, neither of us saying a word.

Nothing looks interesting in the next lecture slot, having been disappointed twice now, so Miss Paf takes us over to the public library, where there is supposed to be some sort of exhibition of classwork related to the festival. It’s not really anything interesting, just some science projects from third graders. Between us, we have the idea that Sam could submit the hypothesis “Can my teacher tell my work apart from the work of a third grader?” One of the science projects is written in neat handwriting with drawings of flowers all over it, bearing a girl’s name. Scott watches lookout while Tim lifts the case and Sam swipes it.

We head back for the final lecture of the day. This one is by a cultist who tells us all about the Rael foundation, and his experiences meeting Nordic aliens. He then solicits donations in order to build an interplanetary embassy with a flying saucer landing pad. We all decline to offer money, but Tim puts a condom in the basket.

It’s dinner time, and Miss Paf drives us there, making a stop at the petrol station to refuel. While waiting, we wonder off in search of entertainment. Nearby is a train track, elevated above the road, and a train, just a single engine with no carriages, moves slowly across it. Tim takes a posture like an ancient Greek Olympian, runs forward and hurls his javelin – Mr. Squishy – at the train. It bounces off the windscreen, and the train comes to a stop, reverses a few metres, and starts moving again. Freaking out, we run towards the McDonalds across the road.

We order our food, and shortly after, two cops come in and look around the room, asking the staff questions. They seem to leave before finding us. On our way out, Sam turns around next to the bins and motions to Tim. Tim slides the McDonalds tray up his shirt, so he can steal that as well.

On the drive out of Grafton, we pass the church again. Somehow, Tim has managed to put Mr. Squishy in the fountain duck’s mouth, leaving it there to its fate.

The drive home is long and boring, highway receding into the distance, a road without streetlights. We abandon our seatbelts and sit facing backwards on humps facing the back seat so we can socialise better. Miss Paf balks but we instruct her that it will be fine, just don’t crash.

We arrive at the school at 10pm. The next day, Sam hands in his assignment; he hasn’t even changed the name on the paper. A week later, he hands in another paper, “Can my science teacher tell my work from that of a third grader?”. His science teacher is less than amused.

The next year, I am invited to go to the festival again. None of the other students in my year want to go, remembering the disappointment, but I figure it is better than a day of school, and go. It’s mostly students from younger years this time, but one of my RPG friends from year nine is among the group.

The chaperone this time is the school chaplain, a young, hip priest. A few years later, he will leave the church to move in with his boyfriend in Melbourne. He drives us down, and asks for us the $5 we had brought understanding it was for lunch – he understood it was for fuel. It doesn’t make a difference, since he shouts us lunch at Pizza Hut, and the year nines remark on how much grease is on the pizza.

The lectures this time are entirely forgettable. I discuss lucid dreaming with a girl named Hannah, who has pretty crinkles in her hair,  and she gives me her email address.

She never replies to my email.

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