Where Poppies Grow

To commemorate the centenary of the end of World War I, red poppies have been placed everywhere, including thousands of handmade poppies on the lawn in front of Parliament House in Canberra.    Poppies became a symbol of those who died in the First World War when the poem, “In Flanders Fields”, written (at the time of the death of his friend, Alexis Helmer, who died at Ypres) by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, became popular.  The poem refers to the poppies that grow in the fields where soldiers were buried in Flanders. Poppies, thought to symbolise the blood of soldiers, were worn as badges on Remembrance Day, to commemorate the signing of the Armistice and in memory of those who died in WWI. They became known as remembrance poppies and now powerfully symbolise those who have died in wars and military conflicts, a reminder of their sacrifice, “lest we forget.”

Poppies have become significant in another way, as a symbol of a widespread cultural practice known as the Tall Poppy Syndrome, exhibited when individuals who have achieved, attained excellence or have elevated status are undermined, attacked and ‘cut down’ through personal comments, within social or mainstream media.  Perceived as a uniquely Australian expression of a strongly egalitarian society, this practice is often believed to have arisen within the early convict settlement of this country. In fact, the origins date back to an early Roman King, Tarquin the Proud, who swept a stick over his garden, removing the tallest poppies, an action that was interpreted by his son, Sextus, as advice to behead the intellectuals and eminent people in the province he governed. This practice has flourished in Australia and is seen as part of this country’s culture.

Over the years, there have been attempts to draw attention to and eradicate the Tall Poppy Syndrome, sometimes by naming programs for gifted children or awards for excellence with a reference to poppies. The Gifted Education Research, Resource and Information Centre (GERRIC) at the University of New South Wales previously ran holiday programs for gifted children called Small Poppies and Poppy Seeds (for the youngest). The Australian Institute for Policy and Science (AIPS) established a Tall Poppy Campaign to “celebrate Australian intellectual and scientific excellence and to encourage younger Australians to follow in the footsteps of our outstanding achievers” and continues to provide Tall Poppy Awards.

Changing the pervasive Tall Poppy culture will require awareness, education and debate, private and public acknowledgement of excellence in every field. Families and schools that identify students’ abilities, the development of talent, acknowledge and celebrate excellence, thus creating an environment in which they feel accepted and safe to grow ‘tall’; where intellectual growth and academic achievements flourish, do much to change opportunities and societal culture. Let’s not forget these other poppies that must be nurtured in order to grow tall.

© Michele Juratowitch