It’s unusual for Maria to ever seem flat. But
today, she seems downright mopey. Plus I haven’t seen her round much. She gives
a thin-lipped smile when I ask why. It’s been a tough month, she says. Two
blows fell on her, one after the other. Her idol, a hardcore US bodybuilder,
died in August. That was tough enough, but in the weeks after that, a dripfeed
of news has come out which shook her faith in him. Steroids? “Nah. I knew about
that,” she says. “Other stuff.” And she says no more. But it hit her hard.
Death and then dishonour. Her hero was a charismatic musclebound hulk who liked
to pose with his enormous muscles tensed, grey eyes flared, making him resemble
a maddened Ben Stiller. Maria met him, liked him, looked up to him. But thirty
years of steroid use took its toll on his temper, his personality, and then,
most likely, took his life. “He died young,” she says, shaking her head. “His
parents had to bury him.” That was the first blow – mental, a crack in her
belief structure, in the ability to remake yourself, body and mind. The second
was physical – flu, that great opportunist. “The flu got me when I was down.
Three weeks I was sick,” she says. “It’s exam time too.” She gives a wan smile.
By the end of the week, Maria has perked up.
She has a slow deliberate laugh you can hear from a long way off. She’s
striding down the locker corridor, her leadership badge prominently displayed.
She can already feel the onrushing end, the year – all the school years – gone
in a blink. “It’s bittersweet,” she says. But – one bright spot. Her dead
hero’s girlfriend talked about her on a live Instagram feed, praising her work.
It’s helped her deal with his mixed legacy. “Everyone has flaws,” she says.
She heads outside where her friends are strewn
about in the sunshine. The glorious sunlit lethargy, as if exams and endings
aren’t just ahead, the quiet of a breath. Maria drapes herself over a couple of
her mates. “Why are you doing that,” a curious younger boy asks. Maria grins.
“Year 12. Year 12 has done this to me.”
I walk the school corridors. My time here is nearly up, and I still feel like I’m only scratching the surface. I spot a few of the kids who have dropped away over the year – Eastern European Alex, who has finally found stable social pastures in the big Anglo group, Anglo-Ukrainian Peter, whose friendship group is huge and self-contained, and Ethiopian Jalene, whose singular focus – success – means she avoids encumbrances and dramas of all kinds. And I see the kids who I’ve gravitated to – Kadeer and Aadan, Michelle and Paul, Kevin and Maria – who have welcomed me and my incessant questions. And I wonder where Helena has gone.
Michelle waves me over. She’s sitting at an
outside table with Zala, admiring Zahra and Fatima’s newly straightened hair,
fresh from the salon. The girls sit at
an outside table, a weather eye out for gossip. “There!” Zahra has spotted a
white girl who’s bleached her hair. “Her friend did it first, and she copied –
and done it better.” Fatima nods. “They look like clones now.”
Zahra nods over at a white table. “Those are
the white kids who…” she says, trailing off. “Hmm. I don’t want to use a racist
word.” There are racist words for whites? Zahra smirks. “OK. White trash,” she
says, to laughter from her friends. The group she’s pointing out are the druggies
– the same archetype in every school. Bongs after school, pills on weekends.
The experimenters, into heightened experience of all kinds.
Isn’t that a bit harsh, I ask. Zahra’s jaw
juts out. “Nah. It’s fair. I mean, they say about us that there are the smart
black kids and the ghetto ones.” Which are you? Zahra grins. “I go between. Smart
– and ghetto. And Fatima – she’s both, too.”
Fatima laughs. “Apparently I talk ratchet –
ghetto – when I talk to my brother on the phone.” Zahra nods, an exaggerated movement.
“See? She talks like a man to him.” Zala giggles. “But she talks like a white
girl on the phone.”
You’re a chameleon, Fatima, I say. She gives a
half smile. “I have identity issues.”
Zahra imitates white-Fatima. “Excuse me madam,
would it be possible to get some help with this.” Fatima squeals. “You do it
too. Especially Michelle. She’ll switch it up when she’s with white kids, use
big words. I have to check it’s still Michelle. When she’s hanging with white
kids at the Hungry Jacks at Flinders St, she’s like – omigod, you’re so funny
Michelle is transfixed – half-amused,
half-defensive. She launches a
counterattack. “You gotta hear Fatima’s fake white laugh. It’s like this,” she
says, imitating Fatima’s polite middle-class string of hahahahas instead of the
raucous squeal it usually is. Zahra nods emphatically. “That’s you Fatima,
Fatima brushes it off. “I went to a white
primary school from a young age. But Michelle, you have no excuse – your
primary school was full of black people. And listen – I only do it on the phone
with a white person. You have to do it, you have to use the voice. Hello, I
just got a missed call from you,” she says, hamming up her proper Middle
Australia. “I can switch to my white
alter ego, Fiona, real quick you know?”
You do it to make yourself understood – is
that right? Fatima nods. “I can come across as rude or petty when I’m not
pulling on the white voice.” Zahra makes a pshaw sound. “I don’t think the
privileges come with the voice,” she says, sour.
Michelle grins. She was given an Anglo name to
help her fit in better. “I do it too. So I guess I live up to my name.”
Zahra rolls her eyes. “Better your name than
mine. Everyone is like what’s your name? What? How do you spell it? I’m not doing
that to my child, that’s what I know. I’ll give her a name everyone can
pronounce. Valentina. I love that name.”
Michelle giggles. “Man, my cousin has gone the
other way. She’s Somali but wants to be Korean. She even changed her name to
sound more Korean. And she’s there in Seoul right now.” Let me guess, I say,
grinning. K-pop was the gateway drug? Michelle nods. “Yep. I don’t know how.
It’s so crap. But people get really into it.”
Zala checks her watch. Not much of lunchtime
left. Time to get serious, she tells her friends. Time to plan the end of year
assembly, to plan the theme for muck up day. “We might dress up as TLC, that 90s group,” she says. Fatima
claps her hands. “So good. I was raised on it,” she says. How come? “Older
siblings. That and 2Pac.”
“Hey remember that ABC show Blue Water High?” says Michelle. “How
good was that!” They scream in delight. “When they got that black girl in to
play Brooke Solomon, man I was so excited,” Michelle says. “Just having a black
person on TV, I loved it.” They reminisce about watching reruns of Round the Twist as kids and sing the
theme song. I head off to the sound of the girls blasting out the chorus: “Have
you ever, ever felt like this / when strange things happen, are you going round
It’s the end of the day and everyone could go
home. But they’re dawdling, drawing out the time remaining. Done with school,
they say. But it’s familiar, it’s confined, it’s known. Out there is the city,
the world. Once you’re out there, chances are, you won’t see many of your
schoolmates again. So we head to the basketball courts.
Cumar is heading for home. Sharply dressed and
precise, as always. Fatima calls out. “You ready for the male stripper at the
formal? We’ve booked him just for you.” Cumar offers a pained smile and picks
up his pace. Fatima watches him go. “He’s not comfortable with gays,” Fatima
says to me. “You know, that macho guy thing. So we’ve got this running joke
about male strippers.” I laugh and say I admire her elevation of the art of
roasting, that she and the other girls seem to always know precisely where the
soft spots are. Fatima beams. “High praise,” she says, laughing. It’s
effective, though. Roast the boys for not doing the dishes, roast them for not
being comfortable with the idea of homosexuality, roast your girlfriends for
being too white. It’s a fine art – to get your pointed barb through, wrapped in
Aadan is shooting shot after shot and missing every time. “That hoop is racist,” he says, with his patented half-grin. Zala muscles up and shoots hoops, wresting the ball off Maria. Michelle, too, is getting amongst it. The grudge is gone, windblown. Now they can talk openly again. Aadan hares off to get a mis-throw and Michelle seizes the opportunity. “Look, I’m not coming at you Maria, but you, Tim and Bree made all the plans this year, organised all the events. It’s our turn now – white supremacy is over,” Michelle says, grinning. Maria laughs, slow, surprised. “Okay,” she says. “Okay.”
“Oi – Doug, you should see Paul’s Snapchat.”
It’s Michelle, fresh from her negotiation. “It’s like he’s bouncing between bad
and good in Malaysia. A picture of him with a beer, the next of him kneeling to
pray.” She giggles.
A gravel-voiced older PE teacher passes by.
She has the kind of beatdown face that reads as Hard Boiled Teacher. But it’s
just surface, and when Aadan challenges her to sink a shot, she ditches her
plans and sets up an impromptu knockout match. Aadan fancies himself, but she
demolishes him. “I can’t believe it bro,” he mutters.
I watch the showdown with Michelle. Will you
miss school, I ask. She cocks her heads. “Some parts. But I’m ready to be
It’s Tuesday of the last week for the Year
12s, and the Horn crew are hosting the final assembly. In the art room,
Michelle is frantically colouring in a sign – 2K17 – that Cumar has carefully
drawn. Fatima and Zahra are in their element, sending underlings on missions,
barking commands, lugging equipment.
Cumar is watching everything unfold. He can’t
keep a grin off his face. Happy to be finishing? “Nah – I got signed to a top
youth squad,” he says, beaming. His plan worked. Don’t wait to be scouted. Go
the social media route. Make a video, make it look decent. Get it in front of
the right eyeballs. Make the chance come to you. He’s done it. “I got 11,000
views – and they invited me for tryouts. I’m in,” he says. Fatima casts him a
glance. “Is that why you can’t help with the heavy chairs? You can’t risk your
body?” she says, leavening acid with a smile. “I’ll help,” he says. “After I
sign my drawing.” Which he does, with a flourish. Zahra rolls her eyes.
In the sports hall, the principal is arranging
chairs while the Year 12 coordinator arranges her charges by surname. Tim is
practicing his piano chords for a song in the corner, heavy on the minor key to
boost emotion, give it a lilt, a pull. The Year 12s file upstairs, watching as
the younger year levels file in. Their clamour dies away as the hall fills,
emotional despite their protestations. That sense of lifting away, an old life
The great creaking edifice rolls into action.
Teachers work the crowd. A slight Japanese teacher directs kids to remove
unauthorised jumpers or to beg younger kids to hold up celebrator signs. And
the Year 12s come down, one by one, as Bree sings a ballad, backed up by a
younger Somali boy who’s mastered soulful crooning.
I feel oddly emotional myself, as if it’s my
second graduation. Kevin hams it up as he swaggers down the aisle. Tim gives a
cheeky thumbs up to the side when it’s his turn. And Fatima gets a rousing
cheer. After the principal gives his go-forth speech – “find your passion,
broaden your mind, become a person of the world” – it’s Fatima’s turn. She
takes to the lectern as if born to it and musters her best whitey mode of
speech. “We are capable of anything we strive for,” she intones, lowering her
voice, spacing out her words. “It’s been a crazy time – and look where we are.
Do well. Have ambition for your future. Life is what you make it.”
The air is growing humid. Hundreds of people
in the same confined space. I can hear a bulldozer faintly in the background. A
senior teacher steps up to finish off. She’s known them since they were tiny
Year 7s. “I know you, and I know how you’ve changed. You came as children and
leave as adults.” She looks across her crop of graduates, many squirming under
the attention. “I know we have talent here. We have Kadeer, who will be a
nurse. Maria, an athlete. Tim and Amelia, scientists.” She sweeps her gaze across
the group, names future mechanics, painters, beauticians, IT gurus, globetrotters,
musicians, businessmen, poets, politicians.
The Year 12s – my year 12s – file out to
fanfare and a handshake from the principal. Aadan offers him a hand slap
straight from the hood, his challenge, his statement – I’m here, I made it – to
laughter. They exit under an arch of their teacher’s arms. I find it strangely
affecting. And it’s done, an ordinary miracle. Greeks and Turks, Somalis and
Ethiopians. War or rivalries elsewhere, peace here.
Zahi is batting away unmanly emotion. “It was so weird going under their arms,” he says. “It felt like forever, like time slowed down.” But Paul – freshly back from Malaysia, and somehow magically back on good terms with his rival – tells me he found it downright awkward. “In Malaysia, no-one makes a fuss about finishing.” Don’t people celebrate an ending, I ask, and he shakes his head.
At lunch, the Turkish ladies man is working
the Westernised Somali girls, having exhausted other groups. He plies his charm
with Kadeer by lounging on the table in front of her, by making small gestures
and faintly comical sounds. A white flashing stone in his ear, stubble, a
haircut accentuating his jawline. I blink twice to ensure I’m seeing things
correctly, in case there’s been a reality breach. But no – this is unfolding
precisely as it seems. Kadeer is profoundly unimpressed, but lets it go on for
Hodan settles at a nearby table to watch the
Turkish magic show. She’s brought Somali banana rice, deliciously salty-sweet
with heavy chilli. The girls all tuck in. Dalmar – who often polices the common
room – is for once letting the younger kids into the common room, the sacred
space, and in they pour, goggle-eyed young siblings and hangers-on and the
curious, offering congratulations or just to stickybeak. At the building site
across the road, tradie radio is blaring out a pop ballad. 30 degrees, that
first beat-down hot day of the summer. Freedom is pending.
I rock up to Middlevale’s muck up day in old clothes, in case anyone’s brought a water pistol filled with paint or tomatoes to throw. At my school, the Year 12s one year ahead of me drew a giant dick in weedkiller on the main oval, which resulted in their summary expulsion. But there’s been a thorough rebadging of muck up day since my time, no doubt by principals tired of cleaning up the mess. Now it’s a fancy dress day.
Tim, calm as ever, is reading a book for
English in a skirt he got from one of last years Year 12s. Passing younger boys
call out ‘nice dress!’ and Tim nods calmly. Bree is a hippie in a brown skirt
Fatima arrives. “Great girl legs,” she calls
out to Tim, who grins. She’s come as Aunt Vivian from the Fresh Prince of Bel Air, all stonewashed jeans and fuschia lipstick
and hair buns. “90s is my jaaaam,” she sings out.
Um. Were you there, I ask, a little sceptical.
She grins. “Well. I’d been born. Just.” Must be like my generation and the 80s
– born into it, too young to embrace it until a false nostalgia sweeps us all
up and makes us sing ironically-but-not to Johnny Farnham and Daryl Braithwaite
and dance to New Order.
Michelle has turned herself into another 90s
icon, Aaliyah, with straightened hair, a bandanna and denim jacket. Now Zahra
appears in a 90s Scream mask, bloodstained apron and a fake bone saw. She’s
delighting in terrifying younger students, lurching towards them like a serial
killer, taking joy in being feared. “I scared an old lady coming here,” she
Kadeer has come as a slinky devil with a mask
and trident, switching it up from Ramadan piety to full-Western. “That Kadeer?”
Zahi asks in disbelief. Aadan sniffs. “Nah bro. Can’t be.” Kadeer, the
chameleon, flashes a glimpse of her face as proof and spirits herself away,
leaving a trail of boys agog. Most of the guys have skipped fancy dress, wary
of mockery. Paul looks expensively dressed but that’s no costume.
Amelia and her friend are utterly overjoyed to
be finishing. Now, at last, they can return home – toting their Certificates of
Western Education – and go back to family and familiarity, back to the known.
But they might miss it, just a little. They’re in matching unicorn onesies, and
Amelia has slipped coloured contacts in, making her eyes baby-blue.
And then, the farewell, with cupcakes made for
each kid by the canteen ladies, a speech that makes Maria quiver and cry, a
Vietnamese girl dressed in Japanese style gothic-lolita, with improbable
quantities of lace, teachers dorking it up dressed as chickens or unicorns.
After that, there’s competitive cupcake eating followed by a reading of the
school’s vision statement with mouths stuffed with dry cake. Screaming and joy,
the Viet crew demolishing the opposition, and the Horn girls squealing in total
abandon. Then to the sports field, where a cool wind blows, warm sun pours
down, where the Year 12s take on their teachers in tug of war and pull them off
their feet and win their ceremonial freedom. And like that, school is
officially over, with a whimper, people heading off with their close group, off
in different directions, different lives. Michelle hugs me, Aadan shakes my
hand, Dalmar a high-five, Bree a stiff nod. And they’re off, just like that, no
real ending. Just a dissipation of gathered energies, leaving only the wisp of
memory. My groundhog year is over – double the age of my first high school
A month later, when their exams are done, I’ve
got a decision to make. Should I go to their school formal? Several kids told
me I should come. I’d been there the whole year – I was part of it. But what
about the awkwardness? I mull it over. How embarrassing could it be? But as
soon as I buy my ticket, I’m filled with doubt.
On the afternoon of the formal, I pull on my
suit in unseasonal 35 degree spring heat and set about sweating. My wife takes
one look at me and bursts out laughing. “You really can’t let your youth go,
can you?” she says, still giggling. This, I allow, is a fair point.
I turn up. It’ll be alright, surely. I was
there for the year. This is fine. I’ve already paid the toll of social stigma
early in the year. Plus I’ve paid actual money. No backing out now. But then
awkwardness hits hard because there they are, dressed to the nines, and it’s
their night, not mine. Fool, Doug, fool. I hide in my car trying to muster the
courage of stepping out as a 36 year old formal-goer. It’s either front up or
go home. So I emerge into a grove of trees, a tinkling fountain, and box
hedges. Inside, it’s a mansion, all gilt frames, 19th century
paintings and an inexplicably large quantity of urns. Teachers are here in
their multitudes – seemingly every single one – which only adds to my Why Am I
Here cringe. Why is he here, they’re
wondering, very clearly. Isn’t he done? Shouldn’t he push off now? It feels
like the first day of school, all over again. Larry No-Mates, out of place, out
At last, I see someone I know and surge
towards familiarity. It’s Paul, wearing linen pants and a short-sleeved shirt
and sunnies. “I don’t do formal,” he says. But you’re a fashionista, I say. He
shows me a ring with tiny pink diamonds, an expensive bracelet made from silver
wire. “The trick is you dress down but add jewellery,” he says. And he shows me
the understated silver stud in his ear. He’s gone and done it, despite Zahi’s
claims that Paul was too effeminate. School’s all but out, and the pressures,
the people, the dramas – smoke on the breeze.
Paul shifts on his seat. He, too, is feeling
the burn of awkwardness. He’s waiting for Marco so they can conduct “business,”
meaning going for a calming ciggie. How’d you get that habit, I ask? “Malaysia.
It’s the rite of passage. You turn 15, you buy a packet and you go to a late
night Indian joint – it’s like kebabs here – and you eat curry and watch Premier
League and smoke,” he says. “I was doing a pack a day over there. I really like
it. It calms my nerves.” Marco appears and they disappear into the night.
Bree arrives in ringlets. “I started my hair
at 2pm,” she admits, as she whirls past. Femi, the West African refugee, is
emotional. “It took me three years to finish Year 12,” he says. Learning
English, catching up on missed formal education. “But I got there man. I got there.” Zahi looks impeccable in a
blue suit and shoes so shiny you can see your reflection. And then Maria
arrives in her mum’s Porsche – “second hand, and we don’t drive it often, but
still…” – and steps out in a remarkable red pantsuit straight from the 70s. “T…
that… that’s amazing,” blurts one of the female teachers. “What? You can’t tell
me you could see me in a dress,” Maria says, beaming. Tim pulls up,
no-nonsense, driving himself and his eastern suburbs, horse-owning date in his
parent’s sensible station wagon. There’s Jalene, demure in lace. And there’s
Daniel, the shy Vietnamese boy in a remarkable outfit – a baby blue suit, arms
and legs cut short, and a pork-pie hat and round glasses. He spins under the
dancefloor lights to cheers. I spot Omar and Aadan in slim, elegant blue suits.
I have been allocated to the teacher’s table,
where I make awkward small talk about plans for a new soccer pitch and how it
will make a real difference to the students. The principal saves me by leaning
over and letting it slip that enrolments are shooting up faster than ever, that
his approach is working, that you damn well can sell a public school in an era
of Radical Parent Choice. I talk to a grumpy old teacher who taught at a ritzy
private school for twenty years. “I reckon it’s not worth the money you pay,”
he confides, three beers in. “Sure, you get amazing facilities. But the
teaching is similar. A good class is a good class, and a bad class is a bad
class. A couple of disruptive kids can ruin it for everyone. And you can’t buy
your way free of them. They’re everywhere.”
Fatima’s table is conspicuously empty. We eat
our entrees, but we hold off on mains until they arrive. “They’re still at the
hair salon,” Bree whispers. Eventually, they arrive around 9pm and Bree does a
slow sarcastic clap. The rest of the room takes it up with more enthusiasm.
When I go over, Michelle hisses that it wasn’t the salon – that was gossip. One
of her cousins offered a lift to everyone – but he never showed.
The Horn girls are striking, almost
unrecognisable in sequinned dresses and gold makeup. Fatima in a red glittery
dress and fake lashes, Hodan with a stunning diamanté pendant on her forehead,
a designer headscarf. Zahra is
unrecognisable with fully straightened hair, and Michelle is in a long black
dress, so long as to be almost undanceable-in unless she gathers it up in both
hands. Zala eschews makeup but has gone for a glitter-dress.
A young DJ steps up to the booth and proceeds
to play precisely one minute of each song before mangling it together with a
wildly different song. The dance floor lurches into action, freezes, fumbles
for a new rhythm. The DJ is heedless. He’s in his zone. But Michelle and her
friend from outside school dance wildly on the emptying dancefloor. Michelle
kicks off her shoes, gathers up her black dress. Zahra – a reluctant dancer –
is unimpressed. “That’s ratchet,” she shouts over the music. “It’s ghetto as to
dance while someone films you.” I look back, and Michelle’s friend is capturing
the moment with her phone torch on, waving it wildly for Instagram. That
attempt to catch a moment as it passes, catch a half-glimpse of someone as they
pass. The glimpse that’s all you ever really get.