It’s not until a month later that I can take stock. After everything is done and the year fades away, after I’ve been to the school’s awards night and seen the Year 12s bid their final farewells. Seen Maria weep, Kevin chortle, Aadan swagger, Paul smile awkwardly, Kadeer glide past, Michelle beam with relief, seen Bree collect her bodyweight in awards, seen Cumar congratulated for his sporting success, seen Somali mother Samia’s nephew strut the stage as he heads to the track and field nationals, seen the quiet traditionalists Hodan and Marjani knock it out of the park with their academic results. After I return to my own life, after they return to theirs. After I finish school a second time.
It should feel good. But I keep returning to the moment on the last day of school, 2017, when the Year 12s of Middlevale High embraced, chatted, wept as one big mass, and then returned to their own groups – meaning people who mostly looked like them. Aadan and Michelle and Fatima and Kadeer and the Horn crew, heading off one way. Kevin and Tim and Bree and the Anglos, another. And Daniel and the Viet group, off in a third direction.
That scene on the football field puzzled me.
How could it end like that, after a year of intensity, shot through with
tension and laughter, connections fraying or firming, after being tested in
many ways, all at once? How could a super-diverse bantering, bickering cohort
just splinter and return to familiarity? Perhaps it was just human nature – to
seek out those whose experiences most closely resemble our own. Rich with rich,
poor with poor, white with white, black with black. But if we only ever talked
or befriended versions of ourselves, society would crumble. The great project
of a city, a country in the world – all of it rests on a frail trust in people
who we do not know. Strangers who drive our buses, who walk past us,
acquaintances who teach us or work next to us, neighbours who live nearby. We
have to learn to be comfortable with people who are not our mirrors.
I went to Middlevale High, hoping to find out the secret of Australia’s alchemy, migrant to local. I found myself way out of my depth, moving through a parallel version of Melbourne, through a city I’d lived in most of my life and which I didn’t know at all. What steadied me was watching the kids – my kids – in the process of becoming, in that ungainly, awkward chrysalis stage, watched them play with race, watched them wound each other, watched them patch themselves up. Watched friendships founder or be re-braided. Watching Anglo kids wrestle with their own discomfort, in a place where they were not the majority, watching them be challenged and challenging in return. Hearing their judgments, their reserve, their efforts to broach the gap. Watching African boys pull on bravado masks, Muslim girls tiptop around the modesty thing, watching Asian and Anglo kids negotiate African bounce, figuring out what was posturing and what was real. Watching wealth divides get played out in a classically Australian way, through mockery of the rich.
Nothing was clear-cut. Sometimes culture mattered,
sometimes it didn’t. Sometimes class and wealth mattered, sometimes it didn’t.
Sometimes religion mattered, sometimes it didn’t. Sometimes it was play,
sometimes it drew blood. High school was still a full contact sport, just as it
was when I first went.
I drive past the school one last time as the
2018 school year was starting. My kids were gone, but the school itself seemed timeless,
the playground full of the world’s children, laughing and making mischief. Then
it dawned on me. What did it matter if people gravitate back to familiarity?
The only way sharp edges are ever worn down is through friction, through
contact. That’s how it happens – how newcomers become locals. Life isn’t a
stock photo. No one is keeping track if you meet your friendship diversity
quota. What matters is that Other People – Anglos, Africans, Asians – gain
definition, going from abstractions to real, complicated flesh.
To defuse tribalism is a constant effort. It
has never been easier to create your own world, people it with people you like
and prefer. Smartphones and media filter bubbles, headphones on public
transport or while walking, dating apps to let you select prospective mates
with high precision. To live parallel lives, without touching – that’s the
frictionless stock-photo version of a city of many peoples. Serendipity,
discomfort, awkwardness, conflict – who needs that?
We do, I think to myself as I drive the
familiar route home. The final transition from nervous White Australia to confident
world society rests on one thing: contact.
What happened next
In 2018, I checked back in with the kids I
spent most time with.
Aadan is studying a diploma – but his eye is still
on the police force. “It’s still a huge thought in my mind,” he says. And he and
Fatima have just started dating.
“That was a big surprise,” he admits. “After all the years we gave each other
His half-ex, Kadeer, has disappeared from the scene, the chameleon donning
Kevin is taking a gap year after the intensity of
Year 12 (not that he let it show). Making bank and road tripping before
studying science – that’s the plan. He’s mostly hanging out with Tim, just as he predicted.
Maria got into a sports degree and joined a band. “I’m doing exactly what I want to do,” she says. She hasn’t seen many people from Middlevale – just her tight Euro crew.
Michelle is studying teaching, with a view to working
in special schools. “My teachers showed me what kind of teacher I wanted to
be,” she says. “Even though I told you I wouldn’t miss school, I do. I miss the
common room and the noodles, the drama, the teasing and the endless convos we
used to have. Our group is still strong, but we don’t see each other every day
like we used to. And we run out of topics to talk about. I guess this is
Zahra is studying and looking for a part-time job. “This will shock you,” she tells me. “I’m dating a boy from Italian and Greek background.” It does surprise me, after her run-ins with her racist Italian VCAL classmate. “I also cut some people off after school,” she says. “But you probably guessed that.”
Paul got into a good university, where he sees Fatima and Omar around. His plan – do well at a public school on the make – worked out just fine.
And Helena? I don’t know. But I hope she finds what she is looking for.