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Chapter 1: In the Deep End
First Term
By Doug Posted in Term 1 on July 11, 2019 0 Comments 38 min read
What am I doing here?  Previous Chapter 2: The Kettle Boils Next

It’s January 30th, the first day of the 2017 school year. And my first day back after a break of 18 years. I am surprisingly nervous. High school never loses its terrors. The shock of the new, the shock of being new. I fret over what to wear. My wife can’t help but laugh. “I, uh, wouldn’t wear that unless you want to look like a teacher,” she says, chortling. I try a new t-shirt based getup. She shakes her head. “You were not, and are not, cool. Also you’re not a student. So don’t try.” I grimace. This is harder than I thought and I haven’t even got through the door. Eventually, I settle on a plain shirt and get the official marital nod. 

As I drive there, I can’t help but laugh at my self-chosen predicament. I really am living a 1990s movie plot that hasn’t aged well.

I edge through Middlevale’s gates, and look plaintively around for someone to talk to. A sea of students, and no-one I know. I’ve been here previously, doing introductory interviews and meeting teachers. But every face here is new to me. You might wonder – is it awkward being a fully-grown man, hanging out at a high school? It is exactly as you’d imagine. I stand out in vivid colour. The teachers wonder what I’m doing here. The students wonder the same. I wander the corridors as a Larry No-Mates, seek solace in the library, exactly as I did as a baby nerd.

On my second day, my resolve goes to water. I stare at myself in the bathroom mirror, examining my too-old face, wondering what the hell I’ve done. The fleeting visions I’d had of recreating high school with me as a social god waver and vanish. Turns out I’m just as monumentally uncool as I was first time round.

But as the days pass, I settle into the discomfort. The school feels like a place caught half out of time.  The same combination locks on the same lockers from my school days. The same yard scenes of mynah birds scavenging sausage roll pastry. Peppercorn and white trunked eucalyptus trees, chatty canteen ladies with iron under the surface, the city glinting in the distance on clear days, fevered exam prep, ciggies behind the bike shed. But differences, too, from my white-bread private school. African jubilance – the basketball court and soccer field always full, shouts and laughter. Headscarves and chunky crucifixes. Papuan frizz, Anglo surfer locks, neat Indian comb-overs, severe Korean-style cuts on the Vietnamese kids, shorn Sudanese scalps. Kids debating Kenyan politics, quiet Asian sneakerheads talking about the latest release of Jordans. Couchloads of boys gaming on their iPads – Indian, Chinese, Anglo, African. And as I start to make contact with the Year 12 students, I find myself suddenly jubilant. After years of relative distance teaching at universities, here are complicated, interesting humans in the process of becoming.

 I stumble across an unorthodox game of cricket going on outside. A serious-faced Somali girl is piffing straight-armed throws at boys and girls, cracking a smile at each flinch. A smaller girl in a headscarf figures out the bowler and starts belting the ball. And then a tall Anglo boy steps up as coach. He summons a Chinese girl from the sidelines, batting past her no-no hand waving, that polite-no and planting the bat firmly in her hand. “I’ll go out first ball,” she says, though she survives four whistlers from the Somali powerhouse. Then, the stick thin Year 11s take turns. A red haired beanpole tonks the ball clean out of the school into a tree. The boy gets me to bowl next, which I do, poorly, to laughter, feeling like John Howard when he famously mangled cricket. I beat a retreat.

In the corridor, a teacher falls in beside me. She’s been here 17 years. She tells me she saw the school change from a high-performing Vietnamese-dominated school to an African-heavy school five years later. “That was a low performing time,” she admits. For teachers, it meant a rapid change in tactics. Refugee kids with missing years of education trying to catch up, learn English and navigate a new society – no wonder. But it meant white and Asian parents took their kids elsewhere. And then the pendulum swung back towards today’s demographics: second-gen African, Vietnamese and Chinese kids with English as their first language, plus plenty of fourth or fifth gen Anglo kids.

I dodge an Anglo boy hooting as he bursts through a hedge away from a girl running so hard her headscarf billows out behind her. The African kids use millennial slang more than anyone else, with frequent interjections of wallahi, Arabic for swear to Allah I’m telling the truth.

I hear white kids using it too, so I ask a boy, Peter, how he uses it. “It’s a great exclamation,” he says. “I’ve spread it to my cricket club, even though there’s no Africans there. They love it. My dad gets really confused when I say it, because he’s a teacher but at a Catholic school.” His friend grins. “We adopt their slang like a year later, and probably butcher the meaning and pronunciation. But that’s all good.” Peter is a tall white surfer from South Australia, fluent in AFL and cricket. You wouldn’t guess he’s of Ukrainian descent, that by night he monitors any news of the mysterious Russian-supplied Russian-speaking rebels coming into the area where his cousins still live.

A Somali girl with a mean batting arm, belting a cricket ball. Mixed friendship groups. Very tall white boys, roaming as a pack. Quieter Chinese boys watching YouTube in the library or playing Connect 4. It’s a chameleon school, whose fortunes have waxed and waned. Right now, it’s coming back from a rough period, when fights and tensions were common. Now it’s on the rise, courtesy of a new principal, teachers from many backgrounds, and a good local PR effort.

With effort and no little social awkwardness, I manage to start making contact. Students start talking to me, most with a mix of pity and curiosity in their eyes.

“This school used to be really violent, with lots of drugs,” Fatima tells me one lunchtime, as she’s walking to the canteen. Fatima, a peppy Eritrean-Australian, had parents who, like most migrants, wanted their kids to get the best education, to become lawyers and doctors. Fatima has taken that to heart. She wants to be a human rights lawyer. “When you have an opportunity like mine, to be born and raised in Australia by parents who got me through a civil war in Eritrea, you feel obliged to help people,” she says. But there is the small matter of getting there. A friend of the family told Fatima’s parents that the school had changed, that the rough years were over. And so it had. But the stigma persisted, and it has taken years more to shift perceptions – particularly amongst aspirational families of whatever background.

It’s week two, and I’m leaning on the lockers, attempting my best nonchalant meant-to-be-here-pose, when I hear “Hi Doug” behind me. Welcome words. It’s the inseparable duo of Ari and Tim.  Tim is tall, lean, white, optimised for tennis. Over the summer hols, he went rural – Torquay, Kyneton, Shepparton. You look like a salt of the earth Aussie, I say. Convict stock? Tim nods. “On my dad’s side, I’m English convict and on my mum’s, I’m just English.” Is your dad proud of his convict heritage? Tim laughs. “Dunno. But I am.”

Ari is broad shouldered, a glorious mop of cartoon-character hair. He went to the Cook Islands, where his dad hails from. Was it fun? He winces. “I got so badly sunburned. And then I got heat rash for nine days. You run into the water to cool down, but it’s too warm. Even my dad got sunburned, and he’s meant to be used to it,” he says.

Ari heads off to PE. I linger to ask Tim about how he sees the school. I’ve noticed that the younger year levels are a fluid, where culture seems irrelevant. But in older year levels, people tend to gravitate back to comfort.

Tim nods. “The kind of segregation you see looks like it’s based on background and race – but I just find people work better together because of similar backgrounds. It’s not a hard boundary. I still talk to people from ten different races a day. And you just met Ari, my best friend. He’s Islander, but it doesn’t matter. It’s just because he’s a cool guy.”

Tim strikes me as an intent young Anglo man, dark brown eyes, an easy smile. He’s a devoted Christian, a high achiever who doesn’t brag. He tells me his English class just got told off for not doing their holiday reading. “At least there’s a better variety this year,” he says. “Last year they were all about growing up Asian or migrant in Australia. I couldn’t see myself in them.” He shrugs and heads for class. The pendulum doesn’t stop swinging.

It seems something has shifted. Perhaps some of the kids have decided I’m harmless. Maybe word has got around. Whatever it is, I’m grateful. It feels like the gates have cracked open.

Alex has skipped Maths. Year 11, blonde-brown hair, confidence oozing from every pore. He corners me near a world map, where he traces his flight here six months ago. From a country in what was Yugoslavia – Zurich – Singapore – Melbourne. “I gave up gaming,” he says, apropos of nothing. “My last login was 68 days ago. I realised the bad was now outweighing the good.” I blink. “Gaming gave me killzone awareness, great reflexes, great hand eye coordination and many languages.” I blink some more. He fixes me with a look. “Really. But it was making me antisocial and fat. So I quit, got fit, drank protein shakes. Look – now I have a bicep.” And so he does – a fledgling thing, emerging from the gaming fat. You don’t do things by halves, I say. He nods, brags about running a half marathon, about dropping 18 kilos in six months by cutting out Coke and Hungry Jacks. “Now I’m based on water and good food,” he says. I say nothing, hoping he will Just Keep Talking, keep delivering amazing soundbites. 

As we talk, he idly throws a tennis ball at Ari, at the IT guy. “I’ve got a Year 7 buddy,” he says. “He follows me around.” Here he shrugs – as if, what a loser, but also as if he likes the attention. “The kid tells me he saw me fix my hair at recess. That he saw me talking to those girls.” Alex manoeuvres us so we stand in an open area near the stairs where floods of students can be surveyed as the lessons end and begin.  He recruits me to pass judgment. “People talk to each other here, but they stick in groups – weird kids with weird kids, the Year 11 boys, gamers with gamers. But I can talk to all of them,” he says, proud of his (self-proclaimed) rapid social success.

A new ball toss, a new victim, a new topic. “I’m reading that book – 1944?” You mean 1984? “That’s the one. It’s the first book I’ve ever read. It’s relaxing. I put on Mozart, drink coffee and read a book about totalitarianism.” It’s the early Trump days and Orwell sales are spiking. Do you need to read a book about it, I ask, curious. Your parents would have lived through Marshall Tito’s dictatorship. He scoffs at my ignorance. “People at home say Tito’s rule was the best time of their lives.” He spins on his heel and takes off, looking to find someone less idiotic to talk to.

A newly arrived Dutch girl with a severe haircut walks past, talking to a boy. I catch a snippet: “Next US election, if we’re all still alive…” The new crop of Year 7 boys – Indian, Anglo, Chinese – line the couches near the library, iPads in every lap. Shorts too high, a look of barely-contained terror on every face, seeking solace in gaming. Flame haired and princess-blonde older girls stalk the halls. And the horseplay of the tall boys – supertall Anglos matched by supertall Somalis, kicking lockers, running and shouting, rough and tumble, mock pain, punching each other in the upper arm. Some things don’t change.

After days of being a loner in the library, the social contact comes as a shock. I feel a sudden boldness. So I head to the Year 12 common room, a large, charmless room resembling an office. The main things going for it are tables, a microwave and a kettle to make teenage fuel of noodles and tea.

Until now, it’s felt like sacred space. The Year 12s police it strictly. Younger siblings and cocky chancers are ejected without ceremony. I can’t imagine being ejected as an adult. But acceptance – that’s a different thing.

As I arrive, the second-generation Horn of Africa group is gathering. It is a thing to behold – a moving riot, constantly gaining and losing people. I’m drawn to their laughter. I loiter hopefully, one table over. Social acceptance for the newcomer? Anyone? Anyone?

Zahra is the first to take pity on me. She – if anyone – is queen bee, dispenser of gossip, selector of newcomers. Someone makes me tea. It’s milky, sweet, with cinnamon and cardamom.

One girl paints Zahra’s nails as she holds court, introducing me to her group.

Broad-shouldered smiley Michelle in a hijab. “She’s the enforcer.” I do a double-take – nothing seems less likely – but Zahra has moved on.

She introduces Aadan, a flashy soccer player. A striker? “Of course,” he says, patting his legs. “I’m fast.” And his best friend Omar – tall, owlish, serious, a would-be programmer who raps to himself under his breath. The duo look very similar – tall, lanky, angular faces, nimbuses of hair not cut so much as shaped.

Zahra points at Dalmar, a pleaser, short with a glittering grin, frizzy hair tamed as if by an invisible helmet. “He’s going to make money. He’s already working at Maccas.”

I meet quiet Zala, who wants to be a scientist, who designs elegant Muslim clothing in her spare time, lean and clean-cut soccer star Cumar, white socks pulled high, jovial, and moon-faced, broadshouldered Zahi who wants to start his own business.

Now Fatima, the would-be lawyer appears, talking fast and waving a bank card around. She’s collecting money for the daily mee goreng noodle run at the canteen. She’s slight, girlish, braces – but she’s the group’s organiser, brisk, busy, and friendly. Most of the close-knit Horn group are Somali, with Cumar and Fatima the Eritreans. Several Ethiopian kids are on the periphery.

“Summer was great,” Zahra is saying. “I caught up on a lot of TV.” She grins. She presents as relaxed, unhurried, but get her talking about race or politics, and it’s all on. She never wears a headscarf. “I’m the complete opposite of Fatima,” she tells me. “She’s like study hard, I’m like kick back, figure it out later.”

There’s a kind of group-gel here I haven’t seen before – it’s almost too much for me. Humming with backchat, crosschat, banter, shitgiving and all conducted at high speed, shot through with Arabic words and hiphop slang. It’s dizzying. So too for the Anglo kids, who approach to chat – the group is too much to penetrate.  It’s at least a third noisier than the white groups, and double as loud as the Vietnamese table. All the Horn boys slouch like a backslash, diagonal – and listen to US hiphop, the music turned down low enough to act as a soundtrack so they can still interject. Everyone is drinking spiced tea.

The conversation is getting political. Somalia versus Somaliland is the topic. The first, the war-torn nation where many of their parents came from, which has just elected its first president in 20 years. The second, a breakaway province run by one clan who are proud of its organisation and peaceful progress. Zahra is a proud Somalilander. “The boys get annoyed,” she says. “They tell me there’s no such country. But my dad is Somalilander, my mum from Puntland.” Puntland is another semi-autonomous region, previously famous for piracy.

Fatima looks up from her noodles. “Look, I’m Eritrean so it’s not my business. But Somaliland is not a country.” She laughs, knowing full well that Zahra will chow down on the bait. Zahra bridles. “Eritrea wasn’t even a country till it broke away from Ethiopia!” Fatima grins. “Look, I hate my government as much as you. But still…”

It feels like play, here, far away from the wars of clan and territory and famine that tore the Horn apart in the 1990s and propelled these kids’ parents to safety in Melbourne. But beneath play lies a strange form of nostalgia, a sense of exile from a place you hear about only in stories. I’m reminded of what Zahra told me when we first met. “When the war came, everyone who could left Somalia,” she said. They floated on the wind, dandelion seeds.  “My mum was in Kenya and she had to leave her mother behind. The rest of the family fled to Russia, and mum sent them money to try to come here, but they ended up in America.” Her mother made the best of it, settling here with Zahra’s stepdad and founding a successful African fashion shop. Her father lives in London. “When I visited my grandma in the US, she roasted me for my lack of Somali,” she laughs.

What I immediately find interesting about the Horn crew is how quickly the change has come, how tribes and clans and countries have been defanged. Politics can be life or death back home. But it’s lost its sting here. Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, South Sudan – marginal droughtlands often teetering on the edge of war, with clan and religion and country a potent accelerant. But the Horn has always interested me, an area of remarkable dynamism and instability. Ethiopia is booming, becoming one of the continent’s new economic powerhouses, following Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa. Tiny Djibouti hosts American and Chinese military bases and acts as the region’s free city and port. Successful Somali expatriates send money home via the trust-based hawala networks, while Somalia itself has one of the best mobile networks in Africa despite going without a government for decades. Then there’s Eritrea, a closed, repressive society with military conscription that may last a lifetime, the North Korea of Africa. Next to the Horn is South Sudan, the breakaway country engulfed in a new civil war between clashing tribes. But here, a world away, the old places fade, loses their power. So this, then, is a dance – family rivalry – the coming close to pain and diving away again. Play, serious, play – and the rapidity of tone shifts bewilders me. The Horn crew talk faster and faster, banter, flirt, fight, debate, talk about life in Dubai and Egypt, KFC vs Maccas, protein denaturing, the Somali word for chilli, how to get into nursing – and then, abruptly, about racism here, or clannishness there. Headscarves or uncovered hair or braids, Christian crosses or wallahi exclamations, squabbling over whether Ethiopians – notably lighter skinned – are African or Arab, or Swahili, that mixture of both. 

In 2012, I went to Eastleigh in Nairobi, dirt roads, crowds and large office towers, the place they call Little Mogadishu, the city’s second centre. Eastleigh is Somali territory, the place where the legendary businesspeople have set up shop. But many Kenyans are uncomfortable with Somalis. And many Somalis regard Kenya itself as a British conceit, stealing away much of their historic Greater Somalia. A Kenyan tossed a grenade into a busload of Somalis while I was there, a reprisal for previous violence. And that was before the bloody Islamist slaughter in Nairobi’s Westgate Mall in 2013. I’d been to that mall a year earlier, listening to the musak and watching middle-class Kenyans dream big. The mall was Africa rising, the slaughter a reminder of the continent’s lost decades.

An older Somali acquaintance once told me that in Melbourne, Somali clans – a life and death matter back home – have lost most of their weight. The Ogaden clan is truncated to OG, becomes a plaything. Clans still matter, because they matter to older people. But for second-gen Somalis and Ethiopians and Eritreans – clans and conflict between their parent’s nations are something to play with rather than a reason to fight

As the afternoon moves on, I get a sense of pleasant uncanniness, the sense of being out of place in the city I’ve spent most of my life. I’ve missed it during these years of early child rearing, of routines and staying close to home. Putting on bibs, negotiating spoon choice, imposing the Socialist Peace of Shared Toys, the joy of a new beetle or snail, my world shrinking to these small trials and joys. But here – that sense of tuning the radio over to a different station and slowly, slowly, static gives way to clarity.

Fatima, the would-be human rights lawyer, arrives back bearing her haul of noodles. “Oi. Mee goreng time!” She has a strong Aussie accent. “I call it my Caucasian accent,” she says, smiling. I watch mass noodle preparation with interest.  “We all share food. Well, the Africans do. I’m too shy to try the others,” Fatima says, nodding white-wards.  Michelle – who all acknowledge is the group’s noodle expert – brings everyone a bowl. Dalmar flicks her a glance. “You bloody legend,” he says, diving in.

Soon, lunch is over, and a studious boy at the next table taps everyone on the shoulder – class in three minutes, he says. And whoosh – the floor is mopped, dishes cleaned, and they’re off.

Over the next week, I gravitate to the common room. It’s the centre of everything, where kids sit and talk, banter and fight, study and talk shit. There are three broad groups – Anglo/Euro, Vietnamese/Chinese, and Horn of Africa, with a few people who move between.

One lunchtime, I watch as a Somali boy puts his arm up playfully to stop a Vietnamese student from entering the common room. There’s nervousness on the Vietnamese boy’s face – too much contact for his liking – but this is Somali-normal, this is tactile, full contact friendliness. The Viet kids are all impeccably groomed, with 50s Americana haircuts on the boys, Brylcreem and undercuts, with severe fringes on the girls. They eat quietly at their table or watch a screen. Over the next few weeks, I try to engage them in conversation. But it’s almost impossible. I make an overture, they evade.

The African table is far easier – the constant stream of banter, the noise, the friendliness. There’s a fluidity to how the boys and girls talk. Younger siblings appear at the door asking for two bucks or hoping to hang with the big kids and are driven away with yells and laughter and mock-outrage.

A new girl arrives. Kadeer seems traditional, her face wrapped tight by a scarf. But as she talks about her plans for the future, I do a double-take. She’s nothing of the sort. She’s urban-Somali, world-Somali. “You can go to Dubai with an Australian nursing qualification,” she tells Zahra. “My cousin did that – she got a free house, car and no tax. She’s making so much money.”

For ten years, Kadeer lived in Egypt, where all the food was halal, where Ramadan was a society-wide event. “I’d live there again,” she says. Her father still travels half of the year to Egypt, Dubai, Malaysia and Somali, doing business. But Kadeer is stuck here, other than a couple of trips to Sweden and the UK. She longs to travel. 

Zahra was born here. She’s unconvinced. “I couldn’t live in an Arab country,” she says. Kadeer shrugs. “You get used to it.”

Zahra isn’t buying it. “I wouldn’t be comfortable. Some Arabs think Africans are just there to work.” Kadeer cocks her head in that unmistakable black American way – disbelief. “No! Sudos [South Sudanese] live there – and they’re not just there to serve.”

Zahra is not one to back down from a stoush. “The word in Arabic they use for us – abeed – means black slaves, like the N word.” Kadeer isn’t interested in this conversation any more and it dies.

When Kadeer leaves for class, Zahra tells me about a private Facebook group she joined, Melbourne Girl Pals, where she’s often drawn into furious debate over the N word. How many arguments does she need to get in to make clear the word is still not OK? It seems endless. “The girls say their friends or boyfriends are black – but I don’t care,” Zahra says. “As a human, you don’t describe people like that. And it’s often Arabs who say it on the group.”

Fighting on social media is an evolution of her old persona. When she started at the school, pugnacious, don’t-give-an-inch Zahra was the self-proclaimed biggest troublemaker in the yard. “I was always getting suspended,” she says, soberly. “My anger was so bad that I’d flip just like that. Now I’ve moved past that, and I can see the teachers are treating me more maturely.”

The Concrete of Your Self

When I come to the common room next, a heavyset Somali girl is sharing her headphones with a Thai girl with braces. Later, I meet the Thai girl, whose English is still very much a work in progress, and who speaks lightly, skips across the top of things – careful not to offend or step in any way outside the bounds of this society, to her still very foreign. Her mother wants her to be a doctor but her English is holding her back. The migrant parents dream – once inside a rich Western country, your child will get a high-paying high status job that ensures a secure future for them – and for you as you age. But, but, but – getting there, that’s the thing. I offer her a few platitudes about Many Pathways that feel sour on my tongue, and hate myself for it. She looks across at the Horn crew. They’re in full voice, arguing now about whether Oromo – a Somali exclave in Ethiopia – belongs to Somalia. Fatima is in the fray, firing one-liners and verbally clouting rivals. The Thai girl sighs. “I can’t study here,” she says as she packs up and heads to the library.

Jalene – an Ethiopian Christian, a dreamer with a chunky wooden cross and girlish plaits – is collecting armfuls of books. She, too, is heading for the quiet. “I don’t like politics,” she says to me. Is it the anger it produces, I ask. She shakes her head. “I don’t like having to be one thing. They want to pin you down. And I like to know the evidence before I speak.” It is a careful criticism. And the way she pronounces evidence, elongating the word, dwelling on its power, stressing each syllable equally.

It is typical Jalene – sweet but wary, skirting around fire. There is something unworldly about her. She has her heart set on Success, on Being an Inspiration. And she will most likely get there. Her earnest striving, her willingness to keep plugging away – it makes my jokes, my desire for an easy life, my casual atheism – feel, well, like a luxury. She sings to herself at times, little ditties, ending always on a high note.

As a teenager, I tried very hard to be a good Catholic, holding to the way I was raised, picking white from black. But I kept finding that the world was low-contrast shades of grey. When I first met Jalene, I was reminded of this, one of my previous selves, that keening sound of soul meets world. The messiness of the world – these are distractions. The choirgirl looks slightly above everyone’s heads, where the air is clear.

When Jalene first arrived, a cousin gave her a single piece of advice. Say yes to everything. And she has. In South Sudan, where she was raised after her parents left Ethiopia, she was not particularly motivated at school, not particularly fit. She did what she had to do and nothing more. But shucked from familiarity and tossed into a giant city where everything was different, she found a new response: yes. Running club on weeknights, competing at state level cross country, bible club on weekends, doing the Kokoda trek, getting her Duke of Edinburgh gold award, playing AFL, doing leadership courses. Yes, yes, yes. And she learned, too, that she was tough, or could learn to become so. That, she discovered mid-way through an eight kilometre hilly run with her new running club. She was dead last. Her mind started playing tricks on her. Slow down, stop. Give up. Why not walk? But another part of her asked – is that how her teammates got so far ahead of her? By stopping? And she kept going. “I didn’t stop, even though I was fighting with myself. I kept going,” she told me when we first talked. “You keep going and then you get the power and you finish it.”

Her appetite for newness, for intake of knowledge knew no bounds. She learned quickly that Australian-time and African-time differ, that it’s rude to be late here but the norm back home. English – that slippery, exception-laden global tongue – proved the hardest challenge. “I had big words but nothing in full sentences,” she said. “But the opportunity was the strength of my mind, in being willing to try things. When I was in Africa, I didn’t do that. And when I see people coming here from overseas who just do what they already know, you get stuck doing only one thing. You learn by saying I’m going to try this thing I don’t know.” And that – that cut through my deflections. I left that first meeting, wondering. I was double her age. And already that form of sclerosis I would pontificate about was creeping up on me. I’d marked out the terrain – my skillset, the things I could do – and found myself generally unwilling to be publicly, obviously terrible at something new. I go home thoughtful that day. I’ve won a degree of social acceptance. But I’m being tested in ways I hadn’t expected. My adult carapace – the barrier that frees me up from self-doubt, the self-talk that lets me move through the world with confidence – is also a blocker. When you don’t know exactly who you are, there is a great deal more freedom. But you have to move before the concrete of your self sets for good.  

Maria: Lone Wolf

It’s hot and windy when I’m back at Middlevale the following week, a whirly whirly spinning below a large eucalyptus tree. The Horn gang are in the common room doing homework. Fatima is holding court. “Aadan – why are you still playing soccer? You said this was your year to study. It’s Year 12.” He shifts in his seat. “I’m just playing one game on Saturdays,” he protests. Fatima shakes her head, rules another line in her workbook.

Aadan turns to his work. He’s planning to do his English oral on Donald Trump. “I can’t find anything online,” he complains. One of the more traditional Somali girls, Marjani, raises a sculpted eyebrow. “Uh. Seriously?”

A striking young European woman takes a seat in the common room. Long ponytail, aviator sunnies, a strong stance. Maria is her name. She’s one of the student leaders.  She sits there, perfectly comfortable alone, as she munches her way through two Big Macs. I introduce myself, and she invites me to sit.

Maria is eating burgers plural because she’s a bodybuilder and craves carbs and fat. Diagnosed with a major health issue in year 9, her doctors told her she needed to get strong, fast. That was it – her old life of videogaming and socialising was over. It was time to get serious. “At first I was like, yeah yeah, whatever. But soon I couldn’t breathe properly,” Maria says. The gym has been her refuge, her way to strengthen herself, build her erratic body into something reliable, life-sustaining. “Mum’s a builder, so she sold one of her properties and we used some of the money to build a private gym in the garage,” Maria says. “I hit it two hours a day.” It’s not a cure, but it has helped a great deal.

Her mother was once a hardcore bodybuilder but had never really told her daughter about her time in that world. Now, she sat Maria down and took her through it. She listed the names of gyms to avoid in Melbourne. “This one has steroid users. This one attracts criminals and corrupt cops,” she told her daughter. “These ones are clean.” Now Maria has the zeal of the freshly converted. “Bodybuilding saved me,” she says. “I love the changes to my body. I was an impatient person but this has taught me patience.” She isn’t visibly musclebound. Yet. The evidence is more in how she moves, a steady confidence to her gait.

Last year Maria found her way to a nutrition supplement company aimed at gym fiends. It was like finding religion. Soon, they’d taken her on as a sponsored athlete, taken her to major bodybuilding events, introduced her to her heroine, an African American bodybuilder who combines elegant strength with a toned body without going into the realm of inhuman muscle stacks. “That’s my dream body. I want to be elegant – womanly, but with visible muscles, like her,” Maria says. “When you go beyond that, you get to the steroid women and you think – that’s gotta be a man.” Her locker is plastered in flyers for muscle building supplements, for protein bars. Maria knows she’s unusual. “I’m 17 and a sponsored athlete – that’s pretty good,” she says. “I know I’m not normal. In society, people stick with the pack. But I can’t do that. I’m a lone wolf.”

Maria looks up to her Greek mother, another wolf. It was she who suggested that the family turn their enormous block of land into six apartments and a shop to secure their finances once and for all. “We did it – but it almost destroyed our family, to be honest with you,” Maria says. “It was only four years, but the stress of it. Mum’s a builder so she took charge, but having a female in charge of all these blokes, you could tell they were a bit, um…” she trails off. Under the strain, the family splintered. Everyone went their own way for a time, talking only at meal times. It wasn’t until Maria broke her arm rollerblading that the family came back together, built themselves back again.

Maria misses her sprawling family home. Three generations on her mother’s side had lived there. “If I could pick, I’d go back. But now we live in the first flat, aunty and grandmother in the second,” she says. The family runs a café nearby. “I’m the third generation of café owners – my grandmother, mother and my brother and I worked there too,” she says. She points at her chunky silver watch. “I like my bling, and I earned this. I worked at the café from 10 years old for two dollars an hour, got to $10 an hour. I saved my money and got this.”

Her parents met at a pub down the road from the house. “Albanian Muslims owned it and when dad just arrived, they let him sleep upstairs. Mum was a waitress there, and they’d always see each other around. Mum always told him – make something of it, or don’t waste my time.” Maria grins. She admires her mother’s grit. Her dad is Turkish Muslim, her mum Greek Orthodox, but both religions refused to take her unless the other parent converted. As a compromise, she was baptised Anglican.

At school, Maria bounces between Anglo/Euro and African groups. “I’ve had so many of them coming to my house, Africans and Aussies. Many came for my 18th,” she says. If Africans and Aussies are ‘them’, how do you see yourself, I ask. “European,” she says. “I don’t go for the shrimp on the barbie thing. I prefer the European lifestyle.”

You present as a bit of a tomboy, I say. She grins. “I just reckon guys are simpler. With girls, it’s like what’s this, what’s that – it’s a headache, keeping up with BFFs, with all the arguments. Boys are simpler. With a guy you can say oi ya dickhead. Girls, you have to say how are you gorgeous. You got to play a role 24/7. With a guy, you can be you.”

Maria preferred the company of boys from a young age. Her older brother’s mates became her mates. She left dresses behind at the age of six. “I wear this all the time,” she says, gesturing to her shirt and pants. “But if I need to, I can do the nails, do the hair. It’s fun. I’m not saying I’m transgender, I’m just me. If I have to show I’m a lady, a proper woman, I know how to do it. But I also have my muscles.” She giggles. “You learn tactics.”

There don’t seem to be any couples in VCE, I observe. Maria snorts. “People got over it. It’s a year 10 thing. I had a boyfriend in Year 8, but that’s it. Are you really going to take a high school boyfriend seriously? You’re immature, girls are vulnerable, someone’s heart is going to get broken. I’m old school – wait until your 20s, and then have some fun.”

The term moves on. A swimming carnival. Interschool sport. Open day, where students lead alongside teachers. Everyone seems to get along, for the most part. It really does feel like a diversity stock photo. But I’m starting to wonder. No one talks about difference, even though it clearly matters. The VCE kids I’m spending time with seem to inhabit mutually-exclusive worlds – Anglo/European, Asian, African – with limited but friendly contact. I chose the school because I thought it would be a good representation of Melbourne’s future. But what I’m starting to realise is that every school is a miniature universe.

Worried, I ask a knowledgeable friend, Melinda, for advice. She’s doing her sociology PhD on a high diversity school on Melbourne’s outskirts. Her school is very large, its demographics more fragmented – Afghan, Chinese, Viet, Anglo, Indian, African. It’s not possible to know everyone, or even most people. And in response, the students invent new forms of race play. When a new student arrives, they’re asked precisely two questions: “What’s your nash?” And: “What nash do you pash?” Who are you, and who are you into. At her school, the kids devised an elaborate hierarchy of attractiveness. African boys were deemed most attractive, Anglos in the middle, and, alas, Indian boys at the bottom. There was a different hierarchy for the girls. The kids would call each other ‘nigga’ and mean it affectionately. They’d mock each other’s background and most of the time do it with warmth. No single group had the majority, no single group set the rules. But they told Melinda they preferred a school based around cultural groups to the alternative – rigid social strata of jocks/it-girls, druggies, outsiders and geeks. Plus, what  they had in common was that they thought that everything sucked – their school, their suburb, their futures. The plight of outer suburbia was what bonded them.

Melinda tells me to give it time. “It took me months before the kids started opening up to me,” she says. “Things will be happening at your school. You just can’t see it yet.” I mull it over. My school is closer knit. No one seems to date. And the intercultural stuff bubbles away under the surface, rarely emerging to be played with or teased out, even rarer to flare into a genuine issue. It’s there. I can feel it. But I can’t see it yet.


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