A week later, I
get my first glimpse. There’s tension in
the air. Fatima is constantly in motion, impatient to do more, be more, know
more. But she’s even more agitated than usual as she races around. There is A
Look on her face. When at last I catch her in a spare moment, she says only
that Things Have Happened. Only at the end of the day, in that slackwater time
where the Horn kids dawdle and shoot the breeze after classes, does Fatima
finally slow down enough to tell me what happened.
“The kettle,” she hisses. “The cups and the kettle. And the disrespect!”
I stifle a laugh. Is this a battle over
cleaning the shared kitchenette? Fatima can see my disbelief and heads me off
at the pass. “It matters,” she says, firm. And she tells me that to the Horn
crew, the kettle is important. The spiced milky tea they drink, the mee goreng
noodles – all rely on the everyday magic of boiled water.
So there was shock and confusion when the Horn
crew came in that morning and found their prized kettle gone. Fatima asked
Maria if she knew what had happened. Maria shrugged, told her the room was too
messy and that she’d taken them. “She told us she wanted to take our privileges
away,” Fatima says, eyes wide.
Incredulous, they asked Maria for more detail.
But now Maria was feeling wary. “There are so many of you it feels like a gang!”
she said. So the African group conferred, and decided to send in Fatima alone.
“Because of that ‘gang’ thing’” Michelle says with deep sarcasm.
Fatima is in her element – arms moving like
interlocking levers, like a precise wind-up toy. “I was elected to speak,” she
says. “And I told her it was not fair. It doesn’t say Maria’s room. It says
Her crew sit at the table, hanging on her
words. Aadan has taken out his earphones. He wants in on this conversation. He
strides to the door and examines the sign. “Common room,” he confirms. He’s
swaggering – that rap persona, big personality – that he’s pulling on, trying
it out for size.
“Maria Donald Trumped us,” Michelle says.
Fatima nods. “She’s meant to be a bridge between teachers and students. We
voted for her!” Aadan is pacing, getting angrier and angrier – he pounds his
chest. “We cleaned up on Friday night, when you saw us.” I nod – I did see
Oddly, it feels like the anger is leaching
from the room. There’s a mixture of serious faces and laughter – the catharsis
of flow, the gutterwards rain after a storm, a sudden lightening. And Michelle
says – it feels good to talk about this. “I hadn’t realised how much it
mattered,” she says. She turns back to her books. The storm in a kettle is
over. To talk about the injustice – that was enough.
Hey, shouts Fatima. She’s spotted Aadan
inspecting himself in the window reflection. “How’s that so-called six pack of
yours?” Another sudden shift in mood – anger to roasting. Aadan flounces around
the room. He lifts his shirt, thumbs his taut stomach. The girls whoop and
call. And Fatima shakes her head. “Oh, the lies this guy tells himself.” Aadan
loves it. “I look like a young Tom Cruise,” he says, as he lifts his shirt,
lowers it, dances around the room, whacks Michelle with a ruler.
It takes a week for the Kettle Incident to be
resolved. When I venture into the common room – there it is, the off-white, well-loved
I go looking for Maria. She’s at her locker.
But she doesn’t want to talk about the Kettle incident. It isn’t her style to
acknowledge conflict or mistakes, to admit she might have gone too far.
Instead, she tells me about the Arnold Classic coming up. “I’ll post pics on my
Instagram,” she says. She shows me her photostream. It’s full of those freakish
male bodies, every muscle group teased out of subcutaneous hiding. As someone once
said of Arnie in his prime: a walnut wrapped in a condom. And pics of Maria –
grinning ear to ear, taking selfies with her heroes, pumping iron, posting
photos of carb loading rice and meat meals, a dusting of inspirational
Back in the common room, the Horn crew is in
magnanimous mood. The kettle is back, and that’s all that matters. That, plus Fatima
has been mollified, which means her crew can move on. They’ve even forgiven
Maria for calling them a ‘gang’.
Michelle leads Aadan around by his headphones
and he reciprocates by untying her shoelaces. Another African boy – square jaw,
buzzcut, a look of determination – swings past Fatima as she washes her teacup.
“You girls stay doing what you do best,” he sings out and she swivels. “I’ll get
you in English class,” she calls after him. Once he’s outside, I ask – do the
boys ever wash up? I haven’t seen them do it yet. “No – they’re spoiled,” she
says. “But we need the plates and cups too.” She shrugs.
The rest of the Horn crew are talking about a
little girl in Syria who blew herself up in a police station. Her mother and
father told her – go to Allah. But the girl was the only one who died. “Was it
online?” someone asks. Fatima nods. Michelle jumps in. “Sir! You like crime?
I’ll tell you who to follow on Facebook. You can see the biggest crimes in
America right now. They’re lit.” Her eyes aglow – that same rubbernecking
feeling I get from being here.
This – the teenage extremes, the thirst for
the edge, the exhilaration of stepping over boundaries. My version was nicking
shopping trollies in Greensborough Plaza to ride down the car park ramps, it
was driving our cars stupidly close together so we could high five, it was
tossing deodorant cans into backyard fires, riding the back of trains Lower
Plenty to Eltham, it was cutting hoses to make Coke-bottle bongs, spending
summers doing mickey flips into the Yarra on a swing made of a firehose stolen
from Eltham High School. I was a shy kid, coaxed into it by my troublemaker
friend, who later became a banker and then entrepreneur. And I’m glad now that
he made me do it, forced me out of myself.
Everyone is stressed when I arrive next.
There’s an English assessment looming. Kadeer, the elegant urban Somali, is
trying to quiet Cumar, who is singing loudly and out of tune to his piped-in
music. “Shush! Shut up” she says, eyes flaring, lips pursed. The rest of the
Horn crew are stressing big time. Year 12 is starting to bite. “Why does this
test have to be writing?” Fatima asks, wryly. “We’re good at talking. That’s
Cumar takes out his headphones and makes a cup
of cardamom tea He paces while it brews. “I hate English,” he says suddenly.
“Maths, you know it’s either right or wrong. English you never know.” Even calm
Jalene seems stressed. She’s scratched off her watermelon nail polish.
Kadeer breaks the tension by teasing her
traditionalist Muslim friend. “Marjani! How’s your boyfriend? Remember – it’s forbidden,
it’s haram,” she says, with the ghost
of a smile. Marjani – shy, clear whites of eyes, engulfed in dense cloth –
seems put out at this obvious untruth. “Kadeer talks too much,” she mutters.
I talk to Tim, the Christian Anglo boy, while
he eats mee goreng, the default food of the Year 12s. “My parents have heaps of
Maggi noodles but I can’t bring them, I’d get laughed at,” he says. He’s
standing alone, adding each of the different flavour packets. “I don’t come in
here much. It’s too noisy.” He doesn’t have to say more. “You know, from year
7, all I wanted was to get to year 12 to have our own exclusive space. But now
I don’t use it.” He shrugs. His best mate is Islander, but he finds the African
bounce of Fatima’s table too much.
Noisy. It’s a common theme. Many of the other
Anglos say the same. The Vietnamese crew are always here, but with headphones
in, silencing their classmates without conflict. Anglos and the quieter African
kids go elsewhere. It’s an issue, a clash – but one that never emerges
directly. Today, though, there seems to be something extra in the air, a
coltish nerviness. The stress of the upcoming test is breaking down the status
quo. Steve, a broad-shouldered Vietnamese boy, threads a soccer ball between
tables, trying to get it past Aadan.
As lunchtime ends, I see Year 12s running helter-skelter,
forgetting dictionaries and pens and returning and fretting and peeling off at
high speed. I wander through campus. It’s a big sky day – clear and hot and
cloudless. Melbourne’s Indian summer rolling on. I can see the city gleaming in
the distance, the growing thicket of towers.
In the common room, feisty Zahra and elegant
Kadeer are arguing about beggars. They’ve written English essays arguing we
should respectively understand the causes of begging or fine them harshly.
Zahra bridles when Kadeer makes her case. She feels injustice acutely. “You
really believe that?” she asks. Her face glides from open laughter to glowering
bouncer in a second. Kadeer – who I’m starting to realise is a chameleon –
deftly evades. “No, I just like to argue the harder argument,” she says
lightly. Zahra casts her a jaundiced eye. “This is a harsh woman,” she says to
me. Kadeer plasters on a TV smile. She’s in a black dress, black tennis shoes,
a taut headscarf serving to emphasis her striking face. The matter-of-fact
scarf reminds me of nothing more than photographs of 1930s farmer’s wives. A
small stud nose ring, eyebrows emphasised in thick black, offsetting coffee
skin. Both girls tilt their heads, waggle fingers – that you-go-girl black American
chutzpah, borrowed from hiphop – which is huge across Africa – and put to work.
After school, Kadeer has to work the register
at KFC. She is not looking forward to it. Zahra nods more sympathetically. “I
used to work Maccas when we lived out in the western suburbs. The rudeness of
the customers! Oh, my days,” she sighs. Kadeer raises a brow. “My store manager
is too tough,” she complains “She makes me lift heavy boxes on slippery floors
and says suck it up princess when I ask if a boy can do it. She’s Muslim too.
Bosnian.” Kadeer pauses. “But she asks very personal questions.”
The previous week, the manager had asked why
Kadeer wasn’t wearing her headscarf. Taken aback, she didn’t answer – the
presumption of the woman! Kadeer sucks in air sharply as she tells the story.
What did you do, I ask. “I didn’t want to be rude, but European Muslims are not
strict. So I asked her – do you pray five times daily? Do you cover yourself
during Ramadan? And the manager didn’t answer.” She smiles – a win.
Zahra is sceptical as always. “Hmm. Strict,
eh? Kadeer is a part time scarfie,” she says to me. Then she relents. “You do
have to be careful. People will tell your mum if you’re not wearing the scarf.”
Kadeer laughs. “BBC Somalia.” What? “That’s
what we call it – because word gets around.” Zahra shakes her head, making her
hair go wild. I’ve noticed she never wears a scarf. “I don’t often go to my
mums shop – it’s African central. If you walk in wearing jeans and no scarf –
all eyes are on you.”
One afternoon after school, Zahra went to see
her mother, who works long hours to support the family. She was scarfless. And
one of her mother’s friends clicked her tongue. How could you let your daughter
out without a scarf, she asked. And her mum said it plain – it’s none of your
business. Later, she told her daughter – it’s between you and God. I don’t
care. It’s just other people who do.
The two girls outline the rules for me. Muslim
parents don’t care if you go to friend’s parties without a headscarf. But they
do when their own friends will be there – weddings, bigger community
gatherings. That’s when the microsociety forms – and judgments are passed. It’s
amazing, they say, how quickly society changes. In the 1960s, no-one wore
headscarves in Somalia. They came later. Rules will change again.
What are the rules at this school, I ask.
Kadeer laughs. “Year 10s and 11s date. Not year 12s.” Zahra smirks. “Well,
there’s that green haired girl. She’s dating.” Kadeer smiles slyly. “Whole of
the school, I think.”
They find white girls a source of endless
interest – their very public affections, their rapid switches of boyfriend.
African girls have to play a much more cautious game. These two seem like odd
friends – a striking chameleon, a feisty, determined young woman. But gossip –
now that’s something they can get into.
“Poppy, Jane and Bernie live their lives
pretty freely,” Zahra says, placing emphasis on ‘freely’. Kadeer giggles.
“Like, Poppy shares a boyfriend with her best friend.” Zahra bursts into
laughter “That’s right. And they used to post Snapchat videos of them all
kissing and doing drugs. It’s so funny to watch them. And this year, they’re
not friends anymore.”
When they tell me a story, they jump ahead,
cut in front of each other, go back in time to bring in earlier evidence, a
tumbling, chaotic story. This is one of their favourites. It’s about the
friendship group of younger Anglo kids where seemingly all possible pairings
have been tried, where everyone has dated everyone. And when the final, most improbable
pairing-off happened – when one of the boys dated his ex’s best friend
immediately afterwards – the whole group blew up into Full Scale Drama, to the
point where the jilted girl left the school. And even now, the group forges on,
creating new dramas. It is, Zahra says, consistently amusing.
What about your group, I ask. Zahra quirks a
brow, and eyes her friend. “If there was gossip, it would be between Kadeer and
Aadan,” she says, sly. At this, Kadeer is – for the first time – lost for
words. She blushes and changes the topic. What she wants to talk about is how
she won social acceptance.
When Kadeer came at the start of year 11, the
whole Horn crew hated her. She would always see Fatima and Zahra laughing, and
longed to be part of the popular African group. But she couldn’t get in.
Another girl took her aside and said – you don’t want to mess with that squad.
But Kadeer wanted total social conquest, right up at the top. She needed it.
There was a roadblock, though. Formidable Zahra, who told her she looked
Ethiopian, not Somali – an accusation with political weight, given the two
countries history of war and tension.
At this, Zahra cuts in. She’s been listening
and grinning as Kadeer recounts the brazen story of conquering the group. “I was
the last one to even like her,” she says, and Kadeer nods. It explains the
unlikeliness of their friendship. For Zahra, it must have been a hard sell.
What was this smooth-talking pretty new girl doing? Who did she think she was?
Kadeer unspools. She’s confident – very
confident – on account of moving around so much in her previous city’s schools.
After Zahra blocked her, Kadeer set her sights on Fatima as the entry point.
But Fatima could not be wooed. So Kadeer promptly switched tactics. If the
girls were a closed shop, try the boys. Different tactics work on them. “I got the
boys first because we were in PE class together,” she says, breezily. “Then
we’d bond at KFC – we’d all walk down there on the way home.” With the mooning
boys on side, the girls had to accept her presence.
Zahra laughs all the way through, but there’s
a hint of an edge. “She would just be around
all the time,” she says. I find it fascinating – Kadeer isn’t quite bragging,
but it’s the kind of story I’d never expect to hear told in front of one of her
I look more closely at Kadeer. She’s elegant,
supremely confident. But it’s a dangerous game. Her attractiveness to boys has
– clearly – put off girls she wants to befriend. The friendship seems to be one
of convenience. What I find remarkable is the lack of charade over her methods
– and Zahra’s begrudging acceptance. Kadeer battered down the walls and won
entry, and you have to respect victory.
So Kadeer, do you, uh, tend to have more
female or male friends, I ask. Kadeer laughs. She knows what I’m really asking.
“In all the schools I’ve been to, girls hate me. Oh, I had attitude. I used to
do this,” she says, tilting her head and clicking her fingers while tracing an
S – that Afro-American shut-down. “When I was bad – I would ask to go to the
toilet and never come back. I’d just go to the year 11 common rooms because I
used to have a crush on this year 11 boy. Nothing serious. You can’t go too far
with strict parents. Then I came to Melbourne and I changed, I was so quiet.”
She offers a small smile. “I’m a person who can open up to someone easily – that’s how it was at the Islamic school where I used to live But this school, when you’re new, people expect you to be quiet and just sit there. When I came, I forced it…” She catches herself, takes two. “I didn’t force it, I just became close to everyone. But some people thought I had too much confidence. It’s just me. I want to be around people.” And she offers a brilliant smile. Kadeer, it seems, is irrepressible. And given her talent at achieving what she sets out to do socially, perhaps Aadan will be her next acquisition.
It’s a Friday after a ten-day spate of Indian
summer in early April – misty mornings seared away by the heat of the day,
humidity more like Sydney, climate change ramping up. A Year 7 Somali girl,
face alight, pretends to rap as she moves past my window, her Albanian Muslim
friend close behind in an identical white headscarf.
At the lockers, Alex shoulders Maria aside,
jokingly. “Us wogs got to stick together,” he says. Maria laughs. “Mr Muscles,”
she says. They’re both gym junkies, both recent converts. Alex isn’t finished.
“Actually you’re only half wog. Half Aussie. Not good enough.” Maria’s smile
becomes fixed. Solidarity is a thin skein.
Maria suddenly lunges across the corridor. A plump kid has just slapped
a smaller boy, full palm. “Don’t do that,” she snaps. He pleads Boyish Larks,
but she’s having none of it. She returns shaking her head. Is this part of
being one of the leaders? “I didn’t think so, but you do find yourself doing
it,” she says. “I must have grown up.”
Alex is between social options, and deigns to
talk to me. How are you going, I ask. “I’ve had a couple of things happen, but
it’s fine. It’s not too hot, not too cold.” What happened? “My dad’s family
split up a little. And my cousin died.” He shrugs, blank-faced. Sorry to hear that,
I say. He makes a face. “It’s a long way away,” he says.
We lean our backs against the lockers and Alex
tells me his story, a fuller rendition. His family had always been poor. But in
2008, the GFC hit his country of birth hard, and his dad’s software business
went to the wall. “He’s a hacker – grey hat,” he says. What, like search engine
optimisation? Alex shrugs, deliberately vague. “Maybe.”
Desperate, his dad took a job in Afghanistan
with the NATO forces, seeking danger pay. He worked there until 2014, when his
base was attacked while he was away on leave. It was a bold attack. But the
Taliban knew the Europeans and Americans would soon be going home, that the
long war would be over and that they would, eventually, win, simply by
surviving. Though the Taliban were driven off or killed this time, the threat
left Alex’s father chastened. So he went to Baghdad, where you got paid danger
money but you knew, for the most part, the places to avoid. Eventually, he
returned home, flush with cash. But by now he’d tired of their tiny town, of
his small country. “The whole of my country is smaller than Melbourne’s
population,” Alex says.
Where, his father asked, would he like to
live? Alex knew exactly the place. Sweden, he said, where many of his online
gaming clan mates in CounterStrike lived. “Sweden is in a very good position
tactically,” he tells me. “It’s always protected, with all the water around
it.” You mean in the event of war? He nods. Killzone awareness.
His dad scotched that idea. Too old to learn a
new language, and he already had English. So Alex said Australia, and so it
came to pass. His dad got a job. Alex got to pick the school. “I didn’t want to
go to the shady places. This school is good. I actually love it. But it was
kind of weird at first.” His town had one African family living in it. There
were plenty of Asian families, but Alex tells me they’re considered “shady” in
his country. “When I came here, I was like, hmm,” he says, looking around. I
glance around. Studious Vietnamese, studious Malays, studious Chinese, with
nary a glimmer of shadiness. Alex rolls on: “But I like it here. No one picks
on you. Which is surprising, because I’m a foreigner. But it doesn’t happen.”
Monday, I see Alex again. How did your solo half-marathon go, I ask. He’d
talked himself up last week, saying he was going to run the Capital City Trail.
He grimaces. “I got nerve pain after 5 kilometres,” he says. I stifle a grin.
Though Alex has modified himself from gamer to fit social success with remarkable
speed, things keep happening that conflict with his Version 2.0. He looks out
the door to the street and spots Embarrassment In the Flesh. It’s his mum
waving, a Tupperware container of sour-cream pasta still warm in one hand. He
glances frantically about to ensure no girls can see him, and hares off towards
her, only to fall flat on his face. He returns with the pasta and bright red
cheeks. “You didn’t see that,” he mutters.
Self-belief, he’s not short on. He’s smashing
maths, in his words. But other subjects are harder. And despite his supreme
self-confidence, his efforts to break into the big Year 11 Anglo group are
proving complicated. “Alex is one of the boys, but you can tell he’s a
newcomer,” Ari whispers when I ask. “Everyone gives him the most flack. We’re
trying to break him in, get him used to our culture.”