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Chapter 3: The Pencilcase Riff
By Doug Posted in Term 1 on June 26, 2019 0 Comments 29 min read
Chapter 2: The Kettle Boils Previous Chapter 4: Everything is Simple Next

It’s an endless afternoon, and Zahra and Kadeer are talking race in the common room. I listen. Were there ever issues with race here, I ask. Zahra nods, eyes flat. Race mattered when she first arrived, as young strangers from a dozen different backgrounds tried to make sense of where they were, who they were. There was an Anglo group who didn’t like the Africans. The white kids would write words on pieces of paper and cut them up and slip them into pencilcases. Whichever word they pulled out would be the riff of the day. Their idea of what was provocative was one-dimensional. “Negro,” it might be, or “black” or even the N-word. Didn’t matter that it was an American slur dating back to the horrors of slavery. What mattered was that it drew the desired reaction.

And one day during Ramadan, one of these boys – call him Jayden – started spitballing the back of Michelle’s head, hitting her headscarf and calling out – what’s that towel on your head, and another of the white boys, Aaron, laughed harsh and loud. Michelle – broadshouldered, a constant smiler, who doodles pictures of young girls looking wistfully into the future – could take it only so long. And Michelle whispered to Zahra: “I’m going to knock that kid out when Ramadan finishes.” This was in the days when Michelle was an unlikely bruiser, after she’d had her illusions about life stripped away in a rough and ready primary school. Jayden had no idea who he was screwing with.

Ramadan finished and Jayden kept licking his spitballs and targeting Michelle. She smiled and bore it during class. And then, after class, she shadowed the racist crew. Aaron peeled off first and walked alone to his locker. There, she grabbed him and tossed him bodily to the floor, a crunch. And Aaron crawled away, sobbing, as the Horn girls watched and laughed and taunted him, and Michelle walked alongside him as he wept and blew snot out his nose and she leaned down and said – don’t you ever say racist things again. And then, on a rampage, she stalked and caught Jayden-the-spitballer, a chubby boy – the classic bully, down on himself, seeking validation in the pain of others – and she wound up and slapped him open-handed, as hard as she could. Revenge, it turned out, felt surprisingly good.

What happened next, I ask. The answer surprises me. Michelle was suspended. But Jayden left school soon afterwards, unable to recover his social standing after being beaten up by a girl. The other white kids in the group either left or got over their race fixation after that.

When I see Michelle later, I ask her if this story was true. She looks half-embarrassed, half proud as she nods. The look of someone who has to reconcile me-then with me-now. “A teacher said he wouldn’t do anything and that it was up to me.” She snorts. “I’m not a violent person. I don’t know what came over me that day.” This was five years back, when the school was still rough around the edges.

In the common room, I ask Zahra who else was in that group. Anyone I know? She gets a curious look in her eye. Dalmar, she says. He used to be part of the racist crew. I know Dalmar. The joker, open-faced, frizzy hair, hand-shaker, ready grin and a short fuse. And African.

How, exactly, did a black kid end up in a racist white group, I ask. Zahra grimaces. “He went to a white primary school and he didn’t have any African friends. So he became friends with the white kids here. They’d be like ‘KFC is for black people’ and he’d laugh at their jokes, laughing white, like hur-hur-hur. We still roast him for that.” Now, Dalmar has come home. He’s a social butterfly – Anglo friends, Asian – but he’s most often with the Horn of Africa crew.

Zahra is momentarily serious. “That’s why I have predominantly African friends. I mean, Maria is my friend. But she’s European, so we can’t hang out all the time. There are differences. I feel I can’t talk about real issues with them, unless they can see they have real privileges compared to us. If they can’t see that, we can’t have a real conversation. I can’t talk Trump with you if you agree with him.”

For Zahra, race is a constant burr. Her natural inclination is to laugh, to watch TV, to roast the boys in her friendship group, to talk ten to the dozen with her BFF Fatima. But being black in a white majority society means you’re the spearhead – just as the Irish, the wogs and Jimmy Grants and FOBs and chinks and reffos and Mussies had to smile their way in, hands-up, no-threat, no-threat, put up with whitey’s slings and arrows, shitgiving or just plain shit, endure long enough to put down roots, take on the stereotypes, start doing self-deprecating comedy, opening businesses, climbing the ladder, walking tall, taking the piss – start co-owning the place. We don’t exactly make it easy.

But right now, as Islamist terror covers the front pages, as the Apex Gang and South Sudanese crime becomes a racial panic, an election issue – that’s impossible. Zahra is not the type to turn away, to make it a joke, to turn yourself into a fluid, to be whoever you have to be to survive, as Dalmar has done. But that means it is a daily battle. That very morning, she tells me, she was walking with other kids to their VCAL course in an outer suburb far from Middlevale. They walked past a primary school playground with tiny black girls and boys hurtling down slides, skipping in groups. And an Italian girl laughed and said “Omigod, look at all these baby n*ggers!” Zahra’s blood boiled but she kept silent, this time, out of deference to the group. And because everyone was laughing. “She wasn’t trying to insult me,” she says. “It’s as if I’m not one of them. It’s just so awkward.”

The Italian girl is a friend of convenience – one of those people you’re forced to tolerate because you’re in the same situation. But this girl – call her Hayley – keeps testing Zahra. Another time, they were walking to class from the station and Hayley started praising Pauline Hanson. This time, it was just the two of them. “How can you possibly agree with anything she says?” Zahra asked her in disbelief. “She’s got sick ideas.”

Hayley stood her ground. “She talks about people coming to Australia to steal our jobs.” Zahra scoffed. “How? Who steals the jobs? People like my mum, with the shop she started? Is that stealing a job – or making one?” And she could see confusion rising in Hayley – here, her Aussie-accented friend with black skin, with her mother an employer – but she didn’t back down.

What Zahra thought later – with the wit of the staircase, the crack that comes too late – was to say to Hayley: hypocrite! Your parents are Italian! If Hanson had been around in the sixties when they came, she would have attacked them for stealing jobs. Did your parents steal jobs? Or did they apply for them, like normal people?

Paul: Rich Kid in Middlevale

It’s lunchtime and the school is unfurling as usual. Aadan is limping after a friendly pre-season soccer match, Maria bouncing off the walls ahead of the Arnold Classic. Her bodybuilding heroine is in town. Perhaps she’ll get to meet her. I try to talk to Michelle. She does a doubletake. “Sorry! I was listening to music under my headscarf,” she says, peeling back to show white earpods. “It’s my secret way.” Dalmar chases and noogies a laughing year 9 who dares breach the sacred Year 12 space. And two tall African boys tumble on the floor, wrestling, laughing.

There’s a boy I haven’t seen before lounging in the common room. Paul has studious glasses, a slight bouffant, and Eurasian features. He’s half Malay, half German, half-heartedly Muslim. He speaks well – there’s something of the swot about him, at first, but soon I see he talks to everyone. Before Middlevale, Paul was at an elite international school in Kuala Lumpur. He lived in an expensive expat area outside the city. It was an intense time, he tells me. Cramming, tutors, high achievement. What, I wonder, is he doing at this school? He smiles and tells me that because it’s disadvantaged, it lowers the mark needed for university entry. It’s a calculated move, in short. He looked at private schools, both Christian and Muslim, but wasn’t into the focus on religion. “It’s not me,” he says. Zahra has gossiped about him before I met him. “He’s rich,” she said, making a face. “He lives in a fancy apartment.”

Paul has a spare. We talk outside in brilliant afternoon light sun at a table by the basketball courts as balls fly by, the African boys shouting and tussling and laughing. “I’m a fluid,” he tells me. “I can mix with black kids because I’m Muslim like many of them, and with white people. That’s why I’m really comfortable at this school. Mostly I associate with the African group. They’re more enjoyable to be around. And there are cultural similarities – they’re expressive and enthusiastic, like my Malay side.”

Paul is one of the few who slip between groups. “People tend to stick with those of the same culture,” he says. He’s been watching the dynamics at Middlevale for years. “Some of the African kids don’t have very good relationships with the white kids. They see them as teacher’s pets, and there’s some truth to that. There’s a lot of preconceived notions between the two groups. But they don’t clash – it’s more passive. It’s about space. White kids don’t often come into the common room because they feel the Africans are too noisy, so they go to the library. And even in class, you hear things said under the breath by white kids if an African kid is too noisy.”

For his part, he prefers African company because there’s always something happening – banter, a drama, playfight or real. “What I do find difficult is that a lot of the African boys are homophobic, just like many Malays, and I’m more progressive.” He shrugs, as if what can be done. The other irritant for him is the old slut/stud divide. It was the same at my Anglo-dominated school, I say, and Paul nods. “It’s everywhere.” Then he adroitly switches points of view: “The boys home life is very different to mine – many have conservative parents who are strict Muslims. So they’re good boys at home, and different outside. They have to be very stealthy if they want to have fun. Which they do.”

Paul is a progressive globalist, a vegetarian Muslim who doesn’t pray, someone into gender equity and gay acceptance and environmentalism. A scion of the global elite, in other words, who attended international schools in Malaysia and the Philippines, who makes regular trips to Germany to visit his dad’s family, who has a second home and set of relatives and friends in Kuala Lumpur. I’ve already asked him why he’s here, but there must be more to the story. What, exactly, is he doing here in an up-and-coming public school in Melbourne?

This time, the answer is that he’s done with private schools and their snobbery. It wasn’t just the international schools. He lived in Melbourne once before, for several years at the start of high school. Then, his parents rented a swanky place in Mt Eliza, the wealthy enclave perched on a hill above once-rough Frankston. Mt Eliza was where Fred Astaire, Gregory Peck, and Ava Gardner came to shoot On The Beach in 1959. Paul hated it. High walls, large estates, clipped hedges, white wealth. “It was so boring,” he says. “Kids just talk about money, about what their parents do.” And what do they do? “Cocaine,” he says, laughing. He talks expansively about the drug habits of the white scions he rubbed shoulders with. “Good coke is expensive in Australia – so only the rich do it,” he says.

When Paul first arrived at Middlevale, the joyful chaos of this school seemed very different to either the white snootiness of Mt Eliza or the elitist polish of his Malay international school. “I have social anxiety, so I get very uncomfortable. I’m a very shy person,” he says. “The first day I came, I went home and cried and told my parents I didn’t want to come. I don’t like being outside my comfort zone. But something changed. I got comfortable. It’s strange. I guess it’s that people here aren’t judgemental.”

Paul cocks his head. “Look, I know it’s not a rich school. I could have gone private, but I didn’t want to do that.” He admits he doesn’t like what he’s seen so far of wider Australia. “But I do like Melbourne, especially the diverse suburbs. I’d never want to go back to the suburbs where everyone is white.”

Despite the gulf in wealth, the Horn crew has broadly welcomed him. It was only last night that Aadan borrowed his mums car, stashed Omar in the boot, Paul in the front seat, while they drove the back streets, hooting at the freedom a car affords. And yet – as his friends have made clear in their quips – his wealth is hard to avoid. Paul’s casual comments about overseas trips, about his favourite designer, about his weekly allowance – these are things from another world.

Most of the time, it seems you like to observe, I say. “That’s true,” Paul says. “I like to participate, but I also like to observe people, to pay close attention to their mannerisms so I know how to behave around them, so I feel more comfortable.”

As I leave, I think about what he says about space – whose space it is – and how the studious kids – Anglo, Asian and African – don’t like the common room noise. That great universal – I Was Here First. But who was here first? Middlevale used to be working class white space and then it became Latin American and Vietnamese space and then it became African space, and now the white and Asian gentry are pushing in. In Melbourne’s wealthier suburbs, aspirational Chinese, Vietnamese and Indian families use cram schools and private tutors to get an edge on the competition to send their kids to selective high schools. And, of course, the bitter contest for school-zoned houses when a public school has a good reputation. Gentrifying is about what wealth does to space, about who is pushed out. In Footscray, a fightback briefly makes the news. Vandals spraypaint “Fuck off hipster” on a sleek new burger joint, throw bags of rotting meat under the doors of cafes offering cold drip coffee. The decidedly ungentrified Footscray Hotel is refusing to sell up to developers eager to make the next big block of apartments. Who claims this space? Who holds it?

It reminds me of a conversation I had early on with Peter, the Aussie Ukrainian. In his early years at the school, he told me, there was a real contest for space. Back then, the school was very male heavy – 70:30, by his estimate. And that meant jostling for dominance. “People always want to prove themselves, to be the alpha male. And that happened at the basketball court. If you’re playing one on one and you do really well, you get, sort of like, more dominant.” Peter himself is a natural sportsman. Long, lean, efficient movement. When he stepped up to play soccer on his very first day in the school in Year 7, the African boys looked at him sideways. Sport was their thing, their domain. Basketball and soccer – these were their skills. Did he not know that? That lunchtime, there was a huge mob of boys, 40 strong, playing a riotous running game of soccer with very few rules. And Peter – this tiny newcomer – leaped into the fray, with much larger kids. He was nimble, whipping past the tall kids, nursing the ball through the pack – and into the goal.  The shock! “You’re the first white boy who ever scored,” they told him. And with that, he’d won approval, carved out his own space. Peter finds it funny. “Africans naturally stereotype everyone else as being pretty bad at sport,” he tells me. “But the thing is, the Anglos at this school are actually very good, especially at soccer and footy. So when you do something good, they’re shocked.”

I head back inside to the common room. As the day winds to a close, Hodan and Marjani – two of the traditionalist Somali girls – are cleaning up everyone else’s junk. Both strike me as very much a product of old-school families – dad works, mum the housewife. Hodan is wiping the common room table and putting the chairs up on the table to make it easier for the cleaner. Her Year 12 bomber jacket has a keep-trying slogan as her motto. She offers me her home-cooked curried mince to try. Sweet, spicy, salty, tomatoes and black pepper. She’s got a knack for it. “I’d like to work as a chef,” she admits, shyly. Hodan is strikingly tall, Marjani, peppy and short. “I want to be a teacher. Primary school though – not like this place,” Marjani says, making a face.

They’re first generation, which means they float around the edges of the second-gen Horn crew, drowned out by the noise. But today, the noisy ones have gone home and the quieter kids can breathe. Marjani talks of Jalene, the trier, with admiration – of watching her run the 1500 metres at the school sports carnival last year, determination on her face, jogging the same steady speed as the sprinters plunge ahead and burn out, falling well behind as Jalene coasts home.  Tomorrow, she says, I’ll watch her do it again.

Helena: Are You a Cop?

The day of the 2017 sports carnival arrives. Cool morning air burns away to a surprisingly hot day. The whole school is here, ringing an athletics track by a creek. Take-no-shit tuckshop mums run the canteen, selling pies dimmies two buck cans. Magpies swooping in the dust, topless Anglo blokes running their dogs on a nearby path, mums prams chats. The early races are already under way. It’s not athletics as I remember it. A boy sprinting in a horsehead mask, the effect vaguely terrifying. Another boy in a red pinafore, a year 7 girl running in a leprechaun hat, next to her friend in an animal onesie, running so fast her too-large furry arms trail behind, a teacher in gold makeup, sequins, and strips pinned to her dress. The house system is here taken as a chance to go wild, dress up, earn points, be silly. It feels more like Carnivale in Rio than a gung-ho competition.

Two Ethiopian girls lie sprawled across each other on a rug in the shade. They look similar – tight buns of hair, a frizz escaping, wide eyes. Going to run? Nah, they say, chill out day. Participation is optional. I spot Anglo boy Tim covered in green paint, drumming up participants for each race. The Horn crew lean over the rail and watch the races, while a boombox plays Canadian hiphop. They’re all wearing black, many in puffy jackets. It’s 24 and sunny and I’m feeling the radiant heat on my ranga skin, but there’s no meat on them.  They freeze half the year in Melbourne.

I can’t crack the group today. They’re not interested. The group is swollen, engorged on younger year levels, and the patterns of body language mean: our time, our group. I talk briefly to Omar, who’s watching his siblings run. He’s the oldest of six. “It’s like being a second dad,” he sighs.

I lean over the fence and watch a girl in a headscarf running hard, scarf trailing behind, watch Tim, legs pumping like pistons, get narrowly pipped by a tall lanky African boy in fluoro yellow who runs like Usain Bolt, the chest forward stance of the already-victorious. The Viet group has sprung to life, shucked from their screens and earpods. Broad shouldered Steve in Korean-style patterned jeans, knees of a different fabric. He’s horsing around with two green Aussie flags – the kangaroo/Southern Cross combo – waving them for his house. Then he crosses them over, adds them to the back of his cap and bows, samurai style. He ropes in two Vietnamese friends in green glitterwigs and they prance for Snapchat.

Here, seeing everyone at once, I get a sense of the fluidity of the school. Loose groups, tight groups, particles peeling off, particles in motion. There’s far more intermixing in the younger levels than I’d expected – and that kind of unthinking mixing that makes me smile. Two girls, white and African, in lockstep – that march, shoulder-to-shoulder – meaning righteous female in-group punishment is about to commence. “Have you seen Mean Girls,” whitey says, as they patrol.  Her African friend: “Whaaaaa – you serious? Of COURSE.”

I go in search of a sausage roll, the cheaper and nastier the better. At the canteen, I spot Helena, a Maori girl with a face of thunder. I’ve seen her stalking the corridors but she doesn’t want a bar of me. I munch on my flaky pastry while Helena brags about winning shotput, flexing her (substantial) arm muscles. Then, she and a tall Sudanese friend, Hani, duck behind the canteen for a ciggy, casting looks behind themselves, wary of The Man – or more accurately, The Woman. I haven’t met Helena’s friend either, but she carries herself with power. Headscarf, the golden-sheen foundation that makes African girls look leonine, hands swooping like birds, dishing out rap lyrics – an unfathomable mixture of Horn-of-Africa and Afro-American. 

As they slink off, a well-groomed Turkish couple – he, high Manchu-style topknot, she with high cheekbones, pointed chin, a haughty elfin creature – call out softly: “Don’t get caught.” I grin to myself. Nothing has changed from my school days, when it was ciggies behind the bike shed, bongs behind the gym, breath mints and eye drops and even a liberal spray of deodorant for those THC made most paranoid.

I’m covered in pastry and sauce when I overhear a peppy older Somali girl fending off her younger brother. He’d come up wordless, with an outstretched hand, hoping for money for snacks. She looks at me and grins. “Am I the parent? My siblings are always asking me for money,” she says, exasperated.

Helena materialises, smelling of chewed mints. So how do you find school, I ask. She doesn’t know who I am. Only that I’m older, asking her questions, a potential authority figure. So she messes with me. “Best school I been to,” she says, a liars grin, and slips away.

I amble back to the track. A PE teacher is running alongside a Vietnamese boy with a severe limp. And though the rest of the pack is already at the finish, the PE teacher talks quietly to him, encouraging him, until he, too, has the victor’s glow.

The large Horn group seems more chaotic than usual. A younger kid is testing his elders. “You’re too midnight, bro,” he says to a Year 11. What’s that mean, I whisper. Omar raises a brow. “It means very dark skin,” he says. Rewarded for his insouciance, the contender tries again. “You an alpha nigga bro,” with deep sarcasm. And this insolence produces a real reaction – the fine line between roasting and fighting. Widened eyes, shifting on the seat, an intake of breath, from the insulted one, and seeing this, the young one softens his strike, grins, concedes it was too far. The art of it, like fencing – to dart in, land a bold blow without causing real offence. Boy play, reminiscent of The Dozens, the verbal sparring that kick-started hiphop in the US.


As the boys play, I watch as Helena’s friend Hani, jives slowly in the breeze, like a wind-chime, two blue first ribbons tackled idly to her shirt, for she somehow both cares – I saw her run – and does not care, Schrödinger’s Cool Cat. She ran dressed to the nines, and ran her heart out, pelting down the track. Now she’s free just to be. She dances and swears and laughs in a way somehow profane. She challenges another girl in the group, and they wrestle, laughing, headlocks, tussling, jaguars.

Helena has taken up residence in the African group. Broad shouldered, wearing shirt and shorts, a black bandanna. She does not, repeat not, want to be here. I smile, remembering the first time I saw her. It was when she almost got herself expelled.

There I was, waiting to be introduced to the school’s staff in late 2016. A senior teacher and go-to disciplinarian was overseeing a detention. And there’s Helena walking the corridors with a string of obscenities, ranting to a tall sombre girl in a jilbab. “This country’s no good, home is better than this. Fuck it all.” The teacher gets up in her face. Tall, thin, greying hair, that air of unquestioned command: “We don’t swear at this school.”

There was a primary school excursion that day, tiny wide-eyed creatures slipping past hand in hand. So when the explosion does come, it fixes several kids as rabbits in the headlights – eyes flaring even wider. There’s Helena, telling the teacher to stick it up her arse. Loudly. At that, some primal pulse went out. Within moments, dozens of kids throng the duo, agog, titillated. Within minutes, seemingly the whole school is here, the principal running with a long-suffering expression. And Helena vents her volcanic fury at the teacher, the school, Australia, the world. The joy of the mob – Something. Is. Happening. But the teacher is not new at this. She walks away rather than risking a blow, as Helena rises to her toe-tips. A PE teacher tries to calm Helena: “Don’t you dare touch me.” The teacher, on the phone – dialling security. But then, half an hour later, Helena is sitting outside the principals office, chatting amiably to another student. The blow up, the cool down. And the teacher, shaken despite her game face, says to me almost hopefully: “Maybe she will go back.” But Helena does not leave. She doesn’t seem to go to class much. She stalks the halls, a glowering face, befriends the wilder African girls. 

And here she is. She’s taken up residence at the far end of the African bench, where she fits right in. She nods her head to the boombox. The song changes to something too upbeat and she grimaces. Her tall Somali friend stops chatterboxing rhymes and they both say – this stuff’s crap, where’s the hardcore rap?

Can I talk to you, I ask, and Helena raises her defences. Remote face, high walls. “Are you a cop? Who are you?” Fair question, so I answer. Not a cop, not a teacher, here finding out how the school works. As we talk, she opens up a crack at a time, a clam. She’s from Auckland, which is, she brags, the biggest Islander city in the world. She tells me Islanders and Maori get along, for the most part.

Helena has the sternness of an army officer, a faraway too-old face. She warms up only when I mention an African-Australian acquaintance who does spoken word very well. What background, she asks? She nods approvingly when I say ‘Congo.’ For she does spoken word poetry, wants to be a music producer, identifies with African-American culture. And this explains some things. The load she carries – no wonder she seeks the catharsis of hip-hop, of voice. 

Now that Helena has sounded me out, she offers me a handshake. The first part I get right – the normal whitey bit. And the next bit I almost get right. I learned that one in Ghana  – a fluid move where your hands slip past each other into interlocked palms. But then I royally screw up the final bit, some complicated finger snap simply beyond me. Helena is exasperated. Again. I fail. Again. I fail. And then I see her friend, a frizzy haired Ethiopian girl named Amelia, laughing with tears in her eyes, the correct emoji for watching Pastiest Man Alive tackle Aucklander with Face of Thunder. My dander is up. I nod at Amelia. You do it then. Amelia tries and fails and tries and fails and I feel smug and then she tries and nails it.

Helena runs both of us through the three key handshakes – clicks, finger-glides, and even a fingerlock. Satisfied, she nods. “Now you wouldn’t die in Auckland,” she says. Amelia and Helena seem like best mates. But Helena only got here last year. “It’s because I’m cool,” Amelia says, laughing. She flicks imaginary dirt off her shoulder. Helena scoffs, and a wrestle erupts, the African girls ganging up against Helena’s sturdiness and sheer strength. A white male teacher hovers, not quite sure if he should intervene. Play, but hard play. Hip and shoulders, laughter, wrestling.  Afterwards, I approach again. That looked like quite a fight. Helena sneers, her walls back up. “I bet you watched,” she says. What do you mean? She raises eyebrows. “I bet you wanted to see more. Or get involved.” She laugh harshly, the others join in, and that – scorn, the very real power of Teenage Girls – is my cue to leave.

I sit on a bench and lick my wounds. Turns out school is still a full-contact sport, even if you’re trying to float above the fray. Alex approaches. He’s sprayed his hair green in house solidarity. He nods towards the girls. “What do you do when someone is talking shit about you? Why would they do it?” I trot out a few of my finest homespun platitudes and ask what happened.

He nods again, this time at Helena. “She’s spreading rumours about me – that I did something with that girl there.” He flicks a glance to a blonde girl walking past. “Now her boyfriend wants to bash me. For what? I’ve done nothing. And I never even spoke to Helena.” His face darkens. I’ve got no good answers for him, so we sit in silence. 


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