A week later, it’s the school open day. Smiles
everywhere, not a scrap of rubbish, and student leaders and teachers take
prospective parents on tour. I trail behind the assistant principal, who’s
mistaken me for a single dad. She aims for disarming and self-deprecating and
funny. This isn’t a private school sales pitch – no talk of $10 million
performing arts centres or elaborate sports grounds – this is a public school
on the up. But she sells the school with pride.
Maria is on the tour as well as a student
leader. She’s limping heavily. The Arnold Classic weekend took its toll. She’d
left the school athletics carnival early and worked 24 hours over two days
until her right calf swelled up to twice its usual size. But she’s heedless,
buzzing, the afterglow still coursing through her – walking amongst these giant
men and women, meeting heroes from the US who knew her from her Instagram.
As we pass a history class, the parents peer
in. “They’re tackling the American war, as the Vietnamese call it,” she says.
She makes a sly Trump reference. She’s picked her target well – this crop of
parents are on-side, their political tribe namechecked.
The tour passes by the music room, where a
Year 11 girl with shorn head and owlish glasses plays bass while a tiny Year 7
Somali boy struggles with an enormous guitar, to the library, where an Indian
Year 7 boy with pants too high, a rigid cram-school posture, waits for his turn
to speak. The principal talks about the rapid growth the school has had. And
the Indian boy talks with feverish intensity about what it’s like to come here
after primary school, about how welcoming it is. The parents ask him thoughtful
questions. Most are unpretentious middle class whites, the vanguard of the
gentry – the very type you might think would be pro-diversity at dinner parties
while quietly slotting their kid into a white enclave private school. I think
here of an acquaintance who openly admitted she would divert her daughter away
from the refugee-dominated school down the street in Fitzroy. It wasn’t race,
she assured me, shrugging helplessly. “It’s just that – if these kids have
missed six years of school, what would happen to my daughter?” But here – this
is evidence white flight can be turned around, that you can, successfully,
As I head for home, Bree spots me. She’s
re-reading an English essay and welcomes the distraction. On her arm are three
wristbands from mental health awareness weeks. A driven Anglo, a high achiever
deliberately aiming for balance rather than giving up everything she loves –
choir, theatre, band, politics, and a girls group she started – for a single
number, her ATAR, summing up her worth. Why did you start a girls group, I ask.
She tilts her head, ponders. “I’d noticed that a lot of girls weren’t going for
leadership positions at school, and a lot of girls were very sheltered. I’ve
become very interested in equality movements. So I started the group.”
Today, her girls group is doing vision boards.
She’s collected armfuls of magazines and newspapers to make collages. Next
week, she’ll be coaxing her girls into a public speaking workshop as a warm-up
for interschool debating. Driven, driven, driven. Of her five siblings, most
went into a trade – a steady, reliable job – and are happy with that. She’s
hungrier. She wants To Get Ahead. To Shape The Future.
Bree is a Yes Woman, like Jalene, saying yes
to everything exciting. Student representative council, musical theatre,
Canberra constitutional conventions, forming a band with Tim. Year 12 means
she’s had to reduce her output. By 10%. Her fix is still musicals. She’s trying
out for the State School Spectacular. But the politics are cutthroat. “So many
hypercompetitive people,” she says. You fight to get in, then fight to get to a
more elite group, and then fight to get a main role. She shakes her head. She
tells me she still wants an ATAR in the 90s, but the stress of trying to do
what she loves and get high marks has been getting to her. “I’m trying to step
back and re-evaluate life, look at it more clearly,” she says.
Are your parents high-fliers, I ask. She
pauses. “They’re down to earth,” she says, cautiously. “Most of the time they move
through waters they already know.” Bree has turned out differently. She
commutes an hour on the train every day. Her siblings all came to the school,
when they lived closer, and her parents like the school. “Worth it,” she says. She’s
constantly seeking out newness, addicted to the challenge. On the weekend,
she’s doing her first spoken word event in Dandenong. It scares the crap out of
her, which is precisely why she’s doing it. Then she turns my questions back on
me. Were my parents driven? (Yes?) Am I driven? (Err – in a way.) If I’m going
to ask personal questions, so will she.
I head for home. I’ve been curious about white
flight for a while. The next day, I make contact with Dr Christina Ho, a
University of Technology Sydney researcher investigating the trend towards
segregation in Australian education. What sparked her interest was watching all
the Anglo kids in her suburb file off to a particular private school in Sydney,
while all the Asian kids walked the other way to the selective high school
they’d crammed their guts out to get into. “In harbourside suburbs in Sydney,
you get these prestigious private schools with almost no kids who aren’t white,
and in the same postcode, selective schools with almost no white kids,” she says.
“You can walk between the two in fifteen minutes.”
Her fear is that our era of school choice –
when parents around the nation engage in feverish research, endless school
tours and debate the choices at dinner parties – is leading to
self-segregation. And that, Dr Ho says, is a problem. “More and more, kids are
going to school with kids just like them. It’s a lost opportunity to get a
generation completely comfortable with people from very different backgrounds,
to get comfortable, get curious and become friends.” Her research has found the
trend is accelerating, particularly in Sydney and Melbourne. “If schools become
monocultural bubbles, we’re losing that opportunity,” she says.
What’s interesting is that Dr Ho herself went
to a selective high school, where she was then in the minority as a Hong Kong
born student. But she won’t send her children to a selective school now that
they’re almost entirely Asian second-gen. If everyone you know is Asian, it’s
not reflective of wider Australia. Instead, it’s the culmination of a broader
trend in immigration, where Australia has stressed skills, wealth or education
as a path to entry. And that, Dr Ho says, has meant an emphasis on migrants
from China, India, and South Korea, who are on average more highly educated
than Anglo-Australians and value it highly for their children. These parents
send their kids to the growing network of cram schools and private tutors in
order to secure a scarce spot in a selective school.
But this is not without tension. Dr Ho has found
there is a strong sense of anger amongst Anglo parents at not being able to
access selective schools without placing the same tutoring pressures on their
kids – which, she says, many feel uncomfortable doing. The educational arms
race is real. For their part, first generation Asian parents see selective
schools as the single best way to boost their child’s future. Here, they have
no networks, no fast track to the top for their progeny. Just this. “I’m second
generation, so I understand how it works in Australia – that you don’t need 99%
in school to be successful in life,” she says. “I’m not one of the pushy tiger
mothers. But that’s only because I feel secure in this country.”
The solution, according to Dr Ho, is simple:
plough money back into the broad-based public system, to make sure everyone can
receive a comparable level of education without having wealth or relentless
parents. For her part, she’s getting heavily involved in her children’s school
– committees, fundraising, feedback – in the hope that by buying back into the
public system, she can help it rebound.
I thank Dr Ho and hang up. Weirdly, the
conversation has left me feeling distant. I can’t quite put my finger on it. This
is what you do as a journalist – ask questions of experts, of people who can
answer them. So why do I feel like I’ve somehow betrayed the kids I’ve been
talking to? I try to puzzle it out, pacing around the block near my house.
I slip through the hole in the fence at the
nearby golf course, cut cleanly by bolt-cutters wielded by local ciggie smoking
teens, and walk on the freshly mown greens. There’s no-one else around at 11am
on a Thursday. Everyone must be working or studying, doing Proper Things with
their lives. As I walk, I feel the puzzle come into focus. Not solved. But
visible. At the start of the year, I’d gone in with a Big Picture Question To
Explore: How did the alchemy of migrant to local happen in schools? But as the
weeks have gone by, as the masses have resolved into actual people, it’s felt
harder and harder to adopt the observer’s role, the journalist. I walk down
past the creek, watching carp rise to the top of the muddy brown water to gulp
I began as the floating outsider, the
newcomer, and now, it seems, I’m going local. It is all most confusing. That
night, I try to figure it out with my wife’s help. She tries to decode my
mutterings and stray sentence fragments. Eventually, she gives up. “Look at
you,” she says, laughing. “You really have gone back to school.” I emerge from
my internal clutter, stung. “What do you mean?” She smirks. “Think about it.
High school is the most confusing time of your life. All that tedious wondering
about who you are, whether anyone likes you, what the point of life is. And
you’ve chosen to do that a second time?”
I didn’t think it was possible to make an actual harrumph. But there it is, bubbling up. “Hrmmph,” I say. I consider completing my reversion to teenage Doug by walking stiffly to my room and marinating in feeling misunderstood. But I’m a married father and there is no ‘my’ room, not anymore.
It’s afternoon and there’s a study session under way in the common room.
Ari arrives carting an enormous maths textbook and plonks himself down next to Tim. Soon, they’re doing quadratic equations and drinking chocolatey milk straight from a packet of sodden Coco Pops. “You two look like a 1980s ad campaign,” I say, and they pretend they get the old man’s reference.
I tell them about Kevin’s lunchtime chaos and
Ari chuckles knowingly. “You should have been here in Year 8,” he says. “There
was a fight where one kid punched another, then there was an all in brawl. The
next day, their families rocked up to the school and there was much more
fighting.” And then? “It was all resolved, all friends again. It blows up and
blows back down.”
It reminds me of a sitcom – chaos unfolds, but
the next episode always starts peacefully back home. Ari laughs. “Best analogy
yet,” he says. “Chaos and reset. It really is like that.” He pauses. “You know,
banter is a big deal at this school. Everything is banter. Getting in fights is
inevitable, but making up is inevitable too. People get over stuff quickly, and
grudges do not hold, for the most part.”
Ari used to go to a school in an Anglo-heavy
town just outside Melbourne, where he was the “brownest guy there.” Here, he’s
downright average. When he first enrolled here, his rural friends told him
horror stories. That place? It’s rough, they said. Brawls every day. Some kids
“When I turned up here, I was scared,” he
admits. But the doom and gloom stories were wildly exaggerated. What did take
getting used to was the constant testing of authority by the African boys,
doors slamming, kids getting sent out of class. Teen boisterousness, African
overlay. “It’s not stuff that I think happens at other schools,” he allows.
“It’s a shock at first. And then you get used to it, and it’s just your way of
Ari realised Middlevale was home when he spent an entire lesson in Year 8 ribbing a Somali boy, just to provoke a reaction. The boy threw his book at Ari, turned off the lights, slammed the door, and went to the office to report him. “I wasn’t scared. I just found it funny,” he says. “And then I was like – this is my school. I have arrived. I get it now.” Because two minutes later, the boy was back in class, and two minutes after that, it was smiles and banter again. “That’s what this school will do to you,” Ari says. “A tougher skin. When you’re a kid, you don’t see colour, you just see mates. It’s the 21st century. Who’s still being racist?”
I stir the pot a bit. Ari’s wider friendship
group is made up entirely of tall white boys. Does that matter, given your
background, I ask. “Nah. There’s banter between the boys, but that’s just
Aussie culture rather than anything that matters. Everyone gives it, everyone
What does annoy him are his white classmates
who pretend to be black. “They talk like they’re from the ghetto. But they’re
from a leafy suburb with a three-bedroom house, talking like a rapper, going
all vulgar,” he says, shrugging. “But I’ve never said anything, because
‘cultural appropriation’ is a long phrase.”
I leave Ari, thinking about my own
reaction. What stood out when I first
arrived – African boisterousness, Asian studiousness, Anglo discomfort and
banter – is dissolving into a clamorous new normal.
Two days before the end of term, I see the
school maintenance man, carrying a ladder. Tanned skin, leather workbelt,
startlingly blue eyes – he reminds me of white South Africans. And he carries
himself as if this is just something he does rather than a job he’s worn a
groove into. Two weeks earlier, I saw him in a Hargeisa Hospital t-shirt. Why,
I wondered, did he have that? Hargeisa – the capital of breakaway Somaliland,
the splinter state of Somalia that’s done well for itself. I get the chance to
ask as he’s putting his ladder into storage. He tells a story that seems
faintly improbable. Of a day off, trawling the net, finding his way to the
homepage of Hargeisa Hospital and seeing a picture of a young woman whose cheek
and jaw were blown away by a bullet when she was two years old. For twenty
years, she survived – though eating with a hole in her cheek was a daily
torment. And he and friends in Rotary searched and found a surgeon in Brisbane
prepared to do it, and got her past Australian visa knockbacks, hurdled
bureaucracy – and eventually in 2014, got her here, for 11 hours of surgery and
a new face. “It was the most important thing I’ve done,” he says. “And I’ve
done a lot of different things.”
I walk away, marvelling. A story round every
corner. And here – in front of me – another one. A nuggetty redhead girl, teeth
gritted, freckles – chasing a small African boy as he laughs and runs, keeping
her Pringles packet away. He dodges, tosses the packet to a friend, and sits,
sides heaving. Later, I see the same girl mouthing a quiet screw-you to the same
boy teasing her. “Don’t tell me to, uh, piss off,” he says, tittering, aware of
the young Asian teacher watching them. As the teacher rounds the corner, I see
both wrestling and laughing fit to burst.
And near the basketball courts, Hani, the
boundary-pushing Somali girl is sitting alone. I come over. She talks of her
plans after school – to be a forensic psychologist working in prisons, talking
through dark acts with bad people. If not that, she says, it would be doing
autopsies. You like the dark side of life? She nods. Hand-talker, neck bobbing,
a little dance in every movement – not the typical aesthetics for someone
fascinated by death and chaos. Dalmar appears and invites me to play basketball
with African boys I don’t know. I give it a shot and realise I’m wholly
outmatched, that this white man will never be able to jump.
In the common room, Aadan is flaunting his new
haircut, an excellent freshly trimmed frizz-bulb. He’s making tea too, which
means that he has to diss the girls. “You don’t know how to make tea properly,”
he shouts after them, as they head off. For the first time, I can talk to him
alone, away from the jousting, joshing pack of boys. I’ve wanted to talk to him
for a while. What’s it like to be young, male, African, Muslim in this city?
The girls seem to mostly have adapted seamlessly – mixing books, strict
parents, Islam, parties, fast-food jobs, Snapchat, without any visible sign of
strain. But the boys – what is going on for them? Earphones piping rap so
they’re half-here, half-there, disdaining study followed by madcap cram
sessions, boasting Jamaican-style, thumbing the chest, lion cubs preening. But
– how do you succeed, here? Physicality – that’s important, that’s why nearly
all the boys play soccer or basketball and dream of playing before the crowds.
Visible prowess over invisible book learning. But beyond that – how? How should
you be? Do you follow male-dominant traditions? That’s hard – the young women
have changed. Many of them don’t resemble what old men think a woman should be.
So what then?
feeling the pressure this year,” he admits. “But you can’t let it show. Just
like soccer. If you let it get to you, you lose.” Soccer is his true love,
something he can talk about endlessly. He’s a fast talker, words bumping into
each other. “I’m a striker – I just love goals. I gotta play. I can’t not.”
Last year, his team looked certain to be promoted. But then, disaster. A rival
team baited them, taunted them on the pitch. His team took the lure, he admits,
shaking his head. “It’s a mostly African team and we’re hotheaded. I tried to
tell them – don’t take the bait. But they rise at the smallest thing. We fought
and had 12 points taken off us. No promotion.” He makes a face, sips his
ultrasweet tea. “But this year – we’re against lots of bad teams. So we’ve got
a good chance. If there’s no fights.” He shifts on his seat, favouring one leg.
I’ve noticed he’s still limping as badly as he did at the start of the year.
A sigh, a side glance, and he tells me.
It was December 2016 when he hurt his ankle
badly, jumping from a height. The next week there was a Somali soccer
competition. He couldn’t not play. It was unthinkable. The doctor told him –
take six weeks out for a really bad sprain. Six weeks! Impossible. An eternity.
So he played game after game until his leg pain grew so bad he could hardly
move. “I can’t watch it on screen. I just want to play. I’m too competitive,”
he says. “I thought things always just get better for me. But they got worse. I
was on crutches. The doctor told me if I don’t stay off it, I could be injured
How did you hurt your ankle so badly, I ask.
He shakes his head. Most of the time, Aadan talks past me – doesn’t quite meet
my eye. He’s not intimidated by whitey interrogator. Rather – such questioning,
such open talk, free of banter – this is unnatural. He looks around the room.
No peers, no blowback. And he tells me about a game that he and his Somali
mates play, called Cops and Robbers. It works like this – you shimmy up a fence
in an industrial part of the city, a place that’s dead once workers clock out.
You turn up late and divide your friends in two. Then the cops chase the
robbers. It’s dark as sin and you take to the rooftops, running trip-trap over
galvanised tin, slipping into metal gullies, hiding, the thrill of the hunted.
One by one, your fellow robbers are caught – until it’s only you and one other.
And then you hear the sounds of tin squeaking under someone’s weight, and you
realise you are caught, high up on a roof. There is only one thing to do – leap
into the unknown. Aadan leaped from around three metres and landed on hard
concrete. Omar did the same jump, but landed in the garden bed. “It’s because
you’re blind,” says Omar, who has appeared in time for the finale. He slaps
Aadan’s neck open-palmed – the torments boys inflict on each other. Aadan takes
off like an injured hare and they’re both running and my time is up.
What a game – teenage transgression, the
thrill of being where you’re not meant to be. I think of the time that friends
egged me on to climb a ten-storey crane in South Yarra with the hatch left
unlocked, up the vertical, past the cabin, into the terrifying diagonal span.
Booze fuelled, exhilarated, high on life. The time three of us rode our BMXs
into a stormwater drain in Ashburton, zipping in and out of the water, riding
high into the curves, until the drain grew narrower, switched abruptly from 20th
century concrete to 19th century brick. And on the way back,
downhill, laughing, we forget about the part where water drops down wide stairs
until there’s a sudden new darkness, an echo, and I throw myself to the side at
speed to avoid the drop and my friends run into me and we careen sideways in
the dark, jerry-rigged torches flying off our bikes, until we stop just before
Aadan’s game has deeper resonances than boy
play, deeper than just testing boundaries. It has not been so long since young
African men were stopped and checked routinely near the commission flats in the
inner west, not so long since young African men took Victoria Police to court
on claims of overpolicing – ‘random’ checks on anyone black-in-public, police
suspicions aroused by ‘loitering’ groups of men. The tendency of African boys
to hang out in large social groups triggers white fears. And now the spectre of
the so-called Apex Gang and its successors, the moral panic around carjackings
and home invasions and robberies done by a small group of reckless white,
Islander, and Sudanese teens. The media, though, knows what plays out best.
Black on white crime taps into a deep nerve in America, majority fears of a
downtrodden minority. Black on white gets reported far more than white on white
crime. The same themes emerge here. And young African men with no intention of
causing harm are watched with renewed suspicion. Cops and robbers – to play out
this old storyline in ways that mirror reality, that might just lead to real
cops and real charges, this flirtation with the edge of who you are and who you
are thought to be.