Over the school holidays, the events of my first term back at school keep circling, popping up as I’m tying my son’s shoelaces or doing a supermarket run. The easy assumptions I’d made aren’t holding. There I was, holding an idea in my mind – High School, the Manufacturer of New Australians – as I dived back in. But Middlevale didn’t feel like a melting pot, exactly. For all the play and banter, there were real tensions sitting alongside – undercurrents of race, religion, and the question of whether to be traditionalist or modern. The advice prescribed in such situations – embrace diversity, let’s just all get along – seemed to skim over such friction. If we pretend that difference and change are easy, maybe it simply will come to pass.
And not only that. At night, when my kids were
asleep, I’d talk to my wife, trying to figure out what felt wrong. Eventually,
she figured it out. “It’s the clash between the zoomed out picture of the
school and what these kids are like as individual people,” she suggested one
evening. I propped myself up on a pillow. “Right! A person isn’t data – it’s
only in aggregate, only from a bird’s eye view, when you strip out anything
personal – that’s when you can see trends.”
I roll over and try to sleep. But I’m uneasy.
There was more there. I was doing the same old thing that whitey has always
done when confronted with difference: explain it away. Here I was, white skinned, part of the ethnic
majority, who’d never been made to feel different, explaining difference. And all so I could blow smoke up Australia’s
arse, muttering blandishments – so
multicultural, so socially cohesive, such a success story, so impressive at a time when other
globalised societies are fracturing. I was converting the trust I’d gained, the
stories I’d been told into the type of Big Picture narrative that plucky, lucky
little Australia likes so much. How our public schools – one of our underrated
institutions – were vital to the renewing of the nation.
But what I’m finding is that the clarity of
distance breaks down as soon as you get into the detail, the lived experience,
the way people bounce off each other. Data is clear because it is a monotone –
anonymised, aggregated, a thousand people’s experiences compressed into a
single number. 54% of people think. One in ten voters believe. Experts say. But
these people – they speak with many tongues. I think of Samia’s quiet battle for
independence, Michelle and Zahra’s discomfort in their own skins, Aadan’s cops
and robbers game.
It’s fitting that my return to school
coincides with autumn, that whip-chill wind howling up from the Southern Ocean.
The East African boys wear the thickest down jackets they can find. I hear
muttering about how much they hate the cold here. Meanwhile, ruddy cheeked
Anglo boys are getting about in shorts. A little subdued, I walk quietly around
the school. Perhaps I should pull back, keep myself removed. Or perhaps –
perhaps I should steer away from the Big Picture. I flick through manga in the
library, Larry No-Mates again. My discomfort changes form, term by term.
Eventually, Ari flees a student leadership
confab, pretending I’ve called him over. “So dry,” he says. The last time I saw
him before the break, he was sitting on the edge of the same sofa where I’m having
a quiet sook. On his face, that smiling, roiling anger agreeable people get
when pushed past their limit. A teacher had dressed him down for doing the Herald Sun crossword with friends and
bantering. Too noisy, she said. Ari baulked. “We’re not doing anything wrong,”
he protested. But she was in a foul mood, and reported him to the principal for
“disrespect to women.” Meaning? “Her,” he told me. He’s still seething. Tim sat
there next to him, periodically stoking the fire. “I told you to stop being a sexist,” he ribbed his best mate. “Come on
mate. It’s 2017.”
What’s life like as a renowned sexist, I ask,
figuring enough time has passed. Ari grins. “Great. I’ve embraced it. Now I’ve
got an alt-right alter ego on Twitter where I tear down women.” Then he
switches mode. “Seriously – of all the boys at the school, I was chosen as a
sexist?” He scoffs. The injustice still rankles.
Ari’s pithiness has brought me in from the
cold. What was I thinking? Retreat to the cold observer’s haven of data and
trendlines? Christ no. I was here for one thing: interesting people making sense
of the world. And they were all around me.
Kids are milling around waiting for their turn
at the Minecraft computers. Suddenly, a shout goes up as a younger boy storms
off. “There’s a lot of emotion in Minecraft,” the librarian whispers, seeing my
interest. “Politics too. Someone can literally destroy the world you built.”
Outside, I see the tearful boy being talked to by a teacher, as she tries to
find out – and understand – exactly what pixelated crime has been committed.
There’s chaos in at the photocopier as Aadan
and his cronies make copies of Amelia’s maths exam. She’d aced it, they bombed
– and they want to know why. “That girl’s got talent,” Aadan says, shaking his
head. “That was much harder than I expected.” He asks me for help, but when I
look at the exam, my eyes lose focus. The equations make no sense to me.
Apparently this was all once stored in my brain, but no longer.
Then Aadan spots his saviour. “Amelia,” he
cries. “Help us.” She rolls her eyes, but seems quietly chuffed. Soon, she’s
poring over their wrong answers, steering them through the thicket of calculus,
smiling faintly as she floats above the masses.
Kevin is watching a League of Legends stream
to get ideas on perfecting his own hero’s attack. Tim sits nearby. He lets slip
that he’s already thinking about going to the Year 12 formal with a Christian
girl from a parish across town. “She came to my church to look for a partner
for her formal,” he says. An hour later, they were eating dumplings. “She’s
from a horse family.” A what? “You know – private school, eastern suburbs,
multiple horses,” Tim says, a slight air of uncertainty. Wealth leaves him cold.
But for her, he might make an exception. Kevin tabs away from gaming YouTube
and pulls up Tim’s social media output, hunting for a post of a certain young
man placing a corsage on a girl in a fuchsia gown at her formal. “How’s it
going Tim,” Kevin asks. “Do you like
her?” Tim deflects with ease. I’ve never seen him flustered. He turns the
tables, teases Kevin about the time he mispronounced the name of a character in
a book, how the teacher thought he said the word ‘erection’, and the class
cringed for what felt like eternity as the red-faced teacher clawed her way
through an impromptu sex ed session. Kevin winks. Clowning is an artform. It
takes practice to get this good.
Ari reappears, yoinks my nametag and sprints
to the microwaves. He proudly plasters my name on his shirt and swaggers about
as his friends make boy sustenance – toasted sangers dripping with cheese. I
arrive, panting. “Too late. I’m Doug. Now I’ve got your white privilege,” he
says as he dances away from my efforts to reclaim it. “Look at me. I’m better
than other people. I can spread my legs on the train.” His white mates snicker
and I give up and head elsewhere, stickerless, powerless, and enjoying myself
quite a lot.
A teacher on recess duty tells me he’s been
here for decades. He tells me that white flight led to other schools nearby
booming, how it was once majority African coupled with rough white kids, how
the gentry have well and truly landed. “It’s difficult,” he says. “When it’s
all migrant, you adjust to their needs. But white middle class have different
expectations.” In his early days here, he taught Chileans and Argentinians whose
parents sought refuge from Pinochet’s brutality, from the Dirty War the junta
launched against leftists. Some had been tortured – even as children. Some watched
their parents be killed. Quite a few, he admits, turned to dealing drugs. “I
used to brag that the biggest drug dealer in the area called me sir,” he says,
eyes twinkling. Then came the Lost Boys of Sudan – “hard to tell off someone
seven foot tall” – who he adored teaching. They had survived lion attacks and
starvation as they walked single file through marshlands and savannah to
refugee camps in Kenya. When at last they landed here, they soaked up
knowledge, hungry for it. It’s harder, he says, to teach the second generation
East Africans coming through now. Why, I ask. He shrugs. “They know where they are. But often they don’t
know who they are,” he says.
Another day, and wind and rain squalls have kept the Horn crew inside. Michelle idly includes me in her Snapchat story. Then she and quiet Zala take me aside to brief me. Much has happened over the two-week break. Aadan and Kadeer had been flirting all first term, despite the looks and teasing from their friends. And over the break, they were getting closer. “He was taking his time though, very slow,” Michelle says. “But then something happened.”
Aadan and Omar approach slurping Big Ms.
Michelle tries to change the subject. But Aadan’s onto it. “What are you
talking about?” he says. Michelle shrugs and gives up the game. “We’re talking
about you,” she admits.
Aadan takes a seat and sits like a princeling,
all strewn limbs and bravado. What I – and the girls – like about him is that
he knows it’s a front, that he doesn’t believe his own bombast. And he listens
as Michelle tells the story of how he and Kadeer were getting closer, chatting
daily, texting, even meeting up, and all under the vigilant radar of two sets
of Somali parents.
But then Aadan found out Kadeer had been
messaging Fatima’s ex-boyfriend. And when he found out, she lied about it.
Aadan was wounded. There was a showdown. “Why’d you do that,” he asked her. “I
thought we were closer.” Trapped, Kadeer tried guile – pledging herself anew,
saying it was a misunderstanding. Aadan was having none of it. “He told her to piss
off,” Michelle says, a gleam in her eye.
Michelle tells me it feels like her friendship
group will never go back to how it was. “Kadeer and I were like this outside
school,” she says, twining fingers together. “But now you could crop her out of
I’m surprised. What Kadeer has done seems, to
me, pretty innocuous. Explain it to me, I say. Michelle raises an eyebrow.
What’s to explain? The intensity of your friendships is hard for me to get,
having never been a teenage girl, I say. Why should a friend talking to another
friend’s ex mean your own friendship is damaged?
Michelle sighs and lays it out. It looked like
Kadeer was outright flirting with Fatima’s ex. And when she was found out, she
should have taken the hit. By trying to fix it up, by making up stories to
cover over the issue, she’s made it worse. Kadeer wanted school to be back like
it was in 2016, when she’d conquered the group and everyone was getting along.
She wanted everything to go back to those days. But she forced it. And now it’s
more awkward. “If she’d left it, it would have got better. Now everything has
shifted,” Michelle says. In her previous school, Kadeer was very popular. But
here, she’s had to climb a rocky slope.
There’s a look of wounded pride on Aadan’s
face. He’s worried about the stories Kadeer has been telling, their potent
mixture of truth and exaggeration. Will they affect his reputation? “Everyone
thinks I’m bad,” he says, leaning back in his chair. “I’m not! Every girl I meet
tells the world imaginary stories. They love to talk about it. I’m not evil.”
There’s a look of slight disbelief on Michelle’s face, as if not all the
stories are made up.
When everyone else has left for class, I see
Kadeer walking in slowly from the bus stop, uncharacteristically subdued. Zahra
is with her. In the common room, Kadeer picks apart a piece of plastic. We talk
about the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why
as a safe option. The show is taking the school by storm. Everyone is talking
about it, how the main character took her own life, how she left tapes behind
for each person she held responsible, laying it out. How bullying and
slut-shaming and social media made her life unbearable.
“Was the main character popular – the one who
got bullied?” I ask. Zahra snorts. “No! She was the new girl, trying to break
in.” Kadeer perks up at this. “No she wasn’t. She liked a guy but he gave her
no attention.” The resonances. She thinks on it. “What we need at this school
is a mean girl, someone who thinks she’s all that, who everyone hates.”
It’s been a hard couple of weeks for Kadeer.
Even at work, she feels as if she’s cursed. A Muslim man came into KFC and
ordered a chicken burger with bacon. He bit into it and heard the crunch of
fried porkflesh, and came raging back to the counter. Kadeer isn’t the type to
passively accept things. She arced up – pointed out the picture of the burger,
its haram flesh prominently dripping pig grease. But the customer must be
right, particularly customers who complain to managers, and now she’s in
trouble. No wonder she’s subdued – her personality, her sass – taking hits from
And then Michelle arrives back from class with
big mwah-style embraces for both Zahra and Kadeer, despite all she’s told me,
and I wonder at this. The intricacy of these friendships, the backchat and
gossip, history and tension dissolving under the forms that must be observed. A
small school, not many places to lie low. Aadan is doing his best, though doing
laps with Omar, trying not to encounter She Who Once Was.
Michelle and Zahra talk about halal food as a
safe option, about how the animal has to be killed in a certain way, has to be
blessed. “Sometimes,” Michelle says, “you just don’t want to know. You just
want a burger, it might have bacon. And the server says – sister you know it’s
haram? It’s like shh, don’t tell me. If I don’t know, it’s not a sin.” She
As the rest of the Horn crew flood in, there’s
a wariness in the air. Everyone is quiet, unsure how to behave now that a
clever social climber has caused major havoc. Aadan slinks in without meeting
Kadeer’s eyes. But later, the two head outside for a debrief, before coming
back in under the full sun of a dozen knowing eyes. Relationship possibilities,
performed for gawkers. That head-bowed, public-knowing part of high school. I
do not miss it.
The next Friday,
I arrive late, missing recess. Most kids are already in class. But Kadeer is
lingering. Headphones on, her face closed, headscarf tight. Shutting out the
world. I talk to her outside, as she returns from the canteen. Are you okay?
She takes a breath and unloads. “No. I don’t know what I’ve done. At my old
school, if you talked to your best friend’s ex boyfriend, it’s okay. But here
you can’t,” she says, a hint of bitterness. “I’m a nice person. If someone
inboxes me, I reply. I don’t want them thinking oh she’s pretty, she aint going
to reply to me. I just talk to the person. Here it’s a no no. The way they
think and my old group of friends think is quite different.” She sighs. “I feel
lost in the middle. We’re still friends, but not as tight as we used to be.
There’s so many issues. I’m a person who can’t handle stress. I want to make
things right, but then that’s the thing – I fuck it up, I do things I don’t
mean to do, and everyone takes it to heart.”
She takes a seat under a gum tree. So what
happened with Aadan, I ask. She makes a face. “Fatima’s ex inboxed me, just
asking a normal question, but he made the conversation go on. I was like, okay.
Then he called up a friend asking who’s that girl, who’s that girl. Then he said to Aadan, I’m talking to your
girl.” She shakes her head. “That’s how it went, and it just got bigger. My
friends got mad at me. And Aadan’s not over it.”
She cups her chin in one hand, stoops low. “I
should have solved the issue. I wasn’t even dating Aadan. My parents are strict
– they say no boyfriends during school.” After school, fine. But education
comes first. “What I’ve learned is that you have to be careful who you talk to.
Friends and loyalty is everything for Fatima and Zahra. If you mess up, they’ll
tell you to your face straight up.”
Kadeer sighs. “Man, I wish I was still at my
old Islamic school. It was like a home,” she says. “I miss it. I miss skipping
class to go hang out with the boys. And we got great results, you know? The kid
with the highest ATAR won flights to Saudi Arabia.” She quietly peels the label
off her water bottle. Her headscarf is loose, like a shawl. This school is too
hard. The rules are different. No wonder she’s thinking fondly of earlier
times, when she was queen bee.
Back in the common room, the Horn crew are
still subdued. After Kadeer heads off, I ask Michelle why it’s still in the
air. She shakes her head mournfully, puts her pizza slice down. “You know, the
first time I met Kadeer, she said the boys all want to date me.” And as Kadeer
infiltrated her friendship group, Michelle didn’t mind too much. She was
welcome to date the boys. “It’s very simple to be friends with us,” she says.
“Don’t lie, don’t do shady things.”
Fatima has stayed too. “Do you want this
pizza? It gets stuck in my braces.” She turns to me. “She’ll tell three of us
three different stories, and then we compare them.”
Michelle waves the food away. She doesn’t feel
much like eating. “It all changed when she and Aadan were messaging,
ting-ting-ting. Before that, she was caadi,
Michelle is feeling particularly low because
she’s been dragged into this unholy mess. When the whole drama kicked off,
Kadeer came to her house, seeking help. She asked Michelle to keep a secret,
one she couldn’t tell Fatima or Zahra. Michelle was uncertain. Kadeer told her
that Fatima’s ex had been inboxing her. Michelle shrugged. “So just tell
Fatima. It’ll be fine.” Kadeer demurred. “I can’t.” Now Michelle was worried.
“Show me the messages,” Michelle said. Kadeer blanched but eventually gave in.
The message chain started innocuously. Kadeer was giving terse responses, not
allowing the boy access. Then she got too comfortable. He started cooing
blandishments. Let’s go on holidays, baby, let’s go to a hotel. And she agreed.
When she came to her senses, Kadeer was in too deep. “Help me end this,” she
pleaded with Michelle. And they wrote a message together: “I don’t want to do
this, I’m friends with Fatima and dating Aadan.”
But then Kadeer got carried away. She begged
Michelle to do a role-play, to pretend she overheard Kadeer talking to another
friend about the issue, to cover up for her. Michelle baulked at being asked to
lie on her behalf. And she called Fatima and told her the whole story. And this
web of intrigues – this is what has brought her social stock low.
Fatima is quietly angry. “Kadeer has a brain,
she has an intellect. But she makes stupid decisions and gets angry when
consequences come along. She cried in front of me – I was like, don’t cry
because you’re in the wrong!”
Zahra has arrived to hear the story, well-worn
from use already but still a good one. She looks out the window of the common
room. “There she is! Hide!” And after Kadeer has passed on, Zahra returns. “She
scares me. But she buys me food, buys things. I can’t say no to money.”
Michelle giggles. “If I was like, I’m here
with the boys, she’d pay for all our meals. She wants approval. When she moved
here, it was all about her, the new girl.” Fatima nods. “She really forced it,
our acceptance. That first year, she was observing everyone but keeping her
distance. And this year she got too comfortable and destroyed all our lives.”
The others laugh uproariously. I leave, grateful I was never a teenage girl. I
would simply not have survived.
At lunchtime, Helena is sitting at a table
outside downing a slurpie despite the cold. Her entourage eye me darkly. A thin
Anglo girl on crutches after her horse fell on her. A cool-eyed African girl
with elegantly silvered hair. Who’s this, why is he here? That distaste that I
remember being so powerful – as in, Who Is This Worm – as a teenager.
But Helena is the one who decides. She’s been
watching me for a term, to see if I’m worth her time and to make sure I’m not a
cop. She is cautious, exceedingly careful with her trust. Her first test for me
at the athletics carnival was whether I could do the finger-click handshakes,
to see if I’d bend to her will. And today, she’s decided to unfold. Defences
lower, the mask of thunder slips. I mark her: a severe undercut that make her
look almost like a Chinese schoolboy. two nose studs, a necklace made from a
replica imperial golden sovereign. “We doing this then?” she asks, abrupt. So
you’ve decided I’m not a cop? She inclines her head. “You wouldn’t be here
every day if you were. Look, I don’t like it when people ask me questions when
I don’t know them.”
OK, I say. So I hear you’re good at rap. Her
Anglo friend nods firmly. “Very good,” she says of her friend. Helena receives
the compliment impassively.
Helena grew up thinking she’d either be a
sports star or join the military. But her father was an RnB star, and music was
in her. She started writing poems, performing for mates in school. And when she
came here with her mum and sister, a new friend asked her if she knew how to
rap. Helena demurred. But her friend was persistent. “I bet you do,” she said.
And Helena reluctantly took to her feet, and everyone listened, pulled out
phones, recorded it at the tables near the canteen. Now Helena wants to take it
as far as she can. “I don’t look into people’s souls. I rap about my own
stuff,” she says. In Auckland, she says with a wave of her hand, every second
person knows how to rap. You practice in the shower, in bed, when you’re
daydreaming, thinking about words, how to fit them together, make them flow,
make them dredge up your own inner workings, and then say it. “Words just flow
out of my mouth,” she says.
Can I hear a piece, I ask, and she rocks backwards.
“Hmm. Only if you copy me, and only if you’re okay with graphic terms?” Uh. OK.
And we’re off, her friends listening avidly, and very soon I regret agreeing to this. After mouthing along obediently to a variety of inventive insults, I feel both icky and liberated. That, I say, was quite satisfying to say. She nods. “Yeah. And I got so many more.”
As her friend heads off to class, Helena
remains. I ask her about the time I first saw her, telling the senior teacher
to stick it. At this, Helena looks half-amused, half-embarrassed. “When was
this? Look, it’s not my intention to be like that, but I’m not the type to hide
it. If you’re fair, you’re fair. I won’t just sit there and let a teacher stand
over me. Some people need discipline, but I already have discipline. I’ve got
my parents for that. Authority keeps the world in place, I know, but some
people take it out of proportion.”
Maori parents are strict, Helena tells me. Hers especially. “Normal freedom – you don’t have it. When you leave the house, you’re representing your mum and dad. If you go out and do bad things, you’re saying they’re bad parents.” Then she thinks again. “But then teenagers, it’s what we’re gonna do, rebel. I can’t listen to mum or dad say don’t do something when I’m pretty sure they did it – or worse.”
It sounds, I venture, like there’s a tension
there – between upholding your family name and your desire to go wild. She
gives a flat smile. “I guess I push it towards rebel. But I know how far I
should go. I know my boundaries. If you give me freedom, that’s a gift to me, I
take care I don’t mess up. You can’t lock someone away because the more you
lock them away, the more they want to do it. And I wouldn’t want my children to
be like that, doing it behind my back. So it’s about being trusted to go and do
things without worrying.”
Trust – that’s the key. Helena grew up in a
rough part of Auckland, where she learned how to survive. It was a place where
you had to grow walls, where you had to actively try to stay safe because
safety didn’t just happen. Her earlier incarnation as a carefree girl who gave
her trust freely has been replaced by this quasi-Terminator façade. “In
Auckland, you have to see who’s talking to who, who’s around. That’s why it
takes me at least a term to figure out one person or a group to see if I can
trust them,” she says.
Then her façade cracks a little. Someone has
recently hurt her, despite her walls. Nothing worse than to vet people
rigorously, to finally decide someone can be trusted with your vulnerabilities
– and then they, the chosen one, hurts you. “I had one person who earned my
trust and just lost it,” she says. “No-one has disappointed me just as much as
this person. It hurts.”
I’d thought as much, based on her pacing the
corridors, with moods so evident that people steer clear. She prizes loyalty
above all else. “If you’re dating someone and they break trust, I wouldn’t give
a shit. Friendship is more important than that,” she says. “If you break up a
relationship, you can just go and get another one. But in friends, I value
loyalty very much. When I used to trust a lot of people, they’d hurt me. I had
to lower my friend list, make my circle smaller.” Do you give out second
chances, I ask. “If you’ve been told and you break trust, you only get one
chance,” she says. And with that, she stands and marches off, with only a
glance behind to acknowledge that we were there.
That night, I talk to my wife about Helena.
I’m grasping for something, trying to find the words, but it’s just out of
reach. “It’s like… it’s like I’m seeing a fraction of these kids,” I say.
“School is only a small part of their lives.” My wife nods. “The iceberg
problem – nine-tenths underwater,” she says. I look at her gratefully. The
great thing about long-term relationships is that your partner often knows what
you’re trying to say, what you’re straining for. Icebergs. The great invisible
bulk under the water, the weight of family and friends, traumas and joys, a
true shape. And all I see is the tip. I see Helena’s venom and pain and wonder
there’s a surprising turn in the tumult of female friendships. Kadeer is back
in the Horn group – laughing, arms around the other girls. Palpable relief
amongst the boys – that flailing boyishness, dead-arm punches, wrestling.
Is that what it is? Relief? No – there’s a
sense that Something Happened. Now the group are moving, clashing like waves
after a stone is dropped in an aquarium. Two of the girls are tussling,
shouting snitches-get-stitches to each other. But the laughter hides something.
Michelle rises from the wrestle, catches her breath. “Sir!” she says. “I was
once the predator here.” She makes her fingers into claws. “But I’ve lost my
position.” She nods outside. And there’s Helena, darkfaced, brooding, sitting
at a table outside, sitting stiffly, a soldier asked to hold the line.
Finally, I get the story. A fight, of course –
the catharsis of swift violence. Kadeer tells it with relish. About how
Helena’s Anglo friend, a sport and theatre type with a quick temper, was called
out for coming through the common room by an Eritrean girl with a sad face. And
how even though they were friends, though I saw them in horseplay at the
athletics carnival, everything seems to have a short half-life here. Helena’s friend
is straightforward with her challenge. You’re criticising me? Let’s meet after
school, fight this out. But then Helena appeared, propelled by a sense of
righteous fury. The real reason she was so angry all the time didn’t matter,
not when there was someone to Take It Out On. She gripped the smaller girl by
the throat. Break my trust, did you?
Michelle and Zahra play-act the showdown. “The [Eritrean girl] has a bad attitude,” Michelle says. “But I couldn’t believe how calm she was. I would have been shitscared.” And her friends, the other Eritreans, just sat there. After the teachers came running, the penalties, the dressing down – after all of that, a new wrinkle. Helena reckoned the Horn group had snitched, run to get teacher help. “As if,” snorts Michelle. But she’s nervous. “Now they want to punch us.” Her eyes flare, a horse in a storm, that half-terrified, half-excited feeling – and then sudden silence in the room, as Helena and her friend patrol outside.
I head outside, to see if Helena will talk to
me. At first, I think I’ve got a chance. But then Michelle appears, a no-threat
smile plastered on her face, seizing my overture as her chance to make
peace. Seeing her, Helena stalks away.
A teacher appears, keeping an eye on things.
I’m impressed by their skill at appearing near-magically at times of maximum
tension. For me, coming from my inner-north bubble where difference has been
transmuted into middle-class second-gen Australians, what strikes me is the way
these kids operate, this full-bodied, loud-voiced approach, where to feel is to
voice it, where fights happen, the air clears, forgiveness. Of course the same
stuff happened at my school – dramas, fights, bullies, relationship implosions
– but passed through the vestigial British coldness of Anglo-Oz, dialled down
to say, 4/10. My radar is way off. To me, the smallest incident reads as a fully-fledged
After Storm Helena moves off, the tension
eases. Jovial Zahi is annoyed. He wasn’t here on Monday, and is playing catch up.
“I missed the entertainment,” he says. Kadeer has seized the opening – her
ticket back in, a drama about someone else. And though Michelle is still
ribbing her about Aadan, it’s affectionate. Paul, the Eurasian guy, sits
fascinated in the maelstrom. He has this kind of academic distance to him, even
as people tumble and wrestle and get him in a headlock, still he somehow stands
removed. The third-culture kid, the lifelong observer.
The interschool soccer team has just won a
crushing victory over a bitter rival. I can hear hoots as they move through the
corridors wreathed in smiles – an elegant Turkish boy, Brylcreem hair wave, a
towering African boy grinning ear to ear. But Aadan’s limping after the match.
The injury from last year just won’t heal. He’s worried about it. Soccer has
always been his dream. Uni and work – those are the backup plan. If his body
breaks, this early in his career – what would he do? What would animate
And then Alex arrives, throws himself on a
couch. He talks airily about becoming a triathlete, about how his crush might
just like him because he’s appearing more in her Instagram feed, about how you
can throw gang signs to the African kids at this school and they laugh and
return it – you can’t do that at other schools, he claims. “We’re all
immigrants, man, so no point being a shit cunt,” he says.
Good to see you’ve mastered Australian
English, I say, laughing. He shrugs, as if to say of course. “Fights don’t have
to escalate here because you can just not talk to someone.” At home in the
Balkans, he says, school was brutal. “A boy was nearly killed. It was a shady
school, but it was the only one in town. I was safe because I hung out with the
right people.” The right people? He makes a gun sign with finger and thumb. The
right people were the dangerous ones, who only made threats they were prepared
to carry out, the people no-one dared even look at. It is no wonder he has
moved so quickly to find his social footing.
Later, I find out that Helena’s threat never
eventuated. A chill wind, but it was only air.
I’m thinking about Alex’s take-no-prisoners
approach to social acceptance as I walk to the common room. Acceptance is
Kohl-eyed Anglo girl Chelsea is sitting at one
of the communal tables, tweaking a presentation on her laptop. She’s been off
tending a sprained arm and is playing catch-up. “Dad knocked me over playing
soccer. It was payback from when I knocked him flat, my stepmum says.” I laugh.
You’re a tomboy, right? She grins. “I play a lot of videogames with my
boyfriend and do full on sport. I was goalkeeper in soccer and I was really
good. That was before I moved away, though.”
For three years, Chelsea lived in rural Victoria. There, she went to a school very different to Middlevale. “It was like the typical American school – jocks, nerds, popular girls,” she says. “I had the choice of being in the popular group, but I judged them really badly.” It was like a different planet, she says, something out of a Netflix series. The girls, in particular. The casual bitchiness, the way they dressed, the industrial quantities of makeup slathered on as a mask.
“It was so weird
seeing girls like that,” she says. “And no African kids too, or Asian. Just
white. I was scared. It was way out of what I was used to in the city. Here,
everyone is friends, or at least knows each other. We’ve got culture groups,
but over there, it was just based on how hot you are. I was used to being
friends with everyone.” She makes a face.
Then she switches tack. “Having said that – at
this school, people stick to their groups. The white kids, they don’t mean to
be racist, but I think they feel superior. It might be why they sit away.” I
notice she doesn’t include herself in that statement. But then, who does?
Safer, always, to talk in abstractions, to zoom out into the birds eye view,
away from people with emotions and names. I’ve noticed she doesn’t move out of
her comfort zone much. Just like many of the Vietnamese or African kids, she
sticks to people who look and sound like her.
It seems like there’s more mixing at younger
year levels, I say. She nods. “Definitely.”
So what changes as you get older? Chelsea stops typing, cocks her head
to think. “Not sure,” she says. “But I do know that Michelle and Maria used to
be really good friends.” Michelle and Maria – Somali and Southern European.
What happened? “There was an incident where Michelle went to Maria’s party a
bit drunk, and her parents found it disrespectful. They said she was
humiliating herself, and that’s something you just don’t do. I wasn’t there,
but I hear she was all over the place, and it was only a small close group of
friends.” She shrugs. Now, Michelle and Maria barely talk. I’ve noticed it.
They’re like two north-facing magnets – skirting around each other at all
times, keeping an invisible distance.
Chelsea grew up in a housing commission high-rise far from here. Her parents separated at an early age, and her mum had her own issues. “I probably should have ended up a druggo,” she says. “The way I was brought up wasn’t good to begin with, so I’ve done really well compared to that. I never read a book, mum never helped with homework, and dad used to be a big alco.” The flats taught her street smarts, but that was all. She learned very early on how to assess people as Threat or No Threat. Addict with the aggro jitters, looking for his next score, or sleepily content junkie with the nods? “I can tell straight away,” she says.
In Year 10, she belatedly kicked into gear. It
was time to move forwards. What she found hardest was making a habit of
studying. The lure of videogames was always there, offering instant fun. “It’s
so hard to do homework. I just don’t have that motivation,” she says. “I’m
trying hard to get the habit into my younger brother early, so he doesn’t have
the same problem.”
On the drive home, I think back to my school. Acceptance was security back then, too. But in my Anglo-dense school, acceptance was based instead on hierarchies of cool – just as it was at Chelsea’s country school. Playing AFL well got you entry to the jock group, studying hard into the nerdy group, music and drugs into the cool group. And for those, like me, who didn’t fit neatly into any group, acceptance was temporary – and sought-after. Without a group cocooning you, you’re on your own. Small wonder, then, that many of Middlevale’s kids prefer their school to others they’ve been to – because that there’s very little social savagery. If your main group is based on a shared background, it’s harder to claim that someone is not meant to be there. Then I remember Kadeer’s efforts to break in. Harder – but not impossible.