The Horn crew is in full swing, roasting Aadan
when I arrive. It feels like the running gag in the school sitcom, the one
steady, reliable joke. How were your holidays, I ask. “Yes Aadan – how were
your holidays,” the girls cry, knowing full well what took place. Aadan
plasters on his best don’t care face and prepares for yet another airing of his
dirty laundry, the cringe of mockery tinged with warm attention. “Aadan got his
heart broken again,” Zahra crows. But this time, the barb makes contact. Aadan
is genuinely piqued for once. “Say less, Zahra, say less,” he snaps.
Kadeer has moved to a different group of
girls, seeking firmer social ground. How were your holidays, I ask. She shrugs.
“Didn’t get up to much.” Her kohl-eyed friend hoiks one eyebrow. “What?” says
Kadeer, alert as ever to small signals. Her friend raises both eyebrows. And
Kadeer slides away to another table, skilled at evasion. Her friend laughs into
her hand. “Nothing much? Really?” Seems like both Kadeer and Aadan have Moved
On. The game of dating under the radar continues.
One of the senior teachers pops her head in
the room, calling out names for detention. I notice nearly all the names called
are African. Ari had pointed this out to me a while back. “Have a look at the
cultural bias of detentions,” he said, dryly.
“Don’t say my name don’t say my name.” It’s
Aadan, muttering in a monotone. But he’s free and Dalmar’s on the hook.
“Discrimination,” Aadan says, after the teacher is gone. Half a joke. “Why is
it all African kids?” Why indeed. When I ask students caught in the detention
net, one issue recurs: punctuality. Two minutes late for class is an automatic
lunchtime detention. Why, Aadan asks me, are they so annoyingly strict on time?
I confess I don’t know. But it feels like a clash of cultures – the
Northern-European analness around Punctuality (a God-derived virtue?) versus
the rubbery, malleable thing time is in most other places round the world.
Earlier that week, I’d been sitting at
reception with Maria and Chelsea. It was that precise moment in the late
afternoon when the minutes drag towards home time. So when a younger Sudanese
boy fronts up to reception, the girls perk up and watch with interest. The boy
is arguing his suspension. Three detentions earn you a brief suspension, and he
doesn’t want to tell his parents. He claims all the buses were delayed, which
is why he was late. A male teacher is passing and stops to tell him just to
take the punishment, go to class. But the boy argues on, and on. The
hard-bitten receptionist is having none of it. “I looked on the bus website,”
she says. “No incidents found. There were no delays.” The boy changes story
without a blink. Now it’s because he had to take his younger cousins to primary
school. This might actually be true. But the receptionist isn’t in the market
for an alternate timeline. “You’re giving me a headache,” she says. Maria
whispers: “They’re always looking for an excuse.” And there it is – the judgment,
even though Maria is one of the Anglo/Europeans closest to the African kids.
I puzzle over this for a while, until the boy
storms off. Once he’s gone, Maria softens her views. “Mind you, they are too
strict on attendance. If you’re three minutes late for class, you get a
detention. Forget a detention, suspended. Three suspensions, expelled.” Chelsea
nods. “It’s too strict.”
In the common room, Aadan – escaping the
detention he thought was inevitable – plunges into his work. His English oral
is tomorrow, and he’d been asked to argue something he’s ambivalent about –
that gays should be allowed to wed. The teacher’s own opinion is clear – she
makes Trump jokes in class, signals her lefty tribe. The same sex marriage
survey is in full swing, and the debate in the media and online is getting nasty.
You can still argue something you’re unsure
of, right? Aadan sniffs. “The teacher is an atheist, so she’s for it. She made
clear it was better to argue for it, saying there weren’t as many good logical
arguments for the other side, that an opponent could tear them down easily.”
Well – that’s probably true, I say. But what do you really think? He shifts on
his seat, and tries truth. “I don’t really care either way. What they do is up
Aadan’s attention strays. He grabs the little
green kitchen knife, the same one he mock-threatened Kevin with. He’s
fascinated by the danger of it. He mimes stabbing Cumar, who is unimpressed.
You’d never really shank anyone, I say. He pretends to stab his own arm and
winces. “Yeah. It’d hurt.” But then the game face. The girltalk has turned
again to him, and he has no true defences, no guile, just a weak shield of
bombast that his tormentor friends long ago figured out how to turn into
needling humour. “These girls, they’re so annoying. I’m gonna shank that one,”
he says nodding. A lie, a hard joke. The would-be policeman, would-be gangster.
Stacked white clouds scrolling by in parallax, like a stage backdrop. Cranes
dotting the CBD, the tail end of the apartment boom. As I arrive, I spot one of
the Vietnamese girls, Daisy, negotiating with a scooter driver who’s dropped
off her lunch. It’s not Uber Eats – it’s MelbourneSC, a Chinese-Australian
rival that specialises in serving the Asian and international student market. Daisy
looks around to see if anyone’s watching. She’s sprung. Girls from her art
class have spotted her and race out, tittering. A bold African girl takes a pic
of her as leverage. “You can’t do that – it’s against the rules,” she says. Daisy
bows her head as she bears her contraband noodles inside. “Please don’t go
telling the teachers,” she says, quietly, and the girls relent. They’re skiving
off while their paintings dry in sun. This week is art week. Down every
corridor, paintings and photos and sculpture. I’m drawn to the photos, many
hinting at the inner turmoil of the teenage pupa stage, your insides liquefying
as you turn into your new form, whatever the hell that may turn out to be.
At the boy’s table in the common room, Kevin is
getting his hair brushed by Dalmar. “Give me a braid?” he asks. Dalmar
experiments, having never braided hair before. “This is hard,” he says. “White
people hair.” Then he sees Zala arrive. “Why are you avoiding me,” he teases.
She sighs. “Sir,” she says to me, “this boy is so annoying, teasing me every
day. Our lockers are together but I want to move. Sometimes he puts his lock on
Is that right, I say, about to say something
glib and knowing, and then I think better of it and say nothing at all.
“What. Is. This.” It’s Dalmar, his attention
back on Kevin. “You’ve got a weird little white boy thing in your hair.” He
pores through Kevin’s wavy locks with great interest, homing in on the whorl,
the seeming source of all his hair. Hodan comes to look as well. Kevin endures the
inspection, a giant grin on his face as ever. “So weird. Black boys don’t have
this,” Dalmar says. “Have you got one too?” I bow my head. “Yep. Weird.”
I eat lunch in a quiet corner, thinking of the
intimacy of Dalmar doing Kevin’s hair, of how Kevin renders himself up to be
remade, to be putty. His shoelaces had been replaced by twine Ari made. He
accepts all things, all people, all impositions, all insults and mockery, and
is loved for it. Another choice – your new form can be steel or putty, given to
you by scorn or praise. Or you can craft it yourself.
A gleaming Thursday in late winter, stark sun,
torrents of students. There’s a pugnacious white boy mock-pushing an African
boy outside the canteen, and Hani doubles in laughter at the sight – everything
turned to 11, all things at once. Tall, cat eyes, the dancer from athletics –
who can at will throw herself into a mock-spasm, the effect startling, like a
Haitian zombie possession ritual – eyes rolled back, whites of her eyes. “That
girl,” says a passing teacher. “So much energy – sunup to sundown.”
Fatima walks past and calls out to Hani – see
you tonight. They seem like unlikely friends. “It’s for extra tutoring in maths
– her mother wants her to do really well,” Fatima tells me. “Her parents are
strict.” And yet, and yet – at school, a small freedom to seek the edge.
Hani is holding court with her spellbound
younger courtiers under a peppercorn tree when I approach. I’ve been curious about
her all year – how her seeming wildness combines with Big Parental
Expectations. She rattles off a few introductory points. “I am of Sudanese
descent. I like science. I want to become a forensic psychologist. I like
school, but it’s not as fun as it was. There used to be a lot of fights. But
that’s died out now.”
Has it? The story rocking the school last week
was about a minor social media scandal. Snake eyes Hani and an in-group Anglo
girl had been smoking behind the gym. “Go on, take a Snapchat of me,” Hani
said, and her white friend did. “Can I put it on my public story?” she asked.
Hani nodded. But a video like that made public – what an error. Soon, it was
out of anyone’s control. Kids at school saw it, shared it around. Hani’s older
cousin saw it and he told her father, a firm man with high hopes for his
daughter. Now she was in for it – grounded for a month. Furious, Hani hunted
down her erstwhile friend and slapped her clean across the face – for doing
precisely what she asked. After that, I saw the two girls steering well clear
of each other, keeping twenty metres between them at all times.
For Hani, fights mean drama, entertainment,
exhilaration – the sense that something is actually happening other than boring
old book learning. In year 7, it was all on – girls v girls, boys v boys, girls
v boys. “Sometimes they were serious, sometimes not. I knew all the details. It
was funny. Fights would start for petty reasons.” You preferred the school when
it was wilder, I say. She nods. And outside of school? She laughs. “You’d be
surprised if you saw me at home. I really do nothing. I’m so bored. My parents
aren’t strict, but they prefer me at home rather than outside.” School is the
only time that’s hers. Home is under her parents rule.
Cumar is at a loose end nearby, rolling a
piece of gravel side to side in his polished leather shoes, the soccer player’s
restlessness. His Eritrean background has given him that striking light brown
skin which means he could be from one of dozens of countries. And he presents
himself precisely like this, as a deracinated person, clear-faced, clean-cut,
neutrally-dressed, keeping himself out of the turbulence around him, facing
forwards, always forwards. The speed of his feet, the nimbleness of his passes,
his talent at finding the net – this, he hopes, will secure him the best
possible future. He learned the world’s game as a small boy playing in the dust
on the outskirts of Khartoum. An Eritrean boy raised believing he was Sudanese
because his parents were keen to leave any trace of that regime’s horrors
behind. He never talks about it. Soccer is the all-consuming dream. This year,
he hopes, he’ll crack a good club. He’s making a video of his best manoeuvres.
But he’s practical enough to prepare a Plan B – university.
Is soccer why you don’t get involved in the
dramas, I ask. He nods, slowly. “I don’t want to risk anything,” he says. “Plus
I need to do well to get into business. Life is school and soccer. Afterwards,
it will be work and soccer.” He grins.
He glances around the courtyard, lowers his
voice. “It’s this school, too. Asians don’t bother me. They don’t alter how
they act. But some white people push themselves away from us. I know we have a
bad reputation because of shit that’s happened in school. But white kids will
say things behind your back, won’t want to help you or interact.” He’s echoing
Dalmar’s complaint. The many judged by the actions of the few. He shrugs. There is nothing to be done except
treat prejudice – being pre-judged for your skin – as an obstacle to be worked
around. Ignore the unfairness, get through it, do well regardless. The larger
Horn crew band together for solidarity. Cumar is a lone wolf. He’s doing it