For the Year 12s, the fourth term is an afterthought. Two weeks of class, and then swotvac, and then exams. It’s a fine day in early spring when I return after the break. Sun-induced smiles everywhere, the faint scent of flowers from nearby front yards, the light green of new growth.
In the resource centre, Aadan saunters past. “Can’t wait to be done,” he says. “12 years of schooling, done. I can’t wait.” Still thinking of being a cop? He nods, a half smile. “Of course. But my community…” he says, trailing off. What about working in a community liaison team? He scoffs. “A what? Bro. I want to be a real cop, out solving crimes. But first I got to burn down the school.” He glances around, a hangdog smile. “Anyone hear that?” He’s joking, of course, but it speaks to his frustration. School has not been easy for him. Many of his peers have dropped out. He’s stuck to it, even though he feels he’s often being judged and found wanting. “Nah. I’d never do it – I couldn’t handle jail,” he says. “I’m 18, so it’d be big boy jail. Not like the easy time playing Xbox in Parkville. Dalmar knows lots of young guys who are there for armed robbery. They see it as a holiday.”
We stand near the photocopier as he tells me a
new truth. Aadan has a bad egg uncle who has done time for robbery, drink
driving, assault. His father – the stalwart pillar of the community – has done
his best to steer his brother back on track. Nothing has worked. His uncle does
the time, comes out, runs wild, goes back in. Aadan shrugs. And as he walks
away, I watch him. Cops and robbers – the lie he told me about how he hurt his
leg, way back at the start of the year. A lie with resonance, a lie hiding a
deeper truth. The gulf, yawning. Aadan wants nothing more than to pull himself
clear of the wreckage, dodging drug-dealer acquaintances preaching the gospel
of cash and ice, of his rough uncle and his scaly mates. But who you are is not
always up to you. The people who surround you, the ones who talk to you, the
ones who do not. Who you are is where you are.
I’m subdued when I enter the common room. The
fight between Paul and Zahi has left a bitter taste in my mouth. I take a seat
and sit quietly, watching Kevin hold court. He eels through the groups, past
Daniel’s awkwardness, the Viet girls shyness – which presents as
standoffishness – past African bombast, threading around white personal space,
pausing to taunt his Italian mate – “Marco, what’s it like being in the mafia?”
Despite myself, I’ve cheered up. Kevin is a
tonic. The Horn boys have been winding Kevin up in class today, getting him to
say rude things in Arabic to Aadan. “It means bike, riding your bike,” they
say, and Kevin saunters across, says the phrase, which of course means “riding
your dick.” Aadan mock-attacks him, Kevin slides away. Playdoh for all.
Have you ever gone too far, I ask. “Not yet,”
Kevin grins. “Hey, watch my skills.” He dials up a game on his iPad, boasts
he’s gonna smash his opponent, and gets promptly trounced. He beams. Nothing
sticks, nothing matters, nothing is serious. Except, that is, for girls.
The school formal is weeks away. And there, he
allows, a girl. A girl he liked in primary school. She might be free. He’s
thought of her a lot, even though he lived overseas for five years, even though
he dated over there. Kevin hasn’t forgotten her. But he needs a plan. “It’s got
three parts,” he announces. One, drink water for a week to get rid of pimples.
Two, eat vegetables to ensure pimples are gone. Three, once pimples are gone,
get Tim to take a good photo of him in a suit. Send that to her to demonstrate
his Eminent Suitability, and then sit back and hope. Then his brow furrows.
Money. Would she have to pay $85 for the pleasure of his company? He calls out
to the room, and they all turn – Kevin, the fluid. “Of course,” shouts one of
the Vietnamese girls.
Later that week, I catch Kevin, lounging
insouciantly on his chair in the common room and flaunting aggressively
mismatched socks. Have you always been the class clown, I ask. He beams.
“Always. In primary school I messed around a lot, got in trouble. In high
school I’ve settled down.” This – this is your settled down version, I ask with
raised eyebrow. He grins. “Look, I get distracted easily in class, and
sometimes I just wanna have fun you know. I talk a lot, that’s my trouble.”
Why is it, I ask, that you’re one of the few
kids who moves between groups? Kevin offers his trademark hangdog grin that
means he’s full of shit and he knows it. But then he shrugs. Screw it, he’s
thinking. So he tells me the truth. “Tim is probably my closest friend but I
only really hang out with him outside of school. In school, I hang out with
Dalmar and Aadan and Omar, and Daniel and Steve from the Vietnamese students. I
roll around between my Asian, African and white friends. I don’t really have
one set group.” He ponders it. “Everyone is friendly, but they stay in close
quarters to each other, sticking to their ethnicity. I’ve noticed that some
people don’t want to mix or break the silence. It’s not just white kids. And
the only three who bounce around are me, Paul, who’s Eurasian and Marco, who’s
European. We break barriers, go wherever we want. If you roll with it, it
But why? When nudged, Kevin allows it might be
that he’s travelled more, lived overseas, that his mum is an artist who’s
worked with migrant communities. “That might have washed off,” he suggests.
“And I’m curious and the others like that, I guess. I like learning words. If
Steve is speaking Vietnamese to Daniel, I get annoyed – come on guys, teach me,
and they teach me bad words in Vietnamese. And I like learning about religion.
I’m learning about Ramadan because my friends are fasting. I ask them what if
you’re sick? Can you eat then? What if you’re working outside and you’re
A clown being sincere is a hard act to
maintain, and I can see Kevin is shying away. Much more fun to troll and play
without asking why why why. But I get a surprise when I ask who he’s going to
stay in touch after Year 12 is done. “Hmm. That’s weird. Even though I love
hanging with Dalmar and those guys, I probably won’t see them after school
finishes. But I was friends with Tim from before school, so I’ll see him.” He
looks back at his laptop. “I gotta work now.”