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What am I doing here? 
Why I went back to high school in my 30s
By Doug Posted in Introduction on June 26, 2019 0 Comments 15 min read
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It’s the end of Year 12. I am 36 years old. And this is not playing out like I thought it would. Not at all. The knot of the year is untying – all the stress of exams, the pressures of school day after school day, the friendships that dissolved, the stealthy relationships flying under the parent radar, after the showdown between the rich international Malay and his poorer Somali friend over who was more Muslim, after the raucous showdown over the kettle, with allegation of racism flying – after all that, it comes down to hugs on the football field, banter under the peppercorn trees, promises that the kids will never keep. 

And then – then everyone heads off, falling back into groups. The Anglo group, heading to the station. The African group, heading to talk shit over Maccas chips. The Asian group, off to have dinner in central Melbourne. I’m left standing there, watching everyone go their own way, an odd sadness coming over me.

On the train home, I lean against the window. Had I just wasted the better part of a year, hanging out in a high school common room, searching for answers? What’s the point of having diverse classrooms if everyone just sticks to people who look like them? How can you build a cohesive society if everyone sticks to who and what they know? 

Going back to school at 36 is not something you really should list on a resume.  

2017: Finished Year 12 again (18 years after first graduating.)

And going back was not part of my life plan. I’d seen all those B-grade movies where the Adam Sandlers of the world are forced to re-do high school. 21 Jump Street, Never Been Kissed. Sure, Rolling Stone journalist Cameron Crowe was able to pose as a high school student to write Fast Times at Ridgemont High. But he was 22, and could pass muster. I could not.

Visual tells: crows feet round the eyes, normcore clothing. Non-visual: something fundamentally dad-like about me. Picture the timeless meme from 30 Rock – Steve Buscemi, cap backwards and a skateboard slung over his shoulder in a high school corridor, saying ‘How do you do, fellow kids?’

You know how some people wish they could redo high school? Or how some get stuck at that period of development? How some peak at high school? Me, I was not the slightest bit nostalgic. I was an acutely awkward nerdy type who spent my VCE years trying frantically to invert my personality, to pop from intro to extrovert, and dear lord, there was a great deal of cringe involved in getting there.

High school was something I gritted my teeth and got through. Later, I banished all memory of my shambling teenage self, banished the memories of awkward social encounters and doomed crushes held for far too long, banished the slog of it, and kept only a few faded glories. It was the place where I formed my finest embarrassing memories, a lifetime supply guaranteed to let me sit bolt upright at 3am in order to recall in luxuriant detail how it felt to have my pants split in front of my crush plus her entire friendship group. No. That time was, thankfully, dead and gone.

Until, of course, it wasn’t.

I’d just finished up a long stint of teaching university students about media writing. I’d loved it at first. Fresh questions, lively debate over journalistic ethics, and the chance to learn myself through the back and forth of the tutorial room. I’d fallen into teaching, after (in retrospect, stupidly) quitting my job to become a freelance writer. Freelancers were paid irregularly, whereas teachers were paid fortnightly.

It felt fitting too. Teaching runs in my family’s blood. My brother is a teacher. Many of my aunts and uncles have been teachers. Both of my parents acted as educators as part of other professions.

But over the years, though, I noticed that I wasn’t loving teaching like I used to. The insecure life of a casual lecturer was part of it. But I was starting to think a sizeable chunk of education was wasted effort. All the dispensing of scripts and schemes and facts, all the assignments simulating the real world, when the students who did well in life were thosewho knew how to play the game of education – but went far beyond it. That is, they recognised the frame of education and knew how to write to get high marks, but did internships, started their own podcasts, volunteered on student radio, went to the country or overseas to show how keen they were. They went far beyond the curriculum to get their first job, to make their first mark on the world. The students who just knew how to do well in an educational setting could often be left adrift.

My dissatisfaction grew. I was snappier in class. The danger of becoming That Grumpy Teacher loomed over me. What was I even doing here, at this public university populated almost entirely by private school kids, with a smattering of selective public school students, and just a few from public high schools. My students were largely Anglo or Asian-Australian and largely from leafy eastern suburbs. I remembered a university friend archly describing his ex-private school milieu as ‘thoroughbreds.’ It seemed to fit. This was a bubble. And yes, I was part of it – eastern suburbs, private school, middle class Anglo man. Book smart, yes. Life smart? Hmm.  

Education, I thought, was important. But what if it was the hidden curriculum that was more important?

In educational theory, the hidden curriculum refers to the unspoken values transmitted in school – say, the unspoken assumption in a sex ed class that heterosexuality is normal (rather than just very common). The hidden curriculum is often framed negatively, as a way in which the strongest cultural influences replicate themselves at the expense of others.

When the influential American educational researcher Professor Philip W Jackson coined the term in 1968, he intended it more neutrally:

“[T]he crowds, the praise, and the power that combine to give a distinctive flavor to classroom life collectively form a hidden curriculum which each student (and teacher) must master if he is to make his way satisfactorily through the school,” he wrote.

“The demands created by these features of classroom life may be contrasted with the academic demands – the ‘official curriculum’ – … to which educators have traditionally paid most attention.”

That’s the part I was finding more and more interesting. The hidden part of what’s learned in school covers what I see as more interesting territory – peer to peer.

When you’re a teenager asking who am I, who am I, who am I, often the answers you get come from your peers as much as any meaning you generate yourself. Your peers tell you you’re a nerd, a swot, a high achiever, a try hard, a good bloke, a loyal friend, a footballer, a dancer; they tell you – directly or indirectly – that you’re a creep, a loser, that you’re popular, that you’re attractive, that you’re not.

So far, so generic. What I’d become interested in was the idea that in Australian schools, the hidden curriculum is where one very important thing is hashed out: race and culture.

I’ve often thought that high schools are the sites where Australia is renewed, where newcomers go local. I’ve been known to wave a wine glass and pontificate about how plastic we are when we’re young, how aging is sclerosis, how most of us get comfortable with the selves we develop in our teens and 20s, our habits, our inner monologues and then just keep that going for the rest of our lives. 

Here’s the thing about our schools I’ve always marvelled at. How is it that the children of migrants go in one end and come out the other as second-gen Australians?  I mean, it worked for me, a scruffy second-gen Scot. At school, my vowels got beaten into shape, and the mockery and light hazing of my peers ensured I could at least bluff my way through any cultural references. Except cricket. I don’t get cricket.

Even as Melbourne swelled, the children of new arrivals were still going local with relative ease. Happened to me, happened to my friends, happened to the uni students I’d taught for years. Newcomer in, Aussie out. Some kind of alchemy was at work. And a large part of this magic had to be taking place in our schools. For a country perennially embarrassed by its lack of culture, Australia does a damn good job of imprinting itself on newcomers. First generation migrants find it all but impossible to undo programming laid down in childhood – as an adult, you’re made of stone. But the second generation – that is when we are plastic, when we are made new. So if this was where a society of migrants developed its necessary commonalities, its bedrock understanding, its resilience at a time when the very idea of many cultures one nationality was under siege around the world, the question remaining was – how, exactly, was the trick done?

The more I thought about it, the more I realised it had to be high school. Those tortuous chrysalis years where we pass from child to adult. Decades later, we still turn to stories set in high schools, to temporarily revive our own forgotten traumas and heightened joys, to try to capture that fleeting intensity, awkwardness, the sense of being forced out of childhood’s ease. Competition, friendships, dating, banter, all shot through with hormones. A hell of a ride. And then – throw culture into the mix, and stir. Scale up, and you have the next iteration of Australia. Schools are the great engine rooms of Australian conformist culture, the place where peers exert their greatest influence with the simple question, often unspoken: Are you in, or are you out?  What I wanted was simple: to capture this, the act of becoming.

In the 18 years since I’d left school, much had changed. The war on terror and its attendant fears of Islam. The resurgence of populist nationalism. American decline and the rise of China – or at least, the perception of such. Helicopter parenting, cram schools, the turn against science, the insidious background threat of climate change, eating away at our dreams of the future. The emergence of social-media natives, online bullying, sexting – anonymous peer feedback at the time you’re most vulnerable to it, at the time we’re often most heedless of the damage we can wreak. The emergence of newly conservative Gen Z, turning away from car ownership, from heavy drinking, from risky sex, in favour of phone lives. Or perhaps they were simply too broke to be wild, stuck in casual work forever, able to make rent but never buy a house. And Melbourne’s media-stoked African gang panics – the supposed South Sudanese gangs apparently making a city of almost 5 million too scared to leave their houses. But despite all this, kids would still be kids. Right?

And my city had changed too.  Dramatically. People were flooding in. Eight million by 2050, they say, gorging on interstaters from Queensland and Tasmania and Perth, on skilled migrants from India and China, Vietnam and the UK, on the few lucky refugees to slip through the net and rather a lot of Kiwis.

Out in the once-unloved western suburbs, the migration boom was converting thistly, rocky paddocks into new suburbs dotted with Sikh gurdwaras, Hindu temples, African evangelical churches. In the east, wealthy Chinese investors were raising huge apartment towers in deep suburbia, turning Box Hill into a second CBD and bolstering the ranks of pro-business socially conservative voters. A city is its people, the buildings only the setting. Which meant that my city was changing, fast. I wanted to capture the sense of that, on the ground.

So it was time to embrace my looming mid-life crisis, and go back to school, as so many B-grade movie stars had done before.

Instead of trying to recreate high school with me as the popular kid this time round – though there was some appeal – I decided on a different approach.

I’d go to a high diversity public school – and just hang out. I’d avoid formal lessons – no more calculus or Macbeth debates – and look for the unscripted stuff of school life, the banter and negotiation of the schoolyard and common room.

My wife agreed to bankroll me for a year, if only to shut me up. We were talking of having a third child. If that happened, we’d be back in the baby cave for several years. So the time to act was now.

I prepared for the plunge into the unknown. I would go undercover in a public high school in Melbourne. And when I say undercover, I mean “stand out like a red-headed 36 year old Anglo man-beacon.”

All I needed now was a school. Which school? It had to be one far more representative of the new Melbourne than my white-bread Anglo heavy private school. (I dilute the loaded word ‘private’ whenever asked by saying it wasn’t top-tier, just to do my part in keeping up the great pretence that class doesn’t exist in Australia.)

There were only three Chinese kids at my private school. They did not bend to us. And we, the majority – Anglos, Southern Europeans – made no effort to bring them in. Years later, I recognised the chef at a teppanyaki restaurant in the eastern burbs. It was Kelvin, one of the Chinese boys. He gave me a mirthless grin and nodded at my bowl. I picked it up. He tossed me prawns, beef, vegetables. It was funny at first. Then he started throwing short. I had to lunge forwards. Then leap. Then run for each piece, darting left and right. My friends laughed at me – a puppet on an invisible string. Dance, whitey, dance. Then he threw harder. A morsel splattered sauce on my chest. Another. His grin widened, like a remora. A small act of revenge for our casual cruelty. I hated him for a week. What had I, personally, ever done to him? Then I realised Kelvin’s lasting memory of school must have been a homogenous white mass with mocking eyes. Not racist, exactly. But we were certainly not welcoming.

That was why I had to avoid a majority-rules school. What, I wondered, would it be like when no single group has the numbers – would the fabled Australian egalitarianism be on display? Or would it be a negotiation? Would there be tension? Would there be play?

Eventually, I found a school gamely prepared to host me as an observer, three days a week. It was a public school, part of the system where two thirds of us are still educated. If private schools are, in part, about purchasing a specific set of elite peers in the hope the old boys or old girls network will wink your child through their second round interviews, the public system is where the muddle of difference – race, class, gender, sexuality – is played out in full, where hard edges exist. Sociologists call a school a ‘micropublic.’ It’s an apt term – society in miniature. The teenage world hidden from parents, the one where peers matter above all else.

I’ll call this school Middlevale High. It’s a fishbowl nation – Anglo-European, African, Asian, as close as it gets to the mythical melting pot. Wealthy kids go here, poorer kids too. Muslims, Christians, Hindus, atheists. A school where white flight is beginning to reverse, where the Anglo gentry now send their children, and where high-expectation Asian parents are doing the same.

To gain access I have to anonymise everything. So all student names have been changed, all locations removed, and I have modified certain personal details. All students quoted have graduated and moved on.

So. Here we go.

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