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Chapter 13: Hard Jokes
Third Term
By Doug Posted in Term 3 on July 11, 2019 0 Comments 12 min read
Chapter 12: Between Worlds Previous Chapter 14: Tight Braids and a Grudge that's Frayed Next

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 to them.”

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.

Your New Form

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 my locker.”

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.

The Wild One and the Wolf

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 solo.

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