‘You could pull up a chair and I’ll tell you a story,’ this lovely Year 8 girl said. What a surprising, rhythmic answer to my dumb question ‘And what will I do while you eat your sandwich?’
Did I pull up a chair? Did I think ‘Wow. What an offer!’?
No. I’m a teacher. I spoke the script. ‘You’re supposed to be doing your homework, Mahalia. Eat your sandwich quickly and come back inside.’
Straight away, I hated my teacher self. This was one of the first face-to-face exchanges I’d had with an Indigenous Kimberley person. One of the reasons I came to Kununurra was to keep learning more about Aboriginal people, to figure out for myself what I thought about the black and white Australias, and I’d turned down a chance to do just that.
I grew up in Albury, a country town as Anglo/Irish white as the next one. In the fifties and sixties European refugees started to move in, but they were white as well. The first Aboriginal I was ever conscious of was Bobby Veen. My skin was so white, his so black, that I watched him every week at Sunday Mass from when I was about 7 years old. Even in a church of more than 500 people, he stood out. He was a year older than me, stick thin, with a head that looked too big for his body and eyes that flickered sideways, back and forth, as he walked down the aisle with his white brothers and sisters. We kids knew he was a poor little black boy that the Veens, a good Catholic family, had given a decent home to. This was 30 years before people talked about ‘the Stolen Generation.’
I remember Mum telling me sadly that Bobby had been teased so much at the local Catholic boys’ school where my brothers went that he’d been moved to the private school. In those days we believed that Catholics were the good guys, and we were disappointed when we weren’t.
Bobby’s been in gaol for more than thirty years now, on indefinite preventative detention, after stabbing to death a second man in 1983. His trial revealed the Albury of the sixties as a town of paedophile teachers and racists, not the quiet friendly backwater we thought we knew. One article I read talks about Robert Veen having ‘an abnormality of mind which must realistically be seen as having been at least partly caused by the oppressive and deforming yoke of emotional deprivation and sexual abuse and exploitation which society laid upon his formative years.’ I’m sad to think that my curious stare was part of the heavy burden he carried as a child.
In the early seventies Brian had Aboriginal friends at the WA Institute of Technology in Perth. They never mentioned their racial background, and to us they were just a friendly exotic bunch, a mix of all the races that came together in Broome. I met one of them two years ago at a conference where she was a guest speaker. She was polite and said she remembered us, but that was all. She carried an aloof air of self-importance I couldn’t reconcile with the generous girl I’d known in Perth. Her frequently proclaimed identity at the conference was as an Aboriginal elder, and I wondered if that meant she felt the need to distance herself from the time when she was just a person like the rest of us. I should have asked her.
In the late seventies I was at college with the first two Aboriginals to train as teachers in NSW. One was a big friendly man who was a fun-loving, hard-drinking student like the rest of us. The other was a small man who made us very conscious of him as a black person. I was wary of speaking to him, in case I said the wrong thing.
One day at college my friends came out of a lecture much disturbed. Jim, the angry one, had given a talk on the Bluff Rock massacre, where local Aborigines had been driven over a cliff at Tenterfield, not that far away. Apparently Jim told the story passionately, with hurt for a wrong done to his people, and we understood at last why he was angry.
That was the first time, in 1978, that I ever heard the word “massacre” in relation to Aboriginal people. 13 years of education and the only mention of Aborigines that I remember was a black-and-white sketch of a small bush tribe in a Social Studies text book.
I saw Jim too, recently, on TV. He’s now Curator of Koori History and Culture at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney. He seemed more mellow, more relaxed than when were students together. His skin was bright pink in many places, from some kind of skin problem, I suppose. That’s ironic, because it was Jim who told me, when I got to know him a little bit, that some of his family and friends called him a ‘coconut’ – brown on the outside but white inside – because he was succeeding at tertiary study.
‘It’s hard’ he said, and once again Jim expanded my knowledge of his culture so I understood that success was viewed differently in his world.
Now, in Kununurra, I’m working exclusively with Indigenous students. Three times a week I hear a Year 5 girl read at a local school. She’s a plump, enthusiastic little blossom who’s about ready to become an independent reader. She attends school regularly, speaks Standard Australian English well, and will probably end up fully literate.
After I’ve seen her I help in a Year 1 class of at-risk Indigenous kids. They’re ‘at risk’ because they hardly go to school: some days there are four of them there, the most I’ve seen is ten, but there are over twenty enrolled in the class.
They are the most fascinating, loveable lot. They’re very tactile: they lean on me, sit very close, play with my earrings, imitate my voice – not rudely, but quietly, repeating and playing with my intonation and words. They can take a long time to answer a question, not because they don’t know the answer, but because they’re running through the possibilities in their heads. They often seem distracted, and some of them really can’t sit still, but most of them are paying attention even while they play with their feet.
They go from shy to cheeky quite suddenly, with no middle ground, but in this classroom they are easily brought back into line. They are almost all tired all the time. Their little faces are pale with dark-ringed eyes and they lie down every chance they get: on the floor, on us the helpers, or on their desks, but they want to learn. They try earnestly to guess what word will be the right answer to their teacher’s questions, and because I’m an observer, rather than the teacher, I can see them watching her lips and eyes for any cues she might give. This means they often give nonsense answers, or repeat answers to questions she asked a few minutes before.
I’m always surprised when they identify themselves as ‘Australian’ in various class discussions. Their Australia is so different from mine. They speak Aboriginal English, or Kriol, which I can follow a bit because it sounds like the Tok Pisin the local people spoke in Goroka. They speak Standard English, my English, with a distinct accent. Of course they’re Australian, and part of my challenge up here is to understand enough of their culture to fit it into my own picture of Australia, along with the Italians, the Sudanese and all the other people I’ve mixed with over the years.
While I’m writing this I’m listening to the bangs and crashes the girl next door is making on the metal fence between our houses. I know she’ll be standing on it in her pink dress, bare toes gripping the top. She grabs on a vine that’s hanging from a tree in her yard and swings into our yard and back, banging her feet against the fence as she does. She’s 11, the oldest girl in the family, and her younger sister and brother have gone to school for the first time since we’ve been here. She’s the one with her baby sister on her hip all day, the one who doesn’t come in to our house often because the baby is scared of the dogs and screams if her feet are put on the ground. The baby must be asleep, so the older girl is swinging while she can. I wonder if she’s bored, or lonely, or unhappy with her lot.
It’s not my business to ask her for her story, but at school I’d had an Aboriginal girl offer to tell me something about herself, and I’d hidden behind that old teacher crap.
When Mahalia finished her sandwich and came back into the classroom I said ‘Now tell me your story.’ It wasn’t about the Dreaming, or the Rainbow Serpent, or her connection with the land. It was an ordinary tale of embarrassment in front of a potential boyfriend, told with smiles and raisings of eyebrows. I told her about wetting my pants at school in Grade 3, and in personal and professional terms it was a worthwhile exchange. We understood each other a tiny bit better and had established a tiny rapport. She hasn’t been back at the homework program since that day, because even in Year 8, school is seen as optional.
An insignificant incident, but it made me remember that up here, away from everyone and everything that’s familiar, I’m in the ideal place to relax and step out from behind the white, middle-class teacher persona I’ve built for myself. It’s not easy.