teens

'To anyone who thinks the ATAR is fair, let me tell you a story about a student named Mya.'

They were all there, Wambui included, though really they weren’t – really they were in the brick belly of a government classroom, years-old posters over greying walls, kiln-light pulsing murderous through the windows in an irresistible haze. The ocean nearby smelt of dried seaweed. Gulls cried. It was the final period of the day, but this meant little to these seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds, many of whom would go straight from school to part-time jobs upon which their households depended. 

But the illusion held. I saw it in their furrowed brows, their slightly squinting eyes. They were enveloped in the darkness of an enormous pavilion, its sawtooth roof pulled tight in a snarl. The floor was dusty, uneven, dangerous. In the centre was a steep-sided pool, its surface humped with the carcasses of horses. Still more horses galloped and cantered on the rim, while a lone shepherd, arms outstretched, tried to prevent them from falling. 

‘So tell me,’ I said, aware suddenly that the electric clock uttered a faint, continuous whine. ‘Does this story make no sense whatsoever? Or is there a hidden logic? Something a good Literature student can find?’ 

Tim put up his hand. He was a tall, lanky surfer who – by sheer chance – I had taught continuously for the past five years. ‘I’m not sure.’ His voice was all sea breeze and glinting horizons. Waves broke behind his eyes. ‘But I like it, Doc.’ 


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Years before, when Tim was in the junior school, my class had been discussing the controversy surrounding vaccines. After a barrage of questions, I felt the need to remind them that I wasn’t a doctor. ‘I’m pretty sure you are,’ Tim had replied, and so I remained, all the way through to his graduation, and even today. 

‘What about everybody else? Forget about meaning. We’ve all chosen Lit for a reason. Do we like this story?’ 

Twenty-five heads nodded. I’ve taught a lot of books, but Peter Carey’s Collected Stories is perhaps the only one that has enchanted every student, without exception. 

‘I totally agree. I love Peter Carey. Like, really love him. Who’s the teen heart-throb these days?’ 

‘Bieber!’ 

‘Well, Peter Carey’s my Bieber.’ 

Laughter. It’s easy with Literature kids. They’re studious, interested, in the class by choice. They’re often high performers who want to achieve and expect you to provide. For them, the teacher isn’t the enemy. Working with them is a joy. 

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(And all at once – as sometimes happens in teaching – my consciousness was waylaid. Should I telephone Charlie’s aunty immediately after class, tell her what he told me today in the office? It seemed like a good idea, but of course it was laden with complications. Would Charlie feel betrayed by this disclosure? He never told me that I couldn’t speak to Tia, but that certainly wasn’t the same as giving permission. And what if his father – a man I had never met – answered the phone? Would I hang up? What could I possibly have to say to him? And how might Tia react to criticisms of a man who was, ultimately, her brother? 

Then there was Tessa and Lonnie to think about. I still hadn’t managed to reach Lonnie’s mother, and nor had the coordinator. Should I try again? Did I have time for any of these things, with the 3.30 pm staff meeting, the drive home, the shopping, the twenty-five Literature essays I needed to mark? Of course I had the time, it was my responsibility, I had to have the time.) 

‘I promise that analysing “Life and Death in the South Side Pavilion” won’t make us hate it,’ I told my Year 12s. ‘The opposite will be true. So let’s stick some pins in this butterfly. We like it, but does it make sense?’ 

‘It makes sense, but not in the normal way,’ somebody said. ‘It’s like a dream – or a nightmare, maybe. It tells you something about yourself, but you’re not sure what.’ 

‘Good. So what might it be telling us about ourselves?’ 

I scanned the room, one face to the next: Wambui and Tim and Mya and all the rest, too many to name, each fighting for what intellectual and emotional real estate I had to offer, their eyes greedy for answers, and I struggled not to relent and just write an explanation on the board and then settle at my desk, open a newspaper like the teachers of my childhood. 

The clock whined. Wambui, large-eyed and thoughtful, tapped a pencil on her chin, paused, wrote something down. 

At last Mya raised her hand, and something inside me softened. I knew she’d had the answer from the beginning, had hesitated only to give the others an opportunity. You saw it so often in children: the banality of kindness. A gesture subtle, easy to miss, but more genuine than all the self-conscious benevolence the adult world has to offer. 

‘The shepherd is trapped in the pavilion, and it seems like it’s The Company trapping him. But it isn’t.’ Mya: platinum braids, ruled lines, work submitted days early. ‘He’s trapping himself.’ 

‘What makes you say that?’ 

In the junior school Mya’s voice had been a barely audible whistle, but now she spoke with surety, confidence. ‘It’s the pavilion. The whole point about a pavilion is that it has no walls. He’s carrying on like The Company is responsible for this terrible situation he’s in, but there’s nothing stopping him walking straight out. Nothing except himself. He says he has to stay to protect the horses from drowning, but that isn’t really his responsibility. That’s The Company’s stupidity. It isn’t the shepherd’s fault.’ 

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‘I could not agree more, Mya. And maybe Carey is warning us that we’re all trapped, and each of us is our own jailer.’ 

But Mya would not be trapped – not by anything, and all her teachers loved her for it. She was on the verge of breaking a generational poverty cycle. Her ruled lines and meticulous braids were not superficialities, they were weapons of defence in an arena whose dangers she had come to understand years before. 

When she was ten her parents divorced, and Mya was uprooted from Queensland to Victoria, leaving her with little more than one half of a love heart necklace tearily gifted from her best friend. Soon her mother had a part-time job in a bakery, and Mya was walking home from school and cooking dinner for her little brother, making sure he did his homework, putting him to bed. They could afford little. When she began high school, Mya’s uniform hung off her like a clown suit, her mother knowing she would be unable to afford larger sizes as the years progressed. In Year 10 Mya first felt the desire to break free. Life, she understood, could be different, and education was the key. She wanted to leave Seadale to study archaeology at university, and knew the score she needed to the digit. 

And I carried that weight – in Literature, at least. It was my job to make sure I did everything possible to get Mya the score she deserved. 

It’s called the ATAR score: the Australian Tertiary Admission Rank. 

If that term is instilled with a tepid, bureaucratic dullness, don’t be fooled; beneath the surface lies the reality of a system that is at best problematic, and at worst inextricably linked with power, privilege, class and the perpetuation of the social status quo. 

The obvious and well-trodden path is to decry issues of funding. While The School is still armoured in places with the 1970s brickwork of my childhood, many private institutions are handed public money to spend on the most privileged young people in the country. I’m not for a moment arguing that children in private schools don’t deserve the best start to life – only that, to a degree, the educational privileges they enjoy come at the cost of the less fortunate. Where I’ve been forced to hang my own curtains in classrooms and buy books for students, a prestigious nearby college recently unveiled a 550-seat auditorium, complete with orchestra lift. For public school teachers dealing with flickering lights and asbestos warning signs, contrasts like this are difficult to take. 

But where this becomes especially problematic – and of major importance to ATAR scores, and therefore the economic futures of young people – is with regard to class sizes. I’m aware of private schools running Literature classes with as few as five pupils, a luxury far beyond the financial reach of almost any government school. 

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Class sizes are controversial, with some arguing they are of little significance and others adamant that they are profoundly important. The reason most classroom teachers fall into the latter category is because we are aware of the power of rapid feedback in helping our students learn. Class size slows feed- back just as surely as four flat tyres slow a car. 

Consider the maths. It takes fifteen minutes to read, and provide feedback on, a Literature essay, and that is going at full tilt. In a class of twenty-five, that’s a little over six hours work. In a class of five, a teacher can have that work done in just an hour and a quarter. Multiply that over four writing tasks, and the government school teacher has worked for over twenty-four hours to the private school teacher’s five. 

What this means is that the public-school teacher is more tired and, significantly, gets the work back more slowly. A class of five might get their feedback the day after writing the essay, then immediately begin a new one, their errors and feedback fresh in their minds. The students in the class of twenty-five need to wait far, far longer. 

What must be remembered, too – and what is poorly understood by many – is that the ATAR is not an assessment of competence in the traditional sense. It’s a rank. Each student is placed in a great, snaking line, the front of which often meanders through suburbs like Toorak and Darling Point while the tail recedes into a murky hinterland of housing commission blocks, barren yards, poorly tuned radios hissing footy scores in bulbless rooms. And in such gloom, students like Mya await their Literature feedback without complaint. 

All this, of course, is assuming such classes even run in government schools. Let’s take as an example a traditionally challenging subject like Chemistry. If only five students enrol, a government school may simply be unable to afford to proceed with the class. This leaves the students with two options: go to a different school or pick a different subject. Most opt for the latter. As Chemistry is a prerequisite for some university courses, those students have had doors to their futures closed for no other reason than their socio-economic background. 

Other examples are more specific and, arguably, insidious. At the time of writing, students are not permitted to use a dictionary in the Literature examination in Victoria, despite repeated studies showing a clear relationship between poverty and reduced vocabulary. Every child carries with them the invisible dictionary of their socio-economic status – and that’s to say nothing of students for whom English is not their first language. 

The ATAR measures student ability, but it also measures so much more: privilege, wealth, position. This can create an illusion of competence in private schools, where results are touted in well-funded marketing campaigns with no acknowledgement of the underlying social realities from which they emerge. 

While students from wealthy, stable homes studied – perhaps with the support of tertiary-educated parents – Mya cooked dinner for her little brother. Likewise, Charlie (one terrible night) cowered under the bed with his little brother to escape the glint of a hacking blade. And Wambui, on the other side of the world, wrestled with the superstitions of her village, which dictated that a cure for bedwetting involved licking the mucus from a newborn calf.

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Extract from The School by Brendan James Murray, published by Picador, RRP $34.99, available now. 

The School. Image via Picador. 

Feature Image: Getty.

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