Back to school

By Alice Pung
classroom

When I return to the suburb where I grew up, I meet an unforgettable boy named Strong with spiked hedgehog hair and a grin that occupies a third of his face. Leaning forward, he tells me that his mother was in labour for ages with his older sister. But when he was born he swiftly forced his way out. He holds a fist in the air to demonstrate how he came into this world, and how he got his name. His friends laugh. It is 4pm on a Tuesday afternoon, and Strong, Thien, Lisa, My, Ammar and Jenny are staying back at Braybrook College, getting free tutoring and mentoring from the Dux students of the previous year, paid for by their school.

Braybrook College’s Year 12 Study Centre is like a glasshouse, with its floor to ceiling windows. Tables and chairs are arranged like small satellites in the centre of the room where students huddle over books. A sink and microwave sit in the corner. Teachers work away unperturbed at corrections or emails, almost as if they were in an open-office plan with the students. “How late does the study centre open?” I ask a teacher and she tells me “the last teacher to leave locks up.” The last teacher usually leaves after five, sometimes six, after which the kids scatter home to clean, cook meals for the family or work.

Braybrook College is down Ballarat road, a black ribbon of highway that unwinds all the way to reach that gold-rush country town that made Melbourne marvellous. Yet the section of Ballarat road that stretches across Braybrook and Maidstone is filled with auto-wreckers, dilapidated buildings like the caved-in shell of the Barkly Driving School, or enormous franchise shops that require a car. A concrete bridge that rises above four lanes of highway traffic allows students to cross from one end of the highway to the other. Like the rising lines of bleeps on a life-support machine, every once in a while you will see a place where people can rise above the traffic and stand still, at least for a little while.

These two spheres – the warm oasis of the school in contrast to the sordid and slightly sinister concrete world outside – remind me of the world from which I came. Not exotic Cambodia or China as my looks would have kindly old ladies on trams believing, but right here, in the industrial West. Braybrook itself is a place of great polarities everywhere you look: between the old families and the new, the blacks and the whites, the Asians and the Europeans, industrialisation and decline, between aspiration and despair.

My parents arrived in Australia in 1980, and a month later, I was born. “She was a clinger,” my mother proudly told people, “she clung through the bumpy plane ride to be born here.”  We moved to Braybrook in 1984 because it was an affordable suburb for refugees. Unfortunately, this was also at the same time the recession hit the hardest, when many local factories around the area closed down. Suddenly, when that terrible recession hit Braybrook, an entire way of life – that of the “old families”, the dignified working-class Australian – was uprooted. My friend, social worker Les Twentyman speaks of “the old families” with the same respect as some might accord old families of Toorak. His family had been in Braybrook since 1950, after his father returned from the Kokoda trail to start a small fruit shop. Les was fifteen when he left Braybrook College. “Hardly the most brilliant scholar Braybrook High School had ever seen,” he says with a chuckle, but back then you didn’t need to go to university to get a job. Les says that his school friends who were tradies are “now millionaires.”

Growing up in Braybrook, I didn’t notice that more often than not, the toilets in our primary school would be out-of-action. I didn’t see the tiles falling off the walls of our school until years later a parent declared in the local paper, “I wouldn’t even let pigs go there.” We didn’t realise that the reason the Western Bulldogs footballers came to our school to serve breakfast so often was because many kids didn’t get breakfast at home. This was because my parents drilled into me, from my earliest conscious memory, the importance of education. School back in Cambodia was sixty kids to a classroom reciting things, some sitting outside. School here was free breakfasts and free dentists.

At the same time I started primary school, recently-arrived, older migrant kids who had barely been educated during the wars were also in the same predicament as the local kids. Unable to finish school due to educational neglect and too unskilled to get work, both groups formed gangs. “All the new refugees who come into the country are put in certain areas which are already haemorrhaging with violence and crime,” Les explains. “They never place refugees in Camberwell, Baldwyn or Brighton. They always put them in Braybrook, St Albans or Sunshine, areas that already have massive youth unemployment into the second or third generation, and it breeds tension.”

“I remember my first visit to prison as a youth worker,” Les says. “The warden told me that kids from Braybrook are different to any other kids we get in here. He said, a kid from somewhere else walks in for the first time terrified and shocked. A kid from Braybrook would just look around and say, ‘Aw me old man was in here, he reckon he carved his name somewhere. Oh yeah, look, that’s his name right there!’”

Braybrook, with a population of around 8100, is still in the top fourth percentile of the most disadvantaged suburbs in Australia, according to the Socio-Economic Indexes for Areas (SEIFA). More than 10 per cent of Braybrook’s 15-24 year olds are not employed or studying, and 53.3 per cent of the residents do not have a university or TAFE qualification. Only 47 per cent go on to complete Year 12. Unemployment is 12.5 per cent compared to 5.5 per cent for Greater Melbourne. For those who can get jobs, the most common occupation is as a labourer, machinery operator or driver. Almost 20 per cent of Braybrook households are single parent households, while a fifth of its population rents social housing, and almost a fifth of households do not own a car. Only one in five households owns a computer.

Yet the students who stay back after school in Braybrook College are spending their time working towards their goals. Looking around the study hall, I count 17 students and two tutors. All but three are Asian. All the kids seated on Strong’s table are Vietnamese except Anmar, who is Sri Lankan. School is the place where these kids are most themselves. They have kindred friendships and discuss issues larger than the basic dynamics of running a household. On a whiteboard, one of the students has written down study notes for the rest of her friends. There is a giddy vitality here, a feeling of freedom, and a fair bit of giggling going on.

“This is a place for kids who can’t go home after school,” Lisa Le tells me when I ask about the study centre. The family home is assumed to be a safe place for a sixteen year old. But for these children, home may not be a place of relaxation interrupted by a few chores but a place of real work. I remember the rare times when I visited friends’ homes in my adolescence, the drawn blinds, the motes of fabric fibres floating through the air, the boxes of cut fabric-pieces against the walls and hallways, to be stitched into designer clothes for sub-minimum wages.

Lisa works nine hours a night at a wedding reception on Fridays and Saturdays. She got her job from a friend of her parents’. “My parents are concerned because weddings usually finish around 2am, and my parents finish at 1am so they can’t come and pick me up.” I ask Lisa what her parents do. “They are just the usual typical Asians who sew clothing and stuff.”

When we were growing up, my mother did similar work. For 12 hours a day she sat in the garage making jewellery with dangerous chemicals like potassium cyanide. I remember her warning us not to tell anyone what she did, because outworking was illegal and she was scared the government would come and take us away. Without an education, almost every area of my mother’s life seemed to carry about it an air of illegitimacy. Even when I was a law student and realised that the only people to blame for outworking were the employers who exploited illiterate migrants, my mother still felt the need for secrecy. I would walk down the streets in the city of Melbourne and see artisanal jewellery stores and realised that if only we had been better connected, my mother could have made fifty times more than she had for each hand-cast, hand-made and hand-polished ring or pendant. With her talent, she could have been paid more than a fair wage. But the only literature she could read were the Safeway and Bilo ads that came in our mail every Tuesday, and the only lawyers she would know were still only children, her own.

“Sometimes,” says Lisa Le, “people think that Asians just come here to get the government money – the youth allowance and the tax family benefits. They think that’s why we come here. To fraud the government.” These students understand the racism and resentment that still pervades Braybrook. “It’s not about your ethnicity, it’s about how hard you work”, according to Ammar, who came from Sri Lanka in his early teens, “generally Asians work harder because they’ve seen what tough life is like, so they know that they have to work hard to put that path behind them.”

In 2009, three Braybrook Secondary College students of Vietnamese-migrant background achieved the top one percent scores in their VCE. “I have my parents to thank for forcing me to study,” said one of the students, Phuong Nguyen, when interviewed by the Herald Sun. Immediately bitter comments poured in online about how Asian parents forced their kids into miserable automaton lives. I asked the students what they thought about “forced study.”

“It’s good for Asians,” says Thien who has the well-groomed looks of a Korean celebrity, “you know why? Cause then we Asians can be proud of ourselves for not being jobless idiots!”

“That’s true yeah?” affirms Strong, “We can have a job.”

***

Understanding how easy it is to be on the wrong side of luck without warning, I wanted to return to the places where I grew up. I wanted to be reminded again of how stoically kids in the Western suburbs go about their education.

In more affluent suburbs, there are discussions about education being a means for self-actualisation, a method of unleashing a child’s innate creativity, or a path that leads to finding one’s passion. But in Braybrook, it is mostly about getting a job. Some of the “old families” are now into their third generation of joblessness and illiteracy, a sad cycle that is hard to break. “You can’t just tell a student to pull up their socks when they don’t have any socks to pull up,” Les says. “In some households, kids have never seen a working person.”

Today our media speaks about wealth and poverty as if the two are mutually exclusive: one carries with it the weight of respect and dignity while the other neglect and self-blame. After all, if these “bogans” got their act together, stopped taking drugs and wasting government money on flat-screen tellies, then they could better themselves, or so the outraged media tells us.

The media also like to highlight “model minority” success stories. The left-leaning media use these stories to illustrate why we should take more refugees, while the right-leaning media use them didactically to show that a person of any ethnicity can pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

As a writer and lawyer with some modest success, I’ve been generously interviewed by both sides. While it may be true that my life validates the claim that the longer a person stays in education the better their prospects, I am also aware of this other parallel truth: that if I had been born five years earlier, I probably would have died in the Killing Fields. Born five months earlier, we might have been stuck in the refugee camp and only come to Australia when I was 15. Too late to begin school from scratch, I would have become an outworker or caused trouble on the streets. No one in our family had been to university.  My own dad finished in Year 10, and my mum only has a Grade 2 education because as the very first stage of ethnic cleansing in Cambodia, they closed down all the Chinese schools.

There was nothing to do when they closed down her school, mum told me, so she stole her brother’s motorbike and went for a ride. She smoked a cigarette behind the new marketplace. She loitered around the streets for a while, letting all the air out of the tyres of fancy cars. Then she found work in a factory because all the men were at war. She started work at 13, and has been working ever since.

When Les mentions kids defined as being “at risk” he tells me that “they are not at risk if they leave school and can move straight into work.” Work saved my mother from an aimless youth borne from poverty, and from being classified as a juvenile delinquent. Education changed my life – it catapulted me into another class and gave me a voice. Many Asian parents teach their kids that education is the most important thing to get you out of your station in life. That’s why you have children of fishmongers becoming doctors and lawyers. But this kind of “model minority” mentality leaves little sympathy for failures and the vicissitudes of bad luck.

Understanding how easy it is to be on the wrong side of luck without warning, I wanted to return to the places where I grew up. I wanted to be reminded again of how stoically kids in the Western suburbs go about their education, because having reached a certain degree of comfort and security in life, there is always the danger of looking back down your own path with self-righteous myopia.

So I started hanging around Richard Tregear, one of the longest serving youth workers in Australia. You literally cannot walk fifty metres down the street with Richard without at least three different people accosting him for help, or wanting to shake his hand, or offering to volunteer for him, or to telling him their life stories. Richard is like the Peter Garrett of Footscray, and even looks like a kindly version of the rock-musician-environmentalist-politician, with his denim jacket, bald head and easy laugh. In his company you start to notice the humanity of invisible people. The methamphetamine user in the doorframe of a boarded up shop waves without demanding anything. The African and Fijian Indian kids at the back of the car park come up to him and slap him on the back. Vietnamese mothers seated behind him at restaurants secretly pay for his lunch as a gesture of gratitude for the help he has given their sons.

Almost 40 years ago, Richard began as an outreach worker in Sunshine, loitering with intent at bus stops and speaking to kids. “I was meeting a lot young people who were not at school, not at home and not at work,” he says. “Surprisingly a lot of them wanted to go to school but couldn’t afford the books.”

Richard now runs a program called Back to School from his office above Little Saigon Market, at the corner of Byron and Nicholson streets in Footscray. Back to School is supported by Les’ organisation the 20th Man Fund. Back to School provides students with textbooks and stationary, assists in negotiating school fees and providing uniforms, and aims to help kids stay in school. Richard runs the program with youth worker May Hoa, and a steady stream of volunteers. This year, boys from Xavier College helped sort and shelve book donations, while generous publishers like Black Inc and Penguin sent boxes of school textbooks. Over the years, Back to School has directly assisted over 14,000 school students and over 300 University students.

A man’s mannequin hand with a large metal screw in it sits on Richard’s desk. The place used to be a clothing and homewares shop, and the previous owners left some random sundries behind. But this is a much larger space than the old office, which I visited last year, an upstairs room that also served as a doctor’s clinic for people recovering from drug dependency. Kids would come in with their booklists, while people – sometimes their parents – slumped catatonically on the couch after receiving their methadone treatment. The kids were unperturbed while ambulances wailed downstairs. The owners of the Little Saigon Market were afraid to give Richard the lease at first, because they thought that he might bring the “undesirables” along with him. He had to promise the owners that the premises would only be used to run the Back to School program.

***

For some kids, school, not home, is their vision of normality.

In an ideal world, education is meant to complement your personal development at home – the outlook, morals and sense of security your family is supposed to provide. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights declares that everyone has the right to education, and that education should be directed to the full development of the human personality.

Yet for some kids, school, not home, is their vision of normality.  “What we’ve found through our work is that a fifteen year-old unemployed lout sees fifteen year-old unemployed louts,” explains Richard, “A sixteen year-old teenager who smokes hydro every day sees sixteen year-old teenagers who smoke hydro. So there’s an arrested development happening if you’re not involved in school and work and sport. We want kids to sit in a class of children who are different to them, and to hear different points of view and to be exposed to forms of thought that they may not encounter in their peer group.”

“One of the things that really inspired us in the early days,” Richard tells me, “was that we met a kid who really wanted to go to school and we got him his books. When I went to deliver them, I discovered that he was living in the boot of a car in North Sunshine. He was getting out of the boot of the car every day and going to school from there. If he was living like this and still wanted to go to school, the least we could do was give him his books!”

Through Richard, I meet Nuwanie, a former asylum-seeker from Sri Lanka with an infectious laugh and warm eyes. She got involved through the Back to School program through Braybrook College and the Red Cross Victorian Youth Development Program. When the government prohibited her mother from working due to her asylum-status, she and Nuwanie had to move to Eltham over 40 kilometres away, where a kindly church group took them in. But Nuwanie still wanted to go back and complete her schooling in Braybrook College. “I’d started there at year 7,” she tells me, “so I needed to finish VCE there.” She caught the 6am train into the city, then another train, and then the bus to Braybrook. Travel took a total of five hours every day.

Back to School provided Nuwanie with all her textbooks and stationary so she could complete high school. Afterwards, she won a full scholarship to study legal studies at RMIT University. She was halfway through the course when the immigration department notified them that they had no more chances to stay. “It was a pretty long battle – two years of getting people to help us.” Through the generosity of the church who helped Nuwanie and her mother get a good lawyer and the support of Braybrook College, they finally got permanent residency. But the sad twist was that with permanent residency, Nuwanie could not go back to her legal studies course at RMIT because it was only for asylum seekers. She spent the next year working as a hotel cleaner and then one year working at Coles. Now she is studying a Bachelor of International Studies at Victoria University.

I also talk to LDP, who has known Richard for fifteen years. Back to School assisted him when he was a high school student referred by the Brotherhood of St Lawrence, and they helped him all through his university degree. “Back to School provided me with all my uni textbooks and stationary,” LDP says, “even through my Masters Degree in Construction and Property Management.” Now with his own small business engaged with small property development projects, LDP still calls Richard once a week or drops by his office. “These guys – Les, Richard – have supported me all the way. I would not be where I am without them.” Now LDP is aiming towards something different – medical school. He has recently taken the UMAT and GAMSAT, and is now waiting to “see if they will call me for an interview.” A lifelong learner who enjoys new challenges, his goal is to join Doctors without Borders.

I also speak to Tahlia, a vivacious 16 year-old student whose family is from the Cook Islands. Unlike most teenagers, she has the awareness to ask adults questions, an endearing quality. She asks me about my hobbies, my age, and what my 16th year was like. (“Not too good,” I admitted, “I had a nervous breakdown in my fourth term at school.” “Maybe that’s how you became a writer!” she suddenly exclaims with great insight.) Year 11 is also stressful for Tahlia but she tells me that when she was volunteering at Ozanam House, where they help the homeless, another volunteer told her that Year 12 was way easier than Year 11. “Yeah. So I felt better!”

Tahlia’s ambition is to study a Bachelor of Science with Honours at Melbourne University, and then “get into Melbourne Medicine or the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.” Tahlia tells me that ever since she was young she has always wanted to be a paediatrician: “I love children and want to help them.” Tahlia heard about Back to School when she did work experience with the 20th Man back in Year 10, and she and her sister have received textbooks and regular visits from Richard for two years. “He’s really wise,” Tahlia tells me, “He’s like Mahatma Gandhi but an Aussie version. He’s a philosopher too – whenever I ask him anything, he always has answers.”

***

People here are not simply “bogans”. People here also believe in self-betterment.

In Richard’s office, I help fill out book orders for three sisters whose parents are in jail. Richard had helped the girls set up their home internet, negotiated their school fees, sorted out their uniforms and arranged their new travel passes. Some of the girls’ textbooks and a graphic calculator have arrived, but their order is only half complete so I drive over to a store called “Academic Solutionz” in neighbouring Sunshine, to pick up the remainder of their books.

A note at the door of the bookshop declares that due to a recent spate of thefts, the books are no longer self-service. When I enter, I see exactly what this means: all the books are herded behind barriers made of the sort of seatbelt material you find at banks.

I chat with the shop owner, a dignified Cambodian gentleman who sighs sadly and tells me that he used to be “an important person.” Now he is guarding books with all his life. I hand over the referral form, and he goes behind his self-imposed barricade, to emerge with copies of the books I’d requested. “Why do people steal books here?” I ask.

The Cambodian man sighs again, and then chuckles. I understand that laugh, and take it to mean because this is Sunshine. This is the West. Those books are unwitting casualties of a war you will never see in any affluent areas of Melbourne. People here are not simply “bogans.” People here also believe in self-betterment, even if this is to be achieved through ill-gotten gains nicked from migrant men who own secondhand bookshops.

As I drive to visit the three sisters and deliver their books, I pass my former neighbourhood. The houses in Braybrook are now colossal, like double-tiered birthday cakes rising in front of factories, in between the commission homes with broken gates and three skeletal cars parked out the front. Through the tireless perseverance and assistance of people like Richard and Les, and the unexpected blessing of having “pushy” parents, what once was a welfare town is now a place that has transformed. Driving by, an outsider might look at these new houses and scoff about bogan “McMansions”; but to insiders, we only see the architectural embodiment of the power of hard work and education.

“In our Back to School program,” says Les, “there was a African-born kid named Ali who ended up in a high paying senior accounting job. Kids in the high-rise flats near where he lived thought he must have been a drug dealer because he drove a nice car. When he told them he was able to afford the car because he had a good education, they said that they wanted education too. So he set up his own school on Saturday mornings with 60 kids and 20 on a waiting list. He had four volunteer school teachers in maths and English.”

I speak with a young man who works for Les’ organisation, 21 year old Gum Mamur. Gum is articulate, charming and confident. He came to Australia from Sudan when he was 12. He did a year of primary school in Sunshine, where he was bullied for not being able to speak English properly, and for being one of only two black kids. Then he went straight into high school. During that time, Gum said he got into some trouble because he was more interested in getting some respect from the other kids than he was in his books. He joined the 20th Man’s Redskins Basketball Team, where he met his current boss, youth worker Jim Markovski; and received books from the Back to School Program. “Every start of the year, I give back my old books and pick up the new ones,” he says. “It was one less stress I didn’t have to worry about. I ended up finishing high school, but I couldn’t have done it without Back to School.”

Gum now does many things with the 20th Man Fund: he coaches basketball, helps with the Leadership Program, acts as their photographer and assists as a general handyman to families in need. Gum has particular empathy in this area as he grew up in a single-mother household: “If you need muscles, I can help you out.”

Last year, Gum travelled with Les and Jim to New York to attend the American Sociology Association conference. He learned how family, neighbourhood and government affect youth. One thing he says all young people have in common is that “no matter where they come from in the world, they’re all just kids at the end of the day.” He is passionate about helping young people, like the kid he once was, to stay out of trouble. He quotes Nelson Mandela: “Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.”

He pauses. “Now that I’m 21, I look back and think that I’ve done pretty damn well for myself.  I wasn’t given the right set of cards when I was born – born in Africa, you have to travel through camps a lot, move around, then come here. But I’ve made the most of my chances and been exposed to a lot of things.”

Like that boy in the car boot, maybe we’re all born inside some kind of psychological cocoon, the thickness of which is as varied and diverse as people’s hair and skin colour. Perhaps it is this which we mistake for innocence in children. For some kids, that cocoon is popped far too early in life, while others continue to be insulated inside it for far too long. The children without the cocoon are the ones most in need of love, protection and security, but often people steer away from them because they seem unsettled and dangerous.

This is where Les, Richard and Jim come in, an antidote to self-blame for a lot of young adults. These men are also strong male role models. They offer a vision of what it means to grow into responsible, effective and compassionate adulthood. They offer kids a sense of acceptance because they do not judge what a child or teenager cannot control.

But for kids lucky enough to feel some sort of agency in their lives, there is no malingering ennui. At the Braybrook College Year 12 Study Centre, the students joke around, heat up instant noodles in the microwave, and study just fine without laptops.

“Asian pride,” Thien tells me.

“Asian Pride, Miss,” repeats Strong.

“Why don’t they learn from us?” asks Ammar earnestly.

As I leave the school that Les Twentyman once dropped out of at the age of 15, I think that maybe it isn’t Asian pride, or any sort of racial pride that helps these kids rise above their circumstances. It’s just that someone in their lives has instilled in them the possibility of hope. It’s about a school that cares enough for its students to provide support and a study sanctuary.

It’s about Strong’s mother repeating a story about his exceptional beginning to life and Lisa and her parents working until 1am in the morning so they’re not seen as dole-bludgers. It’s about petite Nuwanie lifting heavy king-sized hotel mattresses while waiting to begin studies again, and LDP hoping to begin six years of a medical degree in his late twenties. It’s about young Gum travelling to the States with his mentors, Jim and Les, to learn about “at risk” kids. It’s about that tenacious boy in the car boot all those years ago who inspired Richard and Les to dedicate their lives to helping the kids that society deemed too feral or hopeless.

Finally it’s also about 16 year-old Tahlia – assisted by Back to School because her loving family can’t afford her textbooks – telling me: “It’s okay to be a glowstick. Sometimes you’ve got to break to shine.”

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