I’m standing in a classroom where students work industriously on the simple present tense. In this moment time appears to freeze and I’m both present and distant, caught in a wave of emotions, in a montage of media images, in a swirling discourse of policy and rhetoric.
I sit down at a table with two girls and begin chatting. ‘How long have you been here?’ I ask. ‘I was on a boat for 83 days,’ one begins, going on to tell me that she has been in the camps for 4 months, for the girl next to her it’s three months, for the boy behind me it’s seven months, but as he says ‘we might get our visa in the next 2-3 days so we can be transferred. If not, we’ll wait 2-3 days more.’ He is quietly spoken and I wonder how long he has been holding out hope that the 2-3 day period will occur. Is this something he’s been talking about for 7 months now? In this room, right now, is the very human face of the asylum seeker debate that is constructed in vastly different ways in our media and in government policy. These are children, children on the cusp of adolescence, young people who are caught between worlds and as I look and talk with them I can feel my heart beginning to splinter into small pieces.
Teenagers, adolescents, young people, whichever term you use, they are people who have seen and experienced things many of us can barely imagine, and now they sit before me in a room learning the present simple tense of English and sharing their stories.The girls tell me that they catch a bus each morning and afternoon, one and a half hours each way to get to this school where they study in an asylum seeker unit housed within a mainstream Northern Territory middle school. There are 150 young people enrolled, who come to school each day, study hard and then return to the camps each night.
They return to the camps each night.
They return to the camps each night.
It is this that begins to bring me undone when I think about what I am seeing and hearing. One tells another teacher here that the camps are good, so much better than home and this leaves us all shaking our heads in the staff room later on. It is this expression though – ‘the camps’. There is so much historical knowledge and context embedded in this phrase, I think of ‘the camps’ that have gone before us in history, and I begin to wonder what kinds of horrors we might be fostering, ignoring, or implicitly supporting by our lack of action, by our willingness to stand by and do nothing about the humanitarian needs in our world.
The teachers focus on English skills, looking at the conjunction of verbs and there is much explicit language teaching and scaffolding of grammatical concepts. One boy has a picture of a body where he has marked in numbers that correspond to all the English words for the parts of the body and next to that the words of his mother tongue. He pronounces them for me, and I roll the words on my tongue and in my brain. The experience hangs over me. As I lay in bed now typing I’m scratching out words and thinking of his patient face as I tried to wind my tongue around syllables and structures so different to my own.
We have come here to Darwin for a conference and taken the chance to visit a school and what we have seen today has caused us all to stop and reflect on what it is we are doing as educators and what it is we are doing as people. The school has 350 students, with 40% of those being Indigenous students. Add to that 150 asylum seekers and you begin to see the complexity of the work that takes place here. The principal is an inspiring woman, new to the job and one month in, she has a passion and dedication to bringing about change, a change focused on improving the lives of young people and enabling them to celebrate success. There is much talk about curriculum frameworks, about government policy, about funding, and most importantly about students and what the school is doing for them. Days like today become a stark reminder of how privileged most of us are, and of how easy it is to fall into an insular life where we complain about the most minor of issues and worries.
Talking to students from the camps, I feel torn by multiple emotions. Part of me feels like a voyeur, peering through a lens at a life so vastly foreign to mine. I feel like an intruder, and one so naive as to the experiences these young people carry on their souls. Another part of me longs to hear more of their story, to record it, share it and make us all reflect for a moment on what it is that we expect from the world in which we live. So many Australians might easily say that these people are not from ‘our’ country and hence, are not our responsibility, and yet in a global world we are not able to delineate so easily or to absolve ourselves from responsibilities to our fellow humans. Perhaps it is the fact that under both Labor and Liberal governments we gave been progressively told that no children will live in detention, and yet, here we are looking at young people living in detention camps and coming out by bus each day to see a glimpse of a life that is tantalisingly close and yet still so far away.
For the Indigenous young people at this school, life is just as complex and the challenges just as great. The Clontarf academy operates in the school, hooking young boys in and providing them with a safe space to be while at school. A version for the girls, Gems, is in operation and is beginning to see results and positive outcomes. The spectre of funding cuts looms ever present as staff talk about finding ways to show evidence that these programs are making a difference – something that is needed in a system ruled by accountability, outcomes and benchmarks. Part of me wonders when we got it so horribly wrong, when did we drift so far from the shores of being able to listen to what is working for kids and go to this system focused on bureaucratic needs and statistics?
All three of us have been touched by the experience of today, and Rohan, Nam & I have different life histories that mean we all respond and process what we have seen in different ways. Despite the differences of our backgrounds, each of us comes together looking for ways that we can take what we have seen and come up with ways to expand our teaching and learning community beyond the walls of the school we work in. I wonder how many other people have toured this school and how they might have been changed by what they saw here. For each of us, the challenge is to walk away from this experience and towards something that enables us to connect our teachers, our classrooms and our students so that our worlds and lives might intersect. How can we stoke the flickers of hope into a flame?
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