I had a rollicking great time with the talented young writers who attended the Youth Literature Days at the Fremantle Children’s Lit Centre this week. They asked very astute questions, and produced some absolutely cracking pieces of writing (some of the best were heart-wrenchingly sad, but hell, there’s nothing wrong with that. Writing shouldn’t be insipid: give me pain over boredom, any day!)
But, Lesley Reece did very kindly point out to me that in my expository bit (why/how I became a writer and all that) I may have been a little less than kind to the ghetto suburb in which I grew up. I think this was the origin of the criticism I got from the teacher who didn’t like one of my Melbourne Writers Festival talks. (I have to say, I do tend to slag the old place generally, not only in public. Something I need to work on, perhaps). So, I’d like to take the opportunity to straighten the record a bit, and maybe offer some hope to kids who suffer as I used to.
1) I still live in a bogan suburb. Not the same one I grew up in, but a bogan suburb nevertheless, complete with public housing, occasional car chases, vicious roaming dogs and the odd siege or two. (A light plane also flew into a carport a few streets away once, but that’s another story). I know this probably seems the height of hypocrisy, given the way I talk about my suburb of origin.
But there is a difference. Now, I live here by choice. And, notwithstanding the above, there are benefits to living in bogan suburbs. People are friendly (and not all bogans. I know. The irony). I can go to the shops in my tracky daks, and nobody gives a bugger. Nobody looks down their nose at you if you don’t have the latest car or don’t send your child to an expensive school. There’s liberation in that.
I also don’t go to school here. Which brings me to:
2) It is a sad fact that public schools are often battlegrounds in suburbs like the one I grew up in. Kids bring the damage and dysfunction from home to school (and please don’t think for a minute that I don’t think middle-class families don’t have their fair share of d&d, but it does manifest in different ways). There are teachers and principals who work hard in those schools, but the fact is, if you’re academically inclined and not in an academic program at a tough public school, you will not be in an optimal learning environment, or encouraged the way you would in a private school (I know. I’ve been in both types of schools and seen the difference). Which is not to say kids from tough public schools can’t do well, only that it’s harder. A quick glance at the TEE results, and a survey of who ends up in medicine and law, confirms that. (Yes, yes, I know that academic achievement is not the be-all and end-all. But you get my point).
3) However, to qualify the above, I’m also aware of the good things my school did for me. Just last night I saw the old drama teacher, now the dean of arts at a fabulous public school, and was reminded of the nourishing theatre program we had, both inside the school and outside through the Youth Theatre Company. We had a creative arts camp in Year 10 that is still the stuff of legend (not always, it has to be said, for the arts-related activities!). And I was sent on a Rotary youth leadership camp, through which I met some interesting people. So there are opportunities even in the roughest of rough schools. (And the kids at the Youth Lit days were also taking advantage of those opportunities.) It’s just that for me, the combination of other, more negative circumstances, at home and at school, got the upper hand.
So, when I bag the old school and the old suburb, I am aware of the complex feelings the place/s arouse. Sure, the dominant one is sometimes bitterness (and I’m not Robinson Crusoe with that, as my former classmates will attest). And it took me years to un-learn the behaviour that I picked up there, and, later, to get rid of the chip on my shoulder. But maybe if I had gone to a comfortable middle-class school, supported by comfortable middle-class parents, my life would have been boring. It has been anything but.
And maybe, just maybe, I have the old suburb to thank for that.