I was in year nine when the girl sitting across from me during mathematics matter of factly told me she was living with her twenty nine year old boyfriend. She’d left home after her father raped her. She was 14. A few weeks later she disappeared from the school. Her name was called out for a few more weeks of attendance, and then that too stopped.
I don’t know what happened to her, whether she moved away or simply disappeared. I can’t even remember her name, although I can remember how intense her eyes were as I listened to her talk about how family was fucked and you can’t trust anyone.
She was not an unusual case.
I went to a disadvantaged school, in a disadvantaged area. In our uniforms, we were a rabble, often loud, with plenty of swearing. There were teen pregnancies and drama. When someone finally got around to teaching a sex ed class, two thirds of the class were already sexually active and had a better idea of how to get a condom on in the dark than the poor teacher showing us on a banana.
The classes were rowdy, full of angry teenagers and angry hormones. I took my work home each night to complete it, rather than fighting with the chaos, the noise. We laughed and teased and made the support teachers cry.
It wasn’t a good educational environment. Between the teenagers drinking and doing drugs, the raped and angry girls, the couch surfers and the foster kids, our teachers did the best they could, but there wasn’t a lot of privilege to go around.
On paper, I am exactly like my peers. I dropped out of college to get an apprenticeship, which quickly fell through under the pressure of work AWAs and subtle sexual harassment. I got pregnant at 17, was diagnosed with a degenerative disability at 20, ended up on welfare. I’m second generation welfare. At 26, I have three children. On paper, this is who I am. Teenage mother, dole bludging scum, college dropout.
But I am more than the sum of my disadvantage. The man I fell pregnant to, we love each other. We were married after our second child was born. I bought my house at 19. I freelance. I own a small business. I work around my disability.
It isn’t that easy for everyone.
At the end of the day, when I was a teenager, I had family who loved me. I had a warm safe place to go if I needed them, with plenty of food. People cared about my survival, about my school results, about my successes.
But then, I moved out of home when I was fifteen. I made bad choices, fixed them, made bad choices again. I lived in share houses, renting bedrooms from other people on welfare, all of us trying to eke out a living. I ended up in shitty situations over and over again before I met my partner (now husband).
I don’t know what the rate of teen pregnancy ended up being in my year 10 class, but I’d wager it was high. A lot of the girls I went to school with are mothers now, some single, some happily partnered. Some of us clawed our way upwards, some of us didn’t.
The things that separate the people who succeed and the people who don’t are often entirely insurmountable, an accumulation of things, one atop another. This person stayed in a stable home. That person’s mother walked out. This one here, that one there, a giant chess board shuffling us all around, grist for the mill.
I credit a lot of my successes to simply moving out of the suburb I was staying in, and the fact my partner had his drivers license. His driving opened up options for us which would never have been there. We moved into a tiny rental in a better suburb. We bought a house rurally. We moved away from the daily dramas, removing ourselves from the cycle of poverty.
Privilege is most often, at its core, good luck. The child who is lucky enough to be born to affluent parents in an affluent suburb has better chances than the child who is born into poverty and parents who are struggling to make ends meet.
My children are privileged now, even though we continue to fight the tyranny of distance when it comes to education. When you live rurally, your options for schooling are already limited. I’m hoping that having intelligent parents who love them will go a ways towards bridging the gap. But I also know that because of where we live, they won’t get the same quality of education as a child living in the centre of Hobart, with parents wealthy enough to send them to private school.
The schooling system here in Tasmania is flawed. When it is easier to drop out of year 11, you know you have a problem. Some days there would be a two hour wait for the bus to take you home. There aren’t enough colleges for rural students. Housing is an issue. Getting to college if you aren’t lucky enough to live within the suburbs is hard work. Finding the energy to attend, day in, day out, despite poverty and no support system.
But the biggest problem lies with trying to pretend disadvantage faced by rural and low socioeconomic students doesn’t exist.
There is a problem if half of your students are going to school hungry, or unable to buy lunch. If there’s no support at home. If there’s no money for good food so you’re eating two minute noodles again because at least they’re cheap.
You can’t treat educational problems in a vacuum. There are societal problems everywhere, impacting on kids ability to engage and learn.
And if a good percentage of your teenagers see college or university as a waste of time because there’s no work anyway, well. What do you think is going to happen?
Disadvantage is a multifaceted thing, impacting on every part of life.
Shame won’t fix it. Privileged people refusing to listen won’t fix it.
There isn’t an easy answer to any of these issues, but we can’t pretend they don’t exist anymore.
We can’t keep refusing to see the poor people under our feet in the hope they will just go away.
And we can’t pretend that this issue is a simple one with children who don’t want to learn on one side, and children who do on the other.