‘My school hasn’t been the same since Cronulla,’ said the Principal of a public high school in a southwestern suburb of Sydney this week, almost nine months since the infamous riots in January.
You have to feel sorry for Cronulla it’s no longer a pleasant seaside suburb in Sydney’s south; now it’s a riot.
You also have to feel alarmed that the ugly ethnic tensions that surfaced on that infamous, alcohol-fuelled day are still rippling outwards.
This ripple effect has not been helped by the often tacit approval of at least some of the motives behind the riot by some of the most prominent citizens, politicians, journalists and commentators in the country. Indeed, in some circles, it seems to have become acceptable to believe that it is not possible for people of different ethnicities, religions and cultures to live happily and peacefully together. And the ‘White flight’ in many of our suburban high schools, particularly in those suburbs with high numbers of non-Anglo families, seems to be proof of this.
I want to state unequivocally that I think such a pessimistic view of human nature is wrong and dangerous. I suspect this pessimistic view is most often peddled by those who had little commitment to multiculturalism in the first place and, so, are quietly pleased to have their prejudices ‘confirmed.’ Like anything worthwhile, the conscious acceptance of people who seem different is not easy. But the fact that it takes time and patience, and that we yes, all of us often stumble and fall in our efforts to accept and understand others, doesn’t mean it isn’t worth doing.
Indeed, while there were many young people involved in the original ugly riot, another group of young people recently set an example of how our leaders might have behaved, if only they’d had the courage.
Merrylands High School in Sydney’s west looks like an absolutely typical suburban public high school. It is by no means salubrious it’s even a little scruffy but it is not an unattractive place, and is adequate to its purpose. It has 800 students from 54 different ethnic groups a good enough reason in today’s Australia for most White folks to avoid it like the plague (all in the name of good parenting, of course).
Thanks to Scratch
The school was in the news some years ago, when a self-harming incident involving a student was wrongly reported to the media as a school ‘massacre.’ The ensuing media frenzy (including news helicopters buzzing overhead all day and reporters baying along the entire school perimeter) bruised the school and understandably left it wary of media exposure.
When school resumed after summer holidays at the beginning of this year, post-Cronulla, its Principal Lila Mularczyk noticed a marked increase in tension among her students. Within days, a fight broke out between two of them, one from a Tongan and the other from a Middle Eastern background. At first, nothing much was thought of it. As one student put it to me, ‘We thought it was just two fools.’
Then the effects of this fight began to snowball.
Students within the school, and people outside it both adult and adolescent began to take sides according to ethnicity, something that had never happened before. As happened in the Cronulla riots, mobile phone calls were made recruiting allies. Kids who were not students began turning up at the school and the police had to be alerted. The strife went on for days.
The Principal watched her contented school community crumble before her eyes. She and her staff attempted to calm things down, they redoubled their already well established anti-racist, anti-violence programs, parents volunteered to come in to the school to do mediation and extra playground duty, and an ex-student who was training to be a religious minister turned up one day to see what he could do to help. But nothing worked.
Tensions continued to grow, students were set upon outside the school, rumours were flying, and Middle Eastern students and Tongan students the two largest ethnic groups in the school were at daggers drawn.
Then two Year 12 students who were best mates Seff, a Lebanese-Australian and Siaosi, a Tongan-Australian decided that enough was enough. As Seff put it, ‘Merrylands High is our second family, so why do we have trouble here?’ They gathered a group of students from opposite sides together: three Tongans, three Lebanese and one Turkish boy. Then they went to see the Principal. They asked her to call two assemblies, one for the junior school and one for the senior. And they had one condition they requested that no teachers be present.
Principal Mularczyk was anxious. But despite her serious misgivings she was concerned that the students’ ambitious plan might not work she gave the students permission. And this time she had one proviso she asked that the school’s anti-racism officer be permitted to sit at the back. The boys agreed, and Seff and Siosa announced the assemblies to the school community with the words, ‘We’re gonna talk about the troubles.’
Every student at the school attended.
At the senior assembly, Seff and Siaosi talked about their close friendship and how much it mattered to them. Then they asked the original two combatants (who were also Year 12 students) to talk about how the trouble began, and the reasons behind the original fight. The two boys aired their grievances, and agreed to shake hands.
Seff and Siaosi noticed that all the students were sitting in ethnically divided groups, so they asked the entire room to get up, move around, and mix. Then they asked all the students, including the two who had previously been sworn enemies, to hug one another. Every student complied.
They then talked about racism directly. ‘We’re all in Australia,’ they said, ‘Australia is a peaceful country.’ By this time, a casual teacher who had not realised that no staff were to be present and found herself an accidental witness, was in tears.
After the assembly, things settled down. The atmosphere at the school returned to normal and students and staff alike got on with teaching and learning. But something fundamental had changed, and for the better.
Merrylands High, because of its rich mix of ethnic backgrounds has always made much of International Peace Day. At this year’s celebrations, Seff and other Lebanese-Australian students were doing a Lebanese traditional dance when Siaosi arrived in Tongan national dress and joined in. (Later in the day, the two boys dressed up as Shannon Noll and brought the house down.)
Over the last three terms, students at Merrylands High have made an anti-racist film and a group of refugee students have developed workshops, exploring their own experiences. One rather jaded science teacher heard their stories at the workshop, and it moved him to share his own refugee story for the very first time.
Despite their fear of the media, the story of this remarkable school has got around. Recently a private school from a distant suburb with a 100 per cent Anglo Saxon student body came to visit, so their in my view more disadvantaged students could at least observe the richness that can be achieved when human beings from different backgrounds make the effort to accept and understand one another.
But to return to that remarkable assembly, as the adults present wiped away their tears, Seff closed the senior assembly with the following words: ‘If society could learn from how we deal wi
th our problems and treat each other and love each other the way we do, then maybe Australia could learn something from us’.
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