When We Grow Up


Nyangatjatjara College, Yulara Campus, sits high on a hill in a wide red open space. Modern buildings nestle on a spiky spinifex carpet. The basketball court, red as the dust it is levelled upon, stretches between magnificent views of Uluru at one end and Kata Tjuta at the other.

The school is new and clean, barely touched by the usual erosion of daily students. A cleverly designed ceiling discreetly hides a bank of air conditioners. Various striped lounge chairs, reincarnated from some previous resort life, line up behind scrubbed desks. Kindergarten posters with "s" words and "ch" words hang alongside an animal alphabet. Jars of coloured pencils and erasers line the shelves. Photos of past students and a graphic image of some smoke-destroyed lungs are the only indicators that these are high school classrooms.

A copy of the classroom rules in English ("Don’t walk out of class", "Try your best") is stuck up next to the door. Half coloured patterns and a few incomplete worksheets litter the floor, suggesting recent activity in the otherwise empty room. Just five minutes earlier, four students staged a walk-out and can now be found sitting outside in the sun. We leave them be, having learned over the last few weeks that they’ll come back eventually.

We (two teachers and three volunteer tutors) laugh at the ridiculous situation. There are five of us and only four students, yet we still can’t keep them in class. It feels as though we are personal minders to a group of celebrities who do what they want, when they want. Still, it’s a good day – at least we have students, even if they are sitting 100 metres away drawing stories in the red dust with a piece of wire.

After a while, the girls do wander back into class. We confiscate the story wires at the door. A few too many "wire in the eye" threats made this a new rule. With the promise of computer time, we resume the half-finished work sheets.

Today’s lesson is "b" words. It’s a difficult sound for Pitjantjatjara speakers. "Is that b for Tommy?" asks one teenager; "No, the other b," answers a teacher. In half an hour, a long list of b words has been transferred to a poster and the computers have been switched on. The girls trawl through digital photos and play solitaire.

Despite the presence of a large, formidable looking server, the classrooms are not connected to the web. The girls stay inside the classroom for the rest of the session, and kick up a fuss when we send them out for lunch time. After lunch, they will run away, fall asleep, or maybe if we are lucky, participate in class. The attitude of the students is fairly typical, in a teenage kind of way.

At the end of each day, we place bets on how many students will be there tomorrow. Hoping, really, for any number – because it’s hard being a volunteer tutor at an empty school.

Students at the college are collected each Sunday from the remote Northern Territory communities of Docker River and Imanpa. Ideally, the collected girls would then board at school for a few weeks, before being driven home for a weekend visit. Students from nearby community Mutitjulu are collected on a daily basis. A Docker River or Imanpa pick-up generally involves staff members driving out to the community, cruising around town, stopping outside houses to ask if anyone wants to come into school this week.

Parents and grandparents will often yell at the girls to get to school, but ultimately each girl decides for herself, then and there, often dependent on how tired she is and what she got up to the night before. It is not uncommon for the Troopie to be empty one minute, full of 10 girls the next, and then just as quickly empty again.

Pick-up days are like a raffle, a game primarily of luck. No rhyme or reason could ever determine why one week we would have 10 girls and the next week, none. A funeral in the community would guarantee prolonged absence, but even then we might be surprised by a truckload of girls. Equally as random are the daily pick-ups from Mutitjulu.

Over the course of 10 weeks, the school saw over 30 individual attendees, never all at once, and most not for more than a few separate days. For a teacher, consistency is the golden rule. Over time, you are able to develop a relationship with students, and with time learning can be built upon. The way in which we learn – through constant teaching, repetition and practice – is compromised once consistency is removed.

There has been a lot of talk about the role of parental responsibility in school attendance, and while methods which get these kids to school regularly are worthwhile, but at a fundamental level, how can we convince these teenagers (and their families) of the merits of education when we never had to be convinced ourselves?

This awareness of the importance of education is something I have always taken for granted. As a five-year-old wearing a doll-sized blue-checked uniform and shiny black Clarks, I bawled beside the bubblers on my first day of school. I had no doubt known for months that big school was approaching, and I had dressed that morning with a mixture of excitement and pride. My sisters had gone to school before me, and in family albums I had come across pictures of my parents as school children. A photograph of my mother in her Bachelors gown, clutching her degree, adorned my grandmother’s mantle piece. Already, at age five, I had many answers to the constant question of "what do you want to be when you grow up?".

I started my schooling subconsciously. My family had, for generations before me, enjoyed some kind of formal education. It was never a choice. But I wonder, without that innate knowledge that school is where you go when you turn five, would I have understood the need for it? Without seeing the benefits of education in my hardworking parents and my high school-aged sisters, would I have so easily embraced the daily routine of school?

If my family had lived for thousands of years without really needing to read and write; if I had grown up always hearing stories told through words and pictures; if no one in my family had ever held a job and my own future employment options were limited to one of only a few jobs in the community; or if a job meant leaving my family and moving far away – perhaps then, school wouldn’t seem so important after all.

I asked the girls what they wanted to be when they grew up. We talked about looking after the little kids and teaching them the right ways. It was heartening to notice the subtle yet genuine interest these teenage students showed in the wellbeing of future generations. This is where hope lies and shows how important it is to keep trying to find that starting line towards understanding the value of education.

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