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Day 19: Return To Norwood

Norwood Secondary College sits amongst acres of residential housing along Mullum Mullum Road, not far from the creek of the same name. This is Ringwood, just up the road from the giant Eastland shopping complex, and the centre of the electorate of Deakin, the Melbourne electorate held by the slender margin of 1.4% by the Labor Party’s Mike Symon.

It’s familiar territory for me. I taught here over twenty years ago. Returning today, I wonder whether the oval still floods when it rains. I note the familiar buildings, some now with assorted improvements and extensions. Students at recess mingle in groups, some sitting on the concrete outside the library, others leaning against fences and buildings. The atmosphere is calm and orderly. Norwood was always a “good school”.

A small number of former colleagues still work here. Mick Wilson, a 35-year veteran of the school, jokes that’s he found my unwashed coffee mug in the cupboard above the staffroom sink. Rosemary Homersham greets me a kiss. I scan the staff photo for familiar faces and then chat to a young English teacher who would have been in kindergarten when I was last here.

I’m feeling a touch nostalgic but there are students to meet. The Senior School head, Mark Fuller, escorts me to a conference room where 3 girls and 7 boys, all in Year 12, are gathered.

They tell me the school no longer offers Politics or Economics but some of them are doing Business Management and Legal Studies. They find politics interesting but also confusing. What are you to think, Kate says, when one side says one thing and the other side says something else. How are we to know, at our age?

The Climate Change Minister, Penny Wong, visited the school recently. “It was a photo opportunity,” one of the boys says. She and Symon came and were photographed with a small hand-picked group of kids from years 7-12. She didn’t address the students. They are very cynical about the purpose of the event.

Later, as we discuss a range of issues, I find that there is little support amongst this group for action on climate change. Only the two girls seem motivated by the issue. Kate says climate change will affect her vote on August 21. She’s voting Greens.

But the boys seem unconcerned about the climate issue. It’s there but it’s not a vital issue, one says. Trent dismisses the “carbon tax bullshit” and says people don’t want to pay any more tax. The climate has always changed, another says. Sean is more concerned about debt. He also wants there to be less tax. He criticises the insulation scheme and the mining tax.

There is a lengthy discussion of population, immigration and asylum seekers. Justin, a vice-captain of the school, the only student in the room wearing blazer and tie, says he’s concerned about border protection and asylum seekers not using the “proper channels”. Sam says Australia can’t support a larger population. Tanya is worried about jobs being lost.

This prompts Eve to give an impassioned speech about asylum seekers. She’s researched the issue for a school assignment and says she has a problem with the “stop the boats” rhetoric. She talks of the importance of helping people who are fleeing persecution. With the probable exception of Kate, she seems on her own on this one.

This part of Ringwood is quintessential suburban middle-class Melbourne. In recent years, it would be described as “aspirational”. These young men and women certainly aspire to economic success. It was the same when I worked here in the 1980s, before any of them were born.

Their parents are in real estate, engineering, IT, financial services, insurance and the like. One has a parent who’s a gardener, another a sports masseur, there’s a police analyst, a company director, an integration aide, a market researcher, an IT consultant.

From their discussion, there seems little to comfort a Labor Party looking to retain its hold on Deakin on August 21. Sean will be voting – “probably for Abbott” – and says the Greens will definitely be last on his ballot paper. He says his father is always “on Gillard’s case”.

Luke is also “probably Liberal”, as is Trent, although Trent is uncertain. He thinks some people will vote for Abbott and Gillard along gender lines. He doesn’t think much of either side. At the outset of our discussion, he declares that he may vote for the Greens to make a point but his views don’t seem much in accord with the Greens.

Three of the boys – Pat, Sam and Daniel – are not as vocal as the others and I don’t get a clear idea of where they stand. But Daniel makes a perceptive observation that it’s not specific issues that will determine how young people vote. They are just as likely to be influenced by general attitudes and approaches to life. In his case, “because I’m a Christian”, he’s not attracted to Gillard. Daniel’s church is the Assembly of God. Gillard was the first PM not to swear an oath on the Bible, he says.

It is the observations these Year 12 students make about Gillard, Rudd and Abbott that are most revealing. Gillard is variously described as “full of herself”, “pompous” and “two-faced”. Some of them think she is “over-confident”. Eve again offers a contrary view, describing Gillard as “just a face” put forward by the party.

They tell me they were attending their Year 12 formal on the evening of June 23 when the move against Rudd began. Most of them woke to news of Gillard’s ascension the next day. It was a surprise and they seem puzzled as to why it happened.

Wherever I go, there is this nagging doubt about Gillard’s toppling of Rudd. Why did it happen? What does it mean? Who is this woman?

“I thought Rudd was okay,” one of them says, citing Rudd’s friendliness and handling of the financial crisis. Sean, however, thought Rudd was “fake” and “arrogant”. Justin mentions the Afghanistan hairdryer incident and says Rudd was poll-driven. They don’t think much of the Rudd appearances on Rove.

Abbott’s name evokes a range of views. Tanya thinks he’s “loud”. Clarifying, she says Abbott seems to talk about big issues, whereas Gillard concentrates on small things.

Most of them think Abbott is “more real” than Gillard. Kate worries that he “opposes” everything. Justin speaks approvingly of Abbott’s “action plan”. A couple of them describe the Opposition Leader as “genuine”.

Trent and Sean make acute observations about the two leaders. Trent thinks Abbott may be “too open” – someone else suggests he’s too “out there” – and needs to rein in his Catholicism. Then he says that he’s concerned Abbott may one day say or do something really stupid or outrageous. Searching for an illustrative example, he jokingly suggests legislation to imprison under-18s for illegal drinking.

Wherever I go, there is always this concern about Abbott, a sense of risk, of excess, of authoritarianism.

Then Sean talks about Gillard and the ALP. Everything they do, he says, seems “planned” and “perfect”. He senses excessive management of people and events, a manipulation of perceptions. The “moving forward” slogan has registered with these students but they’re not impressed with it. “How?” one asks.

Our time is up. I haven’t had the chance to really establish how much these young people know or how well informed they are. To be sure, they’re conservative but it’s obvious they are aware, alert and receptive to ideas. There’s a thirst to be taken seriously.

In some ways they defy popular conceptions. They all say they look at newspapers, although some only read the sports section. They say they watch television news. They’re not impressed with the media’s portrayal of young people. The coverage of Schoolies Week is cited as sensationalist reporting of minor incidents.

All of them use Facebook. Only two of them have Twitter accounts and Eve is the only active tweeter. They don’t think they’ve been properly instructed on how to use computers. Their knowledge of technology is assumed, they tell me.

It’s been a thoroughly enjoyable encounter and I’m reminded of that deep sense of loss I carry now after many years in the classroom.

Before I leave, I look for some of the other staff from my days here. Mick Wilson is teaching a class somewhere. Rosemary is nowhere to be seen. Ron Chatton, now the Careers Coordinator, chats briefly before scurrying off to take an extra. I wonder what Pam and Ted and Jill and Paul are up to. People like these are the mainstay of public education. They work for decades in schools like this, absorbing the changing whims and policies of their political masters but rarely receiving the credit they deserve for just getting on with the job.

When I spoke to the Liberal and Labor candidates for Deakin last week, they both told me Norwood was closing as part of an amalgamation with nearby Parkwood Secondary College.

Both of them were wrong. The amalgamation has been off for some time. Norwood lives.

This article first appeared on The Drum.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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