As another round of students in Australia begins their Higher School Certificate, the Sydney Morning Herald tells a story that is close to my heart – of young women who are pregnant and/or have had children, who are also taking these exams. They are at a school in Newcastle.
I’m reminded of my own experience. It’s one I should share. The first time I did the HSC, I really left everything until the last minute. I got a decent enough score, but not enough to really get me into a course I actually wanted to do. I had selected my possible university choices appropriately, and was offered a position in my first choice – but the working world called more loudly than university, so I accepted and deferred – and didn’t end up taking the position that wasn’t really where my heart desired anyway.
A few years later, I thought I might reignite that flame. So I applied t0 a university – and got knocked back. Baby, that kind of knocked me for six. I had an okay result, but now I was not an HSC direct entry candidate for university, there were minimal spaces for me to apply to. I was – gasp – an “adult student.”
So I went back to school. TAFE, actually. I’d already been to TAFE for night school to do my Certificate in Small Business Management while working my job as a sub-editor at Computer Publications. When I was on deadline, I’d be at work from 9am, go to TAFE from 6pm-9pm, and then go back to work until after midnight. My mum always said I liked to do things the hard way. I guess she was right.
So, I went back to TAFE to do the adult version of the HSC (you took less units, but did the same exams for them and got a University ranking same as everyone else). But for me, there was a bigger difference. I was 21 years old, married and pregnant.
I will never forget walking into the first class.
The teacher looked at me and did everything except laugh at both me and my belly. His dismissive tone was not only unfriendly, it was downright rude. “When are you due?”
“Late July.” I remember that pompous man, in his cheap Lowes shirt and tie, apparently counting the minutes until I quit in his head as he smirked. I remember the three nights a week I was in the classrooms at Bankstown TAFE, taking classes with many who dropped out in the first few months. I remember correcting the teacher’s spelling of the word “handle” on the board. (That was probably a mistake. He didn’t like being told of the error – ‘handel’ he had written, and he didn’t think it was wrong.)
I remember getting a grades that was less than I deserved in Legal Studies where I did a very nice review of the inquiry into Aboriginal deaths in custody – with hours of research at the University behind it. It was a really good piece, and the guy who couldn’t spell handle gave me an 85.
Finally I sat the exams, weeks after giving birth to my first child. I remember handing in my English examination paper, almost sopping wet – because it was a 3 hour exam, and I was leaking breastmilk in an amount beyond that which the pads were ever going to hold.
Yes, I gave birth on July 20, I did the exams in October, and got decent results. But that’s not the end of the story. The competition for university places was far more fierce than it had been when I left school. I scraped into a place at Australian Catholic University at the end of the second round of offers (a very interesting place to study philosophy), but ended up dropping out at the end of the first year as raising a baby on a shoestring, with all its responsibilities became too difficult for me to process so I decided to just focus on my baby and giving her the best baby girl onesies I could find.
All that work…. some would say for nothing, but they would be wrong, because that’s still not the end of the story.
Thinking of education as an end-to-end process, succinct and directed, is short-sighted. For many of us, the journey of education is full of twists, turns, frustrations and joys. It’s a journey. Being educated is something that should be life-long. Teachers who rely on narrow-mindedness do both students and themselves a disservice.
Today my firstborn, my gorgeous daughter, is now 21 years old, and I have three other children as well. Obviously time has told a tale that would happily rub that TAFE teacher’s snide look off his face. Not only did I return to university, I received my BA (Comms) with a Distinction average. I then began teaching fulltime at TAFE myself, and even wrote nationally delivered curricula for training packages. TAFE then paid for me to do my Graduate diploma in Vocational Education and Training, and I followed that with my funded Masters in Journalism here in the US. And now of course, I’m a PhD student in the ATLAS program. Yep, I’m getting the full set. Nobody expects me to fail any more. I’m glad I didn’t pay attention to that sneering teacher, and instead decided to keep going. Sure, my education wasn’t swift, or easy. There’s been a stack of tears, but a lot of learning, and a massive amount of confidence building. In those early days, I’ve dropped in, and out, and in again. It took me 10 years to get that first degree, but the day I graduated was the day I decided to get the full set. I haven’t stopped since then, and it’s still not the end of the story. Who knows what will come next? All I know is I’m not done yet.
It all started with being strong enough to sit in a TAFE classroom three nights a week, while I was pregnant.
I wish all the women doing their HSC exams the very best. You deserve it, and so do your children.
I am very, very proud of you.