A student's story of self

Michael de Wall

The most compelling stories help us to make sense of the world and appeal to our deeper values. With this in mind, I want to retell a story of courage and compassion from a high school in greater western Sydney.

The school is situated in a low-SES community where too many young people have endured some of society’s most harrowing examples of discrimination and domestic violence. The name of the school does not matter. We are a public education system. The school is ours and the protagonists are your colleagues and students.

The only name provided is that of Sam, an inspiring student who approved of this retelling and thus saved a moving story of “self” from remaining as one of George Eliot’s “unhistoric acts” — an unknown tale that nonetheless would have contributed to the “growing good of the world”.

The story began with a teacher. A teacher had organised for a group of senior students to participate in an event for International Women’s Day. Sam, the school’s captain, was so inspired that she approached the deputy principal and asked if she could address the whole school at the morning assembly. The deputy thought that was a wonderful idea. She just asked that Sam bring her the draft speech.

Sam returned with a speech that began with big themes and gradually moved towards the local. She explained her understanding of the struggle for equality in the workplace, unpacked the impacts of domestic violence and reaffirmed the importance of respect for

Sam’s draft ended on a very personal note. The deputy told Sam that she had her full support, though asked if she was sure she wanted to end her speech that way. Sam said “yes”, but asked the deputy to stand with her on the stage.

At the school assembly, the deputy prepared the gathered students. She said that their captain Sam was going to be giving a speech on very serious matters relating to International Women’s Day and that it was important that they listened carefully and were respectful.

Sam has a high profile as captain, is well regarded across the school community and is a capable speaker. She immediately commanded the attention of the audience. The whole school sat in silence as she worked her way through the key issues impacting on women. At one point, she went off script and talked about the inspirational women in her life. She named the deputy principal, who was visibly surprised and moved by the moment.

As Sam shifted from the big themes to her personal story, she became emotional and often paused to compose herself. The deputy stepped forward and put her arm around Sam’s shoulder. As Sam continued to talk about diversity and respect her sister and two teachers (including the teacher who organised the International Women’s Day event) instinctively stepped onto the stage and stood beside her in solidarity.

With this incredible show of support around her, Sam concluded her speech: “My name is Sam, and I am gay.”

By the account I received, the silence was deafening and seemed to last for an eternity in the hearts of those on the stage until, without prompting from any teacher, the entire assembly broke into respectful and sustained applause.

In a moment of improvisation the deputy principal gave recognition of the audience’s respect, reaffirmed the message about difference and said their captain would like to start a student support group. She and Sam would be back on assembly next week with the details. Sam was chuffed with an idea that the deputy had come up on the spot with a response to a very special “teachable moment”.

For the remainder of the day, there were conversations between students, between teachers, and between teachers and students that recognised the significance of the speech and the support provided by Sam’s sister, her teachers and the deputy principal.

How do you measure all of this? How many lives may have been saved? How many emerging adolescent identities were relieved of the fear and anxiety that comes from feeling different, from being the “other”? How many girls now know something a little different about becoming a young woman? How many boys have had their narrow conception of masculinity displaced, if only ever so slightly?

In a week when the Mardi Gras and International Women’s Day arrived together, I don’t think there could be a more powerful affirmation of the critical role our public schools play in striving for social justice.