Monday, January 26, 2015

Happy Straya Day

We went to an Australia Day ceremony this morning. It was the real deal; flags, face tattoos and Mike Brady, ( in person), singing 'Up there Cazaly'! There was a Lion's Club BBQ and an older citizen playing the piano accordion.

But best of all there were the Moyne Shire Australia Day awards and we were there to see one of our students receive the 2015 Young Citizen award.

Charmie is one of those kids who makes a teacher's life worthwhile. At the end of the day what every teacher wants to do is make a difference to the world and while we may not be able to do that ourselves, we can have an influence on young people who might.

We first met Charmarelle McCarroll when she was 10 and a student in our year 5 class. Geoff declared her name to have too many double letters, so we called her Bruce! In an early sign of tenacity and resilience, she embraced the nickname and answered to it throughout the three years she spent in our teaching unit. Even then you could tell Charm was destined for success. Bright and inquisitive, she was a 'hands up' kid, quick to challenge her own and others' thinking, brave enough to make the odd mistake if it meant learning something new.

In year 8 we lost sight of Bruce for awhile. As is often the case with teenagers, she tried out her alter ego, the less successful version. She rebelled against her own intelligence and tried lots of strategies to 'fit in'. One of those included not speaking to us (I believe for fear she might have to acknowledge she was running just a wee bit off the rails). However, one of the great aspects of P-12 schooling is knowing your students before they turn into terrible teens, so we knew not to give up on her. We knew the real Charmarelle was hiding behind the mask so we enticed her out with the offer of a place in Geoff's VCE Drama class, even though she was only in year 9. It was an inspired move because she embraced the subject and never looked back.

In year 10, Charm completed unit 3/4 Drama, a subject usually undertaken in year 12 and one that includes one of the most difficult VCE assessment tasks, the 7 minute solo. For her solo, Charm researched the genocide in Rwanda and constructed a performance that reflected the desperation and terror of that regime and compared it to the similarly violent crimes of Joseph Kony. The performance earned her an A+ and an elite invitation to audition for Top Acts. I think it was during the solo research period that Charmarelle's humanitarian future was confirmed.

She joined the Moyne Shire My PlaYce project and began working on projects to assist the youth in our area. These included plans for the skatepark, the Battle of the Bands and Freeza. She also became part of the school leadership team, taking on the role of Communications Captain before assuming the School Captain's role in Year 12. At the end of year 11 she paid her way to the Philippines as part of the Alternative to Schoolies Program and helped to build a school in a remote village.

By the time she started Yr 12, Charm had already racked up an impressive start to her ATAR by completing 3 subjects early. With room to spare in her timetable she agreed to become my 'guinea pig' by taking on a brand new subject called the Extended Investigation. Mostly the domain of the high end independent and select entry schools who had previously had a chance to trial the subject, this presented a new and terrifying but exciting challenge for both of us. The subject requires students to complete a research thesis, similar to those undertaken in under grad uni subjects, including an ethics submission and an oral defence. At an info day in Melbourne we heard of a student who had investigated the notion of peace on the Gaza Strip by flying to Israel to interview the Defence Minister and another who had investigated immigration patterns by interviewing the past 7 Australia Immigration Ministers. We were encouraged to enrol at the State Library and to subscribe to costly research publications. With international airfares, political connections and long day trips to Melbourne out of the question it seemed like a fairly uneven playing field but Charmarelle was undaunted by this inequity. She wanted her study to make a difference and chose the local aged care facility for her field research and Google Scholar for the literature search. Applying for shire funding, she sourced a set of iPads and with the Yr 8-10 Advance class in tow, set out to teach the residents how to use social media to stay connected to their lives beyond the walls of the facility. The score for her thesis became insignificant compared to her desire to improve the lives of the local senior citizens.

With the written thesis due in early September, tragedy struck. Charmarelle's father went missing. A couple of weeks later, just before the Swot Vac period, sadly he was found dead. While the world as she knew it dissolved around her, this kid stood strong. She delivered the eulogy at her dad's funeral, kept serving coffee to keep herself financially viable, came to terms with the demons that threatened to knock her over and refused to give in. She handed in her thesis, (you can read it here if you want), sat all her exams and continued to work toward a brighter future. That she achieved an outstanding ATAR of 93.05 and became dux of her class was almost unbelievable for most people but not for me.

Charmarelle embodies everything that Australia Day should be about. She is living proof that hard work pays and that country kids can achieve great things. In a school that values persistence and 'all roundedness', she has thrived. Naturally athletic she's shone at swimming, athletics and netball. Unable to hold a singing note, she's nevertheless commanded the stage and played every important character role in every year's school musical. She has become an accomplished public speaker through debating and leadership opportunities. She has been bullied by people who couldn't cope with her tall poppiness and her lack of tolerance for fools, but with the knowledge that she will soon leave them in her wake, their words have been water off a duck's back. She has allowed her desire to succeed overcome the desire to conform.

Not everyone likes the 'DeManser' style of teaching - the immediate feedback, tell it like it is, refuse to accept mediocracy method- but Charmarelle has embraced it. Outside of school I believe she has sought out and accepted the same approach from her netball coaches, her employers, her family and her mentors at leadership camps. Today when she accepted her award and acknowledged the part Mortlake College had played in her success, my heart swelled with pride. When she thanked me by name, I cried.

Congratulations again Charmie-Macharelle-Charmarelle-Bruce. I can't wait to hear where the next episode leads you.