Indigenous AFL star Anthony “Walla” McDonald-Tipungwuti could not read or write when he was thrown into a Victorian school at the age of 16.
He spoke very little English and was more than 3,000 kilometres from the island he grew up on.
For many this would seem like a nightmare – but the explosive Essendon footballer couldn’t be happier.
He had been living with his aunt since he was ten after his grandmother died. His father died when he was a baby and his mother wasn’t ever around.
“I was pretty much by myself the whole time … the only thing I had was a roof over my head when I needed to sleep,” he told nine.com.au.
“I had no one there to back me up or stand up for me.”
McDonald-Tipungwuti was isolated, bullied and lacked direction.
He had no idea why lessons in class never seemed to sink in and felt more like a “lost soul” than a child with the rest of his life ahead of him.
His inability to excel at school only made him care less about it, causing his education to slip further and further away.
“I didn’t think I was good enough to get an education. I thought I was just dumb and that was the toughest bit,” McDonald-Tipungwuti said.
The Essendon player distinctly remembers the moment he realised he wanted more than the life he had on the Tiwi Islands, off Darwin, and worked out exactly how he was going to get it.
“I was sitting in class, it was loud, all the kids were mucking around,” he said.
“Then I heard this voice telling me, ‘you need to go get an education and find something better. There is an opportunity out there for you.’”
Shortly after that realisation, he met the woman he now calls his mother – Jane McDonald.
She travelled to the Tiwi Islands for a holiday while her daughter was volunteering as a house mother at McDonald-Tipungwuti’s school and the pair immediately clicked.
After a trip with Ms McDonald to Melbourne for Christmas, McDonald-Tipungwuti was adamant he would return to the city. This time for good.
“Every time I saw mum I asked if I could come down [to Melbourne] for school.”
Ms McDonald decided to become the teen’s guardian and he was enrolled at Chairo Christian School.
But his struggles weren’t over.
“I was a 16-year-old in Year 9 but my reading and writing was at a grade one level,” he said.
“I didn’t speak much English so for the first couple of weeks I just listened.”
He made friends kicking the footy around or shooting hoops at lunch but still felt he was failing.
“I wasn’t reaching my potential with my grades and that was hard for me because that’s why I was there, to get an education.”
But then McDonald- Tipungwuti found out why the hours he was dedicating to homework after school were not reflected in his results.
There was something completely out of his control that had been secretly working against him at every turn.
“I had an undiagnosed learning disability. Once the teachers started helping me work in another way I found out I wasn’t dumb all along.”
McDonald-Tipungwuti’s sporting prowess was evident from a young age, but he was still laser focused on his academic growth.
And that’s the message he wants to share with as many kids as possible in the hopes those struggling realise they too can turn their lives around and pursue their dreams.
“I want to give back to kids who really need it, hopefully they take in my story and believe they can do anything if they work really hard at it,” he said.
This week McDonald-Tipungwuti travelled to Queensland to speak with students at Cape York Aboriginal Academy’s Hope Vale Campus, where a new program has helped students embrace learning and improve their literacy.
There is still a marked difference in the school attendance rate for indigenous and non-indigenous students.
Last year, overall attendance rate for non-Aboriginal students was 93 percent, while Aboriginal students sat at 83.2 percent.
According to Close The Gap, there has been no “meaningful improvement” across the board. Attendance in remote areas remain lower than non-rural communities. Over a three-year period attendance rates in the Northern Territory fell from 70.2 percent to 66.2 percent. However, nationally 17.9 percent more 20-24 year-olds had gotten their Year 12 qualifications in 2016 than the same age group ten years ago.
McDonald- Tipungwuti wants to inspire Aboriginal students to crave a formal education, like he did.
“The opportunity they have here in Hope Vale is really amazing. I told the kids here I wish I had that kind of support when I was growing up.”
Principal Glenn White said the program – which covers literacy and numeracy from kindergarten to Year 5 – was introduced to reduce the risk of disengagement.
The individual needs of each student are the focus, ensuring no one is left behind.
“We are trying to cater to the whole student not just academic abilities. Wherever we see they are excelling, be it sport or music, we try to steer them toward that area,” Mr White told nine.com.au.
An engaging wellbeing program also looks to identify why students were switching off and overcome those obstacles.
“It is really a holistic approach. We have had good results getting parents involved and helping them understand the importance of regular attendance,” Mr White said.
“This is a community school, and it takes a whole community to raise a child so we are really instilling those values with both kids and parents.”
He said seeing McDonald-Tipungwuti had struggled but still managed to achieve his dreams helped communicate a valuable lesson about overcoming adversity to his pupils.
“It’s good for someone like Anthony to visit our school so kids can see there is a career pathway even if you are experiencing difficulties in life,” he said.
“The kids could relate to his backstory … He admitted there were a lot of things he wasn’t good at, and school wasn’t always an easy run for him, but that the most important thing was how he overcame those demons to move on to a career he was passionate about.”
McDonald-Tipungwuti trained for years, with his mum also taking the role of his coach before his career took off.
He said people assume he thinks hours on the field or in the gym helped him get recruited by Essendon in 2015, but the young Bomber insists getting a good education was the key to his AFL success.
“An education is really important no matter who you are. If you want to be a policeman or a footballer – an education can take you where you want to go.
“It’s not going to come easy, but if you are willing to work for it, my story shows how much you can achieve.”
McDonald-Tipungwuti has spent time working as a teacher’s aide and said helping students with special needs has become his passion.
“I want to give them the opportunity I didn’t have growing up and encourage them to enjoy school. I’ve tried to help them get involved with other kids through sport so they aren’t just going to class and missing out because of their differences.”
McDonald-Tipungwuti sat in on lessons and kicked a footy around with the Cape York students. He also had dinner with some aspiring young footballers and spoke to them about how sticking with school can put them on the path toward sporting success.
“Education was the one thing that gave me the tools I needed to get to the AFL and I walked the kids through that.”
He said seeing their eyes light up gave him hope his message sunk in.
“Just seeing the smiles on their faces was amazing, especially in a such big NRL and rugby area.”
When he isn’t training or playing in front of tens of thousands, McDonald-Tipungwuti said he and his mother will endeavour to spread their message far and wide, particularly in regional communities.
The final advice he had for the students in Cape York was “don’t grow up too fast”.
“I really missed out on my childhood and I want them to just enjoy school and being kids because you only get that kind of freedom once.”