Approximately 90% of Indigenous teenage mums won’t finish school, but there is a way for them to realise their dreams
Most people have that one teacher. Like Sidney Poitier’s Mark Thackeray in To Sir, With Love or Robin Williams’s John Keating in Dead Poets Society. The one who inspired, opened our eyes to our own abilities and ultimately helped take us out of our adolescent angst so we saw – for the first time – the much bigger world around us.
Mine was Mr Coburn. He was my English teacher from Mossman State High School in Far North Queensland.
He was the type of teacher to deviate from the letter of the curriculum but not its spirit. A pedagogical rebel.
He made sure my class learnt the classics – including Shakespeare, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman and others – while also showing us how the narratives from these stories applied to the world we were coming of age in.
At that time I was 14-years-old and apartheid was coming to its end. It was all I remember from the news at the time. Mr Coburn taught my class about apartheid through the movie Cry Freedom – which told the story of the assassination of black rights activist Steven Biko.
This was a turning point for me.
For the first time I started to see my school-based “trouble making” in lobbying for us girls to play the same sports as the boys, as activism. My feelings of sadness, anger and hurt when I experienced or witness racism, was a sense of injustice. Importantly I found my place and realised that my feelings were legitimate.
I started to see beyond my hometown. The bigger world around me with all its possibilities suddenly came into view.
At that point I stopped fantasising about being a famous rock star and I started to dream about studying law. Most profoundly, this experience helped me dream in a different way.
I acknowledge that not all teachers are Mr Thackeray, Mr Keating or Mr Coburn. There are teachers that have profoundly negative and life stunting impacts on their students’ lives.
I was fortunate. My primary, high school and university education gave me the tools alongside my varied work experience to achieve my dreams.
However there are many other Indigenous young women who are not growing up with the benefit of education.
Indigenous females’ year 12 retention rate is 33 percentage points lower than that of non-Indigenous females. And approximately 90% of Indigenous teenage mums won’t finish school.
It is not an option that these young women don’t get the opportunity to realise their dreams.
The time has come to do something different.
I hope through the current inquiry into educational opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students as well as the Australian select senate committee into school funding investment, this something different will be identified and supported.
The Cape York Girl Academy is this something different.
CYGA is the country’s first Indigenous-led school for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander mums and their babies. It’s there to assist young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander mums to get their high school certificate.
The work is bigger than obtaining a higher school certificate, though this is fundamentally important. It’s about helping these young women to dream for the first time, and to conceive of how their lives, and the lives of their children might be different, better, but most of all fulfilled because they have the tools and confidence to chase their dreams.
I’m not an educator – there are much more qualified people in our country who can speak to pedagogy and the evidence on what works and what doesn’t. What I can speak to is the power of my experience of a teacher, a school helping to open the door to the world just a little bit wider for a young person to see all that is possible.
If the young mums who attend CYGA come away with the confidence and tools to dream big and chase their dreams, I have no doubt that they will raise the next generation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children who dream and achieve even bigger.