You know you’re getting old when your kids have to tell you what the different emojis really mean. You see, apparently there’s a whole millennial sub-text going on where certain vegetables (say, eggplants) and fruits (perhaps peaches) mean something totally different to what you and I might think. I’m not suggesting that you Google this, but let’s just say that “eggplants” are a secret language to refer to the dark side of male carnal desire and “peaches” refers to the feminine equivalent.
Sometimes a little context can go a long way. Just ask any of the Year 12 students in NSW right now who recently sat the English 1 paper. They were asked to respond to a poem by Ellen Van Neerven, innocuously titled, Mango. But it has left nearly all of them frustrated, others bewildered, and some possibly traumatised.
The author is a young Aboriginal woman who identifies as being queer. Unbeknownst to her, this year her particular piece of poetry was chosen as the HSC text where students were asked to explain, “how the poet conveys the delight of discovery.” Imagine being faced with the prospect of trying to draw out that particular theme from the following:
eight years old
walking under the bridge
insides of tennis balls
bits of fences
meeting the boys
at the dam
bikes in a pile
skater shoe soles
not cold in
boys talking about mangoes
some have never had one
listen to the taste
the squeeze of a cheek
a dog jumps in
they pull on tufts of hair
fill ears with mud
they remember my birthday
The outpouring of anger by students was intense, to say the least, with many hurling their adolescent abuse at the author directly through social media as well as in online discussion groups. My own daughter returned home on Monday bewildered as to why this particular poem had been chosen and what it had to do with the topic. Having read through it a number of times myself I must say that I was left similarly perplexed.
What left me further bewildered were the comments of journalist Sam George-Allen at Pedestrian who, after berating everyone for their vitriol said, “Also, oh my god, please never do this.”
Apparently, Allan Biala’s respectful line of inquiry was so deplorable that the journalist said, “I just cringed so hard I popped a blood vessel. Good f__kin grief.” Really? Can’t Sam George-Allen understand the hypocrisy in what he has just said? Having just rebuked students for reacting abusively to people online he has done exactly the same to someone himself.
Both the ABC and Fairfax also ran with the sole angle that this was an appalling example of cyberbullying–which it was–towards an award-winning writer. My interest was really piqued though when I heard that Benjamin Law, that great proselytizer of the Safe Schools program–and proponent of the sexual assault of Liberal politician, Andrew Hastie, had come to the author’s defence.
You see, there was something else going on here that should have also been made known. As Madi Haynes, who is currently sitting the HSC, responded on the SMH’s Facebook page, people should “also discuss the fact that the poem is supposedly based on the sexual assault of an eight-year-old child, and HSC students are being asked to explore the ‘delightful discovery’ within the text.”
Whoa! Now that was a significant little detail that none of the media outlets had bothered to bring to anyone’s attention. Presumably being qualified wordsmiths and researchers they should have known. I can’t believe they’re just dumb. The poem is all about the “sexual assault of an eight-year-old-child” and in the context of a ‘delightful discovery’? I wonder how some of the young female actors in Hey Dad! or how many of Hollywood’s leading women at present would endorse that kind of interpretation?
When Madi Haynes was challenged as to whether she was possibly engaging in some creative interpretation of her own, she responded: “Evelyn Araluen created a live video on another platform and explained the entire poem and thesis behind it, so it’s not actually my analysis of the poem that alludes to the sexual assault, it’s Evelyn’s.”
Now I tracked down the said video on Twitter (which has unfortunately since been removed) but Evelyn Araluen, herself a literary academic, as well as a close personal friend of the author, does clearly confirm that the poem is comprised of sexual innuendo and hence the assault of an eight-year-old child.
You see, apparently “mangoes” –- like eggplants and peaches–are an aboriginal euphemism for sex. And the comment that “some boys have never had one” is a reference to them being virgins. “Listen to the taste” and “the squeeze of the cheek” is therefore also referring to something else entirely.
With that particular interpretive grid in mind–and remember, that wasn’t available to those sitting the HSC –- the poem takes on a whole new meaning. It’s a powerful piece of dystopian tragedy. But what on earth were the NSW Education Standards Authority who set this particular text thinking? And how could the poet possibly be understood as “conveying delight”?
The greatest question of all though is why does NESA think that it has to promote the sexualisation of children? Why do they feel like they have to keep on normalising subjects that are morally and legally reprehensible? Why can’t we just let kids be kids, especially when it comes to passing their high school exams?
There are two really big issues that come out of this. The first is that many kids would have little idea of what the poem was actually about. No context was given for the poem or the cultural/sexual, identity of the author.
And second, the even more serious issue for students who did understand what the poem was about and have experienced the kind of tragedy that Ellen Van Neerven has written so poignantly about. Making them re-live that particular trauma while sitting through the HSC is a twisted form of cruelty, especially when they’re being told to find a ‘delightful discovery.’
Someone from NESA needs to own up to this blunder. Yes, a number of students responded badly. And yes, their words and actions were inappropriate. But where do they go to voice their frustrations and seek answers to their questions? The faceless bureaucrats of some obscure government department? Are any of them going to do the decent thing and resign?
Clearly, the mainstream media has become so enamoured with the identity politics of minorities that they cannot see that the sexual assault of a little girl and the so-called “delightful discovery” involved should ever go together.
Mark Powell is the Associate Pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church, Strathfield.
Cartoon: Ben R Davis.
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