The Honourable Brian Goldstone, Minister of Education, adjusted the microphone to suit his six foot stature and started, “Ladies and Gentlemen, I owe my position to Danielle Coleman. She was my teacher in Year Nine. Until then, I hated school. By the end of that year, I’d decided to be a teacher. Also, from her I learned the intense hatred of inequality and injustice that took me into politics.
“It’s a great shame that Mrs Coleman is retiring. I know, I know, she is way past the age, but there are many more stuffed-up kids from stuffed-up families who need her.
“Since her appointment as Principal nineteen years ago, this school has become the shining diamond among State schools. It is the example everyone else would like to copy. I hope that now that Danielle has the time, she’ll write a book, or more like, a series of books, to teach us all how to armour plate our kids against the influences that damage them…”
Oh, he does go on and on, Danielle thought while she fondly gazed at the back of his suit coat. As always, praise made her uncomfortable, so she now tuned it out. She knew that dear Brian was good for another half an hour of this.
Instead, her mind took her back, back to the days when she was a nobody, a crim in the making, part of the brood of a druggie slut, sister of thieves and even of a murderer, destined for nothing better than her no-good mother… and who knew who her father might be?
Danielle was seven when Gareth got arrested for murder. Now what was the current guy’s name? Yes, Chip. Chip laughed aloud, then said with his mouth full, “Stupid, getting caught!” And Sally — none of the kids were allowed to call her any version of ‘mother’ — Sally had poured the pot of hot soup all over his head and the dickhead ended up blind and hairless for the rest of his life.
Dani had enjoyed that. How dare this bastard sling off at her eldest bro! Not that Gareth was really her brother, since nobody, Sally included, had any idea of who was the father of any of the kids.
Trouble was, Sally got arrested too, for doing the bugger in. Dani didn’t enjoy eating Kathy’s cooking, putting up with Kathy bossing her around.
Then the Salvo ladies came, and for awhile Dani had lived in a series of foster homes. If you could call it living. If you could call them homes. No fun, no friendly noise, everything must be clean, everything must be tidy, ‘Have you done your homework yet, dear?’
Dani had hated it. So, she ran away from each one, and was caught, and at last ended up in the Juvenile Correctional Facility. There, she had to break a big girl’s nose before she was left alone, and it was all rules and video cameras even in the bloody toilet, and you might as well be dead as live like that!
Well, after that, the bloody foster homes seemed like heaven.
She’d been there for a few weeks when the family got back together again, Sally in charge.
But a lady kept coming, two, three times a week. She was Sally’s Probationary Officer, but she was different from all the other cops and teachers and do-goodders. Her name was Hazel, and somehow no one mucked up on her. She had a way with her that tamed everyone.
And so Dani went back to school, because Hazel phoned the teacher and she’d know if any of Sally’s kids wagged. She didn’t punish Dani, or yell at her, or lecture, not like any other adult.
Up on the stage, in place of honour, Danielle closed her eyes, and could see Hazel, hear her voice.
“Dani my dear, listen. I know. School has seemed such a waste of time to you. Right?”
Dani gave the slightest nod, waiting for the lecture.
“There have seemed to be so many more fun things to do. Besides, I bet many people at school give you a hard time?”
“They sure do, the s⎯head bastards!” Dani was pleased at the reaction: Hazel’s face twitched, just a little.
But she didn’t get distracted into a lecture about swearing. “I bet they all think you are wicked, and stupid, and you’ll never achieve anything. Have I got it right?”
“Yeah, you’ve got it, lady!”
“Well, I think they are wrong. I think you’re a very smart little girl, and can manage to do anything you set your mind on. I’ve been watching you!”
“So, do you like those people who give you a hard time in school?”
“I hate the f⎯n c⎯s!”
Once more, Hazel avoided responding to the obscenity. “Then prove them wrong!”
Dani didn’t answer. After a long gap, which felt friendly, Hazel continued, “And then, look at your mother. Is Sally happy?”
Dani had never thought about that. Now she did. “Nah, she’s miserable most of the time. That’s why she smokes…” Too late, she realised that this was a Probationary Officer, a sort of a cop, and shut up.
“I don’t want to know that, love. But anyway, do you want to grow up to live just like this?” Hazel waved an arm about at the kids’ bedroom where the two of them sat, by themselves. The double bed filled most of the little room. Five kids slept on it.
Dani was used to the sour smell, but now it hit her. She saw the dust bunnies under the bed, the piles of clothes and toys on the floor, and the grimy window that cut out most of the sunlight. Suddenly, for the first time, she felt ashamed of her home. During her days as a foster child, she’d seen how other people lived.
“I can see you understand what I mean. Dani, school is your ticket out. Prove me right, your enemies wrong. Grab all the learning you can, and build a better life for yourself.”
Something clicked. Without knowing how it happened, Dani found herself standing, enfolded within the comfortable embrace of this woman.
At the end of that year, Dani came top of her class in reading, handwriting and arithmetic. She got interested in history, and spent hours in the public library, reading books. All the same, when anyone gave her a hard time, she fought viciously and without bars.
One evening, she was walking home from the library. It was winter, and cold, and dark already. She came around a corner, and saw a scuffle under a streetlight, a little further along. This was the good part of town, she still had a long way to walk to get home, so she didn’t want to stop. She thought of crossing the road, but then she realised what was happening.
Two big boys had a girl bailed up. Dani knew her. She was Cynthia Morton, a couple of grades ahead of Dani.
She was now quite close, but none of the three had noticed her. One of the boys held Cynthia from behind, one arm around her body, the other hand over her face. The second boy was stripping the coat off her.
F⎯n bastards! Dani thought, and launched into a charge. Running full tilt, she kicked the boy with his back to her right in the split of his buttocks, at the top. She knew how much that hurt, from personal experience.
The boy howled and staggered away. But Dani was past him, grabbed the other boy’s arm and sank her teeth into his wrist. She tasted blood.
She whirled and as the first boy started moving forward again, Dani kicked once more, right in his groin.
He collapsed onto the wet footpath.
The other boy had let Cynthia go and shoved her aside.
Smoothly, Dani kicked again, the heavy hand-me-down boot connecting with his left knee. He jerked back, and as she barged forward, her forehead caught him on the nose.
In the artificial light of the street lamp, his mouth became covered with a black stream. He raised his hands to his face as he started to bend forward.
Dani now used a trick Gareth had taught her a long time ago. She whirled side on, grabbed her right fist with the left, and put all her force into a short jab with the elbow. She got him on the temple.
This boy sprawled on the ground too, next to his mate.
All this happened so fast that Cynthia was still staggering from the push she’d received.
Dani said to her, “These bastards won’t bother you again!”
“Oh… thank you! I… don’t I know you from somewhere?”
“Of course you do. We go to the same school. I’m in Year Four.”
“But… that was amazing. How can you beat up two big boys?”
“I come from a rough family. Has its good points.”
“I was out walking my dog. I have to do it every day, and somehow today time slipped away. I don’t know where he’s run to.”
Dani couldn’t care less about some dog. She said, “I’ve got to go home, I’m hungry. See ya later!”
The next day, Cynthia sought Dani out in the playground, and invited her to her home.
Dani didn’t want to go. She knew that her clothes were shabby, that she couldn’t speak in the way these kinds of people did, that she didn’t smell nice.
But Cynthia said, “Please! My mother would like to thank you for saving me. Please come over tomorrow, that gives you time to ask for permission.”
Dani had to laugh at this. “No one worries where I am. I’m home, I’m home. I’m out, I’m out, and who the f⎯ cares?”
The next day, Dani had a good wash before going to school, and tried to find the best of Kathy’s cast-off clothes to wear. She even stayed out of running games at lunchtime, so she wouldn’t get sweated up. Actually, she was sweating from fear anyway. She didn’t like the idea of going into foreign territory. But she thought of Hazel. She thinks I am as good as anyone. She’ll want me to go.
Mrs Morton arrived at home-time in a big, shiny car. She wore the nicest clothes Dani had ever seen, and she could smell her perfume. And she looked at Dani in a friendly way.
“My dear, I am so happy to meet you. Please come to our place and have some afternoon tea with us.”
Of course Dani had been in cars before, but never in one like this. The engine whispered. The seats were shiny and soft, and strange, beautiful music tinkled on the radio.
Sitting beside Dani, Cynthia must have noticed her listening. “That’s Chopin,” she said.
This was meaningless.
“Mum has this CD on because I am learning to play this.”
“You can play music?”
“Sure. I’m going for my second grade piano exam in six weeks.”
They arrived at a huge house. All that space, just for Mr and Mrs Morton, and Cynthia and her big brother Paul who went to high school already.
Dani felt like running away. But Mrs Morton served up chocolate cake, and cocoa, and talked to Dani like she was a human being, not a wild animal.
She said, “I’ve done a little research, Dani. I’ve found out what a smart girl you are, how well you did at school last year. And I also found out that you live in difficult circumstances.”
Dani looked down, feeling her face flush. Where is a hole when you want to crawl in one?
“My dear, never be ashamed of your family. People do what they do. Most of us do the best we can. I am not judging them. But I’m full of admiration for how well you are managing.”
“It’s because of Hazel.” Dani told the story.
Mrs Morton smiled through it, then said, “Hazel is right. But you are not doing well because of her. You are doing well because of yourself, because of the kind of person you are. All Hazel did was to recognise your quality.”
Before she went home, Dani had learned to play a few simple tunes on the piano, and her head was full of the lovely melodies Cynthia could produce.
For the rest of her school days, Dani was as much a part of the Morton home as her own, a creature of two worlds.
She was in the audience at Cynthia’s first concert, and the Mortons were there when Dani graduated as Dux of the High School ⎯ though none of her family bothered to come.
And, basking in their love and respect, she learned to love and respect herself.
Like surf breaking on the shore, the roar of applause filled the hall. Danielle returned from the past. She stood with a little smile, and went to shake the Minister’s hand.
“Thank you, Brian,” she said, with long practice doing it so the microphone picked up her voice. “You’re a good boy.”
She waited for the laughter to stop.
“The Honourable Minister has told you that he owes his position to me. Well, my dears, I owe my position to two women. I am just one leg in a relay race, and I hope all of you here are going to take the baton from me. Let me tell you about a Probationary Officer and a housewife…”