Hi kids. As a Senior teacher of English and Literature at a private boys’ school in Queensland and an established Australian poet, I find the internet abuse aimed at Ellen van Neerven over the inclusion of her poem, Mango on the NSW HSC exam to be utterly repulsive and foreboding for our own QCAA senior schooling restructure (the most significant in 40 years) about to roll out in 2019, which mirrors the HSC’s external examination style. In Queensland there will be an external English exam worth 25% of a Year 12 student’s total English marks.
Ideologically I’m against external exams, against the pressure they emit on students, against the cold calculating data that is gleaned from the most artificial of conditions to test students on a text. I’m against the homogeneity of 70,000 students all sitting down to develop nominally the same carefully spoon-fed critical response that the external markers want to hear. Even so-called ‘exam stress’ is not a sufficient reason anymore to be excused from the HSC apparently, so imagine those frustrated, anxious and stressed out kids forced to sit the HSC, and being ambushed by the imagery in van Neerven’s poem.
Yes, we have QCS in Queensland that warrants an extended writing task, numeracy and literacy testing and goes towards a student’s final OP score, but I’m not really a big fan of that either. Can you give me an example of where in the modern workplace similar ‘external test’ conditions are manufactured for an employee to pass muster on the job? With all eggs in the one basket. You do job training, you have professional development, you learn from experience over time to do your occupation well. Yes, there are times when you work under extreme pressure to meet a deadline, but you don’t attack your client on social media and blame them for your stress levels and ulcers, do you?
The pressure to succeed, to score highly so the school and the cohort score highly (in QLD at least), culminates in stress and anxiety which is the real culprit in these students’ dissatisfaction with the HSC. Not van Neerven’s poem, not James Bradley’s Wrack excerpt. But they can’t attack the NSW Education Department online, or create a meme ridiculing the faceless entity of the HSC. So, having limited options to vent their frustration over the system’s failure to keep a lid on their stress (that’s right, it’s everyone else’s problem, not their’s) these gutless students attack the only visible targets – the authors of the exam texts who know nothing about its existence. Isn’t that much like picking on the weaker kid to make yourself feel stronger? Or king hitting the guy in the bar who doesn’t see the punch coming. Just a cowardly bastard act.
No author should be trolled just because a student has not been taught how to deconstruct a poem properly, or have been so lazy and off-task in class when they did the poetry unit, that instead of taking personal responsibility for their own lack of a work ethic and absence of classroom industry, they have to project their failure onto the author in the most public of ways (Twitter, Facebook, Memes). This really only displays their poor and ineffective literacy skills and their racist tendencies, possibly reinforced from the complicity of their infantile peer group, the school’s boys’ education ethos or from their privileged parents’ negative ideas about issues of race and equality in Australian culture that these children regurgitate, having developed none of their own opinions yet. Perhaps still lacking the right chemistry set in their heads?
Because if these students had been paying attention in their English class over the last six years of their lives, instead of skyping friends in other classrooms or being on Facebook when the teacher wasn’t looking, then they would not have failed to notice how almost every unit of work over their English career, asked them to deconstruct a text for either its ideology, representation of stereotypes, main message, themes, tone, emotion, subject matter, purpose, poetic techniques, literary devices, narration style and language choices. So, if they really weren’t paying attention in English for all of those six years, perhaps dreaming of signing that big starting contract for that famous footy club instead, then as Macduff puts it, “Heaven help him too”, the blame for their utter failure to interpret van Neerven’s Mango rests solely on their young entitled shoulders and nowhere else.
I’ll grant though that the question asked of the students was a bit naff to begin with. Detail the pleasure of discovery in the poem or words to that effect. ‘Detail’ is a vague requirement of students to help them organise an analysis of this poem. You detail a shopping list don’t you? Ironically, mangoes (the fruit) have less to do with the meaning of van Neerven’s poem, unless they are a metonymic device for breasts. But bullying, sexual assault and the normalization of how young boys mistreat girls and living creatures perhaps is a reading of her poem. Which reminds me of the #metoo campaign on FB at the moment and the awful depths to which sexual abuse and misogyny have assaulted our society. Harvey Weinstein being the famous tip of the iceberg at the moment. Hollywood the listing Titanic. What is sadly ironic is that these NSW students are reinforcing the very message possibly contained in Mango; that some people feel that they can project their own shit onto other people and make their life hell. These students have been taught to succeed, so when they fail, they have no sense of personal responsibility or self-reflection, but lash out at a convenient target. Usually it is their poor bloody parents, but failing that, the author of that darned poem will do. Maybe they should be taught to fail more often, than pushed to succeed at all costs?
If any of the apparently hundreds of Year 12 students who targeted van Neerven on social media, instead of recognizing their own lack of engagement with the text and failure to apply critical English analysis skills were my students, I would feel immense shame as their teacher and school, and anger, but I would also respond to them how I treat any student who says inappropriate things in class or on the playground. For example, I call out students all the time when they use the word ‘gay’ stupidly to describe a negative response to something. I tell them a) that using that word is offensive to me and to homosexual people as my daughter is homosexual, b) that using it to describe something negative reinforces a bias that homosexuality is a negative thing too, and c) ‘gay’ is not a sophisticated critical term and says nothing about the issue, so don’t use it at all. Toxic masculinity begins with young men thinking that it is okay to make fun of someone’s ethnicity, gender and or sexual orientation in the form of a joke or a meme to their peers. It ends with domestic violence, sexual assault and the murder of women by men predominantly. It’s time we called that shit out when we see it. It’s a shame that it takes institutions like Hollywood twenty years to do it. It should not be present in our state education systems.
That is why it has been so encouraging to read other writers and commentators calling these NSW students out for their shitty response to van Neerven. If only these cowards were not hiding behind fake accounts and private settings. Is this the attitude that they’re going to take to university – when they don’t get the result they want, are they going to attack their professors and tutors on social media? Have a hissy fit because they lost marks for handing in an assignment late. Wake up darlings – you might get pampered at high school with multiple drafts and extensions from your teachers, but higher education doesn’t care that you had to take your cat to the vet’s for a medical emergency. Hopefully, these students will look back when they finally mature (sometime in the foreseeable future) with shame on their actions this past week. If anything poetry has left its indelible mark on their senior schooling forever, just not in the way they wanted. Poor dears -you can’t always get what you want as the lyrics say.
We as teachers, writers, artists, parents, community leaders and mentors must not allow children to use social media as a tool for revenge; we must not stand for inappropriate behaviour from juveniles towards adults; we must refute racism, homophobia and hate wherever we see it in young people; we must unpack toxic masculinity that provokes young males to act like scum, and to as suggested in Mango, ‘pull on tufts of hair/fill ears with mud.’