What Defines Potential
Dan, a former teacher now researcher, is asked to come up with criteria to select Aboriginal students for a project that helps them complete high school. In his early forties, he finds himself in the midst of competing values that cause him much thought as he tries to meet the needs of different cultures.
“We need criteria for selecting students for the project,” Sam, CEO of the Well-Being Foundation, had told Dan. “Do it quick and, as the boss says, do it without left-wing bullshit.”
Developing the criteria was an enormous challenge, the different cultures ensuring that.
“Take a few kids with the potential to succeed,” Dan often heard from non-Aboriginal people, while Aboriginal people would tell him, “All kids.”
“What do you mean by potential?” he’d ask the non-Aboriginal respondents.
“Good attendance, results and behaviour,” they’d tell him.
Alternatively, he’d ask Aboriginal mobs, “Why you want all kids?”
“It been our way for all kids and we want them all to be good kids,” they’d reply.
Early in the task, Dan visited Warwick District High School. After interviewing two teachers about selection, he’d walked into the school yard. In the undercover area, an athletic Aboriginal boy, maybe fourteen, was shooting baskets. Dan watched.
A teacher whom Dan had just interviewed walked past, indicated the boy, and said quietly, “He won’t meet any selection criteria.”
Dan acknowledged the comment but watched the boy shoot baskets without missing. Dan walked closer.
“How often do you miss?” he finally asked.
The boy just shrugged slightly to indicate he’d heard and continued to shoot, so Dan added, “Maybe not often I reckon.”
The boy, on his umpteenth consecutive shot, nodded.
“When you miss, if you ever do, can I have a shot?”
The boy sank another basket, then flicked the ball to Dan with such force that he struggled to catch it. He managed six baskets before a miss, flicked the ball to the boy and moved aside.
The boy sent the ball back to Dan, and pointed at the ring. They shot in silence for ten minutes. The boy missed once and Dan’s best sequence was seven.
Finally, Dan grinned. “I must go. But thanks for letting me have some shots. My name’s Dan. What do they call you?”
“Cameron,” the boy mumbled softly, but Dan thought there was a flicker of a return grin.
In the staff room, he inquired about Cameron and a deputy-principal told him, “He’s rarely in class, even if he comes to school. The days he does, we put him in the undercover area to shoot baskets. If he comes to a class, he disruptive, so we send him out with a basketball until he gets bored and walks into town here, or the fifteen kilometres back to Chiltern.”
“The walk to Chiltern keeps him out of trouble!” Loud laughter resulted.
Later that day, Dan saw Patrick and Norman, the old Aboriginal men, in Chiltern. He mentioned he’d met Cameron, and how well he seemed to play basketball.
“Yuwa, he been good boy,” Patrick smiled. “He learn our way. I look back and most kids not follow. But Cameron follow. He respect old ones and look after sister and little brothers.”
The last comment echoed. “When you say look after sister and little brothers, do you mean he plays with them after school, or gets them to school? What do you mean?”
“With little brothers, maybe play but Kylie been nearly womans.” Patrick stared into the distance briefly before continuing. “Grog got Cameron’s mum real bad and father one die little bit long time back—drugs. Grannie been all Cameron, Kylie and little ones got left. Grannie real old one, been on sticks now, but look after big mob of kids: too many for that old lady. So, Cameron and Kylie sleep at Old Station to make room for kids at Grannie’s. They sleep in old shed. Old Station mob feed them, but Cameron look out for Kylie, and,” the old man grinned, “he make her go to school, too.”
Two days later, Dan saw Cameron throwing baskets, bought two cans of cool drink at the canteen, placed them on a seat to the side of the backboard and stood with the boy. They shared shots for a while, before Cameron dribbled the ball, challenging Dan to stop him laying it up. Dan played defence, an arm extended to the front, and the other stretched to one side, trying to keep Cameron from the backboard.
It was like trying to corral a cat. One moment Cameron was in front, but then with a flick, a twist and seeming to change direction in mid-air, was past him to lay the ball up with precision. After fifteen minutes, in which Cameron didn’t miss a lay-up or lose the ball, Dan was sweating and panting with exertion. He indicated the drinks and slumped to the seat. Cameron, sweating slightly and breathing easily, sat next to Dan, spread his legs and took a can. There was silence as Dan got his breath back.
“Cameron,” he finally asked, “if there were a project to help students with homework after school, gave them tucker, let them use computers and took them on camps and trips, would you want to be part of it?”
Cameron looked straight ahead for a long time before finally nodding.
“Do you want to be at school and learn kardiya things?”
After a lengthy pause, Cameron nodded again.
“Would you go to classes more if you were in a project? I know you aren’t in class very much now, and to be in the project, you’d have go to classes, work and behave proper way, and not be shooting baskets or,” he grinned, “beating the shit out of an old fart like me at basketball.”
“Yuwa,” Cameron responded, this time with a definite grin.
“I must go, but thanks for the game, Cameron.”
His walk was interrupted by Cameron calling softly, “Dan?”
Dan turned to Cameron who deftly dribbled a basketball from hand to hand. “Sister one, Kylie, maybe she do project thing you talk about, too?”
“Is she in high school?”
“Yuwa, she been year eight,” Cameron replied in almost a whisper.
“I’ll ask.” Dan spoke thickly. “I can’t promise, but I’ll ask.”
Cameron just nodded slightly, keeping perfect control of the ball.
Frequent visits to the school meant Dan came to know Cameron well. Despite a decrease in Cameron’s visibility in the undercover area in class time, he’d still seek Dan for basketball at recess or lunch-time and bring his mates. It always concluded with Dan being thrashed, breathless and buying many cans of cool-drink for a beaming Cameron and the group.
And the more Dan got to know the boy and his friends, the more selection criteria that fitted two different worlds arose. As Sam had once suggested to him, create a new box between different boxes. So Dan drew up two sets of criteria for selection in the Project and tested them on Sam.
“What did you come up with these?” Sam grinned after reading them.
Dan told of the impact of the story of find a new box as he’d struggled with divergent views on selection. He described meeting Cameron and the impact of a boy highly regarded by his peers, seen as a potential leader by older Aboriginal people and intelligent and skilful, but viewed by his teachers as thick, troublesome and a waste of space.
“So what I thought I’d do,” Dan went on, “was to establish two sets of criteria: one for teachers and one for community members. That way, some students could meet teacher criteria, and some community criteria. But all of those selected would be named and recognised.
“But I’d still let any student who wants to be part of the Project join in as long as he or she follows the rules. Most kids can’t or won’t meet those rules, but it satisfies the community’s desire that all children should participate. Then kids like Cameron, who I think, has the capacity to succeed, no matter how we define success, will at least have a chance and not be discarded via a set of criteria from another world.”
“You’re saying,” Sam smiled, “that dual selection criteria will meet the needs of both sets of stakeholders. And, yes, I think you’re right.”