Bethlehem Day Address 2018 – Rebecca Ha
Good morning to the students of Bethlehem, the educators that are gathered in this room, and the distinguished guests who have very generously offered their time and presence here today.
On this day, I have been offered the immense privilege of delivering an address on behalf of the ex-students of this college.
In the spirit of fulfilling the generic conventions of any school address, I will begin with a short introduction of myself, before predictably segueing into a backstory that will then lead into the broader theme of celebrating this school and education more broadly. Unfortunately, I will not offer any profound words of wisdom or any grand metaphors, or platitudes, because I do not think I have learnt enough to authentically embody the role of the wise sage.
My name is Rebecca, and I graduated from this school in 2013. In 2014, I commenced my combined Law and Arts degree, majoring in English Literature at the University of Sydney. After a year of study, I very fleetingly volunteered overseas in India, for a Non-Governmental, anti human trafficking organisation — I describe this experience as fleeting, because I ended up getting very ill while in a remote hospital five kilometers from Bhutan. Going to India to work with the NGO and to further the work of the Human Rights Law Network happened when I was just 18. It was the first time I had ever gone overseas in my life, and I did it alone. I do not think I would have survived that trip, in more ways than one: mentally, physically, emotionally, if I had not attended this school. While I was there, I helped in receiving the testimonies of women who had been taken from remote villages with the promise of employment, and then exploited, sold, commodified and pushed to the brink of self-destruction from the ages of just 10 or 11 years old.
When I returned to Sydney, I made the decision to transfer into a Bachelor of Education and Arts, which I am currently studying. I realised that if I am to work in human rights, I will need to learn a lot more about the people of this world, to learn about young people, about education, and be surrounded by inspiring people who dedicate their lives in such noble ways. I hope to become a teacher.
It’s interesting, because when I said I was going to study Law, I was often told that ‘law isn’t a good profession for nice girls like you’, that it’s ‘corrupt work’, that it’s ‘full of men and full of liars who will ruin your life, it’s not about justice’. I was told that I’m much better off marrying someone who is wealthy and who loves me. I was told that I would inevitably become a cold, unfeeling and soulless woman who had sacrificed the opportunity to have children and fulfil the god-given role of being a mother.
But, when I then start to say that “I’m going to become a teacher”, I was told that ‘education isn’t a good profession for such a smart and driven person like you’, that it’s ‘a cop out’, that it’s full of ‘disillusioned students and people who couldn’t do anything more with their lives’, that I’m taking the easy way out for extended holidays and job security and guaranteed maternity leave.
It always seems to come back to the theme of maternity, which is rather strange. I’m only twenty-two…
When I was writing this speech, I was worried about being so frank. I am being so candid about this, because this is a part of the reality that I, and many other women face – but, for young people more broadly, this is only a small symptom of the competitive, judgmental, uncertain and dehumanising experiences that shape the development of their identities. A world where women shouldn’t have a hand in the enactment of justice, and where education and teachers’ work are considered failures and things of little value.
For many people who meet me, the question always boils down to: why would you want to become a teacher?
My answer is very simple.
Because I believe that young people are the most vulnerable and yet most powerful people in this world.
Because I believe that learning is one of the most beautiful privileges that we are afforded as human beings. And that everyone should be afforded the same opportunities to experience it, this incredible privilege, this legal right.
Because I believe in the power of education.
When I was in high school, I was not the ideal student (to any of the teachers who had to put up with me: I’m sorry!!). When I spoke to the senior girls yesterday, many of them were surprised to hear that I was not always a model, straight-A, high achieving student. I missed a lot of school – oftentimes over thirty, maybe forty, days a semester. It reached a point where there was the possibility of having to repeat my first few years of high school.
On a deeper level, my study at university thus far has taught me that I was not the ideal student for an educational institution from birth. I now study people like me. Statistically, it was very unlikely for me to succeed. The government would diagnose me as low-SES, at-risk, a compulsive truant, LBOTE, potential anxiety, potential depression and so on and so forth. This is government talk for ‘poor’, non-white, underperforming, and at risk of squandering away my potential in life.
And it’s true – neither of my parents finished high school, my dad’s a bus driver, and my mum can’t speak fluent English. In primary school, I remember being embarrassed that my parents couldn’t speak English or respond with normal social cues during parent teacher interviews, embarrassed that my Dad was a bus driver, embarrassed that I didn’t have a study room or someone who could help me with homework. And this is one of my deepest points of shame: that I learnt to be embarrassed of the people who sacrificed everything for me and who taught me how to live and love. But where did I learn to be embarrassed about my cultural heritage and about my family?
I have realised that young people are extremely open to learning and absorbing everything around them. But the double edged sword here reveals that young people are also very sensitive to internalising and believing the terrible and dehumanising and self-destructive messages that we send out about what a good student should look like, what a good family looks like, what good parents look like, and what kind of student is supposed to be a lawyer or doctor or engineer or a housewife.
Whenever I look back at highschool, I feel like I, somehow, broke free of a path that others in society had carved for me against my consent. One that wasn’t carved out based on my choices or autonomy or desire or voice. But one that the world decided was, simply, how it has to be.
That leads to what Bethlehem did for me, and for the girls in my grade, and for the girls who have learnt in these purple uniforms for so many years. Every year, the sacrifice and work of so many teachers result in hundreds of young girls growing into women who can carve their own paths.
And what this school taught me was that we are free to pursue a social reality that is better than the one that we have lived through today. And that tomorrow, you and I will be closer to that world. And that every iota of self-discipline we develop, whether it’s being able to simply sit down and open an assessment notification, or study hard for an exam, will come in handy later down the track, when hard work and discipline are the entrance fees to the creation of a better world.
What this school does, is it afford students agency. You are not a helpless subject, a low-SES, at-risk Korean girl or just another girl, or just another kid. You are a human being. And a humanising education allows us to imagine and slowly move towards a world where young people, regardless of their social class, or race, gender, or sexuality, or religion, or ability can be free to learn, about themselves, about the vast and wondrous world that surrounds us all.
And that is what Bethlehem Day is about to me – it’s about celebrating this humanising school and the incredible possibilities that it enables for a better world.