The afternoon of our conference I walk from Central Station down Elizabeth Street, crossing to the other side of Cleveland Street into Redfern. The PCYC building is just a few blocks in. There’s nothing spectacular about the outside, but inside the walls are covered. Any space that isn’t decorated with a bright mural or student artwork is used for announcements: community events, support groups, hotlines for abuse, alcoholism and depression, dates of local plays and concerts.
I find Liz in a bright blue and yellow classroom she’s setting up for us. Six chairs are arranged in a circle. Biscuits and tea bags are laid out on a table behind us.
The boy arrives next, just walks into the room. He parks his bike in another room and comes in. Liz introduces us and he says hello. I try to smile but I think it’s more of a grimace and he sits down at a computer and fiddles around with it while we wait.
His mother comes in. When we are introduced she shakes my hand and hers feels cold and weak. I notice a large bruise under her right eye and my stomach turns. I don’t know anything about this family. I feel out of place, far from the middle-class California suburbs I grew up in where the most controversial social issue was how to separate your recycling.
The boy’s teacher and a large, muscular constable join us. The conference happens. We take turns talking. Liz is careful to make sure that we each have our say while the others listen quietly, but the rules and etiquette of it all make the setting too formal and get in the way of any real communication.
The boy says little, not out of pride or arrogance, but because he’s 14 and has a room full of authority figures staring at him. Every now and then he looks at me, briefly. He’s not angry. He seems more curious. His eyes look me over like maybe he’s never seen an American up close before.
When I speak my voice shakes a little from emotion. I tell him about that night, what I did, how I felt. I don’t know if it makes a difference. Maybe yelling and getting angry would have more of an effect.
His mother apologises to me. I didn’t want her to. She wants him to learn from this, to do better. His teacher says he’s a good kid with almost perfect attendance. He’s just completed a five-week chef course and did well in it. She hopes this was the beginning and end of his criminal record.
It is agreed that he will commit to this school program for the next six months. He’s already been there for a year and a half, so it’s doable. His teacher will keep tabs on him. His mother will make sure he follows his curfew and other conditions of his bail, which I didn’t know he had. If he breaks any of these conditions he will go back to court, and possibly to jail. We all sign off on this plan, leave the biscuits uneaten, and put the tables and chairs back in place, turning the room into a classroom again.
Liz offers me a ride back into the city and I’m relieved not to have to walk back as it’s beginning to get dark. “Will it work?” I ask. “Do you think he’ll do ok?” She doesn’t know. Some do, some don’t. She says it doesn’t help that a lot of teenagers know people in jail, so that it doesn’t seem like a scary place to them. They have friends and family inside to hang out with.
The Department of Juvenile Justice Annual Report states that Aboriginal people are over-represented in the NSW juvenile justice system, making up around 40% of the detention centre population.
I try to picture him there, but he looks too young to go someplace so hard, someplace where the walls aren’t painted in rainbow colours. I see him in a chef’s hat instead, working in a kitchen, making friends, having some money to bring home to his family. I wonder which picture of himself he has.
“Well, enjoy the rest of your time in Australia!” Liz says. I thank her and she drives off, leaving me in the middle of the city. Darling Harbour is to the west, the Opera House straight ahead, my place near the beach to the east. I think about all of the sights on my list of things to see in Australia, the people I wanted to meet: Surfers and koala bears and bushmen and backpackers. But not this kid. This isn’t the cultural experience I planned to have, and it won’t go into my photo album, but it’s the one that will stay with me the longest.