Of lutes, language, ouds and odes – Margaret Mary Flynn

He stepped through the door of the room I was using for entry interviews. A young man, dark hair, and the oval face, straight nose, strong eyebrows and lustrous dark eyes of Byzantine inheritance. We shook hands. Mehmet, in halting English, outlined his request.

He was already half-way through a Diploma in Engineering at the TAFE, but wanted to finish his VCE. I was the co-ordinator of VCE for Adults, running a small one-year program to fast track over-18s through this secondary qualification, the gateway to so many areas of tertiary study, or job-seeking.

‘Mehmet, you are already in a tertiary course. Why do you even need to do VCE?’

‘Yes. But I not finish Year 12. I want to finish. I fail English. I want finish.’

‘But if you are already studying full time in another course, how will you manage this as well?’

‘I can do. I can do.’

We talk some more, as I try to assess the intangibles that tell old teachers about all the things ‘objective tests’ purport to measure – ability, stickability, character, understanding and desire.

He tells me of his background. The oldest son of Turkish immigrants, he lives with his widowed mother in an isolated hamlet 50 kilometres from the TAFE. How the family came to find themselves, with no English, living in a clapped-out goldfield town in a chronically disadvantaged community, I never found out.

He was not so different from the others who came into these Year 12 classes. So often they had slipped through the cracks. Some had undiagnosed learning difficulties that made leaving school at 14 less shameful than staying. Some had spent most of Year Nine and Year Ten on the chair outside the Co-ordinator’s office. Perhaps the family had broken down, and their education had become collateral damage. Maybe they’d had a baby to love and be loved by, in a loveless world. Or mental illness had creamed-out those years when they should have been kicking the goals of their youth.

They all knew what it was to run on the outside rim of the outside lane of life, and I was often phoning the Board of Studies, brokering exemptions for non-standard circumstances.

Nevertheless, Mehmet already had the other three subjects. Worth a try.

There was a saying around the TAFE: ‘The tide comes in, and the tide goes out.’ It referred to the number of students who would simply disappear after the Easter break, which generally coincided with the first serious assignments and the end of daylight saving.

With Mehmet, the tide was constantly out, it seemed. His exasperating solution to his timetable clash was to attend those Year 12 English classes he could skip engineering classes for. I never knew if he would be there or not. He was constantly behind with assignments, and his writing skills were grim. His papers were returned to him covered in red notes, and I would sit with him in the corridor working through them in the odd moments he could harvest out of his diploma course that coincided with my days of work.

The time came for the Oral CAT, and two precious weeks of class time were set aside for ten-minute oral presentations. He had not been at class for two weeks. I phoned. An older woman answered, her English almost non-existent, and we stumbled through a message.

The days passed; still he was not at class. If he did not present his CAT, I could not assess him as I had assessed his classmates – presenting yourself before an audience of your peers. Even my best bush-lawyering could not bend that rule.

At the last class, he came. He was carrying a musical instrument none of us had ever seen or heard before – an oud. It looked like a very long-handled lute, with many more strings. It was exquisite, and very delicate. He handled it as if it were a baby.

Mehmet’s difficulties expressing himself disappeared as he spoke of its history and fragility, his own musical journey, and the significance for his people of their national instrument. Then he played for us. Oud music is wistful, yearning and complex. It speaks to the heart and soul. He played for us until the break, and for that time we knew ourselves to be honoured.

As we left the room, the corridor was crowded. People clapped. Into that busy place, beauty had intruded, and been welcomed; Level Two had stopped to listen.

In January of the following year, the VCE results came through. I was pleased to see that our students had won through, either with a whole VCE, or a subject. Mehmet had passed English. Just.

Leonie from the office rang to let me know someone was wanting me at the desk. I went down. It was Mehmet, glowing with delight, his arms ludicrously full of blocks of chocolate for me. Dropping them on a chair, he clasped both my hands together in his and shook them up and down.

‘I have my VCE! I pass. I pass!! Thank you, my teacher!’

Mercy creates spaces, in places where spaces are not.