A few hours ago, the online magazine “Birdee” published an article by Olympia Nelson. I feel like I must say up front that Birdee is one of my favourite magazines and a site I frequent almost daily, but this particular article seemed to me to be so narrow-minded that I was incredibly disappointed. Titled, “Chris Lilley: The Status Whisperer” and carrying the subheading “Private School Winners”, I had initially hoped that Olympia Nelson’s article would be a satirical account about Chris Lilley’s new show “Ja’mie: Private School Girl”. Unfortunately, I was instead assaulted with the apparently “truthful” parallel the show creates with “real-life” circumstances of private schools. If you have heard of the outright horrible attitude portrayed by Lilley’s “Ja’mie”, you will understand why. Amongst other things, she is a bully, a racist, a classist, a homophobe, and just an outright evil bitch. (The trailer should give you a fair idea). To describe this as an accurate representation of the attitudes carried by any student or their school is simply twisted.
After reading this article a few times in an attempt to let it sink in, I have to say I am still shocked, slightly insulted, and wholly disappointed. Olympia Nelson is a young person who, according to her biography, prides herself on being passionate about speaking out against how the media can “misunderstand and discourage young people… through its parade of stereotypes”. Yet through her article, she herself has been ignorant and stereotypical and I cannot believe what a massive generalisation is being made by Olympia. Sure, she concedes a few times that perhaps private school students have some capacity in their quite obviously cold and elitist hearts for kindness, but “only on the basis that they can transcend the ‘leadership pomposity’ of their school”. It is as though Olympia is suggesting that all private school students – even if they may possibly have a potential for some inkling of kindness somewhere – are slaves to their schools; totally brainwashed and incapable of individual thought. Does she really believe that young people, in this modern era, are that gullible? I myself have been a student at both a public and a private school, and as I have discovered, if you scrape the surface of the so-called “conceit that has sold” some (and I emphasise some) private schools, you will find that many private schools actually have positive and beneficial developmental programs in place, which ensure favourable outcomes in students. These programs encourage and foster morals and values to create students who truly care about the world around them and are willing to stand up for what is equal, not put down those who are “disadvantaged”.
Another oversight of Olympia’s is that she assumes that all private schools promote the attitude of “winning” versus “losing” – and she disdainfully suggests that if they don’t, it is obviously a mere facade of condescension and patronising attitudes. Sure, Lilley’s “Ja’mie” character may paint a picture of a few private schools, but it is a massive – and quite frankly insulting – oversight of the vast majority that don’t have these attitudes. The independent school which I attended was a brilliant place to grow up, and I was constantly surrounded by teachers and students who promoted positive values. Never once was I told that we had any kind of “advantage” or “privilege” over public and state schools, or that we should make judgements of others based upon this. Modesty was definitely never a “foreign concept” – sure, we celebrated achievements, but we never believed we were superior to anybody else because of our successes. Positive, just and fair attitudes came not only from our teachers, but over time from within ourselves, based on the values we had been taught. Over the years, I have attended inter-school events with a mixture of private, catholic and public school students, and the ‘divide’ which Olympia suggests exists has rarely ever been noted – by myself or by other students. I have been inspired my the vast majority of my teachers and peers, as I see them as down-to-earth people from all different backgrounds, and I believe I am a better, morally well-adjusted person because of their influence. I wouldn’t consider myself, my schooling, my peers or my family to be “privileged” or “elitist” in any way – and in fact, I would be shocked if anyone else held this view.
Another point that Olympia makes is that Ja’mie is high on “power-swagger” because she is “boss of the school”. Olympia is referring to Ja’mie’s role as school captain, and I would like to assert that somebody like Ja’mie wouldn’t ever become school captain at any of the schools I have attended or have experienced through inter-school activities. Wherever you go – public, catholic or private – teachers are not as gullible as what they seem on “Ja’mie: Private School Girl” – this is a comedic technique of Lilley’s because of its juxtaposition with the truth, not its parallel with it. They can pick out bullies and will not view them positively, no matter what their “privileged” background. The private school which I attended constantly enacted a “zero tolerance policy” towards bullying – whether it be revolving around race, ‘social class’, sexual orientation or any other basis. This was enforced superbly and we rarely had bullying problems. Ja’mie’s view of the world could most definitely not “come straight out of a brochure for a private school” as Olympia suggests. Please, correct me if I’m wrong, but education is about promoting positive values not matter what the stream of the system. No school that I know would ever promote homophobia, racism or disdain towards other people like Ja’mie does.
I’ll emphasise this point: there are some (some!) private school students who hold the same abysmal values as Ja’mie. There are also some, (again, some!) private schools which undoubtedly do sell an elitist attitude to students, and who are, in Olympia’s own words, “in a perpetual struggle to maintain the air of advantage”. However, from my observations, there are also public schools and public school students which do the same, and I think to force the blame solely onto private schools is a disappointing misjudgement. It is perhaps those who rule society in general who create this sense of elitism, and like many other attitudes, occasionally this seeps into our schooling system – not just private, but every stream. However, the vast majority of students do not allow themselves to be caught up in the depressingly bigoted attitudes of some of our elders. We’re young, we have our own opinions, and many of us want to change the thinking of the world! This brings me to my next point.
Olympia finishes with the statement, “Ultimately we all have to live with the results of our families choosing our aspirations from a tender age”. By “aspirations” she clearly means, “schooling system” or alternatively “profession”, and this is yet another point where Olympia has made a judgement which, in actuality, is far from the truth. I see youth transcending the expectations of their families and society every day. Nothing irks me more than when intelligent students are told, “you’re too smart to be a teacher/tradesperson/writer (et al.), why don’t you become a doctor/lawyer/rocket scientist?” While these are great professions to aspire to if it is the true dream of the student, nothing makes me happier than when students unabashedly and honestly reply with “because that’s not what I want to do with my life!”. I see this frequently – at my school and in broader society – and often it is a young person talking about breaking away from the expectations of their families. When this happens, my heart rises with joy. It’s the twenty-first century, and young people are becoming more and more empowered to do what they want with their lives. This fact is not bound by ‘social class’, family structure, or schooling system – no matter what our walk of life, we are all intelligent young people who can make our own decisions without being bound by decisions made by others.
Olympia herself says that she has attended a public school; clearly she hasn’t ever experienced life at an independent school. I’m certainly not judging her on that one – nor am I judging any other state school student (my education has taught me better than that). What I am saying is that I believe she should be well informed of the realities of a topic before she makes sweeping generalisations about it. It seems quite an unfortunate hypocrisy that the judgemental attitudes of private school students being discussed in the article are the very same generalised attitudes being displayed by Olympia towards all private school students, with minimal exception. If Olympia could only move out of her narrow – and quite frankly stereotypical – mindset that all private schools and their students are arrogant and conceited, then perhaps her argument would hold some more validity with readers.