Portrait

In class with trans teacher Ernest Price. By Maxine Beneba Clarke.

High school teacher Ernest Price

At the back of the single-classroom demountable is a table filled with Doritos, sweet biscuits, crackers and dip. Someone’s mum has baked melt-in-your-mouth brownies. The students, an articulate motley crew of Anglo Australian, Mediterranean Australian, Asian Australian and African Australian kids, are clad mostly in study-vacation jeans and jumpers. They sit, shyly at first, in a wide, plastic-chaired circle.

Mr Price fiddles with an iPad, trying to project the class’s questions onto the screen at the front of the room. “Oh my God. Seriously Sir. Do you want me to just do that for you?” The student rolls his eyes, but there’s fondness in his voice. The rest of the class titters, sneaking amused glances over at me.

“C’mon guys. I’ve got it now. Settle down.” There’s an unusual magic in the way Mr Price talks to these cusp-of-adulthood kids: midway between schoolyard bestie, concerned parent and the hip uncle who turns a blind eye when you a sneak beer at the family barbecue.

“Your story Gaps in the Hickory…” says Mr Price, addressing me. “It was great to read something about a trans kid. We talked a lot about whether the mother in the story did the right thing. ’Cause you know,” Mr Price’s grey-blue eyes sparkle, “these guys are teenagers. They like to judge.” He raises an eyebrow and looks pointedly around the room. The class giggles. “And they’ve been with me through my own transition.”

I adjust my bearings, a black Australian author, in a multi-hued class of teenagers, in Melbourne’s outer west, discussing literary fiction with them and their transgender teacher. As a child marked – and almost broken – by the bigoted conservatism of ’80s and ’90s Australian classrooms, I can hear my soul sing.

“For quite a while, it seemed like an impossible thing.” Ernest Price strokes his immaculately clipped beard. It’s almost a year after my visit to his class. We’re picking at snacks, at the small pine dining table of my home in Melbourne’s west. “Yeah, it seemed impossible: to medically transition while I was still teaching. But there was a trans student at the school. And I started thinking to myself: if a 16-year-old kid can transition in a school environment, then so can I.” And so the teacher became the taught. There’s still awe in his soft tone at his student’s bravery. “I was out as trans in my friendship group, and ultimately it got to a stage where I couldn’t not do it.”

“I started hormone replacement therapy over the summer… I told about 130 people at the staff meeting.” I sit speechless for a moment; let the enormity of this vulnerability settle. “A couple of staff members walked out,” Ernest shrugs, resigned. “Nothing really came of them leaving the room while I was talking. I spoke to the principal about it later and the principal made some excuse about them needing to go to the bathroom.”

There were indignities. Being asked to use the disabled toilets, rather than the male toilets; finding the toilets locked on occasion. A staff member returned from leave and insisted on using female pronouns, for an extended period of time. When confronted, she asserted it would take a while to adjust.

I think about the kids I met in Ernest’s classroom, the care and respect they seemed to have for each other, and their teacher. “I was the grade 10 co-ordinator that year, so I told 250 grade 10s at an assembly… The kids were great. I gave them permission to ask whatever questions they wanted but said I would let them know if I was feeling uncomfortable. I never had a problematic question though. They were just genuinely curious.” Ernest adjusts his black-rimmed glasses. The warmth with which he speaks about his students straightens his shoulders, lights up his face. He rolls back a sleeve of his blue and black flannelette shirt, reaches for an olive.

“We had elements of the Safe Schools program,” Ernest explains, speaking about the national anti-bullying program aimed at creating safe and inclusive school environments for same-sex attracted, intersex and gender diverse students, staff and families. “But we kind of had our own version of Safe Schools… There was a big shift around the frequent use of the word gay as an insult. The kids got really active around the issue.” I ask him how he feels about the current challenges to the Safe Schools program. “In a sense, the damage has been done already, through the media.” Those who suffer most, says Ernest, will be the kids who struggle at home, with families that don’t understand or support them, particularly where there might be cultural issues around sexuality. “The individual advocacy work will be what goes.”

There have been, as well, some major revelations during the process of physically aligning the female body Ernest was born in, with the male he was born. “It’s exposed so much about sexism. We keep saying we need more male English teachers. Why? The female English teachers are doing a brilliant job. Women make up 98 per cent of the teaching workforce. It’s an insult. There’s a palpable unconscious bias towards male teachers.”

Then there’s the way male colleagues will sometimes attempt to bond. “This one colleague started whingeing about his ex-wife,” Ernest screws up his face and squirms, thinking about it. “But then at the same time, you know, you’re so excited about being read as male.”
At home there’s the transition from a queer relationship to a decidedly heterosexual one. “Doing chores like mowing the lawn, I feel weird about now.” He laughs. “And I’m careful of taking up too much space, as a straight white man.”

Several weeks after Ernest and I meet for our interview, the issue of white flight is exposed in the national press. Anglo-Australian parents are moving their kids out of local inner-city schools, in deliberate avoidance of black and brown classmates. I think instantly of Ernest, and his students. Of the Chinese-Australian boy who read to me in a flawless pitch-perfect Southern American accent; of the sharp African-Australian girl who eagerly interrogated me about writing Melbourne’s west onto the literary map. I think about the discussions we had: about racism, gender, family, community and literature.

I think about my own kids being taught by dedicated, passionate people such as Ernest, and I know, sure as I breathe, that whatever the roadblocks, our future will be rainbow bright.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 4, 2016 as "Being Ernest". Subscribe here.

Maxine Beneba Clarke
is the author of The Hate Race and Foreign Soil.

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