I interviewed Jessica Smith in 2010 after she had been awarded the National NAIDOC Youth of the Year title. This interview and photograph appeared in issue 39 of Frankie Magazine. Photo by Mindi Cooke.
When I was in Grade 5 I found out I was Indigenous. By the end of Grade 8 I’d realised that being Aboriginal was something that other people didn’t think was very good. I remember going out of history class in tears because people were laughing at me. Even though I didn’t look what people consider to be typically Aboriginal, I didn’t see that. I really knuckled down to my work; I was determined not to be that Aboriginal kid who dropped out of school. Then at the start of Year 12 I fell pregnant. That was probably the worst thing that I could imagine happening at that time.
I was in the running for school captain and had all these plans. I didn’t know if the school would keep me on — I was on a scholarship. And I didn’t think any other school would take on a pregnant girl. Also, I kind of knew that Mum and Dad wouldn’t let me stay at home. Fortunately the school said I could stay so I was able to finish. Finding out that I got into the course of my choice at uni was probably the second most exciting day of my life, after having Eden — which was exciting in a different way. I was petrified.
My son was four months old when I started first semester. Then one day he just started vomiting and went limp. We rushed him to the hospital and for seven days he lay there in a huge hospital bed. This little tiny baby, not moving, not crying, nothing. I remember looking out the window and I could see my uni. I was supposed to be there. And I was like, I cannot even think about study when my son is here…dying. That was probably the first time I ever had to let something go for someone else. The doctors fixed what was wrong and I spent that next year rasing him at home. I didn’t realise it at the time, but I had become depressed.
We were living of practically nothing — a single mother’s pension. It was just enough to cover electricity, petrol, food and rent. I certainly didn’t ever go out. But to me that was okay because I had my son and I was working towards a way out. That’s what pushed me towards good marks. But by the third year I had dropped nearly 20 kilos and had anorexia. I did not want to accept that I had a mental illness. At my lowest point, towards the end of fourth year, I didn’t want to live anymore and ended up in hospital.
That was when Mum had to take a big step into my life and I had to reach out to her. In the hospital I realised I wanted to get well and I wanted to help other people get an education like I had. Growing up I has seen people who had nothing: a mattress on the floor and walls falling down. That to me was reality.
I saw a job in the paper for an Indigenous support officer. But it was more like a teacher’s aide job. At the interview they asked me why I had even applied because I’d finished uni with two degrees, first class honours in education and a distinction in the drama degree. I asked, “Is this a job where I can help Indigenous kids succeed? Where I can inspire young people to do their best?” They said definitely. And they decided to pay me as a teacher. I’m still in that job and working towards my Doctor of Visual Arts.
There are a lot of stereotypes that I don’t fit the mould of, that I guess on paper I am. Single mum. Aboriginal. Low-income person. I’ve been to interviews and things where you have to fill out paperwork before you get there. The person would call out my name and then I’d stand up and they’d say, “Oh no, I don’t think I’ve got the right person. Have you got a child? Are you sure?” I’ve never understood that concept; that you could somehow tell someone from the way they look. I don’t understand why people would ever think that.Add Comment