'Something extraordinary is happening' at Holroyd High School

As she sits in her office at Holroyd High, chatting over a lunch of tuckshop sandwiches, it is no stretch to imagine Dorothy Hoddinott at 23. The year is 1967. Dorothy Bingham, as she was then, clambers off a boat in Naples with a mountain of luggage containing the essentials for her first overseas adventure: miniskirts and kangaroo-skin coat, an Onkaparinga travel rug and a metal trunk full of books. She will lug them to London where she will run into Clive James, Germaine Greer, Richard Walsh and Richard Neville.

Walsh and Neville are the wizards of Oz - the magazine whose London incarnation will soon be fighting the longest obscenity trial in British history. A few years earlier Walsh was young Dorothy's editor at Honi Soit, the irreverent Sydney Uni publication for which she cartooned, as Aunty Dottie, and wrote alongside the precocious scribblings of Bob Ellis, Laurie Oakes, Bruce Beresford and Les Murray. Dorothy played A-grade squash, too, and made time for a role as an extra in the feature film Blunderball, Albie Thoms's James Bond spoof featuring a bumbling, overweight Agent Minus 007. ''My role,'' Hoddinott recalls, ''was to loll around a swimming pool in a bikini.''

Today Hoddinott is 69. ''It will come as no surprise to you that I no longer wear a bikini.'' Perhaps, but she is a remarkably young 69. For the past 17 years she has been the principal at Holroyd High, a school that has become a veritable ark for children who reach Australia on flimsy boats. ''The kindest principal in the world,'' volunteers a young girl in a hijab as we tour the grounds in the suburb of Greystanes.

''If you look around,'' says Hoddinott, ''six out of every 10 students here are refugees. A third have been in Australia for less than three years. Most arrive with no English at all; many are illiterate. And yet 40 per cent are going on to university. Compare that with a national average of 30 per cent. Something is happening here that is quite extraordinary.

''We have children who have seen their parents murdered; we have children who have been raped; we have children who have been forced to live in poverty and fear in refugee camps. So our first task is to normalise lives - coming to school on time, having books, wearing uniforms. The semiotics of that are very powerful.''

Hoddinott will talk all day about the bravery of her students, the dedication of her staff and the transformative power of education.

She was born in Chatswood in 1943. ''My father was a Gallipoli veteran. He had to re-establish his life after the war, so he didn't marry till he was 40. My mother was 18 years younger.'' Meningitis claimed the Binghams' first child, Teddy, when he was six. ''My mother was pregnant with me when my brother died. The sadness moved her all her life. He's like a phantom child to me - he was there but not there.''

A younger brother, Alan, was there for an otherwise ''pleasant'' upbringing. Dorothy attended Willoughby Public and the selective North Sydney Girls. She graduated from university in 1965 with a bachelor of arts and a diploma of education. After two years' teaching at Beverly Girls High, she bought a one-way ticket to Naples. ''So there I was in Europe with my kangaroo-skin coat, my mini-skirts and fairly limited funds.''

She worked at a school on London's industrial outskirts. ''That was a bit of an eye-opener. It was the school of no hope. It left me with a lasting impression of what not to do with kids from a disadvantaged background.''

At a film festival one night, ''one of my flatmates, a ballet dancer, said: 'Oh, look, there's Hoddie.' I knew his face from Sydney University. He was involved in theatre there. She said, 'Would you like to meet him?' There you go - that's the way you meet.''

John Hoddinott was an aeronautical engineer working in aerospace, but that industry collapsed in the 1960s. He moved to computers and Olivetti lured him to Milan. Dorothy would go with him, but first: ''We got married in the Kensington registry office - 12,000 miles from any relatives.''

In Milan she learned Italian. ''Having another language shifts your perception of the world. The language moulds the way you think and you don't necessarily think the English way.'' She soon became head English teacher at the international school. She stays in touch with some of those students. Such lifelong friendships are a hallmark of her career.

The Hoddinotts headed home in 1975, travelling through Greece, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan (''so incredibly poor, a glimpse into what life might have been like in mediaeval times'' - and a glimpse into a land that would be the source of many of her future students), Pakistan, India, Malaysia, Singapore and home. And broke. But the couple soon established a Boxing Day ritual, a sprawling party at their Glebe home for all sorts. John became a passionate supporter of theatre. Dorothy taught at high schools, studied English as a second language ''when it was a new thing''.

The year she joined Holroyd High as principal, in 1995, senior students ''trashed'' the school. ''I vowed we would never again have a muck-up day. It showed disrespect. So, in 1996, I abolished all the school rules; masses of rules that were just irrelevant. You know, 'club someone to death with piece of wood' is about the same as 'chewing gum'.'' In their place, parents, students and teachers came up with a core value: respect.

It is palpable today as we wander the playgrounds. These kids are remarkably polite, and happy. So are the teachers. We drop in on staff celebrating the Indian festival of lights, Deepavali, with an Aussie barbecue. Hoddinott plucks a sausage from a plate before we return to her office for our tuckshop sandwiches. Here she plucks names from the air: Holroyd's success stories.

Bashir Yousufi, 16, an asylum seeker from Afghanistan, who has travelled to the United Nations in Geneva to talk about child refugees. ''He's only been here a nanosecond and he's already a rising star.''

Sayed Reza Moosawi was an illiterate, ''unattached minor'' from Afghanistan when he came to the school at 14. When he discovered his family was still alive in Pakistan, Hoddinott drove him to Canberra to present his submission to Amanda Vanstone to bring them to Australia. It worked. ''He was vice-captain of our school and a completely changed person by year 12.'' He has been an Auburn young citizen of the year.

Sisters Nooria and Najeeba Wazefadost, fearing the Taliban, had gone to a clandestine school. They came by boat to Australia and were held in detention. ''Nooria, with only a small amount of English, stood up at a rally in Canberra said powerfully: 'Children should be in school, not in jail.' Very brave girl - because she was on a temporary protection visa at the time.'' Hoddinott and colleagues joined the protests. ''We took the school bell.'' She picks up the bell in her office now and rings it. ''That'll get your attention.'' Najeeba, ''articulate and bright'', has established the Afghan Hazara Women's Association and is a regular on the ABC's Q&A.

And there is Zainab Kaabi, who came to the school from the Woomera detention centre. ''I think she spent three terms in our intensive English centre. Then she came into term two of year 11. By the end of term three she was something like equal third in the year - a very gifted girl.'' But, early in year 12, Zainab told the principal that Centrelink had called. Her benefit had been cancelled because she had turned 18. She would have to quit school. ''It was one of those stupidities, those bureaucratic inanities,'' says Hoddinott. ''What a waste of human potential. I said, 'I won't let you go.' '' The principal set up a trust fund, Friends of Zainab. Donors got Zainab through her HSC. She received an offer from Macquarie University for medical science, but she could only attend as a full fee-paying international student. Hoddinott called the university and said: ''I'll pay her fees, but I think my credit card limit won't be enough. Can I pay on two cards.'' Academics intervened and the university gave Zainab a scholarship and ''refunded me most of the fees. Not all, but most. I'm a glass-half-full type of person. I think things will turn out all right in the end.''

They often have. Zainab, now 29, is married with twin daughters. She has just completed her final exams for a bachelor of pharmacy. The fund started in her name now operates under the Public Education Foundation and this year awarded 12 scholarships statewide to refugees. ''These are the very sorts of people Australia wants,'' says Hoddinott. ''Hard-working, motivated … some of the most enterprising people we are likely to see. If you go back a couple of generations, you've got the Frank Lowys who also came as refugees , and they've enriched Australian society. I have no doubt these young people will, too.''

Which makes the idea of retirement difficult. Hoddinott thought about it after a serious accident four years ago that left her suffering from a permanent shoulder impairment. ''I can't play tennis or ski,'' she complains mildly, ''but my mind wasn't affected.''

John Hoddinott died in 1999 but the Boxing Day party continues. ''It's in its 37th year this year. It's like a gallery of Sydney Uni in the '60s.''

But she has many new friends who give her reasons to bat on.

''I went to an engagement party the other night for an Iraqi girl who had come as an asylum seeker … . she's just finished her university degree. And when I walked into the room - it was all young women, wonderful in their miniskirts and impossibly high heels - there must have been 30 or 40 who came to greet me. They'd all been at this school, and almost every one of them arrived as a refugee. And every single one of them is either still in tertiary education or has graduated. One is doing her masters in nuclear radiology. The fact that those girls rose to their feet and came to tell me what they were doing - that's profoundly moving for a teacher.''

And for her students, no doubt.

‘‘These are the very sorts of people Australia wants’’ ... Principal Dorothy Hoddinott. Photo: Wolter Peeters.

‘‘These are the very sorts of people Australia wants’’ ... Principal Dorothy Hoddinott. Photo: Wolter Peeters.

This story 'Something extraordinary is happening' at Holroyd High School first appeared on Parramatta Sun.