WHEN Antoine Callope Tucker stepped into the grounds of St Patrick’s College, Shorncliffe, his new black leather shoes weren’t the only discomfort.
It was 2013 and the Year 8 student was somewhat bothered by his well-pressed dress shirt and tie.
But the greatest contrast to his former schooling in Normanton, near the Gulf of Carpentaria, was the northern Brisbane college’s population.
“St Pat’s school population was bigger than all of Normanton’s put together,” Antoine, now 18, said.
“(And) like all new kids, I was terrified. There were so many new faces, so many rules and so many ways of doing things.
“(It was) probably the most uncomfortable feeling of my life.”
The quietly-spoken young men, then in his pre-teen years, was accustomed to “chasing pigs out bush” and enjoying the customs of his Kurtijar people.
In reality, Antoine’s previous school attendance sat at about 33 per cent and his teachers, recognising his potential amid gaps in learning, put Antoine’s name forward for an Indigenous scholarship, with the support of his parents Sharrath and Selwyn Tucker.
To ensure the scholarship program’s success, a college family was required as a “homestay”.
Proud St Patrick’s College parents David and Finola Molloy knew their place, already home to four teenagers, was bursting at the seams.
David is the on-site manager of Nudgee Cemetery and Crematorium, and Finola is a finance officer for Southern Cross Catholic College, Scarborough.
With hectic lives and a full house, a strong inclination to help remained.
David’s family has Indigenous heritage from a paternal great-grandmother – plus, sons Aidan, now 24, Callum, 22, and Declan, 19, “had a lot of Indigenous friends” through their former college’s welcoming of students from the Tiwi Islands in the Northern Territory, particularly.
The Molloys’ daughter Bridget, now 16, had also “soaked up” her heritage and the company of the Indigenous friends who so often visited.
“The school rang and said they were looking for a family for a boy who was the youngest they’d ever had,” Finola said.
“We learnt he was 12 (years old) and into his football. With our boys all loving sport, the school thought Antoine would be a good fit for our family.”
The jovial mum with Irish heritage said they “took one look” at Antoine’s photo and agreed.
“When Antoine smiles, you can see his soul,” she said.
“We knew there was good in him and wanted to help if we could.
“I told Selwyn (Antoine’s dad), when we first met, that we’d treat Antoine like one of our own. I gave him my word.”
Sharing a room with the Molloys’ youngest son Declan, the boys’ bond was instant and “that meant there was no time for Antoine to feel scared or homesick”, David recalled.
David said Antoine’s new address, on the site of Nudgee Cemetery and Crematorium, “didn’t bother” their new family member “at all”.
Neither was school attendance an issue.
“Because his homestay brothers were going to school every day, that became the norm for Antoine,” David said.
“Antoine is a follower and he responded to rules and boundaries,” Finola said, adding, “Although he was bothered in the first term (of Year 8) by having to wear the school uniform for six days a week, the sixth being for Saturday sport.”
She described the changes in Antoine as “evolving ever so slowly”.
“At St Pat’s, the boys are treated with respect,” Finola said.
“Antoine learnt a different way to respond to problems, especially as part of a team.”
Finola expressed compassion for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander parents who maybe at a loss to encourage their children to attend school when those teenagers realised their peers weren’t attending.
“It can be very hard for parents,” she said, David adding, “It’s hard to learn times tables when you aren’t at school.”
“For Antoine, education was limited as school only went to Year 10,” Finola said.
“The scholarship changed the trajectory of his life.”
“Almost straight away, we told him he’s here as long as he needs to be,” David said.
“(And) that helped his education because he didn’t have to worry about where he’d call home.”
“In the final two years of his high school education, Antoine would get up, put on his tie and blazer and away he’d go, just like all his St Pat’s brothers,” Finola said.
During Antoine’s initial return home for school holidays the two mothers shared a frank conversation, reflective of these changes.
“Sharrath rang us and asked what we’d done to her son,” Finola said.
“She’d noticed a complete turn-around with his behaviour.
“He was telling his brother off for how he was talking, for example.”
Finola described Antoine as “the cement” that connected his Indigenous heritage to theirs.
“Antoine comes from a beautiful community of people and, through the scholarship program, we met some outstanding young men,” she said.
“Quite a few have graduated (high school) now and they are wonderful boys, who often would visit.
“We are so proud to have played a tiny role in their success.”
At his graduation ceremony last year, Antoine gave the Acknowledgement to Country and a memorable speech affirming the college’s leadership and staff who’d collectively contributed to his success.
“I’ve learnt so much about myself and what I’m capable of doing,” Antoine said.
“I’ve had so much support and have been surrounded by people who have never given up on me.”
Antoine named friends and each of the Molloy family, speaking of their constant “love and kindness”.
“You never let me back out or take the easy option and you always pushed me to do my best”, all those gathered heard of the Molloy’s support, “(And) I have always felt part of the family”.
The graduating student had a message for younger boys, saying, “Enjoy your time in school … Before you know it, you will be graduating as well.”
“I’ve always felt proud to be in green-and-gold,” Antoine said.
“Be proud of who you are and where you come from.
“There will be ups and downs but there will always be someone there for you.
“Fight the good fight.”
Finola said she and Sharrath “cried on each other’s shoulders” when it was time for Antoine to return to Normanton last year, after graduation.
“The last week Antoine was with us was like death by a thousand paper cuts,” she said.
“His parents put their trust in complete strangers, to give him a better future. They took a giant leap of faith with his future.”