Think of a time when someone, or something, didn’t meet your expectations. How did you come to terms with the disappointment?
In May 1959, the W.A. Education Department had all schools – even private ones – do a census on the ages of the students in their final year (which was then called ‘Leaving’, in Perth, where I was born). Why this was I have no idea: knowing now a little of bureacrats, they probably didn’t either … but the fact is that one schoolday morning Mother R stood at the head of the Leaving classroom and called out our names one by one, to which we had to answer in years and months.
When it came to me and I responded, she stopped very briefly and gave me A Look, but said nothing. Later, I came to understand that her Look meant my life was to be changed pretty radically.
Having been called to her office a couple of days later, I found to my amazement that my parents were there. They were looking … not grim, but determined.
Mother R told me that they were all in agreement that I was not to sit for the public exams that year and then leave school; but that I would return to spend a second year in Leaving, and sit for them the following year. I gaped. Kindly, she explained that it was felt I was too young to leave school, let alone to attend University. (Being indeed immature, I did not pick up the implied compliment – it never crossed my mind, until many years later.) I swung the gaping glance in the direction of my parents, who, while continuing to look determined, also looked somewhat uneasy.
Let us pass over all the “But, Mother !” stuff that ensued: it is not important, for it was entirely wasted. And it didn’t last all that long, as it had already struck me that I was going to have a very easy rest-of-year indeed. Which I did.
At the beginning of the following school year, when all the setting up of who does what occurred, I found that I had been elected Head Prefect. This was such a weird situation that it’s difficult to describe: suffice it to say that I had, a couple of years before, been more used to being carpeted than not, really. But there I was, elected to bear the responsibility and very proud to do so. I thought the nuns allowed it because they hoped it might make me A Better Person – that, or it might take my mind off having to spend another year in school …
It was strange that all the girls with whom I’d spent the years from kindergarten onwards were gone, and I was there with the lot beneath, so to speak. Took a bit of getting used to; but at that age kids are pretty resilient. Besides, the class ‘beneath’ were a very nice group: I was lucky.
I hope none of ‘em minds – I did make it small …
I had become a boarder because the Head Pre had to be one: she could not simply shut up shop and go home and the end of each school day. All of us sisters had boarded from time to time – the two oldest girls for many years, in fact. But this was different: there were places I had to be and rôles I had to play in my new position. For instance, after meals, which the boarders had in a dining-room reached along a long wooden and semi-enclosed verandah, I had to stand at the top of a set of stairs that were the final exit and watch for crimes like talking in the exit queue and … I can’t remember any others. It’s all gone. (Why everyone had to be silent in that queue waiting to leave, I didn’t know: one didn’t question these things – They Were, and that was that.) Of course there were criminals who did talk in the queue, and I would allot them punishments to suit the frightfulness of their crimes, such as an extra half-hour in the study period for boarders at the end of school days, when the others would be out having ‘play’.
And this was where the frightful disappointment affected my life: affected it so badly that I lost all will to ever again try to be a team player, and have remained a somewhat difficult individual for all my long years.
Mother R, who was also Mistress of Schools and in that position overseeing all things behavioural in the students, was keeping her eagle eye on me. It transpired that she had never been confident I could be Head Prefect with anything like the necessary gravitas and dedication; and having come to that decision, she simply acted as if it were the right one without bothering to wait and observe.
Whenever I gave a student one of these fearful punishments, she would cancel it behind my back. Nothing was ever said to me: her negation of my position was carried out in secret, as it were; and the frequent sinners, forgiven their sins for what reason no logic can possibly ascertain, then or now, kept shtum. It took me a good long while before I realised what was going on; when one evening a kid I’d sentenced to helping the lay sisters clean up the dining-room turned up within moments on the tennis-court. When I called her to come over to me, she turned to Mother R, standing nearby, and that worthy woman made a gesture to me that let me know beyond doubt the kid was, so to speak, under her ægis and not mine. Light dawned. Explanation of several puzzling events was instantly at hand. I turned away in utter rage.
I mistakely blamed my parents for this: I thought they had connived with her. In fact they knew nothing of it; and when I finally addressed the issue with my beloved father, he was very angry – and not with me. Had I spoken to him about it immediately, I would’ve saved myself many months of misery and isolation, and this was a salutory lesson that I’ve never forgotten: now I take issue whenever something arises, and don’t let it lie there and ferment.
My father spoke with her, and my situation was somewhat improved thereafter – but I had no more faith in my position, and certainly not in her. She had created the situation; and once I knew my parents had had nothing to do with it, I simply went through the motions without dedication. I obtained my Matriculation (an amazing thing, as I scarcely studied at all) and walked away from the school in which I’d spent twelve years of my short life with a fairly nasty taste in my mouth.
There were no winners: it was lose/lose.