The long Christmas holidays came to an end, and it was finally time to start school on the first of February, 1972. I hadn’t been to school for what seemed like ages, and I was looking forward to meeting children of my own age. In my mind, I thought school in Australia would be similar to my experiences of education in England. As I was only eleven, I was to enrol at the local primary school in grade 6. My mother, however, thought otherwise. She marched into the Education Department offices and argued her case. In Austria, I had already attended high school and therefore, at the very least, I should start in Form 1 or what is known as Year 7 now. What she failed to tell them was that Austrian primary school only went for four years. She was loud, self-righteous and refused to leave until she was given the answer she was after. I stood next to her in silence, head slightly bowed overcome by embarrassment and shame.
I was the youngest in my class in Form 1 at Elwood Central. Mrs Mac was our teacher and I remember her as a kindly woman whom I looked up to. She had long, dark brown hair which she wore in a thick plait to one side. I found the asymmetry of the style fascinating and tried to get my hair to sit like hers but only in front of my dressing-table mirror. It never looked quite as stylish. Yet for all her kindness, she did not understand the enormity of her actions on a child new to this country.
‘What’s your name?’ Mrs Mac asked on the first day, once I was settled at a desk.
‘Angela,’ I replied.
‘Let me see,’ she said, as she examined the roll.
‘Ah, there you are. But it says your name is Victoria.’
‘Yes, but nobody calls me by that name. Everyone calls me Angela, it’s my middle name,’ I explained.
‘I see. But we already have an Angela in this class. So you can be Victoria. It is such a pretty name and it is much easier that way.’
‘Yes, Miss,’ I replied.
It would never have crossed my mind to argue with a teacher or insist that she called me by my rightful name. I accepted her power to rename me but didn’t know how to react to it. I knew I was named after a Russian great aunt whom the family called Vicki but I was also called Angela after my paternal grandmother. It had been a compromise between my parents. My mother named me Viktoria in honour of the Russian aunt and my father named me Angela in honour of his mother. I tried on the new name but it felt stiff and formal like a starched shirt that chafed under the chin. And it chafed for a long time.
Eventually, in a bid to fit in, I shortened my name to Vicki. It didn’t really work. The name was never going to make a difference in how the other children perceived me. To the kids at Elwood, I was a ‘wog’ who tried too hard. I wasn’t going to fool them with a shortened version of my name. What they saw was a goody-two-shoes who wore her hair in two neatly braided plaits, who sat with her arms neatly folded and whose eyes never left the teacher. They watched in amazement as I stood next to my desk when called upon to speak. While I spoke quite well by then, my slight English accent at the time must have sounded imperious as though I was looking down on them. In my eyes the boys in that class were raucous, mischievous and slovenly. To them, I was fair game. They laughed at my plaits, my demeanour, my accent. Even Mrs Mac seemed embarrassed by my behaviour.
’Sit down,’ she said as her right hand made a downward motion. ‘You needn’t stand when you answer me.’
For my part, I couldn’t understand why she wouldn’t want me show her the respect she deserved. As far as I was concerned, she should have made the boys stand up when they spoke instead of letting them lean on their elbows or slouch in their seats.
School was a bit of a mystery to me in those early days. We wore uniforms, which I was used to from England but they still felt quite foreign to me. In any case, they weren’t anywhere near as stylish as the ones I wore in London. Then there was the schoolyard which was divided into a boys’ and a girls’ side by the width of a painted white line. At times it seemed like a battle-line with girls standing on one side yelling at boys and boys standing on the other, swords drawn. On Monday mornings we assembled on the concrete playground to sing God Save the Queen and teachers walked between class lines to check on our attire. School seemed regimented, governed by indiscernible rules yet lax as far as learning and behaviour in class was concerned. It was confusing and all I ever wanted to do was to fit in.
At first, Miss Mac sat me next to Janet who would become a life-long friend. But at times, I had to sit next to a girl called Dianne who had cerebral palsy. I had never encountered a person with a disability and I am ashamed to say I judged her as harshly as all the other children in the class. I was repulsed by her snot bubbles and drooling, neither of which she could control. It was difficult to understand her when she spoke and she was shunned by all. It took me many years to understand that the reason I had never met a handicapped person in Austria was because they were hidden out of sight in outdated institutions. At the time though, it felt as if I were made to sit next to Dianne as a form of punishment. We were both outcasts but I felt no solidarity.
Schoolwork wasn’t difficult, only frustrating. My teachers were more concerned with changing my European handwriting style than with teaching subject specific content. Together with four or five other children from different grades, I went to ’Special English’ classes with a delightful young teacher whose name I have unfortunately forgotten. She made me write out the alphabet and practice spelling words. Her classes were inclusive and kind but I’m not sure we learned much. Going to her room was always a welcome break from the shenanigans in class. We could relax, speak honestly and were accepted for who we were. As a group we desperately wanted to say thank you to her for how she made us feel. We wanted to give her a birthday gift but she wouldn’t tell us the date. I came up with the idea of picking a day which we would celebrate as her birthday. I would ask my father to make her a leather handbag and some of the others would bring party foods. Once the bag was finished, we wrapped the gift and presented it to her singing Happy Birthday. I remember she was completely overcome by our pretend birthday party, and we were thrilled to have made her happy.
Of all my classes, maths presented the greatest problem. I was quite fast at working out ‘sums’ in my head but the teacher couldn’t follow my logic when written down. I could do long multiplication and division but only the way I had been taught in Austria. I was made to write my numbers without curling my 9s and crossing my 7s. My 1s had to lose their initial upward stroke. I wasn’t allowed to use my perfectly logical method for multiplication or division, and I couldn’t follow the system used in Australia. I wasn’t allowed to use my method for subtraction either, but it was the only way I could get the answer right. Somehow, I passed Mathematics at the end of the year but by then I lost all joy for the subject.
The academic side of school was never my problem. The issue I had was fitting in. I had made a few friends including Janet, who was one of the first girls to speak to me and invited me to play. For the most part, however, there were taunts that came from the boys at first and then extended to the tough girls when we moved to the high school across the road the following year. I could never understand why some children went out of their way to be cruel and make life a misery. All I wanted to do was to go to school, learn, play and walk home safely. But I quickly learned that children all over the world created a pecking order and that I was easy to peck.
‘Wog! Why don’t ya go back to where y’came from?’ This was the standard war cry fifty years ago as it still is in its various forms today.
Then there was ‘Calico boondi. Nigger lover. Why don’t ya Nugget yourself black?’ This was a half-sung, oft repeated taunt because I had crossed the ‘colour line’ and made friends with kids who had come to Australia from India.
Scooby became my confidant, my friend, my protector. He listened, never judged and loved me the way I was. He didn’t even care if changed languages mid-sentence. I spent hours with him at the park, telling him my woes but also delighting in his company. While we were together, hours, minutes, seconds were of no essence. I could forget about the kids at school, forget that everything was new and strange. While I was with Scooby, I could simply be.
There wasn’t much point in talking to my parents about my problems at school. Both thought I was too soft and needed to toughen up.
‘Just laugh into their ignorant faces,’ was my mother’s sage advice.
‘You need to fight back,’ was my father’s. ’They’ll soon leave you alone after that.’
But I was soft and hated confrontation. All I ever wanted was to blend in and be like everyone else. I couldn’t follow my parent’s advice, so I stopped telling them what was going on. I retreated from my parents and attempted to sort everything out by myself. What they inadvertently taught me was never to admit how miserable I was feeling and never to look to adults for help.
7 thoughts on “Starting school – 1972”
The system may have been different to what you were used to, but back then, two thirds of the students at Elwood high went on to university and the professions. It was a good school. And a school is only as good as it’s teachers. It’s shameful that you had to experience name calling, but those were the bad old times and I’m sure it was no different in Hungary and Austria. Interesting, that you don’t make the connection between your feelings towards Dianne and people’s behaviour to you. It all stems from ignorance. Perhaps they too are ashamed now that they treated you badly.
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I agree that Elwood on the whole was a good school after all, I too went to university and was able to fashion a life that my parents never could have dreamt for me.
I am sorry I didn’t make it clear enough that I did see those connections looking back at how I reacted to Diane. It isn’t something I am proud of and you are right, it does stem from ignorance.
so hard to acculturate , so many little things leaving intense memories ! gee your mother was tough ! a moving memoir of learning tough lessons…love the Special teacher and glad you enjoyed that !
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It really was quite a confusing time in my life. My mother sure was tough, you are right there!
This one is moving for so many reasons. I only got to Elwood High in Form 2, but I recognise and remember the names of so many of the kids in the photo, including lovely Diane. I really love this one.
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Yes, I’m not proud of how I thought of her back then.
I’m so pleased you never blended in Viki!
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