Secondary School (2) Leaving St Mary’s

October 12, 2015 at 12:30 am | Posted in Australia, Catholic Education, Family, Growing up in the 1950s and 60s, Memoir, Polio epidemic | 6 Comments
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I mentioned in an earlier blog post that I wasn’t particularly happy that I had to leave St Mary’s College in 1961 after the polio epidemic. I was even less happy to be going to Dapto High – our nearest state high school – even though both my brother and sister had earlier attended there for between one or two years.

I hadn’t made any friends at St Mary’s, although I did talk with some of the girls at breaks. I always travelled to and from Wollongong alone as there were no other pupils from my school on the train, and nobody to accompany me on the half mile or so walk to and from the station at Wollongong. However, I hadn’t been unhappy there. I was comfortable with the school and its religious context, the learning style and how I was progressing in class.

Paper Clipping

Dad and David, just after Dad came home from hospital. Illawarra Daily Mercury, Dec.1961

The months of not being able to attend school due to the polio epidemic had been unsettling for all of us, and we’d been glad when the restrictions on our movements were lifted. But it had not been in time for school, and Dad was still struggling to get on his feet – literally. It also took a while before Dad was granted a Totally and Permanently Incapacitated (TPI) pension. For many weeks, we’d had no spare money. Indeed, if it hadn’t been for the charity of the church, the police and a few friends, we wouldn’t have had anything at all.

The school holidays of summer 1961-62 meant that my younger sister and I had a lot more to do at home. Our older brother and sister had managed to get work again and were gone all week. Sheelagh and I helped as much as we could, not always with the best grace, to help Mum with the housework. We also had our little brother, three-year-old David to look after and keep occupied when he wasn’t at medical appointments. He had to wear a calliper on his leg to support his polio-affected ankle and foot, though I’m not sure just when he was fitted with that.

Me with my little brother in 1962. Dave is wearing his caliper.

Me with my little brother in 1962. Dave is wearing his caliper.

Anyway, when the time came to go back to school at the end of January, it had been decided that the only school I could attend was Dapto High. My sister still had a year to go at St Paul’s Primary. I don’t remember any details of being enrolled at Dapto, nor of getting a summer school uniform. I don’t remember catching on the train for the first day at the school. Nor do I remember walking the half a mile or so from the station at Dapto up to the school with a bunch of kids whom I neither knew nor wanted to know.

What I do know was that I was resentful, sulky and as unco-operative as a usually obedient, religious thirteen-year-old could be.

(c) Linda Visman


High School (1) – Off to St Mary’s College

October 5, 2015 at 12:30 am | Posted in Australia, Catholic Education, Growing up in the 1950s and 60s, Memoir | 18 Comments
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When the summer holidays of (December-January) 1960-61 ended, I began my first year of high school. I was all on my own. Peter had completed his Intermediate Certificate at Dapto High at the end of the previous year and was working in the office at Garnock Engineering in Port Kembla. Pauline was repeating second year at Dapto High, although, when she turned fourteen that March, Mum and Dad got special permission from the Education Department for her to leave school early. She was needed to help the family finances as Dad was having trouble getting work, due to the building industry recession at the time. As soon as she left school, Pauline started work at Crystal’s Clothing Factory in Marshall St Dapto.

Peter had started at the Christian Brothers’ College in Wollongong but had hated it and ran away in first year. He then went to Dapto High. Pauline had stayed an extra year at St Paul’s before going into second year at Dapto High. I was thirteen years old and heading off to St Mary’s College in Wollongong, a Catholic girls’ day and boarding school; I was a day student. Having done so well at St Paul’s, and my parents wanting all of us to go to Catholic schools if possible, I was sent there instead of to Dapto High, even though it was farther away.

Crown St, Wollongong, about 1962

Crown St, Wollongong, 1964. Photographer Noel Murray.

I travelled by train to Wollongong, then walked all the way down Crown Street to the school down near the beach. My parents scrounged to get my uniforms. In summer it was a beige uniform dress, belted, with collar and short sleeves. In winter the uniform was a royal blue box-pleated serge tunic with a beige shirt, royal blue jumper/ blazer, beret, gloves. The younger girls wore white socks, but the older girls wore beige stockings. We had to wear our white gloves and royal blue school beret at all times when we were outside the school grounds. We were also not allowed to speak to any boy whilst we were in school uniform. One girl in my class, Lynette, was expelled for doing that. I never did – I didn’t know any boys anyway.

 Part of St Mary’s College in 1960s

Part of St Mary’s College in 1960s

It was difficult to keep clothes clean on the train. They were steam engines then, and the carriages were generally sooty. On a hot day windows were open, resulting in cinders in the eyes and soot on clothing and body. However I loved the sway of the train as it travelled with its rhymic clicketty-clack along the rails. I loved the varnished wood finish of the carriage interiors, especially of those that had compartments. They had sliding doors with half-windows, and four people could sit on each of the two seats that faced each other. Best of all were the black and white photos mounted behind glass with wooden frames above the seats. They depicted well-known landmarks and tourist places, most of which I had never seen. There was Katoomba and the Three Sisters; the Jenolan Caves; Sydney Harbour Bridge; Sydney beaches and other places around the state.

I don’t remember any particular nuns; of course there were no lay teachers at that time. The nuns were of the Good Samaritan order and wore black habits with a white cover on the top of the bodice, unlike the all-brown habits the Sister of St Joseph wore at St Paul’s school. They were strict, I do remember that, but there must have been some fun there too I think. We went to Mass, Benediction and Exposition at the Cathedral, which was just across the street. I often saw Bishop McCabe there, who had confirmed me when I was at St Paul’s.

A Good Samaritan sister in the classroom

A Good Samaritan sister in the classroom

We didn’t have a playground in the school; there was no space for that. There was just a courtyard within the school buildings. For Physical Education and Sport, we were taken out to the lawns that stretched between the back wall of the school and the street to the east, all the way along the block. Across the street was Wollongong beach, with the Surf Club building that also housed a small kiosk.

I mostly enjoyed my school work. There were new subjects (I even had elocution lessons!) and new ways of behaving; new expectations; new teachers, and a whole new set of classmates. I was in the “A” class, but as a new kid, and to me the older girls seemed very mature. There were no boys, but I soon got used to that. My new subjects included Science, Latin and French, as well as new areas of history that I had never studied before. I loved pre-history – the cave men and their weapons and way of life, and learning about the Australian Aborigines. I had never seen an Aborigine and what I was taught at the school reinforced my ideas that they were a primitive people who still lived in that way – if there were any of them left.

Wollongong Childrens’ Library was on Crown Street, and I used to pass it every day on my way to and from the train. One day, I went in and applied to join. From then on, it was a regular stop on my way home. If I called in, I would catch the later train home, getting into Albion Park Rail at five o’clock instead of half past four. I loved the series of books I found there about the adventures of a boy named Teddy Lester. He went to a boys’ boarding school in England and was a good cricketer, often saving the match at great odds. I was in the library one afternoon when a reporter from the Illawarra Daily Mercury newspaper came in to do a story on the library. I ended up with my photo in the paper as a result.

Clipping of me at the library, from The Illawarra daily Mercury 1961

Clipping of me at the library, from The Illawarra daily Mercury 1961

There were three 15 or 16-week terms then; it was some years later that the four-term year was brought in. We had Term Tests, and our results had to show we were learning and behaving, or our parents would be informed. I have my first term’s report card that shows I was above – in some cases well above – the grade average in seven of the nine subjects I studied. However, Sister Coleman’s comments were only: “Linda is making satisfactory progress. She has attained 19th place in class.” Makes you wonder what you have to do to believe you’re getting somewhere!

That October, when David, then Dad, then Pauline came down with polio, the rest of us were all put in quarantine at home. We couldn’t go to work or to school for at least two weeks after each diagnosis. As they were two weeks apart, we were isolated for six weeks. That took us to the end of the school year, so Sheelagh and I didn’t return at all that year. The following year, with Dad unable to work and money in short supply, I left St Marys and went off to be enrolled at Dapto High School. I can’t say I was happy about the situation.

(c) Linda Visman


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