Tags: children and parents, death, depression, growing up, memories, mothers and daughters, regret
Today, the 23rd of May, would have been my mother’s birthday. Sadly, however, Mum lost her battle with illness almost 22 years ago, on the 13th June 1994, at the age of 74, less than seven years older than I am now.
I was close to Mum as a child, though I knew little of her earlier life. The selfish perspective of youth meant that I knew her less as she aged. Then, at the age of just twenty, I married and left home.
For almost all of the next twenty-five years, I lived some distance away, having children, seeing them grow up, getting divorced from their father, entering what was then a forbidden relationship, moving even farther away in both miles and understanding, visiting briefly only once or twice a year. It was only when Mum was on her death bed that I returned home, helped Dad nurse Mum there for two weeks before attending her funeral.
I have always regretted that distance between us. As I grew into my forties, I wanted to know her better, but it was already too late. Illness had made the last years difficult for her.
A few years ago, while Dad was still alive, I wrote a poem called. “What’s your story, Mum?”. Recently, Dad having died in June 2013, I edited the poem and re-named it “I wish you could tell me, Mum”. Here it is, on what would have been her 96th birthday.
I wish you could tell me, Mum
What’s your story, Mum?
I wish you could tell me.
Dad told me his when he was still here,
when I could finally visit from far away
But you had already left us then.
We often talked about you, Mum.
He’d tell me of when you were young.
Like how beautiful you were, how popular,
and how, even before he’d met you,
there was never any other girl for him.
His eyes lit up as he told of how you’d laugh,
And how the joy of it made his heart sing.
Of how you later ‘walked out’ together,
through wet, coal-blackened streets,
and for miles over cold and windy moors.
He’d remember how you both loved to dance,
as if the two of you were one,
Still gliding and twirling when the band
And everyone else was exhausted.
Dad told me, Mum, about the births of your children.
The first, a son, and the paralysis his arrival caused.
He told me how he couldn’t defend you against the pain
whilst flying his plane far away in defence of your country.
He said how wonderful it was later,
to assist in the births of your three daughters,
at home, in the bed where we had been conceived.
He told me what a great home-maker you were,
always making the best out of very little.
But what’s your story, Mum – in your words?
Dad could tell me how much he wanted to migrate
to a country free of class and arrogance,
but he couldn’t tell me how you really felt.
Did you want to go as much as he?
Or did you go simply because you loved him?
It was easy, I think, to leave your selfish father,
but oh, how difficult it must have been
to say good-bye to your gentle, loving mother,
to go to a new country; a strange land.
Heat and drought and wide expanses replaced
the cold and damp of a bustling ancient township.
A tiny caravan, then a little fibro house, replaced
the solid security of your old stone terrace.
Venomous snakes and spiders brought unwelcome danger.
Barbed-wire fences and eucalypt forest replaced
soft green fields bounded by hedge and mossy stone.
Oak and ash, bluebells and buttercups were left behind.
How did you adjust to the changes?
What fears and insecurities did this bring?
Oh, what did you really think, Mum?
Then, in this new land, another traumatic birth:
my baby brother healthy, though his twin sister died.
And you, alone in a hospital bed, not allowed your own,
denied even the comforting presence of your husband,
as you fought, alone, for life.
Is that when the fearfulness began to creep in?
Is that when you began to think you might lose us;
had to always know where we were, so you
could feel some measure of control in your life?
Or did that happen in 1961, when two of your children
and Dad, all contracted the dreaded polio?
Was it when we thought Dad might not even live,
And there was no money to even buy food?
I remember that awful time, Mum.
I was only thirteen and could only guess
at the fears that burdened you.
The responsibility you had to take alone.
Dad, crippled and unable to help,
your father taking away the mother
that you needed then
more than you had ever done.
What I do know is that you kept our family going.
That it was your strength, dredged from
some deep, unknown place within you,
that fed and clothed and housed us.
It took its toll on you, I know,
but I thought of you as strong, Mum
in those desperate times.
But what did you think and feel then?
Dad struggled to overcome the ravages of polio,
to get back on his feet, figuratively and literally.
You were by his side, his partner in all ways,
as he set up a steady business
– concreting, of all things!
And how did it make you feel, Mum,
When, after so many years,
he took you dancing again?
The years that followed were mixed sorrow and joy,
With three daughters and one son married.
I remember the light in your eyes and your smile
as you welcomed my son,
your first grandchild, with more to come.
But as time went on, I realised that something
prevented you taking those little ones to your heart.
Not just because mine were always far away,
and you didn’t like or trust their father.
What was the barrier, Mum?
Did losing your own mother close your heart
against the awful possibility of hurt?
Was there something inside you that said,
‘if I don’t open myself to love, I won’t lose it’?
We grew apart – not only because of miles.
I saw you too seldom and we could not share
the things that mothers share with
daughters who are also mothers.
I missed that, Mum. I still do.
Dad and I nursed you at home,
night and day, until you finally left us.
Was it a relief to go; to give up
the burden that life had become?
Dad missed you so much then, Mum, lonely for you.
He always loved you – there was never another.
He never forgot the day you first spoke to him,
when you asked, ‘how old are you?’
He re-lived the days of your courtship
and listened to the music you’d loved together.
I am sure he felt you once more in his arms,
twirling yet again around the dance floor – until he left us too.
But I want to know more than that, Mum,
because I think that many parts of me –
my insecurities, my fears, my depression –
have come from you.
So I want to know how you felt; how you loved.
I want to know your story, Mum – in your own words.
But you’ve been gone now for many years,
and I must rely on fragments of memory,
and find you in the words of the man
who loved you.
But I wish you could tell me, Mum.
In loving memory of Agnes Mary Thompson;
born 23rd May 1920; died 13th June 1994.
I wish I had known you better, Mum.
Also in loving memory of Ernest Thompson;
born 24th June 1921; died 18th June 2013.
I am proud to have been your daughter, Dad.
(c) Linda Visman, May 2007
Edited 7th May 2016
Tags: bacon & baked beans, Blackburn Infirmary, camping, hay cutting, Oswaldtwistle, picnics, smell
Last week I wrote about the smell of pine trees and the memories they evoked fifty-five years later. There are a few other aromas that also strongly evoke memories of my childhood.
1. Bacon and baked beans
All my life I have loved the smell and taste of bacon and baked beans. Whenever I have had it, I think of being on the moors back in England when I was little. I didn’t know why this memory always came with this aroma until Dad told me (when I was in my fifties) that he and Mum used to take us for walks out on the moors of Oswaldtwistle. When we were there, Dad, a former Rover Scout, would light a fire and cook up bacon and beans for us. It was a special treat that we didn’t have very often.
When we go camping now, we have eggs and baked beans, with either bacon or sausages, at least once during the trip – my husband has always loved it too.
2. Cut grass on a warm day
Occasionally when I have been driving in the country, I have come to places where council slashers have been busy cutting the long grass along the sides of the road. Sometimes an aroma hits me, and I am taken back to my early childhood in England. I have discovered that the right smell is only there when the cut grass is long and dry, and the air is warm but not too hot. I didn’t know then why this wonderful smell affected me so much – I love it, it brings me a great feeling of happiness.
Whilst visiting Dad over Christmas in 2005, I mentioned it to Dad. He said he always loved the smell of new cut hay in the fields back in England. It was then that I realized what the odour was. Haying time was a great time for kids then. I had picked up those feelings, along with the aroma of hay being cut on a warm day in autumn before I was five years old. They have stayed with me all these years.
3. An Isolation Hospital
When I was about three years old, I had glandular fever and had to go into the isolation cottage at Blackburn Infirmary, where I spent some weeks. It would have been about 1951. I remember being in a cot and wanting Mum and Dad to come and take me home. They weren’t allowed to come in, and I could only see them, and they me, through a window.
There was a smell there that, when I come across it today, always takes me back to that memory. I’d always thought the smell was chloroform, but that wouldn’t be right. It is more likely to be the old kind of cleaning alcohol that was used when giving injections. The modern alcohol cleanser doesn’t seem to have the same smell.
Because of a later association with this odour, another memory also springs to mind. It is of walking past a mobile medical facility that used to occasionally park in the area in front of the shops at Albion Park Rail when I was probably about 10 to 13 years old. I think it was the TB testing unit.
Tags: Great Ocean Road, memories, Reed Park, scent of pine
It was December 2005, and we were traveling along the Great Ocean Road in southern Victoria in our camper van. [My husband] Dirk and I were in bed at a caravan park in Apollo Bay, when an aroma took me back to my early childhood. As the perfume wafted in through the open window, it affected me so powerfully that I couldn’t sleep until I had written about it.
This is what I wrote then, and added to after we returned home.
11.20 pm 19th December 2005, Apollo Bay Caravan Park, Victoria.
I lie in my bed in the caravan, weary yet content, and listen to the murmur of the waves, ebbing and flowing, muted by a hundred yards of distance from the seashore. Beside my head is the open window. Through it wafts a scent/smell/odour/perfume, carried on the cool night air. It is fresh and clean, and takes me immediately back to my childhood. It is at the same time comforting and exciting, familiar yet strange, bringing me thoughts and feelings from the distant past, whilst still being here in the present.
I take in the smell with each breath and attempt to analyse it. What is there about it that makes such an impression on my both conscious and unconscious mind? I look out of the window. In the diffused glow from the park lights, and against the darkness of the sky, I see the spreading branches of the huge trees beneath which we are parked. They are ancient pine trees, what kind I don’t know, but as soon as I realize that’s what they are, I can put a name to the perfume my subconscious memory has already identified.
It is the clean scent of pine; a perfume that has been added artificially to cleaners for years to give the impression of freshness and purity. But this isn’t that artificial perfume which invades the senses and often becomes cloying. Instead it is a subtle blend of pine needles, bark and resin, damp pine-infused earth, and cool night air. It is light, almost ethereal, more a presence than an odour.
It brings to my mind cool and shady woods, feelings of peace and tranquility overlaid with the tang of adventure. I can almost believe there are elves or fairies present – that is how strong the impact is on my senses and my feelings. It stimulates me to such an extent that I can’t sleep until I have put these impressions and feelings onto paper. I wish I could capture in words the strong sense of how I am somehow transported back more than fifty years into the past and to the feelings I had as a young child.
What power has the sense of smell on the mind! I want to drink in this perfume as if it is the elixir of life, and to be conscious of every draught of it.
I am sure it was at Reed Park, where we lived in a caravan for an extended time during 1954-55 when I first encountered this aroma. We had arrived in Australia from England in March 1954, and somehow, the scent makes me think of good times, the stimulation and excitement of the new, but also of security and contentment.
I talked about this with then, and later with [my brother] Peter and Dad over Christmas. They all agree that there definitely were huge pine trees around where we camped in the caravan at Reed Park. Peter can’t remember there being pine trees anywhere else we’ve lived. So I am confident that the smell that night – which I have not thought about since I was about six or seven – was from that park. I must have been happy there, I think.
© Linda Visman
Tags: acrostic, memories
I have written just a few memories here in the form of an acrostic, using the above title. They are from my first thirteen years, and are limited by the letters I had available to me. They are also very brief, though I have already, or will in the future expand on some of them in other posts. It actually wasn’t that easy to do this self-imposed exercise!
School days at St Mary’s, St John’s, St Paul’s, St Mary’s & Dapto High
Oswaldtwistle, where I was born, and left when I was five
Making my own bows and arrows to play Indians
Entertaining ourselves with simple toys and games
Mowing the lawn at twelve
Easter rituals at Church and school
Mum’s green leather belt when we were naughty
Ordinary – that is how I saw my life; nothing special at all
Reading to find worlds of adventure
Ironing before heat controls or steam and burning my white school shirt
Earning a few pennies by opening & closing the railway gates for motorists
Singing old songs from England with my parents, uncle & Granddad
Odd one out – the middle child of five who didn’t fit anywhere else either
Finances always strained, with no money for extras
Milk – our milkman came around with a horse and cart
Yearning for I knew not what, but something more than I had
Yelling at my sisters & brother when I was angry – too often!
Eating Mum’s trifle at Xmas & New Year with Grandma, Uncle Fred & our families
Sitting at the kitchen table on stools that Dad had made
Taking Peter’s canoe onto the lake when I was forbidden to
Eating tough mutton chops & being unable to swallow the over-chewed meat
Radio serials like Superman and Tarzan that we listened to after school
Dad, David & Pauline hospitalised with polio
Accident, where I fell onto a joist when Dad was building an addition to the house
Yearly tests and trying to beat the two boys who were my main rivals
Songs from the 1940s, 50s and 60s that we listened to on the radio
What memories would you write if you did this acrostic exercise?
(c) Linda Visman
Tags: childhood activities, creativity, independence, interpreting memories, living with nature, versions of the past
I sometimes wonder whether my childhood memories are as authentic as I believe them to be. There have been times when my siblings have reminded me of an event that occurred which illustrates an alternate version of those times, one that I may have pushed aside or interpreted in a different way.
I know that people can focus on aspects of their youth that colour and reinforce a version they have become used to. Sometimes, that version is a happy one, sometimes a negative one. I know of two brothers who see their experiences in a way that makes it seem they lived in different worlds – one seeing a society accepting of migrants and the other seeing discrimination everywhere. That has to be related to how their personalities have been shaped and to their natural optimism or pessimism I think.
Of course, there are some who really have endured awful family backgrounds, situations that could break them if that is what they focus on. And it does break some – but paradoxically makes others, even in the same family, stronger and more resilient.
We had a pretty good family, where we were loved and cared for, but during which we also endured some pretty tough times. I do remember those hard times, but I also remember the good times. Perhaps I have created a world that was somewhat better than it actually was, but at least it helps me to focus on the good stuff. Here’s a poem I wrote that does that:
In spring, summer and autumn,
we walked along muddy creeks,
along lake shores and ocean beaches,
over expanses of sea-side rock,
dotted with crystal-clear pools,
our bare feet tickled by weed and grass,
salt water and sand.
We collected driftwood and shells
and wave-smoothed stones
and carried them home
in bright red or blue or yellow buckets.
We spent hours sorting them
by shape and size and colour,
and days making sea-drift sculptures,
shell borders for photo frames and mirrors,
shell pictures and maps.
We strolled through wetlands,
dense with melaleuca,
wary of spiders and biting mosquitoes,
through lakeside forests of casuarinas
with their wind-eerie sounds,
and through paddocks and gullies
studded with eucalypts & blackberry bushes,
wary of red-bellied black snakes.
We collected sheets of paperbark
to make three-dimensional pictures,
flexible green sticks to make
dry reeds for arrows,
and bulrushes for spears.
Our Christmas decorations
were made from strips of crepe paper
that twirled across the room;
the star on top of the tree was
a piece of cardboard covered in
silver paper from cigarette packets.
From the huge pine trees
that bordered our school yard
(long gone now)
we fashioned their thick bark
into serviceable pistols, or dolls,
and their pinecones sawn through
created wide-eyed owls.
Inside, on cold or rainy days,
a sheet of newspaper could make
a ship or a plane or a hat,
or a row of dancing dolls.
A block of wood
made great cars and trucks;
large circular off-cuts from
holes drilled in plywood
made wheels for them.
Making our own entertainment was normal,
a stimulus to creativity and independence.
Not for us the electronic wizardry
of television or video games,
of computers or mobile phones.
We made what we could out of what we had
and enjoyed a childhood
rich with stimulation and experience.
What was your childhood like? Are your memories pleasant or negative?
© Linda Visman
Tags: Dapto High school, Leaving Certificate, muck-up day, schoolies week, sholarships to university, study for exams, StuVac
The Leaving Certificate exams were held In November 1965. These were the culmination of twelve years of schooling, and the results would determine much about our future. It was important therefore that we put everything into them we were capable of – at least that’s what I thought.
About October, the school held its end-of-year assembly and prize-giving. I won the senior public speaking prize for my Anzac Day speech -a copy of Palgrave’s Golden Treasury of Verse. I also won the French Consulate prize for French – I don’t know whether it was just for our school or for the region. That prize was also a book, a history of life in France, La vie Francais a travers les ages. I kept and read both of those books for many years. In late 1989, just before leaving New South Wales for nine years to teach in remote areas of the Northern Territory, I boxed up most of my books so they wouldn’t get damaged and left them with a friend. Soon after that, the friend left the area and I never found him again – nor did I get my thirteen boxes of books back!
Before the exams, we had a week’s break from school for study. We called it StuVac (study vacation). It was our final opportunity to catch up on, go over, pretend, go into a panic, or hopefully understand and expand our knowledge of the topics we hoped would be covered. Most people know the stress that final exams can put onto a student. In those days, any assessments we received during the school year did not contribute to our final result. They meant nothing – the examinations were everything. Some students, not as motivated as others, took the week as if it were an ordinary holiday, or only did a minimum of work. Others, including myself, were determined to do the best we could. Some wanted high grades, whilst others just wanted to pass well enough to get that precious certificate. I set up a study regime for myself and spent many hours every day working to achieve the best grades I could.
Our last day of school before StuVac was ‘muck-up’ day for our cohort of students, a day to let off steam before the intensity of cramming and exams. The principal, Mr Stacey, had made it clear before muck-up day, that there was to be no vandalism, no damage done to any property and that we had to clean up afterwards ourselves. If those rules were broken, he said, our school references would be withheld – references that we needed to impress prospective employers.
On the day, everyone dressed up in whatever we felt like, and did things like flour- or water-bomb teachers and other students. The science students made and released rotten egg gas – a staple. Dirk, who became my husband forty years later, was in the same year as me. He remembers more of the day than I do and told me more about what went on. One group dressed up as gangsters and their molls and drove around the school in a student’s 1940s car. Some of the boys picked up a teacher’s car – a Mini Minor – and carried it down to the end of the sports field and set it down sideways between the goal posts. They did return it to its place before leaving the school though, I’m glad to say. Some students held an assembly where ‘famous people’ made speeches, including an occasional satirical comment about the teachers. It was all good clean fun.
Examination week came during an early summer season. We wrote them in our school’s assembly hall, which was next to a grove of trees. That year was a great one for cicadas and their strident noise almost made it impossible to hear the moderators give us our instructions. But once I began, all sound seemed to vanish as I concentrated on my exam papers. It’s weird that I don’t remember any of those papers now. The only thing that immediately comes to mind when I think of those days is that almost overwhelming noise of the cicadas.
Nowadays, students in this country who have finished their exams have what has become known as Schoolies’ Week. Many go off for cruises or to popular tourist spots, like the Gold Coast. Most have, after their six years of high school to our five, turned eighteen. They are legal adults, and in many cases the focus of their newly-won freedom seems to be an orgy of sex, drugs and alcohol. When we finished school, we were seventeen, still legally children, even though most kids our age had already been out in the workforce for two years or more.
On the last day of our exams we said goodbye to Dapto High school. Those who already had jobs to go to, started as soon as the exams were finished. Dirk began his on-the-job training at Port Kembla Steelworks as a metallurgist. Valerie and I among others were hoping to go on to further education, and we had our last summer holidays to enjoy. Val and I would occasionally visit each other’s homes and go for walks, where the topic of conversation often turned to our hopes for the future.
Val wanted to be a Maths teacher. As French had been my favourite subject, I had decided I would teach languages. When we talked about the exciting possibility of overseas travel, my destination would always be France. I wanted to speak the language properly and see the country I often read about. Val previous results just about guaranteed her a place at university, but that was a prize I had never thought I could reach – nobody in my family had even aspired to those heights. So, although I tried to be optimistic, I didn’t know what the future really held.
Then, in January 1966, I received my hard-earned Leaving Certificate. My results were good enough to earn me the choice of any one of three scholarships to university. After discussing it with my parents, I settled on the Teachers College scholarship that was tenable at university. The nearest one was the University of Sydney, the oldest and most prestigious in Australia. There, six weeks later, I would begin my studies to become a teacher of French and German in the public education system.
(c) Linda Visman
Tags: being different, Dapto High school, insecurity, teenager
For whatever reason, many people look back on their school days with distaste. But I did truly like school and my attendance reflected that. I only missed an occasional day almost every year (except when we were quarantined for the polio) and, in my final two years, my attendance was 100%. When the time came, I actually regretted having to leave school.
It wasn’t the social side I took to so much, as I didn’t have many friends. What I loved was the learning and the rewards I gained from my own efforts. My parents supported me in my studies and as the only one in our extended family to have the opportunity of completing high school, I wanted to make the most of it.
Dad never had the chance to go through high school (he went to work at 14), but he supported me. Here I am at home in my summer uniform with him and my little brother in 1964.
My sisters and younger brother were much more sociable than me, and had friends right through school. I was self-conscious and I sometimes wonder if it was because of our poverty. Most of my free time was spent at home. We never had the extra money to go out anywhere, or if we did, it was only to church. I didn’t have new clothes very often, and Dad used a cobbler’s last to repair our leather school shoes.
In Fourth Year, I needed a new school bag. Instead of buying one, Dad, always good at making things with whatever he could find, made one for me. He cut up an old leather coat, and stitched it to make the outside with a flap over the top. He then glued plywood inside for the base, front and back, and also glued and riveted two straps around it. The handle consisted of a piece of thick round dowel attached to the straps. At first, I’d usually go to my locker when I’d get to school in the morning and leave in the afternoons, so nobody else would see it. However, once I got used to it, I was really proud of Dad’s ingenuity and skill, and I really loved that bag. It was a symbol that we were different, but in a way that I could accept. I really wish I still had it, or at least a photo of it!
A more realistic interpretation of my feeling of being an outsider was probably because I had many insecurities. I envied the girls who were confident, social and popular, and I felt so different that it was hard to feel accepted by them. I was a tomboy, not into makeup and fancy clothes, and I probably contributed a fair bit to their excluding me by my own attitude. Looking back with a clearer knowledge of humanity, I realise they probably thought I was stuck-up and too good for them.
When our English class put on a play, in spite of feeling excluded, I really wanted to take on one of the roles – even a small one. However, the teacher chose those who were confident and outgoing to play every part. My timidity didn’t allow me to even ask to be involved, not even in the support crew. My only friend, Valerie, didn’t get asked either, but I didn’t even ask if she’d wanted to be. I wonder if I’d been allowed to take part in the play it would have made any difference. Mmmm…
In my final year, I went, together with one of the top boys, Tony, to attend a Lions Club dinner and speak to them about our hopes for the future. I’m not sure, but I think it was because that group had paid my scholarship and Tony must have been the other recipient. I also gave a speech to the school at our Anzac Day ceremony in April 1964 about the importance to Australia of Anzac. Dad helped me write that speech, and I wish I still had a copy of it.
(c) Linda Visman
Tags: Dapto High school, physical education, school sports
Academic subjects weren’t my only focus at school. Sport is a regular part of school in Australia. It is part of the health curriculum, occurs within normal school time, and is for everyone, not just the better athletes. As such, all years and class groups (up to fourth year in my day) participated in a physical education lesson each week.
In my Catholic primary school, the nuns did the best they could to teach us games and a few skills. I remember playing ball games, and loved a game similar to cricket, but with an odd-shaped bat, called vigoro. However I do not remember the school ever having any sporting interaction, or any other interaction for that matter, with other schools. We also never went swimming – it’s probably pretty obvious why, I suppose.
However, at Dapto High, as well as our weekly forty-minute P.E. lesson, we also had an afternoon of sports – on Thursdays then for us, as well as for most schools in the region. The only time P.E. or sport would be called off was in heavy rain. All kids had to participate unless they had a note from a parent to say why they couldn’t. High schools had boys’ and a girls’ P.E. teacher, and kids were segregated by gender for all sporting activities.
I was reasonably athletic and co-ordinated, though certainly not outstanding, and liked getting outdoors as a change from the classroom. We all hated our girls’ P.E. uniform, though it was much better than our regular school uniform. It was a square-necked, sleeveless plain cotton tunic with no pleats in school colours of maroon (the actual tunic) and gold (two strips of braid near the bottom), with a white shirt under it and a cloth belt that few wore. The tunic came to less than half-way down to the knee, and we wore maroon bloomers under it for decency. Footwear was the ubiquitous white canvas tennis shoe of the times (called a sandshoe) with short white socks.
P.E. lessons in the cooler months covered track and field or ball game skills. In summer we were expected to go to swimming lessons. In the track events, I was a sprinter and not a stayer. I enjoyed the field activities: long jump, though not so much high jumps; javelin, discus and shot putt. The ball games – captain ball and tunnel ball – were fun.
On sports afternoons, we were allowed to choose one of the activities available. In the winter months these were usually football (rugby league) or basketball (what we then called International Rules) and soccer for the boys, and hockey, basketball or netball for the girls. In summer, the options were cricket, tennis, squash or swimming for the boys, and softball, tennis, squash or swimming for the girls. Athletics was also available for both boys and girls.
I loved hockey and softball so usually chose them. In Australia kids were expected to be capable swimmers by their teens, and students were encouraged to learn and be tested for life-saving medals at various levels. However, I couldn’t swim and had caught my mother’s deeply ingrained fear of the water, so I completely avoided the sport of swimming.
In fourth year at Dapto High, the choice of summer sport for girls was broadened with the addition of cricket as an option. We were a cricket-mad family, and played whenever we could – just ours and Mum’s brother’s family – at the park, the beach, or in the back yard. When England and Australia played a Test match, the radio was on for us to listen to the play. So, when cricket was offered, I jumped in with both feet, even though the teacher who took us was the Economics teacher I didn’t like. That didn’t matter – I could play the game and I loved it.
We were actually the first high school in our region to allow girls to play cricket in the first summer at the start of 1964. Because we could only play within the school, and there were not a great many girls who took on the game, we were limited in our competition. However, skills grew and, with the start of summer at the end of 1964, a few other schools had had started up girls’ teams. Me and a girl called Isabel were the stars of our team. When our school’s team (with me and Isabel in photos) was featured on the sports pages of our local rag, The Illawarra Daily Mercury, we said we’d play any other girls’ team that would accept the challenge. We couldn’t play the boys, of course. No school accepted that year.
Team games were my preference, as I had very little chance of doing well against the more actively sports-involved girls. I never made the school softball team, and only once was selected to play hockey in an annual inter-school sports competition with Arthur Phillip High in Parramatta. It was even held at that school the year I was involved, and we were billeted with the families of students there.
In Fourth year, I gained my hockey umpire certificate. I also joined the school hockey team that played in the regional Saturday (not school) hockey competition. I almost always played the centre forward position, which I loved. It sure was a change for me to play with some of the more popular girls of the school – the only time I really interacted with them.
Each summer there was a swimming carnival. I don’t remember ever going to one. Each winter, we had an athletics carnival, where I competed in several different events, but was never placed. One of the features of school sports carnivals was the cheering for the representatives of your ‘house’. When each student started at the school he or she would be assigned to one of four houses on the basis of their last name.
The houses were Bradman, Landy, Konrads and Churchill, named for Australian sporting heroes of the time: Don Bradman (cricket); John Landy (long distance running); John and Illsa Konrad (swimming) and Clive Churchill (rugby league football). Their colours were red, yellow, blue and green. I belonged to Churchill – surnames from S-Z, but I only recall that it was green, not which belonged to which other house.
The houses competed against each other for points, and the champion house was the one whose athletes got the most at the end of the comp. So we had to cheer them on with silly war cries screamed out as loudly as we could.
Altogether, my academic studies and the sport made school both challenging and satisfying. There were a few other aspects that I found a bit more difficult to get into.
(c) Linda Visman
Tags: Dapto High school, doing Honours subjects, Intermediate Certificate, Leaving Certificate, Mathematics, New South Wales Department of Education, scholarships
Before World War II, the great majority of pupils who went to high school left at age fifteen or after the Intermediate Certificate in Third Year. Those who wanted a trade could then take on apprenticeships. Relatively few went on to matriculation at the Leaving Certificate (Fifth Year), and those who did were mostly from middle and upper rather than working class families, aiming for white collar jobs or to go to university and into professional employment.
However, between 1947 and 1961, with scientific and engineering advancements made during the 1940s, the proportion of the workforce in professional, technical and other white collar functions expanded. At the same time, in Australia, there was an explosion of immigration, mostly from Europe. This meant more students aiming for higher level employment and so going on to do the Leaving Certificate. Even so, at the end of 1963, three-quarters of the students in my cohort at Dapto High left school to find a job or an apprenticeship, leaving only two classes in Fourth Year – 4A & 4B, about sixty students.
After being in 2B and 3B at Dapto High, my Intermediate results put me into 4A. With a scholarship to pay my way for the last two years, I really settled into my work at Dapto High School. I had come to like the place – though not all of the teachers or other students – and I knew by now that my future would depend on my Leaving Certificate results at the end of Fifth Year.
In the last two years, our six subjects were set. Apart from dropping Business Principles, I followed through on the same subjects as the previous years. The teachers we had were of varying abilities and quality. In most cases, Senior classes were allocated to the heads of department or at least to experienced teachers. However that wasn’t always the case.
In 4th Year, I was one of only two girls doing higher level Maths, which was divided into two subjects: Maths I, based essentially on algebra and calculus; and Maths II, which was mainly geometry and trigonometry. Thus, Maths made up one-third of our whole academic course. Valerie, the other girl in my Maths classes, had gone through the first three years in the A class, so I hadn’t got to know her at all before then. We shared other subjects too, and she was studious like myself. She became the first real friend I’d ever had.
In Fourth Year, our Maths teacher was a young woman who had no idea of how to get concepts across to the class. I don’t know how experienced she was, but she also had no control over the boys. Valerie and I were upset that we hardly had any chance of successfully getting through the curriculum. It was so obvious, even to us, how having a poor teacher could result in devastating outcomes. Worse, we would be risking two subjects instead of one. Our results in that year’s exams pointed out the severity of the problem
At the start of our final year, we were extremely relieved to have a new Deputy Principal, Mr McKenzie, who was also Head of the Maths department. He took over the senior Maths I and II classes. We all had to work darned hard that year to catch up previous topics and to cover the new ones for that year. I wasn’t keen on the subject anyway, and many of the concepts I found hard to understand. In spite of my efforts, my half-yearly results that year were 50% and 40% – very discouraging. However, with Mr McKenzie’s help, I managed to almost get A in both subjects in the Leaving. Valerie aced it and went on to become a Maths teacher herself.
Students doing well in a subject were given the option of taking on extra classes to gain an Honours level at the Leaving Cert. I loved English and History, but wasn’t doing as well as I’d hoped. Valerie took the Honours classes in both of those I think, but I decided not to. However, I was doing well in French– top of the class in the Fourth Year half-yearly, and I also enjoyed Biology in spite of the teacher, so I took on the after-school classes I needed to extend my knowledge to gain the higher level. I was the only student in the school to attempt Honours in those subjects.
As well as the exam for the ordinary subject, Honours students had to do a second, more advanced exam. The Leaving Certificate was the highest level one could go to in a New South Wales high school. The curriculum and exams were uniform across the state, so results could be compared. Thus, a school could look at its overall performance on the basis of its students’ L.C. results, and employers could take on the best they could get.
We’d finished our exams by early December, but then had to wait for the results, which didn’t come out until mid-January. They were published in local newspapers – ours The Illawarra Daily Mercury – so it was rather a tense time. Our Certificates were sent to us later. The local radio station also gave out the names of the students who had the highest results in the region. I was astonished when I was one of just a handful mentioned.
I received an A for English, B for History, Maths I and II, and Second Class Honours for Biology and French. The Maths results, I found later, had been very high B, almost A. My dedication to study and to doing my best had paid off.
The principal, Mr Stacey, wanted his school to get a 100% pass rate in the Leaving Certificate that year. It was such a big thing with him that he actually tried several times during the year to persuade those he saw as the poorer performing students to leave before sitting the exam. I didn’t find out all this until many years later, and I found it hard to credit that a school principal would jeopardise the future of his students in order to get the credit for himself.
When I look at it now, it is an even better result in that every student, including those he’d tried to get rid of, did indeed pass the Leaving Certificate that year – the first time in the history of the school. The school’s Parents and Citizens organisation even put on a dinner dance later to congratulate the students.
(c) Linda Visman
Tags: Dapto High school, growing up in the 1960s, Intermediate Certificate
Having spent all my life in a religious environment, and all my education in Catholic schools, I was reluctant to go to Dapto Co-educational High school in 1962. The kids who went there were those who had chanted derisory slogans at the Catholic kids when we had to walk past their school. I could also still hear their chant, “Pommy-whackers stink like crackers”, aimed at anyone who came from England.
However, after the Australia Day holiday at the end of January, there was no option but to take the train to Dapto, walk the half-mile from the station to the school, and join my former ‘enemies’ in the classrooms. (Note: the Aussie school year is the calendar year, with summer holidays being six weeks over December and January).
In the academically streamed system then operating, I was assigned to the 2B class instead of the 2A class (I’d been in 1A the previous year at St Mary’s). This was a severe blow to my pride, even though the only reason for the assignment was that I had taken French but not Latin at St Mary’s (strange for a Catholic, I know). At Dapto High, the A classes for Years 1-3 were for those taking both languages; the B class was for those taking only French.
My subjects for the next four years were English (compulsory), Mathematics I and Mathematics II (the top level Maths), Modern History, Biology and French. I also did Business Principles, but dropped it after Third Year. During that first year, I did well enough in all subjects to be in the top five or six in a class of about forty pupils. I think it was my pride that kept me there as much as my ability.
However, I found it difficult to make friends. I found most of the boys to be rowdy and cheeky, and couldn’t understand why anyone would be interested in them. The girls’ constant discussions about boys, clothes and make-up held no attraction for me, so I ignored most of them and concentrated on my work. I did make friends with one girl in my class, Fay, who had also come from England, but we were never close and that faded by the following year.
I loved the History and English teacher, Mr Gordon. He loved his subjects, and enthused many of us. It was through him that I learned how to research and write essays, which became one of my strengths throughout my formal education. English grammar and punctuation was a breeze, thanks to the solid grounding I’d had at St Paul’s. French was another favourite subject at which I did well. I didn’t like Business Principles at all, nor did I like Mr Lynch who taught it. However, I surprised myself, and others, by topping the year in it at the end of the following year (1963).
During that same year, my Maths teacher, Mr Turner, made a comment to me in class that I have never forgotten. In response to something I had said or done in class, he said, “Linda, you have a chip on your shoulder the size of a log cabin!” It took a while for me to come down from my sense of high dudgeon at that, but when I did, I realised the truth of his comment. It was then that the message finally got through to me that I was being a right little sanctimonious prat, and that I needed to change my attitude. I began to accept my situation, the school, the people who were teaching me and those who were my fellow students.
At the end of 1963, at the Intermediate examinations, I did very well. Mr Turner, apparently surprised at how well I’d done in Maths (not my favourite subject), accosted me outside the classroom afterwards. He congratulated me on my results, and the cheeky response from this little grey mouse was, “Didn’t you think I could do it?” He smiled and walked on. I owe that man big time.
On the basis of those Intermediate Certificate results of 1963, I had been fortunate enough to be granted a scholarship to go on for the next two years, the first in my family to have the chance to graduate. If I hadn’t earned that scholarship, I would have had to leave school, as my brother had to three years earlier. Although Dad had managed by now to force his polio-affected body to perform well enough to return to his physically demanding work of concreting, he didn’t earn much. He was unable to pay the cost of my schooling as well as forego the wages I would have brought into the family by going out to work.
From the six or seven classes in our Third Year cohort, only two classes were left to go on to the senior grades. Most of the kids – we were all now aged fifteen, the official school leaving age – had left after the Intermediate exams. They would hopefully find trade apprenticeships or some kind of unskilled work.
Those of us continuing on to the final two years of high school hoped to be accepted into university or Teachers’ College or to at least get some kind of training for a decent profession. We were assigned to go into either the 4A or 4B class for 1964, and I was extremely pleased that I’d earned my way back to the A class. My pride was mollified by this acknowledgement of my ability and of the hard work I’d put in to prove it over the previous two years.
I had also become used to being at a secular school, and was a little more tolerant of others’ beliefs and values. I found that I was actually looking forward to returning to Dapto High once the 1963-4 summer break was over. Although still reserved and insecure, I was determined to make the most of the educational opportunity I had been given.
(c) Linda Visman