Leaving Home

Barney Street, Armidale 1961: There was a sore feeling in my stomach as I stood in the middle of the road in front of Smith House and waved towards the landrover. The fading light cast a golden aura over Mum, Dad and my two little sisters inside, as they returned to the coast, leaving me there in the middle of the road.

My marks in the Leaving Certificate had not been good enough to get into university. Dad said: “Primary school teaching is good, and you can always go back to it after you have a family.” The good thing about Teachers’ College for me, was that it would only be two years before I was out earning a living and separate from Mum and Dad. They had had us five kids, one after the other, like baby ‘quokkas’ hanging off Mum’s body, keeping her from him. “Hangers-on,” Dad called us, sometimes, when he was especially tired and stressed. I had in mind overseas travel: a stint in Paris, to practise my school-girl French.

My brother, Billy, had just left for France, drawn by the philosophical writings of Jean-Paul Sartre and others. He was three years older than me. I was enthralled by my brother’s long letters in which he wrote of exotic places and ideas. Mum said: “Billy’s become an existentialist”; she used to call him ‘genius’, because he topped all his classes at school; the kids at school named him ‘Professor’. His aura beckoned me from afar.

At high school in Grafton, all my teachers were men. I liked English best, because we read and discussed poetry, and stories about men and women, and acted in plays. Most of the boys in the class hated English, especially Shakespeare, and called the teacher names, such as ‘Pilgrim’ and ‘Blubber Lips’; one night, just before our final exams, they pelted stones on the roof of his house.

At Teachers’ College in Armidale, I met my first truly inspirational teacher. She was my Philosophy teacher, Miss Mackie.

Miss Mackie sat with beige stockinged legs held primly together and in black lace-up shoes. She spoke quietly, eyes veiled like an ancient Pythia—storage-house of knowledge and of wisdom. In class we discussed topical issues, the atomic bomb and the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union; she helped us to gain perspective on such topics. “Don’t say ‘real scary’,” she gently prompted me one day, when I tried to express my ideas; and, thanks to her, I have never used this Americanism again.

I think I realised, in Miss Mackie’s class, that I was bright, not stupid, as my upbringing in a patriarchal set-up had led me to believe. I found that I was really good at Logic in Philosophy, and I realised that, if I had had the chance, I could have done well at university.

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